While Henrik Ibsen was beginning to contemplate the ideas that went into his 1879 play, A Doll’s House, he received a manuscript from a young writer he knew slightly, Laura Kieler, who hoped he would recommend it to his publishers. Ibsen wrote back, gently but firmly, that he didn’t think it deserved publication. He didn’t know at the time that Laura Kieler was desperate: Several years earlier, when her schoolmaster husband was diagnosed with TB, she had, without his knowledge, borrowed money to take him to a southern climate to recuperate. Now her creditors were pressing for repayment. When Ibsen turned her down, she paid them with a forged check. The forgery was discovered; her husband, calling her a criminal, sued for a legal separation, denying her access to their children. She had a nervous breakdown and spent time in a mental institution. Eventually, after much pleading, her husband took her back. She resumed her writing career, even penning a successful play. The brief biographies available online don’t say if she ever saw or commented on A Doll’s House.
If she didn’t, then Kieler was one of the few educated people in the past century and a half who haven’t had their say about Ibsen’s universally known, perpetually controversial drama. A hundred and thirty-eight years after its premiere, we can still feel the electric shock that A Doll’s House, with its taut action and its devastating final door-slam, produced on an era when patriarchal rule was not only entrenched but largely assumed to be part of nature. Some early audiences were said to have sat waiting for Nora’s return, because no play could possibly end that way. One of Germany’s star actresses, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, refused to play a mother who deserted her children, forcing Ibsen to placate her by writing an alternative ending: Torvald stops Nora from leaving and forces her to her knees at the door to the children’s bedroom.
Such compromises didn’t stop Nora from slamming her door, across continents and over decades. She became a symbol — the symbol — of every woman’s struggle for independence. Lou-Andreas Salome discussed her with Freud; Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, played her in an 1886 amateur performance, with George Bernard Shaw as Krogstad. Emma Goldman lectured on her from the platform in Webster Hall where my colleagues and I annually distribute Obie awards. The extravagantly varied list of writers who’ve attempted sequels (Clare Boothe Luce, Comden & Green, Elfriede Jelinek) suggests the dizzying array of possibilities that Nora’s narrative has evoked.
And now we have Obie winner Lucas Hnath’s first work for Broadway, A Doll’s House, Part 2 (Golden Theatre). The deadpan title announces both Hnath’s serious intent and his flat-affect postmodern comic sense: There will be no fancy writing here, and no self-consciously spoofy striving for laughs. Though the diction is often bluntly contemporary and profanity-laced, Hnath also eschews any updating: These are simply late-19th-century Norwegians as heard by a youngish 21st-century American; the extent to which the speech of the two eras can mesh outweighs their occasional disparities.
But this is definitely a postmodernist’s 19th century: In Sam Gold’s grandly gestural production, Miriam Buether’s high-walled triangular set — displaying the Helmer foyer on the diagonal, rather than straight-on in the old-fashioned picture-frame manner — is barren of furnishings, except for an end table and some mismatched chairs. When Nora left, fifteen years ago, Torvald’s desire to keep up appearances apparently went with her. Nor was that the only consequence: When Hnath’s Nora (Laurie Metcalf) comes back, carpetbag in hand, everyone’s only too eager to give her hell for leaving and enumerate the miseries that ensued.
She gets it first from Anne Marie (Jane Houdyshell), Helmer’s now elderly housekeeper, bitterly resentful at having had to raise Nora’s children while neglecting her own. Then Torvald (Chris Cooper) lays out his share of bitterness, over both his traumatized lonely life post-Nora and the deep social embarrassment of being unable to explain her absence. Finally, daughter Emmy (Condola Rashad) gets to narrate the confusion and deprivation that she and her two brothers suffered after Nora’s departure.
For a clinching irony, while Nora, as we learn, has become a prosperous feminist author, daughter Emmy rejects her ideas. Emmy’s engaged, to a young banker who works under Torvald. When Nora warns Emmy that marriage has its disappointments, Emmy replies, stingingly, “Because you left, I know nothing about what marriage is and what it looks like. But what I do know is what the absence of it looks like.”
Facing these accusations, Nora is up against it. No wonder Gold has Metcalf hold long, emotionally fraught pauses; at one climactic moment she stands, arms extended as if crucified, facing the upstage wall. It says much for Metcalf’s ability to keep her emotional current running that these elaborate poses never seem forced or absurd; she simply lifts the play’s fierce confrontations into a higher, semi-abstract mode.
Yet what she’s come back for is simple enough: She’s in legal trouble. An ultraconservative judge who views her writings as a menace has threatened to wreck her career by exposing her as a fraud — a married woman posing as independent under a pseudonym. This might cause her publishers to bring breach-of-contract charges. She wants Torvald to legitimize her independent status by divorcing her. The premise makes the script resemble a merger of Hnath’s two previous plays: While Nora’s theoretical debate about women’s rights with her familial adversaries proceeds on the high ethical plane of The Christians, her efforts to persuade Torvald to divorce her move along the Scribean quid-pro-quo lines of Red Speedo. The fusion creates a text that’s both powerfully dense and elegantly sparse. Ideas seem to shoot off in all directions, while the insistent, basic “I-want” of each character pushes the action forward. Ibsen, who worked a similar trick on the Scribean “well-made play” structure, might well applaud.
As in Red Speedo, a fierce fight results, the quiet aftermath of which brings eerie, unexpected revelations. Nobody, it turns out, wants exactly what they thought they wanted. “It’s just so hard,” Torvald says. “All of this. Being with people.” Like many of Hnath’s best lines, that cry has the true Ibsenite ring. Though commonly — and reductively — categorized as a purveyor of social messages, Ibsen layered his plays with deep, disquieting complexity. While galvanizing innumerable activists, he gave rise to decades of critical dissension. Despite her reverberant exit, his Nora was never merely a poster girl for equality. Sheltered, dreamily idealistic, and a tad self-indulgent, her personal character never quite measures up to her principles; no human’s does.
That Ibsen depicted Nora as prone to impulsive gestures doesn’t invalidate the intellectual truth of her goals. Hnath, deconstructing both her arguments and her opponents’ layer by layer, has reawakened the clash between her psychology and her premises. Ibsen painstakingly planted the seed that flowers, in A Doll’s House, Part 2, bearing bitter, complexly flavored fruit that, 138 years later, we still need to learn how to swallow.