Adaptive Theatre

A Doll’s House Revisited
written by Director of Dramaturgy Kate Farrington 

Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 is beginning its Broadway run. Here is the synopsis circulating right now:

In the final scene of Ibsen’s 1879 ground-breaking masterwork, Nora Helmer makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and children, and begin a life on her own. This climactic event — when Nora slams the door on everything in her life — instantly propelled world drama into the modern age. In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” many years have passed since Nora’s exit. Now, there’s a knock on that same door. Nora has returned. But why? And what will it mean for those she left behind?

1922: Actor Alan Hale (1892 – 1950) menaces Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945) as she kneels on the floor in a still from the film, ‘A Doll’s House’, directed by Charles Bryant and adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen.

It’s the million dollar question: what happens to Nora? How will this determined but woefully unprepared woman survive in a hostile world? Will she be successful in building a life for herself, or be forced to return to the family she rejected? And what happens to her family (particularly the children) while she’s gone? Ibsen offers zero guarantees that Nora’s decision will work out. It is HER decision—possibly the first independent thing she’s ever done in her life—and Ibsen was interested in the revelation, not the fallout.

But from the beginning, that ending was just too much of a cliffhanger (and too much of a culture shock) not to tempt other playwrights to mess with it. Few plays have had the sheer volume of response that Doll’s House has had in the 130+ years since its premiere.

First came the “fix its.” Multiple early companies would only do the play with an altered ending in which Nora never left. Growling at possible bastardizations of his work, Ibsen reluctantly wrote his own “happy” ending for the squeamish—but he wasn’t “happy” about it.

Then came the “moralists,” offended by Nora’s actions and determined to prove she’d made a dreadful mistake. Walter Bessant penned an 1890 short story, “The Doll’s House—And After” in which Nora returns to her family 20 years later—just in time for her daughter Emmy to commit suicide. Oof. In Breaking a Butterfly, Henry Herman and Henry Arthur Jones’ 1884 adaptation, the story unfolds in the English countryside where “Flora” never leaves her gallant husband. In a sort of exasperated send up of these moralists, Eleanor Marx Aveling (daughter of Karl Marx) co-wrote A Doll’s House Repaired n which Nora stays, but Torvald “banishes” her to the spare room—their marriage will be for show only.

Finally there were the “follow ups,” the playwrights who imagined Nora’s progress post-door-slam. More than one version of the story assumes s thrilling tale of grueling effort and little reward. Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s 1979 play What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband; or Pillars of Society follows Nora’s post-marital journey through a sweeping tale of work, love, and eventual defeat. On a lighter note, Comden and Green wrote a 1982 musical version called A Doll’s Life which follows Nora through three lovers. It flopped. And just a few years ago Will Eno’s Nora, In the Great Outdoors in 2011 added an opera to the mix. Nora’s story has been taken up and taken over by dozens of artists over the years—and there seems to be an interestingly split vote on whether she makes good on her revelation.

But Ibsen’s original has held its own even amidst drastic changes in social structures. For two generations play Nora was a badge of honor for young forward-thinking actresses. And in the 20th and 21st centuries the play has wowed in both its original form and in wildly creative interpretations. One of my favorites happened back in 2003 when Mabou Mines introduced an entire cast comprised of little people—except for Nora. She moved through a set, and a world, that were the wrong size for her. It was a great interpretation of the piece.

The truth is theatre is always adaptive, whether you’re working on a classic or a new adaptation of that classic. A production of Doll’s House doesn’t need to have Nora wearing a literal corset. In 1879 a corset meant restricted movement, shorter breath, and acceptance of proper dress and behavior. Nora lives a life of physical as well as emotional constraint. You don’t absolutely need a corset to play that note.

And you don’t absolutely need Ibsen’s text to tell Nora’s story (sometimes anyway!) One of the great things about theatre is the freedom to take on major stories or characters and put your stamp on them. Maybe your version will be a flash in the pan—the right thing for right now, even if it isn’t remembered. Maybe you’ll be Tom Stoppard and write a new play that manages to have a real impact on how playgoers see a classic. Maybe your work will even supplant the source material—Shakespeare’s plays had a habit of doing that.

So I’m excited to see this latest addition to A Doll’s House legacy—anyone want to join me?