The Marrying Kind - A new production of A Doll’s House
Money is the more binding of the corsets that the female characters have to deal with in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, “A Doll’s House” (currently in revival at bam’s Harvey Theatre). Perhaps “binding” is not the word, since it’s a lack of cash—and the power that goes along with having money—that determines so much in this very great play, a drama rife with emotional debts, secrets, recriminations, and sexual poverty. Taking intimacy as its basic theme—What determines love? Is it ever free of social convention, and, if so, what does “free” love look like?—Ibsen’s fifteenth script and third masterpiece (“Peer Gynt” and “Pillars of Society” had come out in 1867 and 1877, respectively, when Ibsen was middle-aged) is not difficult to follow, but it is difficult to take. The piece is a profound act of empathy about the hard work of coupling, but the only real love it shows is for Nora Helmer (Hattie Morahan), Ibsen’s multilayered, optimistic, and beautifully obdurate protagonist.
One senses that his love for Nora was among the more pure he had known; Ibsen’s considerable ego does not inform Nora so much as support her. There’s a familial feel to Ibsen’s regard for the existentially troubled young woman, which is odd, given how little regard he expressed toward his own family. Born into a clan centered on the drama of male power and collapse, Ibsen was forever shamed by his father’s drinking and his inability to make a successful go of it in business. His artistically inclined mother was emotionally withdrawn. To save himself and his immense gifts, Ibsen turned his back on his family as quickly as he could; he learned of his father’s death some time after the fact. Although it has been reported that “A Doll’s House” was inspired by a friend’s marriage—the wife took out a loan to give her ill husband a restorative holiday, as Nora does in Ibsen’s nearly three-hour drama—that seems like surface noise next to the play’s titanic imaginative force.
Actually, part of what makes the story feel so desperate and urgent in our hearts—we never want it to end—is that it so resembles life’s rhythms, with its various elisions and polite misdeeds and yearnings, and yet it’s better than reality, since “A Doll’s House” cannot be explained away, or treated merely as a distant object; once it enters our consciousness, it sweeps us up in its emotional irresolution. It is a knowing work but an innocent one. And when the piece is done well, as it is here, in the director Carrie Cracknell’s continually energetic, excellently cast production, we feel as though we’re watching a story told by a director who has the eye and the sensibility of an unusually intense and observant child—one who knows that convention is a bogeyman we are reluctant to cast off, because we dread freedom, a largely uninhabited landscape.
Ibsen starts off by telling us something about who Nora is—or, rather, the conditions she lives under. It’s Christmastime in Norway, and the Helmer household is filled with excitement. A sweet-tempered maid, Helene (Mabel Clements), scurries about the Helmers’ tidy house; she opens the front door, and our fair-haired heroine enters Ian MacNeil’s ingenious set, which sometimes revolves, like a dancer in a music box, as the actors move from room to room, trailed by Stuart Earl’s lovely score. Nora is carrying a number of packages; they’re gifts for her three children. As she sets her packages down and takes off her coat, Helene tells her that her husband, Torvald (Dominic Rowan), is in his study. After years of struggle, he’s about to be made the manager of a local bank. Things are on the upswing in the Helmer household, but something’s wrong.
Before Nora can alert Torvald or the children to her presence, she devours a chocolate that she’s secreted away. But why is her pleasure a secret? Torvald enters, and you can’t help choking when he calls Nora a “swallow”; she’s a bird in a cage. He chastises her for her extravagance; in money matters, she’s like her father, a profligate fellow, now dead. Torvald says that, just because he’s doing better financially than he was last Christmas, that’s no reason to overspend. Nora laughs—she laughs a lot when the truth strikes too close or too brutally—and she keeps rushing into or flirtatiously pulling herself away from Torvald’s strong, stiff arms as he talks. She’s about to request something, and to do so she must appear smaller, more “feminine,” and thus an object to be protected, not criticized.
Torvald asks Nora what she would like for Christmas, and eventually she hits on money. The audience laughs, even though we don’t know why, exactly. We’re only about fifteen minutes in, but Morahan, largely through her exquisite voice and carriage (she sounds like a contralto and is as physically precise as a tango dancer), has already projected Nora’s emotional reality—her hunger—and her act: the wife as little girl. But we know there is more to her. Nora’s constantly acting, even within her acting. Torvald’s crack about her father’s profligacy, and her asking for more money, feel erotic, somehow; by having the money Nora wants, Torvald is saying not only that he’s a better man than her father but that he’s a better provider, the manlier man. Yet Nora is involved in an act of onanism that’s even more powerful to her. She’s living a double life, and the secrets she’s been keeping to herself—about her marriage, and the money she has borrowed—convey her greater reality, her more interesting truth.
Still, she wants to share her secretiveness with someone. She’s soon given the female audience she craves. (Ibsen barely mentions Nora’s having a mother.) Kristine Linde (Caroline Martin), a former classmate, comes to call. They haven’t seen each other in years. (Old friends, like old memories, are always popping up in Ibsen’s middle-to-late plays. Those surprise guests don’t so much change the atmosphere of a given work as deepen it, darken it.) Kristine explains that she’s a widow, childless, and down on her luck. She wears her independence like some gray shawl and resembles those single women Elizabeth Hardwick once described as wandering about “in their dreadful freedom like old oxen left behind, totally unprovided for.” While they’re chatting, Kristine remembers how, back in school, Nora was such a spendthrift. In any case, Kristine is looking for work; perhaps Torvald can help her? As delivered by Martin, the spendthrift observation is as much a criticism as it is a kind of wistful envy: isn’t Nora frightened of the future, of losing what Kristine no longer has? Moving out of the sitting room and into the bedroom, Nora and Kristine are also regressing, returning to their girlhood world of confidences.
Sitting on her bed, Nora tells Kristine that, some time ago, Torvald got sick; she took him to Italy to recover. But to pay for the trip she borrowed money from a petty bureaucrat named Nils Krogstad (Nick Fletcher). Kristine had rejected a marriage proposal from Krogstad years earlier, because he was cash poor, yet she still has feelings for him. Krogstad, in turn, may be interested in Nora. (By making the loan, he hopes to keep Nora tethered to him; it’s an affair, but of the wrong kind.) The only way she could get the loan was to fake her father’s signature. She’s been paying the note back, but it takes all her ingenuity—all her scrimping and saving on Torvald’s rather fixed budget—to make the payments; she doesn’t want Torvald to know any of it. It would bring shame on him, first, and then on the family, yet now Krogstad has shown up at the house. “You’ve never admitted anything to Torvald?” Kristine asks. “How could I?” Nora replies. “He would be so embarrassed. He would be humiliated.” (In Simon Stephens’s translation, we miss some of the knottiness of Ibsen’s hard-oak language—his characters are mysterious and declarative—but that doesn’t detract from the work’s strength.)
Morahan and Martin play this scene exceptionally well; they keep opening their characters’ interior drawers and rifling through their undergarments and hidden thoughts. (They may live loveless lives, but they will find the love in them, even if it’s filthy lucre, which their minds—and the actors—elevate to a kind of pornographic status.) “Will you ever tell him, do you think?” Kristine continues, and Nora says:
Oh maybe one day. When I’m old. And tired and haggard. When I’m not quite as beautiful as I am now. I’m being serious. When he’s stopped enjoying watching me dance for him. And dressing for him. When he no longer cares about my little performances for him.
The sexuality in the piece is never overplayed. And I think that Cracknell is right to drag it out of Ibsen’s text, to tease it, but not to exploit it, largely because the female characters are unaware of it themselves, except when they’re playing at sexuality, at being the kind of woman a man might need. (The sexual charge in this production reminded me of Jane Fonda’s stellar interpretation of the role in Joseph Losey’s 1973 film version. Fonda’s Nora was coquettish, too, and the only moments of calm she had were in the safe company of other women.)
When it’s revealed that Krogstad is the bitter holder of the incriminating note, and that Torvald will be his boss, this news doesn’t quiet her debtor, as Nora hopes, but, rather, exacerbates the situation, despite Kristine’s best efforts to soothe Krogstad with her steady, uncomplaining love. After Torvald finally learns of Nora’s subterfuge, she closes the door on their life together. But were Nora’s best efforts to love and take care of her husband actually an act of subterfuge, or the desperate act of a loving wife, willing to add one more humiliation to her list of humiliations, because she could take it, and was supposed to take it, since, after all, she’s a woman? Before Nora leaves, she tells Torvald that he’s a stranger to her, and she can’t live in a house with a stranger. But that’s not true. Torvald was Nora’s self, or that part of herself which was once ravenous for the security that comes from being a citizen of a limited, calculable world. ?