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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Women are still stuck in ‘A Doll’s House’

Jessica Chastain as Nora Helmer in “A Doll’s House” at the Hudson Theater in New York on Jan. 29, 2023.

By Pamela Paul

When Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” opened in 1879 at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, it was an instant success — and an outrage to many. The story of Nora, a woman who walks out on her husband and three children, was considered scandalous in a country in which marriage was held as a sacred bond, and one that held women to exacting strictures.

A new production of “A Doll’s House” just opened on Broadway in which the characters remain largely the same and the setting has not been outwardly updated. The date 1879 appears on the rear wall of an almost entirely bare stage before fading soon after the play begins, prompting the audience to wonder: Are we still watching events unfold in 1879, and if so, why do they feel so familiar in 2023?

Because here we are still. Still asking why women’s rights, when not outright ignored, are often an afterthought. Still asking why society is so rigid in its expectations of women. What was shocking about Ibsen’s play in 1879 was that Nora’s act was shocking for its time. What’s shocking now is that it is still so shocking.

The current adaptation, by the playwright Amy Herzog, is streamlined from the play’s original three hours to just under two and stars Jessica Chastain as Nora. When the play opens, Christmas is approaching, and Nora is thrilled to learn that her husband, Torvald, is being promoted at his bank. Behind Torvald’s back, she has taken an illegal loan using her father’s forged signature as security — a married woman was unable to conduct such transactions in Norway at that time without her husband’s or father’s permission. Now she can repay the balance and her secret will remain safe.

But when the lender threatens to expose the truth to her husband unless she does him a favor against her husband’s will, Nora is in a bind. Should she tell her husband herself or let her deception be exposed — and either way, how will they weather the threat to their future as a family?

When Ibsen wrote “A Doll’s House,” women’s rights in Norway, as in most other parts of Europe, were socially, culturally and legally restricted by both church and state. Nora’s decision — even after her secret is exposed and the loan forgiven — to leave her husband and children in favor of independence, was viewed as a radical feminist statement at the time.

But according to the playwright, that was not the intention. Ibsen defined himself as a humanist, not a feminist; his targets were bourgeois institutions and outdated mores. His work often cast a wary eye on the ways in which people prove almost triumphantly capable of dividing and dominating one another. One of Ibsen’s most powerful plays, “An Enemy of the People,” concerns the bitter irony of a whistleblower denounced by the very community he seeks to help.

In this new “A Doll’s House,” the emphasis shifts away from the broader social canvas, creating a more intimate psychological portrait. The dialogue is updated into a more contemporary idiom, unmooring it from earlier translations of the 19th-century text, and its traditional three-act structure is performed without intermission. On a stage devoid of props and other signifiers of time, place and social status, with the roles of the children disembodied into offstage voices, Nora’s battle becomes largely internal. We are meant to keep our eyes on her, and for good reason.

Chastain’s Nora has not only let herself be defined by society; she has also internalized those limitations. She is pliable, cheerful, playful on command, a birdie who actually opens the play chirping. As Chastain told The New York Times in an interview, she sees Nora not only as a victim but also as party to her own subjugation.

“Nora has stepped in the cage to gain what little power she has,” Chastain said, explaining that Nora has allowed herself to become small and weak. “That’s kind of bred into us. But that’s part of how we are helping it continue, women not being seen as equal. We’re playing a part so we’re palatable enough, so that people hopefully will listen to us.”

In other words, women sometimes adopt gender stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously, to their advantage. They can be complicit. This is a more nuanced view of “A Doll’s House,” and possibly more in line with Ibsen’s intent. Rather than being a passive victim who shifts dramatically toward independence in the final scene, Nora has been playing a subtle but active role all along. It’s her motivations and goals that change. She leaves when Torvald’s actions, at the end of the play, reveal him to be anything but the loyal and devoted husband she took him to be — when he fails to play along in the role she expected of him.

It’s worth contrasting this 2023 Nora with Janet McTeer’s Tony Award-winning version in the 1997 Broadway production. Whereas Chastain’s Nora is driven inward, a contained presence who is essentially confined to a chair throughout the play, the 6-foot-1-inch McTeer exuded manic energy from the start, all limbs and irrepressible sexuality, a hive waiting to be poked. (Ben Brantley, in his review for the Times, compared her to the Hale-Bopp comet, an understatement.) McTeer’s Nora was literally too big for her space. When her combustible power was finally realized, it felt like destiny, both a liberation and a devastation.

Perhaps we always get a “Doll’s House” for our moment. In the exuberance and optimism of 1997, as third-wave feminism gathered steam in response to the backlash against the women’s movement chronicled by Susan Faludi, women’s rights felt owed and overdue — women were ready to unleash, as McTeer’s performance suggested. In a divisive 2023, with the status of women at an ebb and long-standing rights having recently been trampled on or cast aside, the mood is bleaker. It feels harder to neatly assign or absolve blame for the collective failure to recognize women in their full humanity. Chastain’s Nora captures these complexities.

As we near the end of Women’s History Month, we can only hope that the next time a major revival of the play opens in America, its story will be purely historical, a curious relic of a bygone era.

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