The trajectory of Nora Helmer, the central character in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, has been viewed in the light of social questions about women’s rights since the play’s 1879 premiere. But the nature of Nora herself as a voice for feminism has evolved and sharpened as generations of artists have adapted and considered the play anew. In the spring of 1997, A Doll’s House took Broadway by storm. Janet McTeer, performing in a new translation of the play by Frank McGuinness, cracked open the role of Nora. She wasn’t a flighty, naïve girl who discovers the strength to leave her husband at the end of the play, but a strong, stifled woman who’s made compromise after compromise in search of the life she thinks she wants. Over the course of the play, she grows to recognize her own delusions and formulate the resolve to break free from them. Watching her, I understood the characterization of Nora as a feminist for the first time.
In 2017, writers using different forms—one sequel and two socially engaged adaptations—are looking beyond the door slam that famously ends Ibsen’s original, reinterpreting the character in ways that seem inspired by the idea of a more active, even activist Nora. Lucas Hnath took his imagined sequel A Doll’s House, Part 2 to Broadway, and playwright/performers Kev Berry and Heather Raffo are each developing works that build something new from the Ibsen character.
Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 takes up the question of what Nora’s life might have looked like after leaving Torvald. It garnered a slew of Tony nominations. Laurie Metcalf won Best Actress for her portrayal of its older, steelier Nora, who has become successful, wealthy, and controversial in her decade and a half away from Torvald. She earns a living writing popular feminist fiction under a pseudonym – but is forced to return to the Helmer family home when she discovers she and Torvald are not, in fact, divorced. Turning the classic well-made play into a brisk comedy, Hnath marries the story’s nineteenth-century time frame with biting twenty-first-century language, adding a modern sound and sharpening the jokes, without entirely placing the play or its characters in a contemporary context.
Where Hnath’s Doll’s House Part 2 is set (back) in the Helmer drawing room and focused inward on the family, Raffo and Berry look at Nora and the place of women in the world. I interviewed Berry, whose Nora Goes 2 Space Motherfuck*r! premiered at 3LD Performance Center last Christmas (and continues to be developed), and Raffo, whose Noura is being workshopped at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer and will receive its world premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in early 2018.
Berry juxtaposes Nora explicitly with first-wave feminism. Raffo, an Iraqi-American playwright, on the other hand, describes her play as “provoked by A Doll’s House” rather than a straightforward adaptation, and engages with contemporary global politics and the complicated intersection of gender and the colonizer/colonized relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East.
Hnath’s relationship to A Doll’s House began as an audacious joke – daring not only to tackle a sequel to this classic, but to make it a comedy. He says, “The whole idea [of writing a sequel] started with the title, and the title kind of made me laugh, it felt naughty.” His piece is witty, crowd-pleasing, ferociously entertaining – and laser-focused on very specific emotional and narrative questions left open at the end of Ibsen’s play: What happens after Nora’s exit? How did her husband, Torvald, really feel about the whole thing? How does their grown daughter now feel about marriage and motherhood after her own mother’s abandonment? What’s the emotional cost to Nora in returning to that drawing room?
But in a moment where questions of women’s physical, emotional, and financial autonomy are back at center stage in American politics, Hnath’s play feels a little too indebted to the inherently individualistic model of “choice feminism” – the form of third-wave feminism, first defined by Linda Hirschman in the mid-2000s, that “emphasizes individualism, personal choice, and personal agency” – to the extent it engages with feminism at all (not very much). Nora may have found success as a proto-feminist writer, but that’s portrayed as an act of quirky, daring exceptionalism rather than a sign of social progress or a desirable outcome for women at large.
For Raffo and Berry, feminism is very much at the center of their engagement with Doll’s House. Berry’s Nora Goes 2 Space intercuts a free-verse solo adaptation of Ibsen (McGuinness’s version) with quotes from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and other foundational feminist texts. It’s a riotous ride, where Nora, performed in drag, exists in a 1950s American dreamscape, both the perfect housewife and the perfect commercial for a perfect housewife who does not, in fact exist.
Berry acknowledges that on some level, he hates A Doll’s House. “But at the same time,” he says, “I was trying to stay true to that story, sort of, because there’s a certain amount of reverence that I have for Ibsen, for what Ibsen did for the theater.” He continues, “I think it highlighted how much work there has to be done before equality, real equality, is a thing, be that the feminist movement – this new wave feminist movement that we’re in still has a lot of work to do, the queer liberation and queer rights movement – me, as a gay man and a queer performer – just highlighted how far we’ve come and also opened up the next section of this tunnel that we have to go through before we’re in the daylight.”
Feminist questions were Raffo’s way in to the world of Noura (Americanized to Nora), a Christian Iraqi architect who, with her doctor husband and their young son, has fled Mosul for the United States. Raffo says she wasn’t trying to adapt A Doll’s House as much as “provoked by what it wasn’t saying about my life. I was provoked by needing to write a piece about modern feminism, I was provoked by being a wife in a good relationship but who couldn’t get oxygen as a mother and a wife. I was provoked by all the refugees and all the door slams around the world that we’re not acknowledging, we’re not dealing with, by society’s pressure on me as a female and as a person watching this refugee situation.”
Noura is not just a strong woman, but a strong woman in a strong marriage; Noura’s husband, Tariq, is less the stereotypical Middle Eastern patriarch – less patriarchal than Torvald, even – than a man who would do anything for his family; less a dominant male than a man in the infantilized or feminized position of a refugee, unable to work in his trained profession.
“The relationship of the Torvald to the Nora Helmer is the relationship of the West to the Middle East: this constant colonization, this constant modern-times occupation, how we try to remake it,” posits Raffo. Nora’s famous door-slam here is the signal not of her own liberation but of her own frustration and desperation; it echoes the doors upon doors slammed in the face of desperate refugees.
Against the individualism and isolation of Hnath’s Nora, Raffo and Berry surround their characters with other voices. For Berry, those voices are cultural and pop-culture touchstones. His work is a solo piece, but one that includes 1950s cosmetic commercials and self-improvement videos and a playlist of female-empowerment-themed pop songs.
Raffo adds another perspective on motherhood and womanhood with Maryam, a pregnant college student from Noura’s hometown, and raises provocative questions about the relationship between the individual and the community. She says: “We often talk about feminism in the context of deep individuality, and going against society. If you are a mother you have a communal responsibility. But then you also have individual responsibility to yourself. I think we need a lot more conversation that can embody feminist motherhood, not for the sake of ‘women should be having children,’ but because all of us are bridging the communal with the individual. The whittled-down argument is that the Middle East is communal and America is individual; America is the rugged individualist and the Middle East is everything on behalf of your community and your family. Even Iraqi refugees want a balance of worlds.”
Hnath says, “I like taking things that we have received notions about and then finding ways to subvert those received notions.” But while A Doll’s House, Part 2 may be subverting our received notions of Ibsen, one of its biggest laugh lines—“In twenty years, marriage won’t exist at all”—also feels like a tacit acknowledgment that, 140 years after A Doll’s House, our notions of marriage haven’t been subverted much at all. Noura and Nora Goes 2 Space pose deeper, richer, more contemporary questions about the roles of marriage, women, and feminism in our time.