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'A Doll's House': Far beyond simple feminism

Seattle Shakespeare revives Henrik Ibsen's provocative theatrical study of married life in a new translation.
Jennifer Sue Johnson as Nora in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "A Doll's House."

Jennifer Sue Johnson as Nora in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "A Doll's House." Photo: John Ulman

Jennifer Sue Johnson as Nora and Peter Dylan O'Connor as Krogstad in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "A Doll's House."

Jennifer Sue Johnson as Nora and Peter Dylan O'Connor as Krogstad in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "A Doll's House." Photo: John Ulman

Jennifer Sue Johnson as Nora and Michael Patten as Torvald in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "A Doll's House."

Jennifer Sue Johnson as Nora and Michael Patten as Torvald in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "A Doll's House." Photo: John Ulman

“From below, the sound of a door slamming shut….” That unforgettable conclusion to "A Doll’s House" might be the most famous stage direction in theater history (with Shakespeare’s “exit, pursued by a bear” from "The Winter’s Tale" a close contender).

It signals the shocking culmination of the play by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) that was itself a game-changer from the moment it premiered in Copenhagen just before Christmas in 1879. The door being slammed by Nora Helmer represents her escape route from the marriage that’s defined her life up to that point.

Nora’s notorious gesture also seemed to underscore a revolutionary declaration of the untapped potential of theater itself. Its influence has echoed across generations of artists, from George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce to Arthur Miller. Even the Beatles toyed with the idea of titling one of their later projects "A Doll’s House." (It eventually became known as "The White Album.")

And the challenges Ibsen’s play poses hold a special resonance for those involved in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production, which opens Friday.

“On the surface,” says George Mount, the company’s artistic director, “'A Doll’s House' seems like a tense domestic melodrama, but Ibsen was right in the vanguard of playing with form, using the expectations of potboilers that were the rage at the time and turning them on their ear.” Mount suggests that these escapist formulas provided a kind of Trojan horse for Ibsen to introduce provocative ideas and social commentary. “The play uses the stock element of blackmail, but then that gets resolved and Ibsen takes a turn.”

After the danger of blackmail has passed, Nora is forced to confront the meaning of her marriage and her love for her banker husband Torvald in a terrifying new light. “The struggle has revealed a deeper problem with society as a whole,” Mount adds.

Seattle Shakes is presenting the first major Seattle production of Ibsen’s seminal play in a decade. (The last one was early in Bart Sher’s reign at Intiman and used the streamlined adaptation by Ingmar Bergman.) For the occasion, Mount even commissioned a new translation from local writer and actor Sean Patrick Taylor, translator of the "Cyrano de Bergerac" the company performed in 2006. Russ Banham, who is directing "A Doll’s House," says the collaborative process between Taylor and the cast has been creatively stimulating. Though many alternatives are of course available, “we wanted a translation that would make it seem like the action was happening today, where the audience wouldn’t think, ‘This is a chestnut.’ And Sean did a first-rate job.”

An important aspect of Ibsen’s revolutionary new theater has to do with his use of natural-sounding prose dialogue and realistic situations in place of stagey conventions. (He actually began his career with a series of verse dramas: most famously, the epic "Peer Gynt.") But the prose sets up difficulties of its own for English speakers.

“Ibsen wrote in a literary dialect we now refer to as Dano-Norwegian, Norway having been a tributary of Denmark for hundreds of years,” explains Taylor. “As is the case with all Scandinavian tongues, Ibsen’s language, if translated word for word, strikes the modern ear as prolix.” He says he wanted to avoid the extremes of being too literal and of rewriting for theatrical effect, “according to one’s own idiosyncratic notion of what the playwright should have said, if only he were as hip as we are.” Especially crucial for Taylor was finding a way to maintain the right pacing, to give the play “a headlong momentum.”

It’s normal for the company, which launched in 1991, to include at least one non-Shakespeare classic in its seasonal lineup. (Last year it was an energetically paced, anti-sentimental version of Shaw’s "Pygmalion.") But "A Doll’s House" in particular makes demands that, in one sense, are reminiscent of those required to interpret Shakespeare for contemporary audiences. Like the Bard, Ibsen’s iconic status in theater history and in academia can have a petrifying effect — as if it’s more appropriate to read about his influence than actually to see him in performance. Then, too, with Ibsen there's a weighty history of layers of performance tradition that can make attempts to craft a fresh interpretation daunting.


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