the theater of concurrence

Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House was one of the sensations of the nineteenth century because of its portrayal of Nora Helmer, a wife and mother who ultimately finds the confines of bourgeois life unbearable and leaves her family. Even the suggestion that Nora might be right to do so was outrageous at the time — so much so that one of Ibsen’s contemporaries said that the play “pronounced a death sentence on accepted social ethics.”

Indeed, when the play was first performed in Germany the famous actress playing Nora refused to perform the final scene: “I would never leave my children!” Since Ibsen had no copyright laws to protect his play, and anyone could change it in anyway they wished, he, with gritted teeth, wrote an alternative ending in which Nora, on the verge of departing her home, is forced to look into her children’s bedroom, whereupon she sinks to the floor in mute acknowledgment that she could never leave her children. Fade to black. Ibsen called this ending a “barbaric outrage” upon his play, but figured that changes made by other hands would have been even worse.

In 2017, a new play reached Broadway: A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, which revisits Nora and her family fifteen years after she walked out of the “doll’s house” in which she had been kept by her husband, slamming the door behind her. And in Hnath’s sequel Nora is very glad that she left her husband and children all those years ago.

To which the shrewd critic Terry Teachout said: Well of course. Can you imagine a play on Broadway in 2017 suggesting that Nora perhaps should have swallowed her frustrations and remained to raise her children?

The favorable reception of A Doll’s House, Part 2 was as much a foregone conclusion as is its ending, which is a quintessential example of what I call the “theater of concurrence,” a genre whose practitioners take for granted that their liberal audiences already agree with them about everything. The success of such plays is contingent on the exactitude with which the author tells his audience what it wants to hear, and Hnath obliges in every particular. Above all, the viewer is never allowed to doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own fulfillment.

I haven’t seen the play, but I have read it, and I don’t think Teachout is right about Hnath — though he might be right about the performance he saw. Reading Hnath’s play I found myself disliking Nora very much, especially the way she recasts her abandonment of her family in terms of heroic sacrifice. For instance, she tells the family’s servant Anne Marie about the great personal “discipline” she had to exercise in order to prevent herself from sending Christmas presents to the three children she left without a mother. How brave of you, Nora! (Later, whern Anne Marie tells Nora it was terrible for her to leave her children, Nora replies that it’s not a big deal, men leave their families all the time.)

And there’s a powerful moment when Nora meets her daughter Emmy — the daughter who doesn’t remember her because she was so young when Nora left. Emmy knows that Nora has written books denouncing the institution of marriage, and so is reluctant to tell Nora that she herself is engaged. “You think no one should get married,” she says, which Nora at first denies, but then goes into a lecture about how “Marriage is this binding contract, and love is — love has to be the opposite of a contract — love needs to be free.” And when Emmy resists this (I’m adjusting Hnath’s eccentric punctuation):

NORA: How much do you even know about marriage?
EMMY: Nothing.
NORA: Exactly.
EMMY: Because you left, I know nothing about what a marriage is and what it looks like. But I do know what the absence of it looks like, and what I want is the opposite of that.

And ultimately Emmy forces Nora to admit that the only reason Nora is speaking to her is to enlist her help in getting Torvald to give Nora a formal divorce.

This does not, to me, look like a situation in which “the viewer is never allowed to doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own fulfillment.” You could perhaps play it that way. You could do something to make Emmy unattractive — in fact, perhaps the only way to make Nora seem unquestionably right is to make every other character in the play seem unquestionably awful — but Hnath’s writing is not handing you that interpretation on a platter. (Very much the same is true of his earlier play The Christians.) If the director and cast of the performance Teachout saw managed to make the play’s meaning unambiguous, then that’s a sign of how desperately the performers as well as the viewers of plays can feel the need for a “theater of concurrence” — even when the playwright wants to deny them that comfort.

theatrical memories

Recently, Teri and I have been watching both Victoria and The Crown — an interesting pair of experiences which I may say something about in a future post — and one of the pleasures of both series has been Alex Jennings, who in The Crown plays the oleaginous and embittered  Duke of Windsor (i.e., the abdicated Edward VIII), and in Victoria plays the oleaginous and manipulative King Leopold of Belgium.

All of which reminds me that I first saw Jennings in 1990, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, playing Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck alongside David Threlfall’s Gregers Werle. It was a magnificent production, and one of the reasons I remember it is that Teri and I had an extremely intense argument about it on our walk back to our hotel in Bloomsbury. All I can remember about the debate is that she thought the production was weighted towards the perspective of one character and I thought it was weighted towards the perspective of the other — which suggests that it was actually an ideal theatrical endeavor, capable of producing very different reactions in equally intelligent and attentive viewers. Even now I remember with great vividness the set, and a handful of crucial scenes.

I had already seen Threlfall on TV, in his amazing performance as Leslie Titmuss in John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed — I can still see him in my mind’s eye, a working-class boy listening with passionate intensity to the radio and trying to mimic the BBC announcers’ intonations (in the days before the BBC thought it should represent the varieties of British speech patterns) — but Jennings was new to me, and was simply electric as Hjalmar. It’s so good to see him still at work.

One of my minor hobby horses is defending some of Shakespeare’s earlier plays that are frequently given short critical shrift, particularly two early comedies. Strip away your expectations about The Taming of the Shrew and you will find a genuine love story, about two dark and damaged characters unexpectedly finding each other, and love, in what appears to be a most unlikely match with one another. And step back from the familiar but still workable farce of A Comedy of Errors, and you will find a play structured very much like the late romances, and striking many of the same deep chords.

— A terrific post by Noah Millman