Modern theater started with the slamming of a door.
That's what they say, at least. The door slams two hours into A Doll's House, by the 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The character slamming the door is Nora Helmer. She's just had an epiphany: Her marriage sucks and she hates being a mother. Her happiness is a lie, built on top of other lies. Her husband pleads for her not to go, but she walks out. Then... blackout. The end.
Western civilization responded by pulling its collective hair out over the meaning and impact of Nora's final gesture. Are we supposed to celebrate her choice? Why would a mother abandon her children? Is this feminism?
The end of the play was so controversial that Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, who played Nora in the 1880 premiere of A Doll's House in Germany, demanded Ibsen write a different ending. The actress reportedly told the playwright, "I would never leave my children." So instead of leaving her children, it was rewritten so that Nora's husband would force her to look at her kids until she felt so guilty, she'd collapse on the floor, unable to leave.
That ending didn't last long. Ibsen went back to A Doll's House's original finale. His restored ending became world famous. Nora ignited Europe.
The "technical novelty" of Ibsen's drama, according to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, was its introduction of "discussion" into the "well-made" play. The standard method of constructing a well-made play during Ibsen's time was to incorporate exposition in a play's first act, a situation in its second, and an unraveling in its third. With Ibsen, there was exposition, situation, and then a new invention: discussion. This introduction of the discussion is the crack that allowed for modernism to invade the theater.
Critics of the time found Ibsen "consistently dirty" and "deplorably dull." One publication wrote that "97% of the people" who go to his shows are "nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness." Another publication wrote that his admirers were "unprepossessing cranks in petticoats," "educated and muck-ferreting dogs," and "effeminate men and male women." Wow. Ibsen may have been a mutton-chopped grouch, but his audiences sound fabulous.
Even Shaw, who considered Ibsen one of his defining influences, admitted that by placing the discussion at the end of A Doll's House, Ibsen made audiences "fatigued," which is a polite way of saying the play is mostly boring.
A Doll's House, Part 2, which makes its Pacific Northwest debut at Seattle Repertory Theatre on March 15, is the opposite of boring. Written by Lucas Hnath, it picks up right where Ibsen left off. Fifteen years after her dramatic exit, Nora stomps back through that famous doorway with a request so extreme, it may result in her death. Unlike A Doll's House, this sequel of sorts is funny, loud, and, most refreshingly, short: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Now, nearly 140 years after Nora first slammed the door, she's opening it back up. Hnath's Nora is a different woman, and A Doll's House, Part 2 is a different play from its predecessor. I don't want to give too much away, but what's so startling about Nora's return is how contemporary her problems feel. How are we supposed to construct our marriages? Who do they benefit? And does it really matter if the kids are all right?
In A Doll's House, Part 2, Ibsen's famous discussion picks up right where it left off.