Why is a sequel to Ibsen’s feminist classic relevant in 2019? ‘Because the world moves at a glacial pace’
The fictional Nora Helmer doesn’t just close the door on her old life at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s revolutionary 1879 masterpiece A Doll’s House. She slams the door on it — and the reverberations continue to echo down into the #MeToo movement of today.
In the course of the play, Nora transforms from a submissive wife and dutiful mother into an independent single woman who is willing to leave her three sweet children behind for a taste of modern independence.
But 140 years ago, Nora was not walking into a world that was suddenly a welcome land of female liberation. She was walking into a whole lot of trouble.
“The odds for a single woman in that era were pretty grim,” said DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman. “You were either a cleaning woman or a prostitute. I don’t know how Nora would have survived. It’s not like she walks out the door with an extensive resumé. I don’t think it would have been pretty.”
What happened after the slam heard ’round the world has been the subject of mass literary conjecture ever since. But after playwright Lucas Hnath (The Christians) committed his own ideas to paper in 2017, A Doll’s House, Part 2, went on to become one of the most performed plays in the country.
Fifteen years after the door slam, our proto-feminist heroine has come knocking on that very same door in need of a favor — not forgiveness. In Hnath’s view, Nora has gotten along just fine all these years. How? (Prepare for rim shot.) Among other things, by writing books telling women how to leave their husbands. (OK, rim shot.)
When performances began in The Ricketson Theatre on September 6, the DCPA Theatre Company became the first company anywhere to present both Ibsen’s original play and Hnath’s contemporary sequel at the same time in repertory. Coleman is directing Ibsen’s domestic manifesto, while his newly named Associate Artistic Director, Rose Riordan (Sweat), helms Part 2.
“Part 2 stands on its own as a play, but it’s going to be a much better meal if you have part one under your belt first,” said Riordan. “Part one is going to give the audience so much context that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and that will make the whole experience much more meaningful.”
Coleman found the idea to present the plays in tandem irresistible.
“I have never had the experience as a theatregoer or as an artist where you are presenting a play written more than a century ago, juxtaposed against an answer to that play — in this case, one written by a young, totally contemporary writer,” Coleman said. “I think that is delicious. I think it’s a really rich conversation-starter that should be super fun.”
The DCPA Theatre Company began as a repertory company in 1979, which by definition simply means a company presenting more than one play at the same time, often with the same actors. Ibsen’s original involves 10 characters while the sequel has only four, all returning from the original: Nora; her clueless husband, Torvald; their now grown daughter, Emmy; and the nanny, Anne-Marie — the only character who will be played by the same actor (Leslie O’Carroll).
While actors commonly play characters who span 15 years or more in the same play, Coleman thought it was essential to have different actors play Nora to emphasize not only the physical changes she would have undergone, but to underscore the idea that Nora is now a truly different woman. So the audience will see a younger and softer ingenue at the beginning of the original give way to what Coleman calls “a hardened ball-buster” who holds forth with enormous confidence in Part 2.
“For those who watch the original play, I really do not want it to feel like it’s a foregone conclusion that Nora is going to find the backbone to walk out that door by the end of the play,” Coleman said. “I want her to feel like someone who is still finding her core. That Nora needs to be somebody young enough to still be in formation. That is such a stark contrast to the Nora we meet in Part 2, and I think we need to honor their differences.”
Another central difference, Coleman and Riordan both say: Part 2 is really funny. Riordan calls Hnath’s sequel a full-out comedy. Consider that Nora predicts in her 1894 return that, “In 30 years, people won’t even believe in marriage!”
A third distinction is the vernacular. “Tonally, these two plays could not be more different,” Coleman said. Riordan calls the transition from the original to Part 2 like moving from winter to spring.
“When you come to see Part 2, you are expecting it to be old-fashioned,” Coleman added. “But instead the language becomes very contemporary.”
And yet the all-important point regarding a woman’s freedom, love and responsibility remains consequential.
Scholars have suggested that when Nora famously slammed the front door back in the original, she instantly propelled world drama into the modern age. It’s easy to see now how a play in 1879 that shows a woman leaving her husband and her children would shake the world to its foundations. But the conflicting pressures of motherhood and self-fulfillment are still clearly working in opposition today.
Many still find the idea of any woman walking out on her family to be upsetting. And for one intractable reason, Riordan says: Basic biology.
“We’re programmed to think that way,” she said. “We’re human beings, and first and foremost we are here to procreate. I think what’s modern is this notion that maybe we don’t have to do that.
“Now we understand the world moves at a glacial pace when it comes to our ideas about love. And anything that subjugates women takes a very long time to change.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
- Dates: Performances through November 24
- Where: Ricketson Theatre
- Genre: Drama (A Doll’s House) and comedy (A Doll’s House, Part 2), performed in repertory
- Advisory: Contains adult themes
- Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or online by clicking here: