Two theatrical takes on marriage
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Strindberg’s The Father are performed in tandem at TFANA
For almost three decades, Theatre for a New Audience existed without a permanent venue. About three years ago, it got its own home in Brooklyn on Ashland Place, a stone’s throw away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The theatre’s mission is “to develop and visualize the performance and study of Shakespeare and classic drama.”
This spring, I was excited to see that they were not only tackling two playwright greats—Ibsen and Strindberg—but also pairing these productions in repertory, A Doll’s House with The Father, both directed by Arin Arbus. It was the first time these two have been done in repertory in English.
It makes perfect sense, as Strindberg’s work was written in response to Ibsen’s. I had seen Ibsen’s play many times but never Strindberg’s. Even better, I had the chance to see them as a double header on May 21.
It was my first visit to this theatre, and it began with Thornton Wilder’s adaptation of A Doll’s House. The stage is tight, a very long rectangle, with the audience placed in stadium seating flanking each of the longer sides, so the audience is actually facing each other.
On the stage, Scandinavian Victorian furniture glows from the light of many candles, so essential to creating Scandinavian ambiance, especially for Christmas. From the first glance, I love the intimacy it allows the audience, as we seem to be peeking into the innermost details of the couple living here, the Helmers. It also mimics the constraint of society, like a corset.
The scene begins with a jubilant Nora (Maggie Lacey) entering with a Christmas tree and macaroons, which she devours. But when she hears the voice of her husband Torvald (John Douglas Thompson), she stashes the sweets under the couch cushion. Upon Torvald’s entrance she is incredibly flirtatious. He asks what she would like to have for Christmas and she replies “money.” After flattering and cajoling him, she is granted her wish. On the surface she seems to have all she could wish for.
The first few moments of this production encapsulate the relationship between this couple and their roles. Immediately we know there is deception in this marriage.
When the ringing doorbell interrupts them, Nora puts on her best smile and discovers it is her school friend, now known as Mrs. Christine Linde (Linda Powell), who has been widowed and is back in town looking for work. Although she tries to be compassionate about Christine’s situation, Nora cannot hold back her own exuberance as Torvald has just received a promotion.
Christine misunderstands Nora’s reaction to their good fortune, saying she has not changed since she was a schoolgirl. Christine, on the other hand, has been the breadwinner for her family. She sacrificed her happiness leaving the man she loved in order to marry a man of means to support her family. Now she is hoping that Nora can help her find work through her husband’s connections at the bank. With very little wheedling, Nora is later successful in granting Christine’s wish.
Nora is bursting to tell someone about her hard work, which has been keeping a secret. When Nora’s husband was very ill, the doctor’s cure was to take him to warmer climes in Italy. Nora tells Christine about how she took out a loan, unbeknownst to her husband, so she could take the family to Italy and support them while they were there. Christine is perplexed because at that time a wife could not borrow money without her husband’s consent. Nora is almost finished paying off this debt by scrimping what she has received from her husband for household expenses, withholding nice things for herself, and taking on jobs like copying.
Two male characters are then introduced: Krogstad (Jesse J. Perez), a lawyer by trade who works for Nora’s husband, and Dr. Rank (Nigel Gore), a close friend of the family.
When the adults leave, we are introduced to Nora’s children, a boy and a girl. They come in, accompanied by their nanny, excited to see their mother. They begin to play blind man’s bluff. Blindfolded, Nora delights in playing with her children. But when Krogstad enters, Nora swiftly has the children taken into the nursery.
Krogstad is not only the man who works for her husband but also the man who provided Nora with the secret loan and the man whom Christine loved.
Krogstad had suffered a societal disgrace that has left his reputation in shambles, and he wants Nora to convince her husband to keep him at his position. He is willing to do anything to keep his meager position, including blackmailing Nora. He threatens not only to disclose Nora’s secret money lending but also to divulge that she forged her father’s signature in the process.
Filled with anxiety, Nora tries to persuade her husband to keep poor Krogstad in his employ and distracts him with an upcoming ball. He wants her to perform the Tarantella at the party, so she coaxes him to help her practice, but not before Torvald tells Nora that Krogstad forged a name and how he never took responsibility.
Dr. Rank, the family friend and Nora’s confidante, substitutes for the honest intimate moments she does not share with her husband. Their banter reflects Nora’s intelligence, something she hides with intent from her husband, whom she tries to please by being the perfect little doll.
In a playful entrance, Torvald bursts into the room, wearing a mask and carrying his wife over his shoulder, a la The Taming of the Shrew. He brags about how she caught everyone’s eye and how well she performed at the party. A happy ending seems in store, but the Helmers are not destined for such.
After the ball is over, the disguises come off. When Torvald learns of the loan and angrily confronts her, Nora has already anticipated his wrath and is ready to walk out the door. But Torvald has other ideas, saying she must stay in the house, but will not be allowed to raise the children as he does not trust her. After reading the letter from Krogstad apologizing, however, Torvald is ready to forgive.
But he can no longer control Nora, and she has her own plans and takes control of the conversation. “We have been married now eight years. Does it occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?” she asks.
“I’ve been living here like a beggar, doing tricks for you. I’ve been your doll wife—my children have been my dolls. … I must stand quite alone, if I’m to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer,” explains Nora.
Nora looks towards the nursery door and decides not to enter. She concedes that they will be in better hands with their nanny Anne (Laurie Kennedy) and leaves. Her two children come out and sit at the table in the room where their father stands. We are all left in silence—a stirring finale.
What was wonderful about this production was that Nora was seen as intelligent, clever, and resourceful. Her motivation was to garner love from the main men in her life, first from her father and then her husband, but the more she tries to please them, the more she sublimates herself until she has no voice.
The acting was superb from the entire cast. Maggie Lacey was a smash as Nora, and Nigel Gore as Dr. Rank was witty, a bit bawdy, kind, and empathetic.
A few hours later, the same stellar cast performed a new adaptation by Scottish playwright David Greig of Strindberg’s The Father (1887) with the lead actors playing the same roles.
Both stages had the same layout, but the decor was different. In The Father, the furnishings had been replaced by a much more masculine room with a massive desk, animal skulls, hunting trophies displayed on the walls, and scotch in cut-glass decanters.
Recycling the cast in the same household roles when possible created a linked relationship between the characters, further connecting the two pieces into a conversation and giving the primary male character a chance to respond to the mother and wife depicted in Ibsen’s piece.
Here the husband, Adolf, is a captain, seemingly in command. But that all changes quickly when one of the unmarried servants becomes pregnant and the uncertainty of paternity is introduced.
The pastor then remarks that Captain Adolf has too many women running the house; he lives with his wife, Laura, his mother-in-law, his nurse, Margaret, and his daughter, Bertha. The captain concurs, saying, “it is like going into a cage full of tigers.” Within the first ten minutes of this production, we are introduced to the idea of battles, both within the captain’s professional life and domestically between the sexes.
All this tinderbox needs is a tiny spark to set it off. Adolf expresses concern about his daughter Bertha’s future to Pastor Jonas. He wishes for her to go into town to live and become a teacher. His wife, Laura, wants her to be an artist and remain at home.
Adolf intends to use the advantage of his legal advantage to win his way with their daughter’s future. Laura, on the other hand, devises a different way to win against this injustice by placing doubt in her husband’s mind about his paternity, attacking the blood relationship between him and his daughter. Secondly, when the new town doctor, Ostermark, cordially comments on the reputation of her husband’s intellect, Laura drops seeds of doubt about her husband’s sanity.
One wonders what their daughter wishes. She is like all children in families of warring parents, however, and trapped in the middle.
The captain later discovers that Laura has been holding back his mail, which has ruined his research, and that through correspondence she has also turned his friends to doubt his sanity. She has even convinced Adolf to doubt his own judgment.
In exchange for peace, Adolf wants to resolve the doubts about his fatherhood. Yet when Laura reassures him that Bertha is his child, his doubts are too entrenched to be dissolved.
When Adolf is driven to tears and questioned about his weeping by Laura, she is sympathetic and embraces him. This scene is so essential to the play because up to this point we have not seen one ounce of love or respect between the two. We need to believe that they had a great love to absorb the true tragedy of the story, how contempt and distrust can replace intimacy and caring in marriage.
Even at this tender moment, Laura’s guard is not down; she is still calculating and plans to put her husband under guardianship for questioning his own sanity.
The building anger, fear, and anxiety in Adolf erupt into action. He throws an oil lamp at his wife, creating a blaze in the home and providing Laura with further ammunition to validate his mentally unstable condition.
The last scene is heartbreaking as we are left with the destruction of a human soul, with only the smoking cinders remaining. We see the room, with a chair blocking the exit door and Laura supposedly protecting herself for fear of Adolf’s violence. Laura tells her brother, the pastor, that he will have to control Adolf in a straightjacket.
The captain is now so obsessed with the questions of paternity that he puts doubts into the parenthood of the other males around him. He points out to Jonas that there had been a handsome tutor in his house and to the doctor that a lieutenant had stayed in his home. When his daughter comes to visit, he says that he is not her father. He asks Bertha to love only him, but Bertha tells him, “I don’t want to, I want to be myself.”
Adolf has lost all to his wife and he does not want to lose his daughter to his wife as well. “You see, I am a cannibal, and I want to eat you.” Adolf goes to get a gun, but Bertha sees his intentions and calls for her mother to save her.
The captain’s nurse is the one who lulls him into the straightjacket, like a little boy swaddled in a blanket. As she tells him a story about a time in his past when she dressed him, he stops breathing. The doctor diagnoses a stroke. Suddenly, the lights go out in a tremendously powerful, disturbing ending.
As opposed to Nora’s decision in A Doll’s House to leave her children because she believes she is not capable of being a good mother, Laura’s motivation in The Father is not to do what is best for her child, but rather to possess her. Yet in both plays, the result is the same, as both mothers leave their children with irreparable damage.
As the father, John Douglas Thompson was amazing. His physicality and complexity allow us to watch the unraveling of a man, not a hero or a villain, resulting in a truly compelling performance. “I am particularly proud of that ambiguity that is laced into The Father, so that the audience goes from one side to the other,” he said.
The Father seems to portray a twisted view of motherhood and a black-and-white view of marriage. It helps to have a little perspective; Strindberg was going through a divorce and had tumultuous relationships with women. This play is autobiographical and laced with his own pain.
Must this battle of the sexes always continue? Strindberg did not think so, but he believed that society needed a drastic restructuring, pleading for “divorce between man and wife, so that lovers may be born.”
Another relevant battle is that between the two great playwrights. According to Director Arin Arbus, “They have a fascinating dialogue” as Ibsen and Strindberg “were vehement rivals.”
“Although they’re over 100 years old, I think that they speak to us now,” adds Arbus of the two plays. “I think they ask questions about marriage, and the self within marriage, that everyone can relate to.”
To learn more about these productions, you can find clips and insight on Theatre for a New Audience’s website at www.tfana.org. You can also hear an interview with the director and cast on WNYC public radio on June 3, 2016, on the Leonard Lopate Show at www.wnyc.org/story/maggie-lacy-john-douglas-thompson-and-arin-arbus-dolls-house/.
This article originally appeared in the July 15, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.