[I’ve just posted my report on the Scandinavian rep at Theatre for a New Audience (see 13 June), which included performances of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and August Strindberg’s The Father. In passing, I mentioned that among the recent appearances of Doll’s House on New York stages was a German production entitled Nora in an updated adaptation from Berlin back in 2004. I thought it would be interesting to post my pre-ROT report on that performance because it was quite different from Thornton Wilder’s adaptation that director Arin Arbus used at TFANA. In fact, as you’ll read, I had some problems with the modernization—but I’ll let you discover what that’s all about for yourself.]
On Friday evening, 12 November 2004, I went to Nora, a new German version of Ibsen’s Doll House by Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, a Berlin company, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Nora is the standard German title for Doll House, but this was more than just a new translation—and less than a full adaptation. The pay is reset in the 21st century, both in look and in language, but everything from the original is still in this version—the Helmers are still Norwegians (that is, they weren’t transported to Berlin or something); Torvald (Jörg Hartmann) is still a banker; Nora (Anne Tismer) is still a stay-at-home wife; they still have three kids (Milena Bühring, Constantin Fischer, Robin Meisner); Rank (still a doctor, played by Lars Eidinger), Krogstad (Kay Bartholomäus Schulze), and Kristine (Jenny Schily) are all still there in the same relationships as Ibsen put them in; and, most significant, Nora has still secretly forged her father’s signature on the loan agreement with which she had borrowed money to pay for her and Torvald’s trip to Italy when he was ill. There are a few minor changes—there’s no nurse in this version, and Helene, the maid, has become Monika (Agnes Lampkin), an au pair from Africa.
According to the Schaubühne’s dramaturgs, the story of Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel’s adaptation of Nora for managing director Thomas Ostermeier is as follows:
Torvald Helmer has worked too hard. So much, in fact, that he could die. To raise money for a journey south that could save his life, his wife Nora secretly takes out a loan and forges her father’s signature. This secret is her pride and joy, and the fact that she has to pay back the loan builds up her self-confidence as a woman in a male-dominated society. Nonetheless, she continues to lead the life of a devoted mother and childlike, dependent wife whose main purpose in life is to create a cozy nest for her family. When her con is revealed, her husband betrays her and sticks to his bourgeois principles. Nora will leave him and her children; she will face an uncertain future.
The Schaubühne did make some more significant changes to the text/story to make it seem more current, however, and some of them seem to have diluted the original dramatic impact. One isn’t very large—though the meaning is more significant than it might seem: Rank isn’t dying of cancer; he’s got AIDS from having been omni-sexual in his youth. Now this may not seem like much of an alteration, but it strikes me as weakening Ibsen’s point—which is, itself, a little hard to buy today also. Ibsen believed, as did many in his day, that moral corruption is manifested later in physical illness—and could be passed on, like a hereditary disease, to the children. This was a pseudo-scientific belief in the late 19th century, and Ibsen used it in a more prominent way in Ghosts, of course—where Osvald’s father’s sexual profligacy is inherited by Osvald as syphilis. What’s the difference between this and the new version? Well, as I see it, cancer isn’t a disease we generally blame on willfully bad behavior—especially in the 19th century when no one knew about the connection to smoking and other carcinogenic activities. So, if Rank has cancer and he blames it on his corrupt youth, then it must be some kind of moral retribution since the youthful behavior didn’t directly cause the cancer. However, if he has AIDS because he had unprotected sex with men, his illness is a direct result of his willful behavior. (Because the play is now set in the 2000s, he can’t even use the excuse that no one knew what caused AIDS when he engaged in the behavior—unlike I can say when I go to the dermatologist and have lumps cut off my skin because of sun exposure when I was 8 or 9 when no one knew suntans and sunburns were actually carcinogenic.)
Unless you subscribe to the notion that AIDS is God’s punishment for gays, the moral element has been erased from the situation. (As I said, this aspect of the play is hard to play today, but it only works at all if the play remains set in the 19th century when people actually believed this theory.) This is somewhat more significant than just as an element in the Rank-Nora subplot—the same theory is applied to Krogstad, who is considered to be morally corrupt and therefore a danger to his family, especially his children. It is this moral corruption that permits Torvald to reject Krogstad and forces Krogstad to blackmail Nora with the letter and loan document he leaves for Torvald at the end of the play. It is also this belief, which Krogstad explains to Nora, that impels her to leave her children when her transgression has been revealed—she can’t stay in the house with them for fear that she’ll infect them with her corruption. Without this motivation, she doesn’t have to leave, and the play’s ending becomes a purely selfish act and has no dramatic strength.
Now, if all that’s true—have I convinced you?—then the other, really big change in this version has even greater repercussions. According to the New York Times review, the company wanted to restore the shock Ibsen’s original audience felt at the end of the play. (According to theater history, there were even riots when the play opened in Europe when Nora leaves, it was such a unheard-of action.) If you haven’t read the review then you would never guess what translator/adapter Schmidt-Henkel did. He has Nora shoot Torvald before she leaves. And it’s not just one quick shot—she unloads an automatic pistol into him, even as he’s writhing on the ground, half in the giant fish tank that’s a prominent part of the starkly modern apartment set conceived by Jan Pappelbaum (and lit by Erich Schneider). Okay, this is shocking, but it changes the whole dynamic of the ending, and makes Nora into a straight-out murderer rather than a distraught but enlightened woman who acts out of what she believes is selflessness.
First, for her departure to be justified, she still has to believe that by staying, she endangers her children. That’s hard to do in the 21st century, but with the “evidence” of the physical manifestations of mortal corruption no longer as clear as it was in Ibsen’s original, it’s even harder. Second, Torvald’s only real fault is still that he doesn’t leap to Nora’s defense when he learns of her forgery on the loan document—just like in the original, he fears for his position at the bank and that Krogstad will now be able to manipulate him. Perhaps even more today than in Ibsen’s time, this comes off as a supremely egocentric posture, and that makes him a chauvinistic pig, as we used to say—but it’s hardly a capital crime. It justifies leaving him—maybe enough today not to need the matter of corrupting the kids—but hardly shooting him. So, instead of being a brave and selfless woman, Nora’s a fugitive from a murder charge—and maybe even nuts. This alone changes the entire meaning of the play. The shock may have been restored, but it’s shock for its own sake, as a theatrical effect, not based on dramatic necessity.
I suppose that’s enough to make the translation/adaptation questionable, but there were other problems I had with this show. I know that Europe is behind the U.S. in enfranchising women, especially in the marketplace, but they’re not 50 years behind. [At the time I wrote this report, a woman was the head of one of Germany’s major political parties, the Christian Democratic Union. A year after I wrote this, in 2005, Angela Merkel was named Chancellor of Germany; in this country we’re just now celebrating the nomination of the first woman as a major party’s presidential candidate—11 years later.] It’s hard for me to accept that a woman as self-consciously modern as Nora here—the costume she wears to the Christmas party isn’t some peasant outfit so she can dance a tarantella; she goes in complete punk get-up, blood smears and all (costumes are designed by Almut Eppinger), and does a techno dance (of which the Germans are fond, I believe)—could be so bereft of options that a) she has to forge her father’s signature for a loan and b) she can’t resolve the problem by some more rational means than either leaving or, even more drastically, shooting Torvald. The whole idea of the “doll-wife” (and that expression is still in the German text, by the way: Puppenfrau) is a throw-back, even in Europe today. In fact, moving the whole thing up to the 2000s seemed to make everything a little incredible—contrived, I guess. Instead of an indictment of a social problem that the playwright saw as universal, this version makes the whole thing a play about a seriously dysfunctional couple and their dysfunctional friends. (I ought to add, too, that the very idea today that a sick man had to go to Italy to recover—and that this was his only remedy—is hard to buy also. Germans still believed in “taking the cure”—going to a health spa for mineral baths—at least when I was living there, but needing to go south for one’s health is still pretty much an anachronism—more like Death in Venice than 21st century. It’s another aspect that really has to remain in Ibsen’s own time to work.)
There was some problem with the acting—I presume the direction of Ostermeier, really—too. The actors were good, and I didn’t have any problem believing them in their roles/situations most of the time (aside from the problems of the script above), except that every so often they went off their rockers emotionally for no apparent reason or motivation. One character might all of a sudden shout (or bark) at another, or another character would behave as if he were in the grips of an epileptic fit or some other odd physical condition and throw himself about the stage violently. (The final shooting was sort of like this. Nora had the gun—she was contemplating suicide—but she’d put it away and had even gone off into her room off stage. Then she came out, pointed the gun at Torvald for a few seconds, and started pulling the trigger again and again.) Now, maybe I missed something in the German text or in the translation (titles), but I don’t think so. (Those titles were a problem, too. There were three screens—one just below the raised set of the apartment, but its text was pretty small for us in the mezzanine; the other two were on either side of the stage, but far enough away from the set that you couldn’t read them and watch the action at the same time. Just to make it harder to follow, the dialogue came fast at times and the titles showed nearly every line so the screens changed rapidly, much faster than you could go back and forth. I really wish my German were still good enough not to have had to refer to them as much as I did—even though I knew the play fairly well, having taught it up at the State University in Oneonta a couple of years earlier. I did want to see what the translator did with the text.) It doesn’t help matters that the performance was two hours and ten minutes without an intermission—and the Harvey Theater’s seats are not soft!
Anyway, the experience was disappointing, but not actually bad. I pretty much concluded that updating Doll House isn’t profitable—you lose too much that isn’t made up in the modernization—but it was interesting to see the attempt. It also made me reconsider the original—and how good Ibsen was at constructing plays to say what he wanted, such that trying to make them say something else in part destroys them. Ironically, I also concluded that though Ibsen must remain in his own period for the plot to work, the drama—the point, the message, the theme—still communicates to a modern audience. I mean, we may no longer believe in the nonsense of moral corruption = physical decay, but if we accept that they did, we can still see Ibsen’s point about trust and respect and honesty within a marriage.
[As I noted above, I saw Nora on 12 November 2004, but the production ran at BAM’s Harvey Theater from 9 to 13 November 2004. Nora had its première at the Schaubühne in 2002.
[I didn’t do the review round-up back in ’04, so I’ll pick up a few notices that are still on line a dozen years later. (BAM shows often don’t get a lot of coverage even today because their runs are so short and there are no previews a reviewer can see before opening. Nora only played in New York for five evenings; a review written on day one would appear in print with only four performances left—if it came out on the next day. Programs like BAM’s Next Wave Festival or the Lincoln Center Festival frequently get put off in favor of regular Broadway and Off-Broadway runs that get next-day publication.) Since I didn’t do a survey, the only notice I saw before now was in the New York Times.
[The Times’ Christopher Isherwood called Ostermeier’s staging “slick,” but advised that “you have to listen carefully to hear the impact.” The “highly regarded, provocative” director making his U.S. début with Nora, “pumps up the volume in more ways than one in his brash contemporary gloss on” A Doll House. “At unexpected intervals, the characters emit strange, sudden shrieks or fling themselves into the giant aquarium that dominates the living room,” reported Isherwood. “And as promised, the play ends not with a housewife's quietly delivered manifesto, followed by a seemly exit, but with an act of unexpected violence.” [This was the passage I alluded to in my report above, by the way.] “This strikingly designed, sensitively acted production,” asserted the Timesman, maintained an “overriding fidelity to the trusty mechanics of Ibsen's drama”; far from being “a radical, mind-bending reimagining,” the production was “a clever but essentially naturalistic updating, with a few eccentricities tacked on here and there, often, you suspect, simply to amp up the quirk factor.” As one example, Isherwood described how Ostermeier's “actors are sometimes allowed to indulge in bursts of physical or vocal hysterics that are more showy than revealing.” While Ostermeier’s adaptation “translates the play's social dimensions,” acknowledged the Times reviewer, he found that “it also violates its spiritual ones.” Isherwood seemed to have agreed with me, at least somewhat, about the new ending: “In altering Ibsen's ending, Mr. Ostermeier has drawn a veil across Nora's spiritual awakening.”
[In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold summed up one view of the Schaubühne’s Nora:
In 125 years of audiences, undoubtedly many women have wanted to shoot Torvald Helmer, but most directors, male or female, would hesitate to louse up a great play by turning the famous door-slam into a gunshot. Leave it, one might say, to the Germans. Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin’s Schaubuhne, has managed, by giving Torvald a gun for Nora to borrow, to louse up not only a great play but what was in many ways a great production. The gun wasn’t his only dumb idea: The one question in my mind is which will remain stronger in my memory of this Doll’s House after months and years have passed—the frequent brilliance of the acting and directing, or the equally frequent lapses into directorial self-indulgence. It’s aesthetically unjust for an artist so gifted to be so foolishly wasteful of his gifts.
Feingold explained that “the element in the play that Ostermeier’s gunshot effectively killed [is] Nora’s spiritual transcendence.” The Voice reviewer had many of the same complaints that the Times’ Isherwood and I voiced, so I won’t quote them again just to prove we all seemed to agree. Like the man from the Times and me, Feingold also found that the cast’s “five principals were uniformly excellent,” giving “lively and detailed performances” that were largely wasted on Ostermeier’s self-indulgent production concept “to prove that he was up-to-date.”
[Variety’s Marilyn Stasio capsulized her opinion thus:
It would be too easy to dismiss “Nora (A Doll’s House),[“] a trendy modernization of Ibsen’s seminal 1879 drama, as hopelessly wrong-headed. For all the sound and fury of its iconoclastic production . . . this German import never makes its case that the European hausfrau of today is as enslaved to bourgeois convention as her 19th century sisters. Still, the boldness of Schaubuhne artistic director Thomas Ostermeier’s smash-and-burn concept and the fierceness of Anne Tismer’s attack on the leading role make for invigorating theater.
Stasio conceded, “This is a production that grows on you—if you can survive the initial onslaught of the f/x staging, blood-sport performance style and rock-concert decibel level.”
[In a wrap-up of 2004’s year in theater, Michael Lazan wrote of Nora in Backstage that Ostermeier’s adaptation “thrillingly manages to raise questions about violence as a legitimate reaction to social decay.” The Backstager described the play’s last moment: “When Nora ends the play by shooting him to a bloody pulp, the audience watched, slack-jawed. Quite an event it was.”