My mother recently bought tickets for us to see Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 together. As it often does, however, life got in the way and plans changed. “Email the tickets to me?” I asked, thinking I might go without her. “They’re real tickets,” she told me – “I’ll put them in the mail and hope they get to you in time.” Sending letters in the mail, going to a theater to sit and watch a play – these ordinary things have taken on a glimmer of the extraordinary in the era of email and Netflix. I thought about this as I watched A Doll’s House, Part 2 with my friend, Cara, both working mothers in our mid-forties.
The original A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, was written in an era when letters by mail were the only way to keep in touch and took a long time to travel from person to person. People had no idea of certain events due to the fact that they had not yet received news of it. While their hearts and minds may have, their fingers did not itch for updates every second of the day. And in Ibsen’s time, people made an entire evening of going to the theater – it was a major event in their lives. Stage actors were almost as famous as the writers who gave them characters to portray.
Things have changed – and, as the cleverly imagined Part 2 to Ibsen’s 19th century play reveals, they haven’t changed that much. In the original A Doll’s House, Nora, a housewife and mother, realizes she does not want the life she has and literally walks out the door. To reduce the complexity of her situation, one could say that Nora chooses personal freedom over familial and societal responsibility and leaves – which was scandalous in the 1880s and on some level is still noteworthy today.
Part 2 begins with Nora’s return, 15 years later, through the same door she walked out of. Due to the fact that she can not secure a divorce herself, she needs her husband, Torvald, to divorce her, which he apparently never did. While the interplay between Nora and Torvald in Part 2 is fascinating – they are benignly adversarial after so much time apart – the scenes that resonated the most for me and my friend involved Nora and the other women in her former life. Nora’s daughter, now grown, is callous to Nora’s return as well as to Nora’s reasons for leaving and subsequent professional success. Nora’s housekeeper, the woman who kept Nora’s life humming along without her, is tired out after raising Nora’s children, and angry as well – she had a child of her own that she couldn’t care for because of Nora’s disappearance. Nora tries to defend herself and to influence others to take up her plight, but falls woefully short.
Ibsen’s original play is, mainly, about a woman and her husband, a patriarchal society, and her refusal to participate in the life of her family. Hnath’s Part 2 is, mainly, about a woman on her own, the same patriarchal society, and her ongoing struggle to secure, if not enjoy, the hard-won freedom she originally sought. Hnath’s Part 2 ignites deeper thinking about a 19th century play that made a woman’s choice look easy, and reminds us that while some things have changed in the years between Ibsen and ourselves, some have just become more complicated. But as always, the power of literature is revealed in its steadfast relevance and protean form.