There are no less than three separate attempts on my laptop to write a blog post about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: the Irish interpretations of the play and, in particular, the central part of Nora Helmer.
I was prompted to give it one last one try after watching The Corn Exchange production of Nora by Belinda McKeon in collaboration with Annie Ryan (after Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) during the Dublin Theatre Festival. On first hearing the title of this new work by Corn Exchange, I presumed the ‘Nora’ was O’Casey’s: Nora Clitheroe in The Plough and the Stars. To discover the company had stepped over the Irish descendant of Ibsen’s women to grapple with the character herself was something to look forward to in the festival. This, I decided, was the post-#WakingTheFeminists production I had been waiting for. And it was a joy to find out I hadn’t been mistaken, when I watched it in a packed-out Project Arts Centre in October.
What does a Nora for our times look like?
During my visit to London last year, the weather was glorious, but I spent most of my time in dark theatres and bookshops. In the bookshop of the National Theatre, on the banks of the Thames, I perused the copies and collections of Ibsen plays. This is something I’ve taken to doing since my visit to Yale, for an entirely pointless exercise. I want to find a collection of Ibsen plays, or any classic plays for that matter, introduced by a woman. Ideally, introduced by a woman who is also an actor: a performer who knows Ibsen’s texts in her mouth and in her muscles. For surely an actress is the best person to explain to us what Nora was thinking when she walked out of the door, or what Hedda is thinking when she goes into the other room?
My logic doesn’t follow through.
Check any bookshop and you’ll find the majority of classic/canonical texts (even those written by women) are introduced by middle-aged, middle-class white men. Before the academics start commenting: Yes, there are exceptions. In fact, Penguin’s new editions of Ibsen are introduced by an exceptional female scholar: Toril Moi.
Note the need for the ‘exceptional’ adjective. And this is after decades of editing and introductions by men. Also, she’s not an actress. We notice them because they are exceptions (and exceptional).
I don’t want to get into the subject of Ibsen’s feminism; I touched on it in my post on Elizabeth Robins and said there all I wanted to say. (Knock yourself out in any library if you’re intrigued.)
But I did want to lightly trace the history for Nora of A Doll’s House at the National Theatre, and consider the trajectory between Eileen Crowe’s appearance in the role in 1923 and Annie Ryan’s (director and founder of Corn Exchange) in 2017. This adaptation carefully but assuredly dismantled the apparatus of Ibsen’s original, to speculate on a future for the the woman at its centre, and to explore the impact of Nora’s decisions on the next generation. From that (and maybe from the bump that is increasingly getting between me and my keyboard) I found myself asking more and more questions about Nora’s children. Maybe all feminists are descendants of Nora Helmer, in one way, but are we thinking about what this means long term? How do we pass on our principles, in a way that is not just accessible but useful? And if we could ask the women of the past for their advice about it all, what would they say? Would it be any use now?
It had rocked Europe, but in the Abbey Theatre in the 1920s, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House simply fell flat. It garnered pallid reviews and mediocre box office figures. Unlike other countries, there were no enraged responses or debates prompted in the national press on the position of women. The Irish Independent thought it a ‘remarkable, if not very interesting, play’ that demonstrated the harm caused by the ‘moral depravity, duplicity, and secret intriguing of a clever and resourceful wife’. The critic (writing in 1923) leaves us in no doubt how the Irish audience were meant to interpret the play: a duplicitous, craven wife. No respectable Irish woman would countenance behaving like this woman.
There was nobody to defend Nora in Dublin: even Eileen Crowe, darling of Lennox Robinson and the first to play Nora at the Abbey, described the character as ‘hysterical’. The medical connotations suggest that she concurred with the view that women’s ‘hysteria’ was an illness: a depraved desire that needing curing, probably by prayer. Crowe presented Nora as a woman that would not acknowledge the reality of her place in the household, as against the imagined realm where she was independent (and, consequently, selfish). Her tarantella dance, the moment of liberation in the play, became, then, a symptom of a disorder rather than a symbolic display of independence. Crowe almost clocked W.B. Yeats in the side of the head with a tambourine that went flying from her hands during an early performance. But it wasn’t a deliberate blow, and she was mortified by the unseemly action. (That wicked character!) In fact, many suggested that the play was simply ‘a showcase for Eileen Crowe.’
It’s notoriously difficult to find photos of Eileen Crowe in her earlier years; I’m convinced she didn’t like the limelight off stage. Even when I tried to crop her from a (good quality) group shot, this was the best I could manage:
A young, naïve and hysterical Nora belies any threat posed by the assertion of female power. If Nora displays nothing but childish tantrums that can be castigated and shut down by ‘rational’ male figures, then her behaviour is simply a sham that can be ridiculed and dismissed. At that time, rather than pointing out truths about women’s oppression, Crowe’s interpretation of an infantilised Nora as hysterical colluded with the values of the Irish state.
And today, in a world where women can sign cheques but can’t surmount the gender pay gap; where we’re entitled to vote but the electorate can deny us reproductive rights, how does Nora’s position continue to impact an audience? Always an insightful journalist and fiercely intelligent writer, Belinda McKeon found a unique way to make us consider the story again. For to my mind, perhaps the most complex and dramatic characters in Nora are the new ones: Nora’s daughter, Emmy, and her old lover, Krista.
Archive trivia: in the original production, the children at Nora/Eileen’s Crowe knee were all related to the company: Raymond and Edna Fardy were the offspring of May Craig (not a fan of Crowe, by all accounts) while James Shields was a relative (probably a nephew) of Arthur and Barry F. Their Christmas excitement was interrupted by performances at the theatre in December 1923. McKeon’s Emmy, however, is on the cusp of adulthood: a delightful mix of innocence and curiousity. She is thrilled (rather than scandalised) to discover that the unexpected visitor to their home from ‘down below’, Krista, is a past lover of her mother. Together, they come to represent something special: the next generation of Nora’s feminism, along with an alternative future for the young, free-spirited woman that Ibsen allowed walk through the door in Norway a century ago.
When Emmy first appears, she is wearing an anti-pollution half mask, presumably to protect her from the outside world and its influences. Her parents, Nora and Turlough, routinely ‘check her string’ to keep track of her movements and she has never been ‘below’: to the next dimension which, much like the districts of The Hunger Games, houses those who may or may not be dangerous but are most certainly ‘different’. Yet none of this can save Emmy from the threats within, and the abuse she suffers at the hands of a family friend. In the closing moments, Nora sacrifices her principles to keep the family together but she fails to see the impact on her daughter of the circle of ‘ravenous’ people she has moving around her.
One of the most lovely scenes in Nora is a long conversation between Emmy and Krista, where Emmy gently quizzes her mother’s old friend about the past, her ambitions and her decision to take a risk by leaving her husband. Krista represents a bid for independence that is not a defiant door-slam, but is as uncertain and fragile as any refugee risking her life for the chance (not the promise) of something better. Emmy wants information; Krista gives guidance. Emmy doesn’t want to be told what to do, or to be protected, but simply to know about her experiences.
Who’s talking to the children? And what are they telling them? Should it all be explained to them by middle-class white men? I don’t want to exclude men from the conversation but I do want to hear what the women think and advise.
One of the most beautiful artefacts I came across in the Beinecke at Yale University was a notebook kept by Eva Le Gallienne packed with her thoughts, reflections and memories of playing the eponymous role of Hedda Gabler by Ibsen. She wrote the 108 pages by hand in blue ink in a hardback notebook of graph paper. I poured over it for hours: this moment-by-moment dissection of the part.
Le Gallienne introduces it:
These notes on HG are written from an actor’s point of view. I make no pretence at being a literary critic. I merely want to put down a few things I have thought about the play and especially about the part of Hedda—Things I have discovered through close association with her over a period of 20 years. HG will always be played – and there may be a few hints here that will prove valuable to young actresses in the future. Many things they undoubtedly disagree with — for they must find their own Heddas — but some points may be of interest to them.
Le Gallienne goes on to provide an analysis of each scene, from the opening to the final curtain fall, offering her own interpretation and advice on the most mundane and most dramatic moments. I’d heartily recommend any actress preparing for an Ibsen produciton to consider reading it. Even if all they do is dismiss it, surely there’s comfort to be found in encountering one of the few people who will occupy that same mental and physical space as you will? But maybe that’s the theatre nerd talking; proper actresses may have no interest.
In the 1950s, Le Gallienne translated and wrote an introduction to a collection of Ibsen plays for The Modern Library College editions, published in New York and later used by the BBC for a televised version of The Enemy of the People. But her notes on playing Hedda Gabler have, to my knowledge, never been published. It is a notebook in an archive, albeit a well-kept and accessible store, that is not widely available to the public.
Le Gallienne may have known Ibsen’s women more intimately than any scholar, and been more at home in his plays than any academic, but her words can’t be found on the many, many bookshelves in university libraries that are dedicated to Ibsen’s feminism, or lack of feminism, or complicated feminism.
For all her detailed notes, Le Gallienne is clear that each woman should find her own Hedda. She reassures the ardent reader that, guided by her own thoughts and emotions, she will find clarity and light by ‘the truth that comes through her’. This seems like good advice for any young feminist (and actress). Do talk to other women, share and hear about experiences, but also listen to your inner thoughts and emotions and find your own Nora.