David Hammond is Artistic Director Emeritus of PlayMakers Repertory Company, the professional theatre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was Artistic Director for fourteen seasons. A former resident director for the American Conservatory Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre, he has taught on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Yale School of Drama, the A.C.T. Advanced Training Program, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He currently teaches for the New York University Graduate Acting Program and the American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard and is Professor of Theatre Studies at Guilford College.
The following is Lincoln Konkle’s complete July 11 interview of David Hammond on his 2007 production of Thornton Wilder’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
LK: How did you first learn of Wilder’s acting version of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House?
DH: I’ve actually known about it for years. I think 25 years ago I read one of Ruth Gordon’s many books. Wilder runs through her life; they were great friends. There was a period when she had achieved great recognition as an extraordinary actor; she did a brilliant production of the Country Wife, and Ethan Frome and some other extraordinary plays and was a respected front runner comparable to Katherine Cornell. Then, she hit a dry period where she couldn’t find a play and no one was offering her parts. It was at this time that her emotional partner, Jed Harris, did not seem to go out of the way to find projects for her. She originated much of her career; she was her own driving force. Sitting on the steps of her house with Wilder, Gordon said, “I can’t find a play,” and he responded, “Go to the library.” I think he may have recommended A Doll’s House and she, in return, asked him if he would do the adaptation. He was a very loyal friend and, as you know, he did several adaptations. Wilder was a very extraordinary dramaturge. He was a major American playwright, of course, but his knowledge of theatrical literature and form was very rare. I think someone who parallels him now is Tom Stoppard; he wrote tremendously successful plays, then for several years did adaptations of European plays which he reset and revamped in the way Wilder revamped A Day Well Spent. [Wilder adapted his farce The Matchmaker (original title The Merchant of Yonkers) from Einen Jux will er sich machen by Austrian writer Johann Nestroy, who had adapted his play from an English farce A Day Well Spent by John Oxenford.] The relationship of the dialogue to the action varies from playwright to playwright. Each playwright has a different creative view of why people speak, influenced in varying ways by the fact that they are sitting next to the hot stove, or have just come in from the snow, or didn’t get enough sleep last night. Do these circumstances matter at all in Shakespeare? The given circumstances in Shakespeare are structured right into the dialogue, but they are there nonetheless. Dialogue is the active communication of a moment and everything that influences it, and the balance and the way dialogue is heard and used are different for every playwright. In the stocking scene in Doll’s House the relationship of dialogue to action is very special, like nothing that had been heard on stage before.
LK: You are referring to Rank and Nora in the stocking scene?
DH: They don’t say everything. Someone doing an adaptation must realize that the real key is not just how accurately they have translated the words in a given line but how accurately they have captured the way the line works. This adaptation [Wilder’s of A Doll’s House] is extraordinary. It is extraordinary.
LK: You knew of this through your study of Ruth Gordon’s career and so forth?
DH: My sense of the relationship of dialogue to action is from my years of professional work. It’s something you learn to recognize, one of the components of a play’s style. As for the Wilder script, yes, I’d known about it for years, but I’d forgotten about it. When I retired from PlayMakers Repertory Company, I was offered my current position at Guilford College. They have a lovely thing here. Since it is a Quaker- heritage school, the students and faculty decide everything by consensus.
LK: How about that.
DH: They asked me to propose three plays and do a little presentation on each one. We talked about them with the students and they said, “Oh Doll’s House! Doll’s House! How wonderful! We should do that.” So, I said, “Great. I love the play.” I was teaching that summer over in London, and in The National Theatre there is this phenomenal little book shop where I bought fourteen translations of Doll’s House. Over the summer, I read them all and found something wrong with each of them, so I went back to the Archer version [first English translation]. It does have an understanding of the action, but the relationship to the language is Victorian, so it doesn’t quite work for us. It’s like watching an old movie.
LK: Yeah, I just read that.
DH: He was accurate and a good dramaturge, but you have to go back 120 years to understand why his version does not work anymore. Then I remembered all of a sudden in the middle of reading it that Ruth Gordon had done a production, and I thought “Wait! Wait! Now who did that? Who did that? Of course, it was Thornton Wilder. I’ve got to find that.”
LK: So how did you find the Wilder version? How did you obtain that?
DH: I thought, “Well, Samuel French handles the amateur rights for Wilder so they must have it.” They said, “Oh no. We don’t have it, not even in a typescript. It was probably never published.” I left a message for Tappan Wilder when he was up in Maryland and I got a call from him when he was out in Aspen seeing the Our Town opera. Tappy said, “Oh, I would be delighted if you were interested in doing it. There are three versions you’re going to have to sort through to figure out which one you want to use. I’ll send you all three, then you tell me what you think the reason is that it’s not published. We’ve never quite been able to make up our minds on that point.” So, this giant envelope arrived with these three scripts. I sat down and was just delighted. It was like this light opening up on the play.
LK: How did it differ from some of the other versions or translations you have read?
DH: First, it reads like a play; it does not read like a translation. I started with what I call version three because it looked like it was going to tell me the most about that production. I guessed that that was the final version also because it had the cast in the front. I said, “Oh, my goodness: Walter Slezak, Dennis King, Paul Lukas, and Sam Jaffe. These are great, great actors. I looked at Ruth Gordon’s rehearsal script first because her handwritten notes were so beguiling. It was marked up a lot and hard to read, so I said, “There are the other two versions, so I’ll get back to her notes after I’ve been through the play.” It reads like a new play; you are not conscious of it being a translation. It was so incredibly refreshing to me because it cuts to the vitality of the characters; it just goes right to the people, particularly Helmer because translators usually spend their attention on Nora and make a lot of assumptions about Helmer. So much so that he comes across as sort of a stick in many translations. In this one he is quite vital. Wilder paid attention to the voice of Helmer’s character and to the actions and idiosyncrasies of each of the characters. Mrs. Linden in many versions is also terribly vague. Here, she is a faint voice of feminism. She’s a pragmatist and a tired realist, not a busy body that interferes in Nora’s life or gets involved enough to say you should leave your husband. It is all very emotionally logical. Mrs. Linden is a very kind, full character. It just looked so actable to me -which other translations did not.
LK: Is it “Linde” or “Linden”?
DH: Wilder changed “Mrs. Linde” to “Mrs. Linden” in his version.
LK: Linden, as in Linden tree? What does that signify?
DH: I tore my hair about it and asked Tappy for permission to say Linde instead. Then, I found a wonderful article by Emma Goldman. She wrote a great book on the significance of contemporary drama around 1911. Quite early, she was brilliant. She wrote extraordinarily well and was a great speaker. She did an analysis of Doll’s House and nailed it. Goldman said Ibsen’s theme is the social contract and the lie. She got the play. It is not just about marriage; it is about a society that is based on lies. Marriage is a microcosm of society. The whole society depends on how we accept and behave in this fantasy. Part of the fantasy is [the idea] that there have to be working and wealthy classes. But, marriage is also one of society’s useful fantasies. A man goes out in the world and works terribly hard and deserves a castle. The woman’s role is to make that little castle happen. That is a fair contract. In Emma Goldman’s essay she refers to the character as “Mrs. Linden.” I looked around and apparently, in most American productions, it was always “Mrs. Linden,” so it was fairly normal. Wilder did not invent that.
LK: So the other version was Lindman?
DH: No her name in Norwegian is Linde; he makes it Christina Linden. And apparently that was very standard in American versions. I guess because early translators thought it was necessary that you realize that she was named after a tree. Like her name was Mrs. Elm or Oak.
LK: Is there any symbolic significance to being a Linden tree?
DH: No, because Linde/Linden is a common name in Norwegian. I don’t think so. And Rank is a common name -and in Norwegian the word ‘rank’ has nothing to do with disease.
LK: You have already spoken to some extent about the strengths of Wilder’s version. Are there other strengths or weaknesses of his version?
DH: Well, I think you have to accept that it’s an adaptation. Here’s another one. I’m just turning the pages here while we talk. The scene I’m giving you these comments on was eventually cut in version three, but in Ruth Gordon’s script they were still rehearsing with what we call version one: “‘We could take the money and wrap it up in gold paper and hang it on the tree and that’d be fun.’” She crossed off “fun” and changed it to “wouldn’t that be just as good as a real present.”
LK: That’s a nice line. Did you use that one in the production?
DH: The scene is later cut. In the final version, what I think is his final version, the entire scene is redone.
LK: I like that line a lot. That’s nice.
DH: Well, it makes her less–it is a much more specific line; it’s just harder. “Wouldn’t that be just as good as a real present” is less of a goofy line than “wouldn’t that be fun.” The action is different. In the last scene in version three, which is the one that you have, it is very specific, and they cut not ruthlessly but with astonishing discipline. You go, “But, oh my God, that’s a very famous line!”
LK: Yeah, I noticed that. I noticed that there was quite a bit of pruning of the final confrontation there between Torvald and Nora.
DH: That whole final scene in version three is very close to what is marked our in Gordon’s rehearsal version. For instance, “I can’t spend the night in a strange man’s house.” A great line, but normally followed with Torvald’s “but can’t we live together as brother and sister….” And her reply, “You know that wouldn’t last long.”
LK: Why do you think he cut really famous lines like that?
DH: It’s cut in the Ruth Gordon rehearsal script. She has it crossed out. I initially put it back in as in his first version and then I suddenly went, “No. They’re right. It’s over written for a modern audience.” I mean, you’ve seen his attempts to initiate sex with her in the same act. They come home from the party and he’s hot and bothered. He’s touching her and she says, “Not tonight.” It is all very clear that he makes assumptions about his rights and for her to say, “I can’t spend the night in a strange man’s house,” and start to go into the children and cut directly into “No. I won’t go into the children. They are in better hands than mine,” it’s actually much, much stronger. You also have to remember that a Norwegian audience in the 1880’s the topic probably had to be nailed on the head; you probably had to say, “Can’t we live without sexual relations?” Nora saying, “You know that’s not possible” is unnecessary. It isn’t necessary now that we understand that and for Torvald to say, “Can’t we live as brother and sister” for a modern audience is childish. I mean he could say, “What if we don’t sleep together,” but in the 18880’s for him to say, “Can’t we live as brother and sister,” was probably a very racy line. But, it is not a racy line; he is being delicate about something about which they do not talk. However, we do now talk about such things. The pruning of that last scene was probably days and days of work in rehearsal. It isn’t necessary, as another example, for her to say, “I can spend the night with Christine tonight.” It is not necessary, so they cut it. If I were doing another version of the play I would be extremely hesitant to cut any of that. I would say, “No. This is Ibsen and the moment to moment is absolutely vital.” He wanted this point made, and I would not feel licensed to make the cuts. Wilder had the license, and I followed Wilder.
LK: You said that that one line was overwritten. Do you think that that is a quality of Wilder’s version: to kind of tone that down a little bit, tone down the overwriting or the melodramatic speeches maybe?
DH: Yeah, he did with the play. I hope this will be understood properly. I don’t want to make this sound like I’m belittling this in anyway; he did what an excellent screenwriter would do while doing an excellent screenplay of a play. He said, “We are on a different stage and can’t just recreate the way this play worked in 1879.”
LK: The earlier scene when Torvald is trying to put the move on Nora must have been really risqué for that time.
DH: Right. And the scene where she practically behaves like a prostitute with Rank.
LK: Stroking his cheek with the stockings and all that?
DH: Yeah, I mean think of it. It is 1879, Nora is flailing her stocking near his face, and, very specifically, Rank reacts to the stocking and Nora says (I’m paraphrasing here), “What’s the matter? Don’t you think they fit me?” Silk stockings at that time were sewn so they would be fitted to her legs. So, what he is seeing is the shape of her legs. And when she says, “Don’t you think they fit me?” He goes, “I have no way of knowing.”
LK: Right. At first, she just wants to let him look at the feet or something. Then she allows him to see the whole thing.
DH: He says, “I would have no way of judging that,” or something like that, and Wilder nails the meaning of that. He’s really saying, “I’ve never seen your legs.” Wilder captures the full relationship with Dr. Rank. For example, Nora knows all about Rank. She knows the whole history with his father, which means they have discussed it. She also knows Torvald knows, which is often lost completely as well, as if Rank were telling her for the first time in the stocking scene about his father. She knows the entire history and Wilder plants that information here and there throughout the play. Everything that is cut in a given scene he makes sure to mention elsewhere in the play, planted in the structured given circumstances across the text. Wilder recognizes Ibsen’s own tracing of everything through the play, which most translators do not. When Mrs. Linden asks how Nora knows about Dr. Rank’s health problems, Nora says, in this version, “Oh well, when one has children one gets to meet nurses.” [She] is lying, which is always lost in translation. Rank has told her his story. It’s unlikely that Nora, when delivering her children, met nurses in the hospital who just happened to talk about venereal disease. It is what she says to Mrs. Linden, and it’s a cover. Mrs. Linden keeps pursuing the relationship with Rank. In Act II she says, “you have to stop this with Dr. Rank.” Nora says, “What are you talking about?” [Nora] and Rank have a very sexy relationship. She talks to Rank about things she doesn’t talk to Torvald about and not just her aspirations and longings. His talk with her is quite racy. When they are alone together, they talk and giggle about all sorts of things in a way that would shock Torvald. [Wilder] also gets that Torvald does not like Rank, which is always lost in other versions. It is often played that they are very good friends and they behave like friends, but Torvald says he is a bore.
LK: Yeah, he does say that a lot.
DH: [Rank] pretends to be coming to see Torvald, but of course he is coming to see [Nora] which is very clear but usually lost. It usually [is translated] that [Rank] and Torvald are great buddies and they are sort of a threesome. [Rank] comes there to see her. They have a whole private world where she gets to be a little racy, and they talk about things [which would horrify] Torvald to know.
LK: Like saying “hell,” “damnation,” and so forth?
DH: Yup. He follows that through from the moment Rank is mentioned through the whole play. If you can find the way he follows that throughout the play for each character -he does it for Mrs. Linden and Krogstad as well- then you do not, in fact, have to restate everything in the last act. Anything that Wilder cut he made absolutely sure was layered in throughout the play. He went to the places where it does exist in Ibsen and made them clearer in a more modern way. So his dramaturgical adjustment was to take the same material, keep the same action and the same relationship to the circumstances, and layer the circumstances, making sure to clarify the way the circumstances are layered through the entire text, so that one speech is not a moment that tells you the circumstances but the circumstances are clearly there. They are in Ibsen, as well, but people miss them.
LK: Why do you think Wilder’s version would appeal to audiences in the late 30’s? Or, what was his thinking about audiences in the late 30’s as opposed to Ibsen’s or Archer’s translations?
DH: I think that Wilder…. I do not have to say this to you, or to anybody who would be reading this article, but I think that Wilder is a great playwright, not just a good one. I think that he is, this will sound very strange to readers, underestimated.
LK: I agree. In American drama scholarship today, he is underestimated. That was not always the case, but basically from the 60’s on, his esteem fell.
DH: The point of saying he is a great playwright is I do not think that he ever wrote calculatingly for the audience of 1937, for example. I think he just wrote great plays. Surely, you are dealing with someone who is theatrically astute, and he knows what makes a good curtain. For example, Our Town, there is nothing like it before it. [However, that is] not because he does not use furniture. The whole of what he put on stage was universal for all time, and what he chose to dramatize had never been dramatized in that way. So it is a new vision really. I do not think that he was writing consciously for the theater of his time period. He was writing purposefully for theater. Sure, his vision is going to be filtered somewhat through the prism of the theater as the world of his time knew it. But, you look at Our Town and The Matchmaker and they are not based on conventions of their time. Even Matchmaker is not based on “here is what a play is and I am writing to that formula” the way 60’s playwrights wrote good commercial plays. Lesser playwrights, and I will not name them, write for “Here is what a play should be and there must be something like this here and something like that there, and this kind of moment has to happen before the Act II curtain.” Writing to a formula, you can be an excellent commercial playwright. Real playwrights just write, and I think he was one. I think he got into Ibsen’s soul. I think he thought and felt like Ibsen, but not as an 1870 playwright. Ibsen was a great playwright, too, obviously. I do not think that when Wilder got inside Ibsen he thought, “I’m in 1879.” He was thinking like Ibsen now, just taking that play and saying it is this and this, here is the pulse. What this adaptation has that other versions do not is the pulse. It has it; it has the heartbeat. It has the continuous motion forward [and is] on its own terms, like in the original. In his review, Brooks Atkinson said something like it was “beautifully freshened and freed” and that it had been, though he does not use the word “debris,” freed of debris and pruned very well.
The other wonderful thing is following the rewrites and this is all speculative. I told Selma Luttinger at the Robert Freedman Dramatic Agency, which still handles Wilder’s plays, how wonderful I thought the adaptation is. “This is absolutely the best English-language version of Dolls’ House I have ever read,” and she, with her wonderful dry laugh, said, “Yeah, I think the kid’s got a future.” I told her I hoped it would be published. People have to know about this version. You know…when it is published there will be reactions. You will have people saying, “Oh no. It’s an adaptation.” I read between 10 and 20 [versions] and I think about fourteen versions, most of them, are adaptations. Most of the existing English language versions are adaptations without saying that they are. Others say it frankly. I mean, there is one by Bryony Lavery, who wrote Frozen, that is in semi-verse. I mean, it is literally in semi-verse because she was fascinated by what she saw as Ibsen’s language patterns. I don’t know if she meant it to be verse, but it is verse-like, patterned language. To me it was very, very strange, and, as I remember, it is not called an “adaptation,” though it certainly is one. There is no major point made as to why she chose to write it in that kind of language, and I would say that version is much farther away from Ibsen than Wilder’s, because it changes the relationship of the text to the action; it is a more verbally focused text, the dialogue plays a larger role in the action. Anyway, there are several excellent adaptations, as opposed to ‘translations”. There is one by the wonderful Irish playwright Frank McGuiness. So, there are plenty [of adaptations] being done all the time. People don’t say “adaptation”, they say it is “adapted by (name)” and nobody bats an eye. I suspect that when people read this one, they are going to go, “Oh wow. He almost rewrote it,” but he doesn’t rewrite it, he reshapes it. He reshapes it into its own form. It is like he cleans off the tarnish [from] this thing [and turns what] was black [into] bronze. He does not take it and melt it down into a different object. He cleans it off, gets inside it, and scrapes away everything that no longer is alive. He recreates parts of it [that] do not seem alive. He eliminated some of them, but [the adaptation] is a very real recreation of the original.
LK: Now, you said a little bit of this to me last week, but just to get it on tape, what was the process of the selecting the three different versions that you had by Wilder?
DH: Well, I studied them all and my initial reaction was that version three, the final version that you have is probably the one that ended up on stage. There is the one from the Robert Freedman Agency, which is similar to the one that you have, but it is longer and a little closer to Ibsen. Then there is Ruth Gordon’s rehearsal script, which is number one, with her notes and cuts. Then, there is number three, which is the one you have. The reason I say it must be number three that was finally performed is that it has lavish stage directions which explain the production as it happens. That is, describing the action of the production so obviously. This version was done after the production was on its feet or during the rehearsals of the production. It is the one based on the production, so that has to be toward the end. So, my theory is that version one is the one that Wilder first did; that is what they went into rehearsal with and Ruth Gordon’s cuts indicate extensive work on [it]. Then there is version three which incorporates all of her cuts, but version three has major rewriting added. It opened in Central City, Colorado before Toronto. It may have gone other places in between, but the next major stop was Toronto. In Central City, Walter Slezak played Torvald and Dr. Rank was Dennis King, now forgotten but one of the great actors –he was Vershinin a few years later in Katharine Cornell’s The Three Sisters, with Ruth Gordon as Natasha. I saw [Dennis King] with Dorothy Tutin when I was in a high school [in a production of] Portrait of a Queen which is about Victoria. He played Disraeli. [The production] was at the old Henry Miller Theater, and I did not know who he was. He entered about twenty minutes into the first act; he entered looking exactly like Benjamin Disraeli, but he stepped onto the stage and all of the women gave him thunderous applause. He was that big a star from their years of theater-going. He was brilliant. He was just brilliant in this play about Queen Victoria. I went home and looked him up [and found] this guy was great. He must have been sixty-five. Dennis King was Dr. Rank in the production, and by the time they got to Toronto, King had become Torvald and Walter Slezak was no longer in the cast. Walter Slezak was kind of a lovable teddy bear, had a slight German accent, and would have been rather like George Tesman in Hedda Gabbler. As Torvald, he would have been, this is just speculative from having seen him on film…a kind of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but sweeter. So, that would be one way to cast the part. Dennis King was a distinguished leading man and had wonderful charisma. As a young man, [he] was someone whom Masha in The Three Sisters could have loved. In Toronto Dennis King took over Torvald. Then, the production went to Chicago. Wilder saw it in Chicago and his journals, so Tappan tells me, seem to indicate that after seeing it there he did the final rewrites on the script. Now, what were those rewrites? Again, speculation, I think they are the changes that are in version three. Those probably represent the rewrites that he did after Chicago and a major share of those changes have to do with the part of Torvald. He rewrites the first scene entirely –it doesn’t deviate from Ibsen’s intentions, but Wilder makes choices: “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to repeat that story here. I’m going to get Christine on stage; I will get this thing moving.” If he’d made those sorts of changes earlier in the process, it would have been reckless and willful. But at that point in the rehearsals, I think they had a very solid production, and they realized they didn’t need a lot of the repeated detail. Some of what he does -for example, Nora brings presents for the three children in Ibsen’s original version. I think it is a trumpet, sword, and horse for the boys, and a doll and something else for the girl. I don’t remember. The point is that she gets the boys boy-things and the girl girl-things, automatically. Wilder simply has her bring [out] the toys and when Ivar is poking around, he pulls out the drum and says “Is this for me, Mama?” She mentions, I think, only one toy for each child, because in 1937 they did not need the repetition to say, “Oh, I see a drum, a horse, a sword, a doll, male things for the boys and female things for the girl….” We do not need the repetition. We get it immediately.
LK: Do you think that is basically the same principle that had Wilder cut out Bob, so we only have two children instead of three?
DH: Well, they started with three. It was in his first version. Again the same principle is layered through the one character of Ivar. [He] opens the drum and knows it is for him. It is not going to be for Emmy, so the idea is layered across the scene despite Wilder’s cuts. Mentioning all three boys’ toys is layered through the play. You do not need those lines. Ibsen indicated the idea in the lines because nobody had said these things on stage before. Then, Wilder gets very free. He adds that she buys expensive roses and, yes, in Norway they were really expensive in 1879 at Christmastime. She is throwing money away, and the maid says, “Ah, flowers.” [Nora replies], “Yes, they were terribly expensive. “ The other thing [Wilder] does is move the macaroons in the final version. He cuts Torvald asking [Nora] about the macaroons. Of course, in Ibsen’s original, Torvald says very early in Act I, “Has somebody been to the confectionary shop? Somebody’s looking guilty,” and it is a big thing. In Wilder’s first version that dialogue is present and he later cuts it. Instead, in the rewrite, Nora pulls them out when she and Christina are alone with Dr. Rank and says, “Have a macaroon.” And he says, “I thought they were contraband here.” And Nora says, “Christina brought them “and then explains, “Torvald does not let me have them because he thinks they are bad for my teeth.” And the audience sees that she has a secret life and, more importantly, she shares the secret life with Dr. Rank. So, you do not need to have Torvald say in the first scene, “You haven’t been eating macaroons have you?” after we’ve just seen her nibbling macaroons and hiding them. So Wilder cuts it. The idea and the circumstance are not cut from the play, but [the] way they are layered into the text is adapted and modernized. He rewrites that first scene in a major way, then does major rewrites on most of Torvald’s big speeches. Most of the rewriting is focused on the character of Torvald.
LK: What do you think are the differences, for example, [between Wilder’s and] Archer’s version? It seemed to me that Torvald in Archer’s version versus Wilder’s version was different. Do you think that is true? How would you summarize the differences?
DH: I think Wilder gets it right. Again, [as] I said earlier, in many translations, they spend all their attention on Nora and they do not get into Torvald; they do not nail it. So, he comes across as sort of general and a dramatic device, her opposite, if you will. Wilder makes Torvald sexier and more virile in the rewrite. I don’t mean viral as chauvinistic. I mean manly. When talking about Doll’s House, that is an awful thing to say. He becomes more of a handsome young lawyer, excellent husband type. [He is]…the perfect catch. But, he is not. He has been through several jobs and thinks of himself as somebody who has achieved everything because he has worked very hard. But, he is obviously from a certain degree of privilege. You do not get a job in a bank without any connections. He started out working for the government, tried private law practice, was unsuccessful, and got himself sick, so [Nora] hocked everything. She took out the loans to save his life. He thinks he recovered from his illness and everything he has achieved is entirely because of his nobility and hard work. To some extent that is true, but much of it is because he was connected, privileged, and had enough opportunities. He also had his wife killing herself to help him. On the surface, in his eyes, and in his intentions, he is the perfect, wonderful, hardworking, attractive husband who holds down a job, keeps himself fit, loves his wife, and loves his children.
LK: I had the impression that Torvald was a little sterner in Wilder’s version. I guess simply because Wilder cut out from the Archer version all the little pet names Torvald used for Nora: the lark, the squirrel, the little song bird. He pretty much limited himself to “creature.”
DH: Try saying them on stage. “My little lark,” that is a killer line. Get an actor over that one! Pet names work because they work in a relationship. The bird mentioned, in the Norwegian, is a kind of bird that is messy, keeps a messy nest. One translation, I think Christopher Hampton’s, uses “spendswift.” “What do we call little birds that scatter things about?” He says, “spendswifts,” which is great if you are British. I think Wilder just felt the multiple pet-names were not necessary.
LK: So, the “messy bird” was an insult, not affectionate? Affectionate but also insulting, as also implied in Norwegian?
DH: No, it’s like saying “chubby cheeks.” That would seem strange, but it could be said and we’d still know he loves her. He loves her idiosyncrasies because they make him feel superior. He does not know that he loves saying, “Nora you are spending too much money,” even now that it does not matter anymore. He loves her dependency. She plays the game of dependency and being scatterbrained. Wilder makes it very clear that Torvald thinks this, but, unknowingly, he actually owes everything to her. Nora believes she is actually controlling the game. She knows Torvald likes to feel superior. Economically, Nora is the one that kept them afloat. She knows she saved his life. Nora also loves the fact that he does not know it. She thinks she has the upper hand while Torvald thinks he has it; they both love it.
LK: In looking at Wilder’s three different versions you started and you went through a process and you decided that in your rehearsal that you ended up doing the same thing that they did in the original production.
DH: I felt a great responsibility. I started doing a conflation. I took what I thought were the best versions of each scene and put them into one script. Imagine that you are an editor, you were sent these three versions, and you are supposed to produce a text. I could annotate that text, so I did. I sent it to Tappy, but he was not very happy about it. It was not that he opposed the text, but it was not really any version that Thornton Wilder wrote. But, he said “Go ahead.” We started to rehearse and it was solid. [The production] was going along, and after about the first week, as we did a certain scene, I noticed [that some parts] really [dragged] and [other areas] really worked. I started to make a cut and I went, “Wait a minute. I went to version three and the cut I was making was the cut already there. I would run into a speech of Torvald’s, the actor would seem to find it difficult, and I would look at version three. “That’s why he rewrote this speech!” What we ended up with was version three with those few changes that I e-mailed you. When I realized we were essentially doing version three I said, “Ok, let’s check it. We made sure we were doing the lines exactly as they were written in version three. Again that’s speculative, but it’s supported by a lot of evidence. I feel fairly confident that is how they worked on it. I think version three is the final version.
LK: Was your production the only other production of Wilder’s script?
DH: Yes, I think WWII happened and Our Town was the next year. I believe Wilder copyrighted it towards the end of his life. He probably intended to do a final polish of it then publish it. He just did not think about it enough or care about it enough. He was writing The Ides of March.
LK: But he did think enough of his work to copyright it.
DH: He did it quite late. He obviously was thinking about getting back to it. It certainly was not published. I think Our Town and Merchant of Yonkers happened.
LK: In fact, they were playing at the same time. So, how did Wilder’s Doll’s House play in your production?
DH: It played fantastically. This was a college student production. Ibsen is very difficult for students because the kind of realism that he writes can seem somewhat stilted. It is one of the most beautiful forms of realism, but the relationship between given circumstance and action is very specific. When you get it, the language does not sound stilted. Young actors very often cannot find it. It does not seem real to them, but it is. In Wilder’s version, he has solved those problems; suddenly, it sounds like you are talking. His way of structuring the different circumstances make them readily apparent and, as an actor, you know what is going on immediately. It is both a very faithful and immediately accessible version. I cannot imagine a version of the play that young actors could more readily grasp. They were thrilled because they were doing Ibsen and audiences did not find it strange or stilted.
LK: Can you elaborate on the audience’s reaction to it?
DH: There were gasps and people found it to be a very sensual play. It is about the very nitty gritty of a marriage partnered with Nora’s emotional, sexual…. What is the word? Slavery?
LK: Dependence or subordination?
DH: Both. The emotional, sexual, and ego co-dependence and the back and forth switching from intellectual to physical shows their thirst for and abuse of each other. She feels just as responsible for the fact that the relationship is a fantasy. Nora does not blame him; she is trying to make him see what she has discovered. She says, “I do not know who I am and until I know that I cannot do anything. I cannot raise the children; I’m hopeless. I’ll turn them into me. You have the same problem, Torvald, because you do not know who you are.” That is what she is trying to say, not “you have done this to me.” She says, “You and my father have done me a terrible injustice.” That is true because that is their role. They have the power, but she is saying that to make him have an awakening, too. Nora knows she has to go somewhere else, but she does not know where she is going. I do not think she is walking out that door to destiny; she is walking out the door because she [will] die [in that house]. Hopefully she will find something, but the play is about [nothing real happening inside those walls]. You have to look at it.
LK: How would you describe the composition of your audience? Were they sophisticated theatergoers or general public?
DH: They were bright college students, faculty, and townspeople. We did a junior high school performance because they teach Doll’s House in the schools here.
LK: In junior high?
DH: Yeah. It’s great. We got a letter asking if we could arrange a matinee and we had about one hundred junior high students.
LK: How did they respond to it?
DH: Shock! They were not expecting an emotionally gripping performance. They did not giggle during the kisses or the seduction. They saw a young husband assuming proprietary and physical rights with a young wife. They were quite shocked and they got it. They did not think he was right. They also did not think it was abuse. They just saw the fact of the assumption.
LK: Isn’t that amazing?
DH: They did not giggle at the stockings. These are kids who have read the play.
LK: They did not read Wilder’s version. Did they read another?
DH: They were surprised when they saw it because it was better than what they had read. They did not expect it to feel modern. They were ready for a PBS version. [The students] liked the fact that it felt real. I [received] a lot of letters. Boys wrote, “I felt sorry for Torvald because he was so clueless.” Women wrote, “I didn’t understand Mrs. Linden until I saw the play. When we read [the play] I thought she came in and destroyed the marriage.” [Overall,] Nora was more intelligent than they thought. They saw that she grew up in the course of the play. The version works, and I hope it has a life because what is working is not a gimmick. It is a real crystallization of the essence of Ibsen’s play.
LK: Did any of the audience members have any comments from those who were familiar with the play in other versions? Any comments specifically on the difference of this version?
DH: No, not one. No one missed anything. No professor, not one person. They all said, “What a wonderful production of the play.” Then I said to everyone, “Well it’s a wonderful adaptation.” Even people that really knew the play sat there and thought that they had seen Ibsen’s play. It did not occur to anyone that Ibsen did not have Nora come in with roses.
LK: I guess you would have to have recently read Doll’s House or be really familiar with it.
DH: It is so essentially faithful. There is a wonderful thing that he does. He expands the part of Ellen the maid. He made it into a wonderful part. She knows the children, and in the first scene, the porter brings in a wooden horse. It is wrapped up in paper. If you wrap a rocking horse it is still going to look like a rocking horse. The porter sets it down and, Ellen, in one of her crosses through, goes to get a vase for the flowers. When she goes to leave she sees the horse on the floor and says, “Well, well.” Nora [replies], “Yes, that’s a horse.” What Wilder is doing here is [emphasizing] that [the rocking horse is] an expensive toy that Ivar has wanted. Ellen recognizes that Nora has bought the rocking horse, which Torvald has probably told her not to. The conspiracy between Ellen, who knows the kids, and Nora, who also knows the kids, is reflected in this little moment. Now that’s my take on the moment, but the point is that there is something shared between the maid and the mother about the rocking horse. He is building Nora’s relationship with the servants as well as the servants’ relationship to the family. When we were working on this moment in version three the prop designer said, “What is with the horse?” I said it had to be recognizable as a horse but wrapped. [I suggested taking] the rocking horse and wrapping it in brown paper to keep the shape. Everyone in the audience got the moment and it was the first audience that we had. Nora was putting the roses into the vase and the maid turned away to get the box because it was from an expensive florist; I think [that movement] is actually in the stage directions. Nora does not want Torvald to see that she has gone to this expensive florist and spent money on roses. Then the maid goes, “Oh my god, you got the horse.” Nora says, “Yes, I did. Yes, that’s a horse.” It was the first huge laugh. It was a laugh of complete understanding; you absolutely understood that Ellen and Nora were in cahoots.
LK: Did audiences, in fact, laugh at some of those lines? That is one of the famous comments about Archer’s version. It doesn’t have any humor.
DH: Oh, they worked. The lines that were supposed to be funny worked. Years ago, I was doing Master Builder in Seattle and I met Eva Le Gallienne. She sent me her autobiography, the second volume: With a Quiet Heart. At the time, she was touring in The Royal Family and I had tickets. I wanted to see it again when it came to San Francisco. I had bought these tickets, but then I got this job in Seattle. So, I gave the tickets to a poor student of mine who also cleaned apartments, and I sublet my apartment to a guest director who hired my student to clean the apartment. While she was cleaning the apartment, my student snitched my copy of Le Gallienne’s biography, went backstage with the book, and asked if she could have it autographed for her teacher who had given her the tickets. Le Galliene autographed the book, and my student sent it to me in Seattle. Le Galliene wrote: “To a young man about to direct The Master Builder, don’t forget the comedy!” -underlined three times in the purple ink she always wrote in- “Good luck, Eva Le Gallienne.” She made the point that Ibsen’s humor is wonderful. I also read notes on the first great successful American production, with Mrs. Fiske. Audiences roared in Act I and were entranced by Nora. They found her adorable. If you remember, she thinks she has the upper hand. Nora is playing the game of relationship and consciously manipulating Torvald. It makes him happy and it makes Nora happy that it makes him happy. That is what most marriages are like. Each partner lets the other partner get away with certain things because they really think that it is all right. “It is just an idiosyncrasy. I’m really in charge, so I do not care if he calls me chubby.” That is absolutely intended, that we see and are initially amused by that.
LK: Yes. I noticed when I read Wilder’s version there were some genuinely “laugh out loud” moments.
DH: He knew that about Ibsen. He totally understood that those macaroons were hilarious. They are more hilarious if you do not have Torvald say in the first two pages, “You are looking guilty. Did you stop in the confectionary shop?” Nora pops them out of her pocket and offers Rank one while talking with her mouth full. Wilder actually specifies popping two or three into her mouth.
LK: Last one on the composition of your audience; I’m not familiar with Guilford College. Where is that exactly?
DH: Greensboro, North Carolina.
LK: That’s a pretty good size city, isn’t it?
LK: Is it more industrial or white collar? How would you describe it?
DH: I have only been here six months, but it is a very lively town. There is a professional theater, a ballet company, good museums and libraries. It has a very healthy middle class, which I like. I could not begin to tell you what the major industries are. There are several universities here.
LK: Isn’t North Carolina State there, or one of the North Carolina universities?
DH: The North Carolina School of the Arts is twenty minutes away in Winston-Salem. Elon College is twenty minutes away in the other direction. There are a couple of state schools; I’m just getting around now.
LK: Anything else you want to say about your production before I follow up on the text?
DH: It was good. What can I tell you? I could not begin to tell you how many plays I have done professionally. The ones that matter, the ones that stay with you, are the [plays] where the actual work in the rehearsals was gratifying and rewarding and you felt like you were really getting it. Everyone in it was at their creative best and contributing to what was happening. That is when rehearsals are a joy. You do not go, “Oh, how will I ever make this scene work?” [Instead, you are] so eager to have that experience in the rehearsal room. It is just alive and you are part of it. Those are always the ones that come out the best. Those [productions] are the ones that stay with you. Just to have something that was difficult, or that you pull off, something that gets great reviews and is a big hit is ok. That is lovely; I would much rather have a hit than a flop. But, the ones that matter are the ones [in which] the actual process was the joy and those always become greatly successful. [Success] is a byproduct. It is when the doing is gratifying. So, I loved doing it and working on it. To have young people leap to their best creatively and respond to the material was tremendously gratifying.
LK: A few follow up questions…. I have taught Doll’s House before, but that was a few years ago, so I was not used to it. Reading his version I thought, “There are some of these famous lines missing.” I definitely recognized at the end when Torvald says “the most wonderful thing” was not there.
DH: It is in and out, back and forth, in the three versions of the script. He finally lets it go, and I think you are supposed to act it. He says it earlier in the scene: “What would that be, what would that be?” If you understand the actor’s playing, that he is desperately trying to understand her. Nora says, “We both have to change so we can actually have a marriage.” He has asked the question, it is there. But then to repeat the question is to do nineteenth century drama. The illumination of the line probably happened at a point in the rehearsal. I am sure it happened while working on the scene and Jed Harris or, maybe, Dennis King, said, “I don’t have to say this.” I am playing it already; they’ll get it.” Now, if you do not work properly and he is not playing it already, then you are going to miss that line. I have seen so many productions where Torvald is not playing it earlier in the scene because they have misunderstood the scene. Then, the actor says that line and [the response is]: “What are you talking about? You don’t care.” It is this moment for Torvald. “What could the miracle be? What could the miracle be?” he says. But you do not need the line; you have to have it in the play already. So, I think the reason that people who knew the play did not comment was due to [the fact that] no one noticed the lines were not there.
LK: I read Archer’s version yesterday with Wilder’s next to me, checking the versions side by side, and noticing what Wilder cut. How do you think the gender scene was rendered in Wilder’s version as opposed to Archer’s?
DH: How do you mean?
LK: Do you think the gender theme was as prevalent in Wilder’s version as it had been in Archer’s version?
DH: Excellent point. I think Archer gets it wrong because Ibsen is writing not just a feminist play. It is not “men do this to women.” It is: “Our society is based on contracts that we agree to because we believe they make society work.” Ibsen thought all social rules should be changed every seven or eight years because they die. When a contract is no longer working it should be abolished and different bases should be found. He uses marriage as a microcosm of that kind of social contract. He is saying: “Men do this to women, corporations do this to employees, and governments do this to people.” He’s saying everything about this society is phony. You can be in a high position in government and bald-facedly lie and get away with it. People will allow it to happen, so that is a false contract. You can be high up in a corporation and pilfer the pensions of your employees. You can declare bankruptcy and get away with it, but if you steal from the cash register, you are going to jail.
LK: That certainly describes the present day, doesn’t it?
DH: Well, he is talking about false social contracts, and, yes, he is saying society has set up this Victorian fantasy. This whole nineteenth-century structure comes from the Industrial Revolution and Darwinism. Darwinism was really distorted; survival of the fittest was distorted in the nineteenth century to produce robber barons. You are poor because you are poor; you are not as good and fit a person. I am in control of United States Steel and I will pay you four cents an hour and I do not care if you die in the mines. In this dog eat dog world the man goes out and works in the hostile world. He is the champion battling in the forest for the survival of his little family. The wife is the keeper of the nest and he will provide for her bountifully. In turn, she will nurture him and protect the children in their little castle. That is what marriage is in the nineteenth century and to some people even now. Actually, what made me think of doing Doll’s House was the phony issue of gay marriage. It was when that was being used as a major diversion. We are in a really terrible time. I think, personally, that we are the closest to the destruction of the world than we have ever been. I suppose every century feels that. I certainly cannot imagine the world not being here in ten years, but I am not just talking about my earth. We have no health care and we have terrible poverty. Racism is increasing, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Those things are still being encouraged by certain major forces as diversions from more important issues. “Let’s make this group blame it on the other.” That is a false social contract and exists to keep power in the hands of people who have it, the people who are making such a mess of things. Marriage was like that in the nineteenth century. This structures a man’s life because the man is the worker in this period, in this contract. This structures his life. He does not have time to say, “I want to start a union. I want this to change.” He is going to kill himself, come home, have sex, and go back the next day to do more; that keeps everything in place, the social contract and the lie. So, Ibsen is saying “Your whole life is a lie. You are living in the house for dolls not people. Wake up!” It is not a play about men being awful to women. It is about [the fact that] we have all been put into a position where we are living in a fantasy which allows everything wrong with the world to continue. It isn’t that Wilder downplays the gender conflict; he is trying to make you see the bigger issues.
LK: That is very interesting because my basis for making that comment was seeing that Wilder had cut out most of the speeches where Archer said, “men do this” or “women are like this” or whatever. Most of the places where there are generalizations about men or women, Wilder cut those lines.
DH: He makes it terribly clear that Torvald actually goes to the office Christmas Day. The guy is working himself to the bone. I think he makes Torvald more sympathetic because he is a very hard working guy. I think Archer believes that the scandal of the play is Nora and Torvald’s fake marriage. But, that is only part of the play. I think Wilder gets the whole play. The beauty of the experience for me was suddenly seeing how brilliant Ibsen was at putting an entire world onstage. The scale of what he wrote is huge [while] the scale of a play about marriage is smaller. But, the scale of a play that says our entire society is a lie and we are all strangling in little fantasies that isolate us from the major issues that we should be confronting in the world is huge. What he has dramatized is gigantic, and Wilder gets it. Our production got it; people got it. You felt that you were watching this huge play with only seven characters. You felt the hugeness of the play, the hugeness of what was being said and discovered. I think that is Ibsen and Wilder got it. I think he makes you see what the play really is which encompasses gender roles as one aspect of how we act out our social contract. The ills we do that [deal with] power we do nationally and to the rest of the world. The “other” of our society, the social contract and the lie, is [the focus] of the play.
LK: Ibsen captures this big world in this play about marriage. What do you make of Wilder going from writing this conventional fourth wall realism of A Doll’s House to its complete opposite in Our Town? One answer is that Our Town does that microcosm on a bigger level.
DH: I think that is a great point. I cannot presume to understand Wilder’s own creativity. He was a genius; I am not. It would be very tempting for me to say “In doing Doll’s House he discovered how huge an action can be, how the entire world can be in a moment. He certainly sees that in his script; he makes that happen. Is there a connection between him writing about one breakfast being an entire life? Perhaps self-consciously or perhaps consciously. He was so intelligent. Wilder was an intellectual and probably could say to himself, “I want to put the entire world in one breakfast. I want to put an entire lifetime in a marriage and the making of one breakfast.” He could possibly do that, get into it, and [accomplish] it as opposed to intellectualizing about it, which would not work. For most of us so-called “artists,” it is very difficult when you can see something intellectually. It has to involve instinct and feeling, so you always sort of move toward it. Sometimes you can articulate it before you go, sometimes you cannot articulate it until half way through, and sometimes you cannot at all. So, was he able consciously to take what he found in this and then consciously go? He was so intelligent that he was probably able to say something intellectually then place himself experientially into it and be creative. I do not know.
LK: It is always kind of seen in that sense: That adapting Doll’s House is always presented as his last tune up before doing his own major works.
DH: Well, it may have been.
LK: The contrast is so stark on the surface between Ibsenian realism and the theatricalism of Wilder’s Our Town.
DH: The connection I can see between this script and Our Town is the incredible discipline of the writing. There is not an extraneous beat in this text. Wilder already knows what he is doing. It is very possible that doing the adaptations was sort of a trip for him. He was probably reading a lot and feeling around a lot while doing his own writing. He just may have liked the idea of doing them to get in and feel the plays. But, I cannot speak for his creative process. It is all speculation and it is wonderful to think about; what a writer he was.
LK: What did you think about Krogstad in Wilder’s version as opposed to Archer’s version?
DH: I love how he captures Krogstad, and I think he got it exactly right. He is a tremendously sympathetic guy.
LK: That is what I thought he did. He lamented over some of Rank’s derogatory remarks about Krogstad. I thought some of Krogstad’s dialogue comes across as a little nicer, and it seems to me like he is more sympathetic than in the Archer version.
DH: That is what Ibsen wrote. I think Wilder gets their ages exactly right. Christina is slightly older than Nora, but they were at the same school which tells you what kind of small school it was: probably all the girls in one room. Or, they played games together but Christina was a few years older than Nora. But, they were in school together so she is not more than four or five years older at the most. As she says to Krogstad, “We are still young, Nils.” Krogstad has young children. He is very often played as a middle-aged man and he is not. He is Torvald’s age; he and Torvald were in school together. They all come from the same small town. Then, you have to trace when Krogstad did this crooked deal. He has said at one point in Wilder’s version, “In the past eighteen months my record has been clean and, in a year and a half, he has the job at the bank. He has been able to rebuild. Nora becomes interested in why he would do forgeries. Krogstad did nothing worse than Nora, but his life was destroyed by it. He keeps getting opportunities taken away from him. He made a mistake, but she finally raises the question, “What if he had to do it if he had no alternative? What if he was trying to save his children?” Well, there are people who do crimes because they have no choice. They are the people who do go to jail while people who rob pension funds do not. He is one of those borderline people. He is not as connected as Torvald’s family seems to have been, as evidenced by Torvald’s derogatory comments about Nora’s family. Torvald is clearly more of a country club boy, while Nora is more of a teacher’s daughter or something. Krogstad was somehow at law school, but he did not have the connections to get a job in the government, which is Torvald’s first job after their marriage. Krogstad is someone who does not quite have the country club membership level of society available to him. Mrs. Linden had no other choice but to marry to keep her mother and brothers alive. She had no choice; she had to do it. Then, her husband dies and the business collapses, but she is free because her mother is dead and the boys are taking care of themselves. It is not that Mrs. Linden and Krogstad should have married, it is that they could not. He could not support her. In a different world they would have been able to marry.
LK: I thought Wilder may have been softening Krogstad up by deleting some of those lines about him.
DH: That is what Ibsen wrote. I think Archer missed it.
LK: I think that made Krogstad’s what seems to be a transformation, his decision, more plausible.
DH: It is a magical, wonderful scene: “Oh, Christina I’ve never been so happy in my life.” They are going to be with each other. She is not going to have a job at the bank the next day unless Torvald is a saint, but I doubt it very much. So, maybe they will wait tables; they will be ok. They will be better off than emotionally isolated and alone. That is enormously brave. I suppose they are in their early thirties; he still has a kid, too. But, what are you going to do? Scream for the rest of your life and be miserable? Open the bar? Or, not spend the rest of your life kicking and screaming in unhappiness. [Instead], walk away from this world that does not matter. That is what he is writing. What people often miss in the play is that Torvald and Nora keep looking for a formula. They want an answer. They want “that’s wrong, this is right,” “do this and the world will be fine,” but the world is not like that. The world is in constant adaptation, struggle, and compromise. We all have to be morally responsible. Ibsen said you have to see the world the way it is. The first step in the moral life is to see what it is. It is not a formula; there is no one right answer. You do not blow off one set of conventions for another. If men are dominating in the present marital structure, it would not be better if women dominated; it will just be different. The whole idea is wrong. Marriage is constant work. Life is constant work. Society is constant work. A society that stops working on itself is going to die and Mrs. Linden knows that. She is a realist as well as Dr. Rank. For Dr. Rank life is pretty gross. Life is pretty unhappy and it is not fair. You cannot say “It is not fair and I hate it. I want it to change. I want what Torvald has. Life is not fair.” You got a raw deal. Mrs. Linden sees that part of Rank. She says, “Poor Dr. Rank. It is not right. There is no answer.” Rank does a magnificent thing during the cigar scene at the end of the play, his last scene. In Ibsen, he says, “I just want one of your cigars,” and Torvald gives it to him. Nora says, “Let me light it for you, but, in Norwegian, there is no word apparently for “match.” The phrase “I’ll give you a light” in the original Norwegian is “Let me give you fire.” A light does not mean a match. Light is what happens when the sun is hot. But the thing a match does is give fire. So, the line in Norwegian is “Let me give you fire.” With all the connotations, Nora lights the match and the cigar. Then, Rank does his final thing about the invisible hat [to which Nora responds], “Sleep well Dr. Rank. Wish me the same,” and Rank says, “Yes, very well, sleep well. And thanks for the light” In Norwegian he is saying “Thank you for the fire.” Now, can an audience get that in English? If Nora lights that cigar in English and says, “Let me give you a light,” and then his line is “Thank you for the light,” you have to work like mad to make it clear that he is thanking her for the emotional warmth. So, what Wilder does, which is very daring, and it puzzled me until I saw it on its feet, is this: Rank asks for the cigar, Torvald gives it to him, Torvald says, “I’ll light it for you,” or “Let me get a match.” Torvald lights the cigar. The entire scene plays, with Torvald having lit the cigar, and Nora says, “Goodnight Dr. Rank. Sleep well.” He then says, “Thank you,” to which she responds, “Wish me the same.” Rank finally ends with, “Very well, sleep well,” and, still looking at Nora, who is not the one who has lit his cigar, says, “And thanks for the light.”
LK: So, he even tries to make the line clearer than that?
DH: Yes, it works. You absolutely get it. The guy who said to her, “I love you,” earlier, now says, “You have been the light in my life.” Sure, we flirted. Sure, we talked about our sex lives, vulgar things, and prostitutes. It is a very daring change, but it makes his exit magnificent. It is absolutely clear it is the moment when they say, “I love you.” That is the kind of adjustment Wilder makes that is, to me, very faithful to Ibsen. It is a cliché to say, “Faithful to the spirit if not the letter,” but it is not that. It is what Ibsen meant. It is not a whimsical thing, getting the idea of “let me give you fire” back in the scene.
LK: What about how Wilder renders the children? In the Archer version they do not have any dialogue really, just stage directions.
DH: You are talking about 1879. I suppose with the exception of possibly Maude Adams, who was reputedly a great actress from the age of ten, I think child actors of Ibsen’s day were pretty awful. What Ibsen wrote is that they come in, Nora says, “Oh, how are you darling,” to the littlest one, and the kid whispers into her ear, and she repeats what the kid is supposed to have said out loud. It’s like a bad telephone scene. If you put kids on stage that cannot act, all they have to do is run to her, and Nora will do all the acting. The kids come in bundled up, take off their coats, while Nora does most of the talking, and as soon as their boots, coats, hats, and mittens are off, she sends them away with the maid. The kids don’t have to do anything. I think Ibsen just said there is no kid that can act, so I will treat them like props.
LK: So, by Wilder’s time, you can find some children who can do those lines and so forth?
DH: Sure. I think probably there were kids in Norway who could have done it, too. Ibsen just writes it so that their talent is irrelevant. The boy who played Ivar in Pillars of the Community just before this play may have been terrible. The scene between Uncle Helmer and the boy, when the boy is about to run away, is a pivotal scene in the play. So, maybe that kid stank and Ibsen said, “Ok, never again.” I do not know. But the boy actor, in photographs of that production, looks much too old for the part.
LK: I just thought the scenes with the children….
DH: These kids are supposed to be really little, but the ones in the original Norwegian production of A Doll’s House looked too old, possibly between ten and fifteen. They looked like real stage kids, real trouble.
LK: They were not rocking horse age in the original, you are saying?
DH: Yes. In the original, the children who played it were older. In Ibsen’s first cast. There are pictures. Perhaps it was excruciatingly embarrassing. I don’t know. It is one thing if a child is less than two feet tall when you are calling her “little chubby cheeks” and whispering. It is quite another if she is twelve. So, I think Wilder just went, “No. We cannot possibly do this. They have to have a real scene.” I initially did not do the scene that is in version three. I started with version one which was a little shorter. I actually made a cut in it because it was not Ibsen at all. Then, our kids were quite good. They were the right ages: six and eight. The girl was tiny and was thrilled at the idea of playing a four year old. Her lovely mother sent me an e-mail after I cast her saying, “She is thrilled at the challenge of playing a four year old.” The parents were great.
Eventually, we used the whole scene that is in version three. It is excellent. It has Emmy’s great exit line, “Oh dear, oh dear.” She is realizing there is a problem. The sibling rivalry, the competition he writes in for the children, Wilder actually gives you a specific relationship to the kids.
LK: I really thought that was well done. It was realistic and he always does children very realistically whether it is in Happy Journey, Our Town, or Skin of Our Teeth.
DH: I think he probably had a very good relationship with Isabel. I think they had a full childhood. It is written with understanding and identity. He did not have any children, but I am sure he had a life-long sibling understanding of childhood and family structure. [From that] he was able to use it because it is absolutely right on the nose with the competition and the vying for attention. [Nora] is fussing all over Emmy, “Oh, chubby cheeks. I saw a dog and so on and so on….” It is wonderful. I was hesitant. “Oh, are you really counting on the children to do something here?” They had no problem, so they became very real which keeps them in the audience’s mind through the play. They go off into the bedroom with the nurse and you know they are there. The Hampton version has an alternative for the scene which eliminates the children; they are just mentioned. It would be a real loss to the play because having them adds to the continuing sense of life in the house. Also, with Ellen and the nurse, you get a sense of life in the building and life within the apartment which is also Ibsen’s intention, but is often forgotten. You are supposed to be interested in the Christmas Day supper that is happening off stage at the end of Act II. You are supposed to know where the kitchen is in relationship to the nursery because Krogstad comes up the backstairs at one point, et cetera.
LK: What about Nora in Wilder’s version? Do you think she is similar in other versions? Is she different in any way?
DH: Well, it is like what he did with Torvald. I think Wilder gets it exactly right. There are versions that assume Nora is an airhead, but she is not. She knows exactly what she is doing. She is just oblivious to the fact that she is virtually enslaved by it. Nora thinks she is doing a very good job at being a mature, loving wife. She is making [the marriage] work and doing it well. Nora thinks she has a loving, handsome life partner. [In fact,] she is hysterically joyous because their money worries are over, and they are going to have a great Christmas. Underneath, there is an anxiety that is never acknowledged. The Krogstad moment when he suddenly becomes a threat and the anxiety Nora feels is not just that it is going to upset Torvald terribly, but suddenly, the other anxiety that she cannot acknowledge or recognize suddenly invades her world. It is not just, “Oh this is really going to upset Torvald.” Nora is upset about not just the money. Anxiety is hardwired in and unacknowledged. You hit the right button and all of it comes, and you do not know what it is. In essence, you overreact. All the stuff comes flooding in on her when she dances the tarantella: she gets quite close to madness. She thinks she is dancing the tarantella to prevent Torvald from reading the letter now. Emotionally, she is losing her mind; she is almost having a nervous breakdown. Nora makes irrational leaps. The suicide leap is quite irrational. She hints to Krogstad she will kill herself to defeat him, and Krogstad replies, “I’ll still have your reputation in my hands.” That is his most awful scene. He is that close to doing something dastardly. He absolutely takes her on. In essence, he says, “I really don’t care if you kill yourself, why should I?” He is right. Why should he? If someone dies and you want to say, “I don’t care at all” -I have not had that exact experience, but close- it is a horrible thing. That is Krogstad’s worst moment; it is the closest he comes to having no soul at all. That is what is going to happen to him if he does not let go because he cannot win. Mrs. Linden says, “You do not have to win. Why play the game?” Then, life opens up to him.
Back to Nora. There is nothing to save but she does not know it yet. So, Wilder gets every aspect of the compromise. He is making it absolutely consistent. She does not go from being insane to suddenly understanding. She goes from believing that what she is doing is worth something to realizing it is not. She can have fun because she believes it is worth it. So, Wilder gets the whole depth of the character throughout the play more clearly than I have seen anyone else do it. Archer does not really get it. How could he? The writing of that play was revolutionary. He could see it, but he simplified it. The traditional view of the play is simplistic, it is bigger than that.
LK: Was Archer British?
LK: He wrote his translation ten years after Ibsen’s play was written in the late 1880’s.
DH: I am assuming he actually spoke Norwegian. It was the authorized translation. There are some made from German versions. I would be very surprised if he did not.
LK: Wilder cut out a lot of Nora’s little monologues. At the beginning of Act II there are a few that are cut. It is shorter.
DH: There is more of that in his first versions.
LK: You did not try to follow Wilder’s stage directions with the glass wall?
DH: That is Harris’s. Wilder would not have designed the set.
LK: What do you think the purpose of the glass wall is? To show people entering and exiting?
DH: The room is not a Norwegian room. The continuing sense of people coming and going happens in the foyer upstage; he puts it on one side. I think it was probably an elaborate set. But, I saw no reason to copy the design. The stage directions are from the Harris version; Wilder would not have written those. Some of them are lovely like where Torvald runs calling after Nora at the end.” Harris writes “His last hopeless cry, he is quite out of sight of the audience, and the room, his house, his whole life, is emptied.” I think that’s Harris, not Wilder. It’s the kind of direction he is often described as giving in rehearsal, and his stage manager probably wrote it down in the rehearsal script.
LK: Do you think that is accurate? Torvald is off stage? I thought maybe it was a misprint for Nora?
DH: He hears the door slam and he runs after Nora. You see the room empty, pretty effective. In Harris’s version, Torvald runs and throws open the outer doors. You hear him yell, “Nora!” The room is silent and the curtain slowly closes on an empty doll’s house. I bet the set worked very well. But you do not copy somebody’s set.