At the risk of giving too much away, "A Doll's House" is a play with a famous ending - an ending which was, for a time, referred to as the "door slam heard around the world." Following its premiere in 1879, the play caused quite a stir for what audiences saw as its sharp criticism of 19th century marriage norms. When the play made its German debut, the lead actress was so scandalized by the ending that she refused to perform the play as written. Playwright Henrik Ibsen was forced to insert an alternate ending. It was that shocking. Whether the play retains its ability to elicit this type of response after 132 years remains to be seen.
Fortunately, local theatergoers will have the opportunity to decide for themselves. The Lycoming College Theatre Department will present "A Doll's House" at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 through 19 at the Mary L. Welch Theatre. The play is directed by Grechen Wingerter and is the second of four faculty-directed plays in Lycoming's 2011-12 season. The Sun-Gazette met with Wingerter to discuss the play's capacity to spark controversy, its ongoing social relevance and Ibsen's virtues as a dramatist.
Wingerter, who has taught theater classes at Lycoming for the last five years, said she's wanted to direct "A Doll's House" for some time. To hear Wingerter tell it, it's a play whose poignancy hasn't faded.
"I think the play definitely still has the same resonance and the same power. I don't know that it's quite as controversial as it was back in the late 19th century," Wingerter said. "For one thing, the ideas aren't new anymore."
That may be, but it doesn't mean that the play's ideas have lost any of their significance. According to Wingerter, part of the play's power stems from its uncompromising depiction of the hypocrisy inherent to many of our social mores.
"Despite all of the progress we've made as a society in terms of equality and how we treat one another, we still have a lot to learn," she said.
At the center of the play lies a double-standard regarding the socially-accepted roles of men and women, husbands and wives. Nora, the play's protagonist, leaves her overbearing husband Torvald to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Nora's decision to leave her family and neglect her "sacred duties" (to borrow Torvald's phrase) as a wife and mother has been cited as one of the play's most controversial aspects.
Wingerter was quick to point out that the double-standard Ibsen saw back in 1879 still exists today.
"We are shocked and dismayed by a woman who leaves her husband and children, but when a man does the same thing, we think 'huh, that's too bad,' and move on. I think we should be shocked by both, not one or the other. Both should be equally unthinkable."
This year's production of "A Doll's House" will be the third Ibsen play to be staged by the Lycoming College Theatre Department, having previously performed "Hedda Gabler" and "Ghosts." Wingerter accounted for the prevalence of Ibsen's work in three words: "his plays challenge."
"Ibsen challenged ideas about the society in which he lived at a time when that wasn't an acceptable thing to do," Wingerter said. "He has this amazing ability to get to the heart of what's happening in society. His plays serve as a reminder that we still haven't fixed all of these social problems. The fact that it's still relevant to how we live and the choices we make 130 years later - that's his power, his staying power."
Much of Ibsen's social criticism is still applicable to our modern and (ostensibly) more progressive society. But there is more to "A Doll's House" than the story of a childish and submissive wife who finally slams the door on her overbearing husband, and it will endure as a complex and moving play about people and society long after we have righted those social concerns.
Among the many reasons for Ibsen's longevity is his preternatural gift for characterization. Ibsen is often credited as being the father of modern realism. This is largely to do with his capacity for creating uncannily real characters - characters who are at once believable and familiar to an audience.
"We're seeing people just like us on stage," Wingerter said. "I think that's why his plays affect us so deeply. Because suddenly we're dealing with real things that we're all going through but no one wants to talk about. We still know people like Nora and Torvald. Maybe we recognize ourselves in them."
If so - and if we are brave enough to admit the resemblance - then Ibsen is teaching us to know ourselves. Perhaps it's this ability to inflict self-awareness on an audience that lies at the heart of his plays' capacity to shock. What could be more shocking, after all, than seeing ourselves as we really are?