Strindberg insisted on several occasions that his misogyny was entirely theoretical, but The Father is such a full-throated expression of hatred that this is hard to believe. Around the time he wrote the play, he prophesized a coming war of the sexes that would lead to a barbarous matriarchy and declared, “I shall fight as long as I have a nerve left in my body.” Six years previously, Ibsen had written the proto-feminist Doll’s House and Strindberg responded by accusing him of “scandalous attacks on the male sex.” The interchange between the two, great naturalist writers was hardly one-sided. When Ibsen returned to Norway after his long exile, he hung a portrait of Strindberg above his desk and claimed, “I am not now able to write a word without that madman staring down at me.” Strindberg, in turn, told a French historian, “The struggle I have been waging against M. Ibsen for ten years has cost me my wife, children, fortune, and career.”
Thus, Arin Arbus’ decision to direct The Father and A Doll’s House in repertory provides an inspired opportunity for juxtaposition. Indeed, the heavily autobiographical Father can easily be read as a dramatic rejoinder to A Doll’s House. An amateur scientist and military captain (John Douglas Thompson) has a fight with his wife, Laura (Maggie Lacey), over the future of their daughter. Determined to usurp his control of their home, Laura slowly drives him mad while turning all his friends against him. Whereas Nora (Ms. Lacey) finds herself suffocating under Torvald’s (Mr. Thompson) infantilizing despotism, the Captain suffers at the hands of wife’s passive warcraft. “When we were children, if Laura didn’t get the toy she wanted, she would slump in a heap and go limp,” the Captain’s brother-in-law (Jesse J. Perez) says in a telling moment. “She could stay that way for hours. She’d keep it up for a whole day if necessary. But when eventually she won—and she always won—she’d take whatever toy it was we’d been fighting over and she’d just toss it away as if she didn’t care … It was never about the toy. It was about her will.”
Ms. Arbus has arranged both plays with the audience facing both sides of a thin, darkly lit stage. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, the tone menacing. Ms. Lacey’s Nora is absolutely brilliant—she begins by humming and munching on candy, hopping and yipping for joy when Torvald gives in to her whims. Her smile, unbroken, sincere, and childish, is offered to everyone with whom she comes in contact. But after the façade of her marriage is whisked away, her face falls into a permanent expressionlessness, like that of a porcelain figurine crafted by a melancholy artisan. Mr. Thompson, too, is spectacular; his Torvald is condescending and obliging, completely unaware that he is patronizing his wife; as the Captain, his rich, staggering baritone has a way of silencing a room.
Though I am generally baffled by admiration for Ibsen, I have gradually come to realize—through productions like this—that A Doll’s House is as much a first-rate psychological work as it is a polemic against the patriarchy. The Father, on the other hand, is far too vicious to uncover any real truths, the characters dampened by and chained to their author’s hateful ideology. (According to the impresario J.T. Grein, when he tried to produce it in London in the 1890s, every actress he approached asked, “You do not expect me to play that awful part?”) And while Ms. Arbus has a knack for directing plays long considered misogynistic, I’m not quite sure The Father is capable of rehabilitation. Still, this pairing provides a fascinating look into a watershed moment in dramatic history and a theatrical rivalry between two juggernauts of the medium. It would be a shame to miss it.
A Doll’s House and The Father run through June 12th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. A Doll’s House runs 2 hours 10 minutes. One intermission. The Father runs 1 hour 45 minutes. No intermission.