More than a century later, Ibsen’s masterwork gets a sequel.

Dolls House

It’s probably the most famous door slam in the history of theater. In the final moments of Henrik Ibsen’s landmark 1879 drama “A Doll’s House”, Nora Helmer decides to leave her husband and three children, walking out on the stifling constraints of 19th century marriage for … well, we never find out. The curtain comes down after that door slam, and for the past 100-plus years, audiences have had to guess if everything worked out for Nora.

Until now, anyway. A new play, with the Hollywood-sounding title “A Doll’s House, Part 2”, finally answers our burning questions: Did Nora find happiness as a single women? Did she ever see her husband and kids again? The play premiered in April at the John Golden Theater in New York, starring Laurie Metcalf (a Broadway regular best known for the ABC sitcom Roseanne) as Nora and Chris Cooper (an Oscar winner for Adaptation) as her husband. Sam Gold, who won a Tony for the musical “Fun Home”, directs.

And the author? Well, it sure ain’t Ibsen, who died in 1906. The sequel was written by Lucas Hnath, an American playwright who’s penned controversial dramas like 2015‘s “The Christians”.

I sat down with Hnath to talk about marriage, pink pussy hats, and whether Broadway needs more sequels.

What made you think “A Doll’s House” needed a sequel?

I can never really remember. [Laughs.] The instances where I remember the inspiration are the plays that I end up never actually writing. What I do know is, I had the idea for the title. I thought that would be a good title for a play.

“A Doll’s House Part 2″?

Yeah. It seemed audacious.

Or a little too on the nose.

I’m a big Ibsen fan. I love his plays. I’ve seen great productions of Ibsen plays, I’ve seen terrible productions of Ibsen plays. No matter what, you can see the worst production of an Ibsen play and come out saying, “Well that was a terrible production, but that play was kind of good.” I love his plots, I love the tools of melodrama, and how he sort of transforms them into something. There comes a point in Ibsen’s plays where all these sort of concrete stakes and problems fall away and he’s after something more ineffable, harder to touch. He’s after something in the spiritual realm. Whenever I write plays, plays before this one, I’m always stealing from him a little bit. So, this was a chance to kind of walk in his shoes a bit more.

Were you trying to write like Ibsen, in his style? So if somebody found the script for “A Doll’s House Part 2″ in a dusty old attic, they’d actually think, “Holy crap, I just discovered a lost Ibsen play?”

I started that way. My earliest stabs at writing this play were very much after the style of Ibsen, so much that they almost felt like Ibsen cover songs rather than an original play. I had to actually discard so much of what I admired about him and find a new thing. One thing that was incredibly useful early on, I went online and found a really, really bad translation of Ibsen, the kind of translation you find cut and pasted into somebody’s website, and I put that in a file, and I went through and tried to write “A Doll’s House” in my own words. From there, that was kind of the springboard for writing the sequel.

When you saw the original “Doll’s House,” did you find the ending unsatisfying? Did you leave the theater thinking, “I need to know what happened to Nora?”

No, no, I always found the ending incredibly satisfying. Of course at some point I had the experience of wanting to know what happened. It just, it’s less of being dissatisfied and more that the ending seems to open up the opportunity for more examination, in this case on the subject of marriage and divorce. How do you separate from somebody? The ending of “A Doll’s House” gives me room to explore that, and also explore questions like, why do we still have the institution of marriage? When you start to think about it, marriage in general, at least historically speaking, it’s kind of a weird thing to hold onto. The roots of marriage are in certain social needs that we don’t have anymore. It was just another way to form contracts between families. So, a lot of that stuff is a little archaic. Why does the institution of marriage survive? Writing a sequel to “A Doll’s House” was also a way of digging at that.

Ibsen claimed that “A Doll’s House” wasn’t meant as a statement about women’s rights. It was more about humanism than feminism. What about the sequel? Did you write it with a feminist point of view?

Its very difficult to explore the subject without in some way coming up against double standards as they relate to men and women. The moment you start looking at that, there are a whole bunch of problems that start to unfold. So, inevitably, it sort of does become, well, I guess it could be called feminist. But like Ibsen, I wasn’t setting out to make a feminist statement.

So Nora doesn’t come back wearing a pink pussy hat?

No, but she does come back invigorated by a lot of ideas. Nora is very concerned with freedom. That’s actually a thread that runs through a lot of Ibsen plays. He writes these protagonists that are trying to pursue freedom in some form, and in many cases, pursue it in the social arena. These end up being very political characters who have ambitions that are impacting the larger world. And Nora is that kind of person.

The original “Doll’s House” was very much of its time, dealing with contemporary ideas about marriage and relationships. Is “A Doll’s House Part 2″ going to feel as contemporary?

Meaning what? It feels like it’s set in 2017?

If not set there, then at least looking at marriage and gender equality from a 2017 perspective. A lot has changed since 1879.

I need to be careful not to give away too much here, but there are moments when Nora will be talking about how she thinks the world will be 20 years from now, and what she’s describing still hasn’t happened. When I was looking into Norway towards the end of the 19th century, I was struck by how little has changed since then, surprisingly little.

So you didn’t have to change that much about the context? 1879, 2017, whatever, it’s all the same repression?

I think in some ways this a play about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t, and why that might be. Definitely, as we were getting ready for this production, we were noticing that the ways in which Hillary Clinton was being publicly discussed weirdly resembled some of the things said between these characters in the play.

You mean the whole “Nasty woman” attacks?

Yeah. It’s a strange thing. In some of the reading I was doing while working on the play, and I’m not quite remembering which book this came from, there was a woman writing in the late 1800s who was dreaming of the day when you could say nurse or nanny or schoolteacher and not have the first person you think of be a woman. That’s over a hundred years ago, and it’s still the case. That’s a big frustration that’s driving Nora in this play, and I think it will be a moment of recognition from the audience, where they realize, “Oh, you can just as well be talking about now.”

If Ibsen managed to rise from the dead and see this production, would he approve?

I don’t know. I don’t know what he would think. It would be nice if he liked it. [Laughs.] I have no idea what he would think of this.

Did you have to get approval from his estate?

It’s all in public domain. It’s fair game, as they say.

But did anybody object? Did any Ibsen scholars tell you to back off, or warn you that you might be trampling on Ibsen’s legacy?

No, I haven’t heard that. At least no one has expressed it directly to me. It’s funny, in Norway there’s this big Ibsen foundation, and they actually give out massive grants to people to write new work using the work of Ibsen as a springboard. So I don’t know, if that’s representative in any way of the Ibsen community, then I think they’ll be very open to this play. No one has gotten upset at me yet. It’s interesting, now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I will encounter those objections at some point.

It’s like if somebody wrote “Moby Dick II.” You could make an argument that it’s unfair to Melville, because he’s not alive to defend his characters. You’re essentially grave robbing.

I think what’s interesting is that you find it less often with works in translation. The fact that “A Doll’s House” has to be translated into English, that might have something to do with it. There may be some Norwegian purists, but I’ve noticed that when work is translated to English, the act of translation means that so much is getting changed anyway, so it’s very hard to be a purist about it.

Do you have a similar curiosity about what happens next in other classic plays? Would you have any interest in writing “Death of a Salesman II”, or “Romeo and Juliet: Love Beyond the Grave”?

The challenge with those other ones is that everybody dies at the end. Nobody important is left. That was the nice thing about “A Doll’s House”. It’s true. It’s one of the few major plays in the theatrical canon where the main character isn’t dead at the end. Once I started writing this, I thought, “Oh, maybe I should do a series of sequels of famous plays. That would be something to do.” But I just couldn’t think of any other plays that felt like they needed a sequel. What happened after “Romeo and Juliet”? Still dead.