Bad and Better, Both

Henrik Ibsen

Humans are not particularly good at assessing large patterns. We can make smaller calls, like noticing that our train is late or determining that an apple is particularly delicious. But assessing transportation infrastructure efficiency or the overall quality of food production? It is like the difference between weather and climate: there is that old saying that climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. But we all know the distinction is much more complex than that.

The larger arcs force us to ask the big questions. Is life getting worse or getting better? Was life better in the past? Is it better to be optimistic or pessimistic? The answers to these questions are fundamental to political and philosophical discourse because they are important even if still undetermined.

Hans Rosling, the TED talk-famous global health expert, believed that most versions of the world are either too optimistic or too pessimistic. His method for ameliorating those extremes was to adopt the mantra of “bad and better.” Life is both he said, and in his book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, he used a baby in a critical care incubator as an example:

The baby’s health status is extremely bad, and her breathing, heart rate, and other important signs are tracked constantly so that changes for better or worse can quickly be seen. After a week, she is getting a lot better. On all the main measures, she is improving, but she still has to stay in the incubator because her health is still critical. Does it make sense to say that the infant’s situation is improving? Yes. Absolutely. Does it make sense to say it is bad? Yes, absolutely. Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all relax and not worry? No, not at all. Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both. It’s both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time. . . . That is how we must think about the current state of the world.

We all have topics that are our equivalent critical care infants, and Rosling’s mantra is handy for keeping a balanced view of things. One of mine (I have many in that incubator) is the evolution of equal rights for women, and “bad and better” is an apt description. Overt misogyny and the recent #metoo revelations live alongside record numbers of women winning elections last November. In the arts there has been an astounding reception to the work of Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) just now making its rounds to the major museums of the world. This current moment, when a previously unknown Scandanavian female artist is being given credit for predating the breakthrough abstractions of Malevich and Kandinsky, is in stark contrast to how unwelcomed her art was during her lifetime. There are lots of bads and lots of betters.

This same paradox can also be seen in the smart and provocative play, A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Huntington Theater. Taking the iconic work by Henrik Ibsen as his starting premise, playwright Lucas Hnath explores another permutation on the Nora and Torvald story. When we last encountered the Helmer family, Nora had realized that her marriage was a fraud. In the final scene of the play she walks out on her husband and three children, slamming the door behind her.

It is now 15 years since that sudden departure. Nora has created a successful life for herself—she is now a popular pseudonymous writer of novels for women—but has returned to her former residence because she has recently discovered that Torvald never filed for divorce. (A man could do this easily in the 19th century, but a woman could not.) The hard won autonomy of her new life is at risk, so she needs his help. During her visit she engages with Torvald as well as the family’s nanny Ann-Marie and her daughter Emma.

Writing sequels to another writer’s work is hard, and few of them come off with the needed parity and dignity. Hnath isn’t trying to match the shocking power of Ibsen’s legendary play, but he does want to bring these issues more closely into a 21st century setting. Hnath successfully creates an essential tension between Ibsen’s 19th century Norway and our au courant attitudes and ideas. While all four characters are dressed in period costumes, their language and cadence is unabashedly contemporary. (The mild-mannered Ann-Marie gets to spew some impassioned and well deserved “fuck you’s” at Nora in Hnath’s telling.) The set is also a blend of both periods, with 19th century artifacts staged in a minimalistic, contemporary manner.

This is a play about ideas, and there is a lot of talking. (As a simple but effective theatrical gesture to support this verbally-focused format, the stage chairs are moved as the arguments unfold—placed close together and then set apart, facing the audience and then swinging inward.) Hnath is evenhanded in allowing each of the four characters to articulate ideas that are pertinent to their place and point of view. In this telling Ann-Marie’s experience is just as valid as her employer’s, and all the characters have complexity, with strengths as well as weaknesses. The topics explored during this 90 minute performance are the perennially complex ones: the role of women, the role of men, the nature of marriage, the need for personal expression, the specter of financial survival, raising children and who does it, personal accountability, self-deception, honesty, the nature of freedom, forgiveness, how problems are solved.

Nora is impassioned in sharing her hope that she will live to see women claim the freedoms that men already have. Given that A Doll’s House was first produced in 1879, Nora is making this idealistic plea in 1894. Nora, we hear you. But don’t hold your breath. For those of us sitting in the audience in 2019, this is another “bad and better” moment.

The play is very well written, provocative and compelling. The Huntington Theatre Company’s production is professional, tightly performed and memorable. Two thumbs up.

A Dolls’s House, Part 2 (Photo: Huntington Theatre Company)

A Doll’s House, Part 2
Huntington Avenue Theatre
Boston MA
Written by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Les Waters
Through February 3