Nora / House / Herrin Interview with author Sivan Ben Yishai

Dramatist Sivan Ben Yishai is one of the most exciting voices of contemporary theatre. Her play Wounds are Forever won the 2022 Mülheim Dramatists’ Award. Her works Like Lovers Do and Nora/Ein Thriller were invited to the Berlin Theatertreffen. From 27 January 2024, Sivan Ben Yishai’s play Nora oder Wie man das Herrenhaus kompostiert (directed by Anica Tomić) will be presented at DT’s Kammer. Nora oder Wie man das Herrenhaus kompostiert was commissioned by Schauspiel Hannover.

What was your inspiration or your approach to your new play Nora oder Wie man das Herrenhaus kompostiert?

It began with an exploration of the original text of Henrik Ibsen’s Nora oder Ein Puppenheim (A Doll’s House) and a commission from Münchner Kammerspiele. Nora’s classic core conflict is familiar: a rupture that takes place within the heterosexual relationship of a white, bourgeois couple, inside the “Doll’s House”, inside the nuclear family.

As an author who has previously focussed on precisely these issues, like the emancipation of women and contemporary feminism, I automatically thought that I was invited to investigate these issues through the dilemmas of the well-known, eponymous protagonist, and to ask myself – like many have done before me – who she might be today.

To be honest, at first I felt like I didn’t have too much to say about this Nora. I have never been a big fan of Ibsen’s play or of this character and I wasn’t particularly interested in her conflict. But I still thought that before I rejected the offer, it would be worthwhile to dig out the old text that I still had from my time as a student, and to take a second look at it. When I opened the first page of the book, I paused: the cast of characters. Under the couple’s names, I suddenly discovered names that I never knew or couldn’t remember.

Names like Anne Marie, the nanny, Helene, the maid, or the porter who has no name of his own. A system of hierarchical dependencies was revealed. The Doll’s House is also a “Herrinnenheim”, a house that is ruled by its mistress. The Helmers are not only a couple in crisis, they are also employers. In this story, which is the story of early feminism, care-work, love and nursing were privatised. Of course, this interpretation changed the way I approached the famous core conflict. It drew my attention away from Nora and turned my play into an investigation of work and class in the modern canon and mainstream feminism. So I pursued the characters that Ibsen never wrote, the ones who never had lines. I followed the hints, the blank spaces, the few sentences and scanty stories Ibsen had given them, and I made them the foundation, the structure that I began to base my piece upon. 

Which new perspectives have become possible through these hidden characters?

What essentially interests me in my plays and in writing generally are moments of transition. Tipping points in which, for instance, the oppressed becomes the oppressor, where love and desire turn into violence, where lack of privilege can transform into power. Nora’s story is often read as a story of emancipation. But I was interested in the ambiguity of her character: a white woman, upwardly mobile in the class system, who would most probably describe herself as a feminist today. What exactly is the significance of contemporary feminism when you read it with the notion of class in mind? What is the significance of emancipation when it has been privatised and become a project that not everyone can afford? This approach allowed me to rethink Nora and her feminism.

An interesting question was this: How many sentences was Nora allotted by Ibsen, and how many did the maid Helene get?

And there is the issue of Nora’s children, outsourced to Anne-Marie, the nanny who gave up her own life and her own family in order to care for the children of a white, European woman who became famous through a story of precarity and discrimination. By the way, this does not mean that I am denying Nora’s right to equal rights and self-definition – her immense struggle within a heterosexist society that constantly discriminated, attacked, murdered and abused her. We are all familiar with the simultaneity in which injustice and pain can exist in a “Doll’s House”, in a “Herr:innenhaus”, in a territory, in a war. I guess my question is this instead: What does contemporary feminism contribute to solving these problems? What responsibility does Nora, this feminist icon, carry for the person who cleans her kitchen? What is her role within the system that has allowed these gaps to exist?

This interview was conducted by Christopher-Fares Köhler.

Nora oder Wie man das Herrenhaus kompostiert