Always Watching

by Jenny Sherman

Standing in front of a green screen and gossiping my heart out (to no one in particular) while the camera rolled, I realized I know too little about the inner life of my character, Helene. Helene is the Helmers’ maid and we only really hear her voice as she announces guests, dinner and transports various important letters. Yet, as soon as she leaves through the study door, she is scurrying to the kitchen to gossip with the cook (I’m assuming there is one) or to find Anne-Marie and ask her what the goodness gracious is Mrs. Helmer up to now. We see only a sliver of her life and who she is, so it has been my challenge to imagine what Helene does behind the scenes and what makes her tick. While I’ve made some strides in developing Helene (as you’ll see below), I think I need to gossip with myself more and attempt to play out for myself what happens when Helene escapes from the living room.

Drawing from our physical gestures work, Helene has become, for me, a fidgety, young, eager to please, worried, naive young woman. But there is another layer to her: she has a fascination with the mysterious goings on of the house and really has very little concern for the troubles of the people she serves (as long as they’re entertaining and dramatic). She savors being the one with all the gossip and feels important when she gets to blurt out a new secret to Anne Marie. While she worries about her own skin and wants very much to do her job well, she harbors a pent up frustration and resentment towards Nora who is so constantly making demands and treating her like she’s invisible. It is difficult to translate this character work into my objectives on stage: when Nora frantically asks me about Krogstad’s surprise visit, my first impulse is to help her and to worry with her. But perhaps this would not be Helene’s first impulse; perhaps she rather enjoys her part in the whirlwind of strange events. Perhaps she is first concerned with defending herself rather than sympathizing with Nora. And maybe she goes along with Nora’s pretenses and idiosyncrasies while simultaneously judging her and laughing at her inside. Helene is constantly fighting to keep all this inside as she smoothes her uniform and plays her part.

I’ve always found it interesting that the entire play takes place in one room and that Nora stays there nearly the whole time as the other characters make their entrances and exits. Nora’s home is both literally and figuratively a stage upon which she plays her different parts, plays out her life. She always, always has an audience. Maybe it’s the crowd at the Stenborg’s party feasting their eyes on her tarantella or Krogstad trying to sniff out her fear. Maybe it’s Torvald examining her face for traces of macaroons or Helene watching her every move, making mental notes of every slip in her conversation. She is constantly on. There is always someone watching. In the end, part of Nora’s redemption and revolution is a demand for privacy, for the type of solitude and independence through which you can know yourself. As for me, I’ll keep looking over my shoulder, waiting for my chance to spill the beans and pass judgment, a tiny gear in the machine of societal expectations that pushes Nora over the edge.

1 Comment

  • Jules Odendahl-James says:

    Jenny,

    I’ve had two thoughts as I read your post. First, a possible playwriting project for you to consider: re-writing A Doll’s House completely from the perspective of Helene. There are many examples of this kind of shifting perspective with the characters from a well-known play or novel: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Tom Stoppard) and Fortinbras (Lee Blessing) both tweak Hamlet; Ahab’s Wife by Sena Naslund builds an entire novel around a character that gets about a paragraph’s worth of mention in Melville’s Moby Dick. David Jays actually mused about this shift in a 2008 blog for The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2009/apr/28/rosencrantz-guildenstern, and notes “To apportion stage attention is to declare what interests you.” Jays finds that Chekhov appoints his minor characters with eccentricities that give them a great potential for driving a work of their own. I’m not sure Ibsen has been as generous, but you have certainly filled in these blanks with great thought.

    Which leads me to my second idea. If you were to write these three days in the Helmer household from Helene’s perspective, I wonder how her invisibility, her lack of being watched (in contrast to Nora’s position as object), would effect the telling of the story. Would it work for us to see through her eyes (perhaps literally if you were to think of it as a film, where the camera’s eye is Helene’s eye) hear through her ears? Or should we see her from the outside, following her on her errands, hearing her gossip, experiencing her entrances and exits. *Upstairs, Downstairs* seems to split the difference (though all from an ‘outside’ eye perspective) by showing us the places in the house open to the ‘public’ and the places in the house that aren’t meant to be seen at least not by someone who is not a servant. The more I think of it, I really like the idea of seeing *from* Helene’s perspective versus just being allow to see her in a different context. That POV would work differently in the theater than a film (and films that attempt it can seem gimmicky, like the film noir The Lady in the Lake (1945); The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007) where the protagonist has been bedridden by a stroke, was more successful). For the theater it might take the form of a solo show. Maybe with an entire Doll’s House set turned out of the audience’s site, and the ‘backstage’ of the house — Helene’s domain — becoming the mainstage.

    Funny, when I was little I never had the impulse to take apart machines to see their insides and how they work, but I love getting into the guts of plays and, as you can see, consider remaking them to see what new things they might do!