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Essay

From the Artistic Director: Noura

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

“All plays we call great, let alone those we call serious, are ultimately involved with some aspect of a single problem. It is this: How may a man make of the outside world a home? And how, and in what ways, must he struggle — what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside of himself — if he is to find the safety, the surroundings of love, the ease of soul, the sense of identity and honor which, evidently, all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family?”
Arthur Miller, “The Family in the Modern Drama”

Act II. (The same scene — The Christmas tree is in the corner by the piano, stripped of its ornaments and with burnt-down candle-ends on its disheveled branches.)
Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House

I often find it enlightening, whenever we produce a family play, to return to Arthur Miller’s seminal essay, “The Family in Modern Drama,” to see how the play rubs up against Miller’s theses. In Miller’s view, the intimate frame of the family play gives birth to realism at the same time that it serves as an anchor point for broad exterior social canvases. Simply put, the Family Drama sets up a dichotomy of inside versus outside. We can see this dynamic reflected fairly clearly in a play like Death of a Salesman. But in an immigrant family play like Noura, there are more twists in the dynamic. The outside world feels particularly unfamiliar. For the characters in Noura, Christian Iraqi immigrants celebrating their American citizenship eight years after their arrival, the dislocation feels particularly sharp. I have often heard members of MENASA (Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian) communities describe the close relationship between individual, home, and community in their culture. So for Noura and her family, torn from the fabric of their homeland, the project of recreating a new home in a foreign country means recreating their community in their new home. Memories of home and community are intertwined.

At the same time, the role of women in MENASA communities tends to confuse many Westerners. We see the traditionalism of family structures similar in a way to an implicit traditionalism I found in the idealized late ’50’s home Miller seems to reference. I will confess that reading Miller’s essay by today’s light made me a little queasy. (Pronouns! Privilege!) Only in Miller’s discussion of A Doll’s House in his essay does it feel like a woman plays the role of protagonist in a way that serves his argument. Which is to say that Ibsen’s play offers a paradigm of a family play’s inside-versus-outside dynamic, a dynamic that blossoms into a heady paradox at the conclusion of the play. When Nora walks out the door, she enters the world at large, but at the same time, the world at large enters the living rooms of plays for ever after. Heather Raffo’s Noura asks to be seen in comparison to scores of great American family plays. And as she reveals in her Playwright’s Perspective, she also drew inspiration from Ibsen’s play. Noura is most decidedly not an adaptation. Heather is quite determined to depict a Noura who is not the infantilized girl/woman Ibsen seems to portray. But it is still illuminating to hold the two plays up for comparison and contrast.

"...for Noura and her family, torn from the fabric of their homeland, the project of recreating a new home in a foreign country means recreating their community in their new home. Memories of home and community are intertwined."

Let’s start with the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree in Act I of A Doll’s House evokes festive optimism. But the denuded tree described at the top of Act II serves as a symbol of the hypocritical righteousness that begins to unravel when Nora’s secrets are exposed. The Christmas tree in Noura sets a festive tone as well, but it also serves to establish the family’s Christianity, a fact that cuts two ways. On the one hand, in the present, Iraqi Christians are a persecuted minority, frequent victims of violence. But the Iraq of Noura’s youth was an ecumenical culture, where families shared religious holidays with neighbors of all faiths. These memories burn and cannot be resurrected. So Noura consoles herself by working on architectural plans for an idealized multiple-family home that represents once viable civic aspirations. There is a real backstory to this motif in the play (see Adam’s article within this bulletin). Frank Lloyd Wright, along with a dozen other architects, worked diligently on plans for a dynamic, modernized cultural community in Baghdad that never came to pass. Noura also channels her thirst for home and family by cooking a bounteous Christmas meal that she hopes will be enjoyed by friends and a young refugee woman, Maryam, she and her husband have sponsored and supported over the years. But Maryam carries a secret, and when she meets Noura, we learn Noura has a secret too. Maryam surprises Noura by her disinterest in mourning the past. She cares only about creating a future in America. Noura comes to understand that she cannot heal her past without facing it. She finds herself on a threshold between past and future, like Nora and like many heroes of family dramas. To escape the past, she must unlock it. To remake the world, she must reclaim it. Only the present can join the two.