Ibsen was in fact, in Hedda Gabler, consolidating the features of much of his early work—work of which the younger Strindberg was well aware. Hedda Gabler, too, is thematically centred in Ibsen’s major work, for, like so many others, Hedda is destroyed by her inherited debt. But there is no mercy; “merciless” indeed is the predominant mood.
—Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht
Called by playwright and critic William Archer “surely one of the most poignant character-tragedies in literature,” Hedda Gabler is now, along with A Doll’s House, the most consistently produced and critically debated of Henrik Ibsen’s plays. It is without doubt his most skillfully constructed drama, whose title character is one of the greatest roles in the modern theater. Hedda Gabler, a frustrated aristocratic woman who vengefully destroys herself and those around her, can claim kinship with a handful of drama’s other titanic, complex, and contradictory women—Medea, Clytemnestra, Lady Macbeth, and Phèdre. An ominous and disturbing alternative to the liberation experience of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler is a searing psychological study of the self-possessed and independent “new” woman Nora wished to become, whose aspirations, limitations, and dissatisfactions annihilate her. When it was first performed in 1891 Hedda Gabler was savaged by the public and the press. Critics derided the play as “a base escape of moral sewage gas” and held that its title character was “acrawl with the foulest passions of humanity.” Play and protagonist have continued to provoke and challenge interpretation ever since. Is Hedda a victim or victimizer? Is she heroic in her self-sacrifice or a monstrous femme fatale, damnable in her wanton destruction? Of equal contention are questions of Ibsen’s intent and the play’s ultimate meaning. To what degree does Hedda Gabler fit with the realistic social problem play and its reforming zeal that Ibsen pioneered? How does this often contradictory drama elucidate Ibsen’s career and beliefs? Whether from the perspective of theatrical history, biography, psychology, or social criticism, Hedda Gabler remains one of the stage’s most intriguing dramas with a still-powerful modern relevance.
Hedda Gabler stands in Ibsen’s body of work as both culmination and new departure. It brings to a close his remarkable series of realistic social problem, or thesis, plays begun in 1877 with A Pillar of Society through A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), and The Wild Duck (1884), plays that revitalized the theater by anatomizing contemporary life with recognizable realistic characters and settings. The two plays that preceded Hedda Gabler, however, Rosmersholm (1886) and The Lady from the Sea (1888), recall Ibsen’s earlier works, such as Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), in their use of symbolism and antirealistic elements. Hedda Gabler, in treating the struggles of the individual against social conventions shares a central theme of Ibsen’s previous social problem plays as well as his increasing interest in the psychological dilemmas of the isolated individual. In method it marks a final return to the technique of the well-made play of his realistic dramas, while it incorporates a symbolic and mythic subtext that would begin to dominate Ibsen’s concluding dramas, from The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), and John Gabriel Borkman (1896) to When We Dead Awaken (1899).
When Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in 1890, he was 62 and an established though highly controversial dramatist, whose works generated considerable appreciation and respect in his native Scandinavia and Germany but were either unperformed or disputed elsewhere. Although the publication of A Doll’s House in 1879 brought Ibsen international notoriety, it was Hedda Gabler that finally established Ibsen’s reputation as the master dramatist of Europe and one of the greatest playwrights of all time. Before 1890 Ibsen’s work had not been presented in France. In England Ibsen’s supporters still contended with a dominant view that Ibsen was a gutter sensationalist dealing in unmentionables. Henry James complained that he found Ibsen’s plays “dreary” and not “dramatic, or dramas at all,” yet his favorable 1891 review of the first English production, “On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler,” was symptomatic of a general shift in views. James saw in the play “the picture not of an action but a condition,” which fascinated him. The same year George Bernard Shaw published The Quintessence of Ibsenism, his ringing endorsement of Ibsen’s greatness as a playwright, rivaling and even surpassing William Shakespeare, which vanquished whatever remained of significant critical opposition.
More preliminary notes survive for Hedda Gabler than for any other of Ibsen’s plays, affording a rare opportunity to trace the development of Ibsen’s masterpiece. As early as 1889 Ibsen conceived the idea for a new play about a woman’s jealousy of a man with a mission, with the action turning on a misplaced manuscript that represented that mission. Ibsen’s notes show him refining his ideas and shaping the play’s evolving characters, plot, and motives in fragments of dialogue and clarifying statements. One of the most revealing is the following:
Main Points: 1. They are not all made to be mothers. 2. They are passionate but they are afraid of scandal. 3. They perceive that the times are full of missions worth devoting one’s life to, but they cannot discover them.
Ibsen’s list captures the core contradictions that the play will explore in a woman who is caught between passionate intensity to transcend the stifling conventions that surround her and a fear of sexuality and love that prevents any meaningful, fulfilling relationship with another and a channel for her passion. Ibsen’s fascination with Hedda’s psychic and emotional contradictions structures the drama. “It was not my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems,” he wrote. “What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a ground work of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.”
Hedda Gabler is one of the most compressed and tightly constructed of Ibsen’s dramas. Restricted to a single setting—the drawing room of a fashionable Norwegian villa, which Hedda and George Tessman have moved into the night before, following their six-month wedding tour—and to a 36-hour period, the play builds toward its catastrophe with a relentless focus and momentum. The opening scene of act 1—the conversation between George’s doting aunt Juliana and Bertha, the maid—supplies the necessary exposition to prepare for Hedda’s entrance. The daughter of a deceased general, whose portrait dominates the drawing room, the beautiful and privileged Miss Gabler, at age 29, has surprised everyone by marrying the amiable but somewhat plodding and ineffectual George Tessman on the basis of his prospects as a scholar. Ibsen observed about Hedda and the title of his play that “I intended to indicate thereby that as a personality she is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife.” When she enters, she shows herself to be the opposite of a happily married newlywed. She is exasperated with her husband and ill mannered, cruelly deflecting the older woman’s familiarity and putting Juliana in her place by threatening to have Bertha discharged for leaving her old bonnet on a chair. It is actually Juliana’s new hat, which Hedda knows full well, as she confesses in the second act. Hedda is condescending and caustic in dealing with the solicitous attention from George and his aunt, as well as dismissive, particularly of allusions to her possible pregnancy. She manages, however, to summon up considerable interest and ostensible sympathy when an old school rival, Mrs. Thea Elvsted, calls. Thea tells Hedda about her unhappy marriage and her relationship with her stepchildren’s tutor, the writer Eilert Lovborg. Thea’s devotion has inspired and reformed his erratic genius. However, Thea is convinced that Lovborg may backslide to his previous debauched lifestyle and renew his relationship to an unknown woman who once threatened him with a pistol. Hedda agrees to assist by convincing George to invite Lovborg to visit. The family friend Judge Brack next arrives with the news that George’s anticipated professorial appointment may now depend on a competition with Lovborg, whose new book has garnered acclaim. Hedda does not share George’s new worries about their financial prospects and is detached enough to state that she is “most eager to see who wins.” As the act ends Hedda retires to play with her pistols, her legacy from General Gabler.
Act 2 shows Hedda confiding to Judge Brack about the boredom of her honeymoon and her indifference to her husband, whom she confesses to have married because “her day was done.” Disgusted with the concept of love and the knowledge of her own pregnancy, pressed by Judge Brack for a more intimate “triangular” friendship, Hedda reveals herself to be emotionally incapable of committing to another or overcoming her psychological detachment and isolation. Aspiring to magnificence, she admits her one talent is “Boring myself to death.” When Lovborg arrives he reveals that he has written a second book even more important than the first and has brought the manuscript with him to read it to George. Instead he is invited to Judge Brack’s bachelor party, which he initially refuses. Hedda and Lovborg are left alone to revisit their former relationship; it is made clear that Hedda was Lovborg’s former attachment, who once threatened to shoot him. She confesses that his appeal was mainly the thrill of their secret intimacy and that she broke it off when he threatened to become serious. Brought to the brink of confessing a regret for cowardly backing down from their relationship, Hedda is interrupted by Thea’s arrival. Lovborg’s evident devotion to her and their happy, supportive relationship cause Hedda to urge Lovborg to take a drink and to reconsider attending the Judge’s party. Lovborg is, by Hedda’s plan, to return later “with vine leaves in his hair.” Asked by Thea why she has goaded Lovborg into a probable relapse to his former alcoholic and disorderly state, Hedda confesses: “I want for once in my life to have power to mould a human destiny.” On one level Hedda’s behavior stems from her jealousy of Thea and resentment of what she has gained and Hedda has lost with Lovborg. On a deeper level her motives are connected with her irresistible urges, as in the bonnet incident, to inflict injury rather than express empathy and love, which frighten and disgust her. In sending Lovborg off to his fate Hedda stage-manages a break from the social proprieties that stifle her, with Lovborg recast as Dionysius, whose passionate free spirit she can release and revel in at a safe unassailable distance.
In act 3 the reversals begin that destroy both Hedda’s plans and herself. Waiting all night for the return of George and Lovborg, Hedda learns that Lovborg has drunkenly lost his manuscript, which George has found and brought back for safekeeping. Judge Brack arrives to tell Hedda that Lovborg, far from becoming the free spirit with “vine leaves in his hair,” was just an indiscreet drunk enjoying the company of a redhaired singer whom he accused of stealing his manuscript. A despairing Lovborg, who now believes that he has no strength to live the kind of life Thea has helped him achieve, tells Thea that he has destroyed his manuscript, which is equated to “childmurder.” To Hedda, however, he admits to have merely lost his manuscript, which he regards as even worse than consciously destroying it. When Lovborg declares his intention to kill himself Hedda urges him to do it “beautifully” and gives him one of her pistols. After he leaves Hedda throws the manuscript in the fire, whispering to herself, “Now I am burning your child, Thea!—Burning it, curlylocks! Your child and Eilert Lovborg’s. I am burning—I am burning your child.” Having failed to create a proxy Dionysius in life, Hedda now arranges Lovborg’s heroic, courageous death, while again betraying her jealousy of Eilert and Thea’s literary procreation, which she aborts.
In act 4 Hedda is disappointed a second time. When the news arrives that Lovborg has shot himself Hedda persists in calling his act noble and beautiful: “Eilert Lovborg has himself made up his account with life. He has had the courage to do—the one right thing.” Her view changes when Judge Brack reveals the truth—shot, most likely accidentally, while in the redhaired singer’s bedroom—to which Hedda asks what curse makes everything she touches “turn ludicrous and mean.” It shortly turns even more ludicrous and mean as Judge Brack reveals that he has recognized the pistol Lovborg has used and threatens exposure and scandal unless Hedda submits to him:
Brack: Well, fortunately, there is no danger, so long as I say nothing.
Hedda: [Looks up at him.] So I am in your power, Judge Brack. You have me at your beck and call, from this time forward.
Brack: [Whispers softly.] Dearest Hedda—believe me—I shall not abuse my advantage.
Hedda: I am in your power none the less. Subject to your will and your demands. A slave, a slave then! [Rises impetuously.] No, I cannot endure the thought of that! Never!
Brack: [Looks half-mockingly at her.] People generally get used to the inevitable.
Hedda: [Returns his look.] Yes, perhaps.
Faced with a loss of freedom and independence by submitting to the sexual dictates of Brack, Hedda retreats to an inner room where she uses the remaining pistol as she had intended Lovborg to use it: “beautifully,” with a shot to the temple. The curtain comes down with Judge Brack’s statement: “Good God! People don’t do such things.”
The play concludes with the core ambiguity of Hedda’s act. Is it a cowardly way out of the entrapment she has brought on herself or a courageous act she said she was incapable of to achieve the only freedom that is open to her? Ibsen does not take sides here but offers evidence to support either view, while creating one of the most fascinating of stage heroines who is simultaneously craven in her cruelty and captivating as an irresistible force meeting the immovable objects of time, place, and human nature.
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time