Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Hedda Gabler | Context


Thematic Connections in Ibsen's Works

Ibsen had spent nearly three decades writing for the stage when Hedda Gabler premiered. The play continues or reworks themes from throughout his career. His two most famous works, A Doll's House (1879) and Ghosts (1881), provide precedents for the main characters and problems of later plays. In A Doll's House, Ibsen dramatizes the plight of Nora Helmer, a seemingly shallow and materialistic housewife who has saved her husband's life by purchasing a costly medical treatment—though he doesn't find this out until the play is almost over. Torvald, the husband, repays Nora's secret deed of heroism by treating her as a silly child without a mind or ambitions of her own and using condescending pet names. Gradually, Nora comes to feel like a mere plaything or puppet, hence the play's title.

Helene Alving, the protagonist of Ghosts, is trapped in her own way. The wealthy widow of a high-ranking government official, Helene is hemmed in by the need to keep up appearances and avoid scandal. The play retrospectively reveals that, during her married years, Helene was utterly miserable, but her so-called friends pushed her to remain with her philandering, hard-drinking husband irrespective of her own feelings. Now that Captain Alving is dead, Helene might seem to have a chance to establish her independence, but she finds herself haunted by her husband's legacy in the form of his two children, especially their sickly son, Osvald.

Hedda Gabler features two women living in unhappy domestic situations: the title character and Mrs. Elvsted. Like Nora—and unlike Helene—both Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted take deliberate measures to escape from their materially comfortable but otherwise unfulfilling lives. Nora eventually walks out on her family in disgust; similarly, Mrs. Elvsted runs away from her own husband and children when it becomes clear her marriage is irreparably joyless. Faced with the prospect of living under the constant threat of blackmail, Hedda takes the even more drastic step of committing suicide. Through their actions, all three women seem to be fleeing from dysfunctional relationships and unsympathetic partners. Nora slams the door on the controlling and insensitive Torvald; Mrs. Elvsted leaves the bland and unromantic sheriff; and Hedda escapes (at the cost of her life) from both George Tesman and the manipulative Judge Brack.

In a deeper sense, however, Hedda and her predecessors are fleeing a system in which women's rights and privileges are strictly limited. In the late-19th-century world of Ibsen's plays, women are supposed to read, see, and discuss only matters that are "respectable": hence Pastor Manding's shocked reaction when he finds Helene (Ghosts) reading books about progressive politics and free love. This taboo on anything even the least bit racy is part of what draws Hedda to Eilert Lövborg: his dissolute but exciting life allows her to vicariously experience pleasures she will never know otherwise. The problem is compounded by the limited possibilities for women outside the home: in Europe, as in America, women in the 1880s and 1890s had few opportunities to embark on a meaningful professional career, no matter their talents or qualifications. A career in public office was off the table entirely. In most Western countries, including Norway, women would not even gain the vote until the first half of the 20th century. As a result, someone like the resourceful and energetic Nora (A Doll's House) is pent up at home, struggling to adapt herself to a repressive dynamic in which the husband is the sole provider and protector. Hedda faces a similar pressure—her apparent talent for politics is acknowledged in Act 2, but there is never any discussion of her seeking office in her own right. If Hedda is to pursue a political career, it will have to be from behind the scenes, with the bookish and easily distracted George as the candidate.

Ibsen and Realism

Ibsen's dramas, however, did more than upset gender norms: they upended the European theatrical traditions of his day. By today's standards, there is nothing too unusual about a setting like the one found in Hedda Gabler, a middle-class home, with curtains, cabinets, and other realistic furniture. In Ibsen's time, however, realistic contemporary settings were far from the norm. Centuries-old plays—often in heavily adapted form—were mainstays of the European stage, and new works were often light comedies or melodramas with simplistic plots, set in the mythological or historical past. In Victorian London, for example, the Shakespeare revival was in full swing, and the style of staging tended to be flamboyant, even circus like. F. R. Chatterton's production of Antony and Cleopatra (1873) is a prime example. The play was reworked to include a military procession, a ballet, a choir, and a large-scale reproduction of Cleopatra's golden barge.

Even new works set in contemporary times tended to feature unrealistic plotting and artificial language. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde's comedies provide a good illustration. His most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), is a zany farce full of improbable coincidences, with dialogue seemingly calculated to deliver the maximum number of puns. The last line of the play is, in fact, a blatant title drop in which the main character realizes "the vital importance of being earnest." The characters in this play are modeled on Wilde's Victorian contemporaries, but only loosely. Normal people did not actually talk like the characters of Jack Worthing or Lady Bracknell. Similarly popular on the European continent were the works of French playwright Eugène Scribe (1791–1861), whose comedies of middle-class life are even less edgy than Wilde's. Scribe was hailed as the master of the "well-made play," a phrase that gives some idea of how contrived his works really were. Other types of literature, such as novels and journalistic writing, embraced realism more quickly, but theatre lagged behind.

Ibsen's own earlier writings, including Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), share this tendency toward mechanical plots and stilted speech, but his later dramas represent a turn toward realistic traits, including:

  • lifelike characters
  • genuine costumes
  • ordinary indoor settings and props
  • everyday speech
  • character- rather than plot-driven stories
  • protagonist often taking a stand against injustice

The characters in Hedda Gabler speak and behave in a largely believable manner, without campy jokes or lengthy monologues. Theatrical-sounding language is not sprinkled throughout the play but reserved for a few particularly intense moments, such as the burning of Eilert's manuscript at the end of Act 3. Moreover, the stage directions show Hedda and her circle reacting plausibly to one another's actions: Hedda blurts out things involuntarily; Mrs. Elvsted is visibly startled by bad news; and George bustles about the room with agitation when he fears he will lose his professorship. Though such realism in drama remained controversial in Ibsen's day, it was gradually accepted after his death and eventually became the "default mode" for modern theatre.

Contemporary Reception

Hedda Gabler premiered at the Residenztheater in Munich, Germany, on January 31, 1891. From the start, audiences were polarized. A German-language review for the Vossische Zeitung (February 2, 1891) describes the opening night as a "violent" mixture of "acclamations and disapproval." In this critic's view, Hedda was an enigmatic, even fascinating character, full of seemingly contradictory traits—she obsessed over trivialities while smiling at tragedies, and she "thirsted for life" but was undone by her own cowardice. Nonetheless, the critic opined, these traits were difficult to reconcile in a performance, and Clare Heese (the original Hedda) had not succeeded in making them believable. Helped along by Ibsen's established reputation as a dramatist, Hedda made its way in quick succession to Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

The play was similarly controversial when it arrived in England and the United States. Charles Isherwood, writing for the New York Times in 2009, notes that one reviewer of the first Broadway staging (1898) "described Hedda as a 'degenerate,' 'selfish, morbid, cruel, bitter, jealous, something of a visionary, something of a wanton, something of a lunatic.'" The London Times critic (April 21, 1891) similarly dismissed Hedda as a "lunatic," citing the antiheroine's "callousness to the sufferings of others and indifference to [her] own fate." Still, the reviewer found something riveting about the performance as a whole: "the spectator," he wrote, "can hardly afford to miss a word or a gesture on the stage, and he is thus brought into a state of constant—one might almost say painful—suspense."

This harsh criticism of Hedda's character, combined with an inability to look away, was typical of early reviews. Despite her seemingly incongruous behavior, something about Hedda clearly continued to fascinate audiences and directors alike: on Broadway alone, the play was revived nearly 20 times during the 20th century.

Modern Productions

In some ways, Hedda Gabler's timeliness has complicated more recent efforts to stage the work. Much of the play's plot hinges on the fact that Hedda is stuck in a repressive society, unable to escape by setting up her own household or to find meaning through a career. Target practice, a potential affair with Judge Brack, and a dangerous intrusion into Eilert's love life are among Hedda's few options for amusing herself. Lyn Gardner, drama reviewer for The Guardian, points out this difficulty in a review of Ivo Van Hove's modernized production (2016) of the play: "why, when she is unfettered by the societal conventions of the 19th century, doesn't she just get up, walk out the door and make her own life?" For Gardner, this question extends to "all contemporary Heddas" and is seldom answered satisfactorily.

Nonetheless, Hedda Gabler has been the subject of numerous high-profile stagings over the past half-century, along with several notable adaptations for film and television. Famous actresses who have played the role onstage include Maggie Smith, whose 1970 portrayal of the character (National Theatre, dir. Ingmar Bergman) was described as haunting and "icy," and Cate Blanchett, who drew critical praise for her "moody" and restless interpretation (Sydney Theatre Company, 2006). Film versions of note include Hedda (1975, dir. Trevor Nunn) and Hedda Gabler (2016, dir. Matthew John), although Ingrid Bergman's made-for-TV version (1962) is likely the best known in English-language production. In contrast to the productions mentioned by Gardner, none of these adaptations substantially modernizes the play's setting; instead, each emphasizes different aspects of Hedda's complicated, contradictory character.

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