DRAMA OF SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS: HEDDA GABLER

Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian dramatist, has been called the "Father of Modern Drama" by many literary historians and critics. He wrote HEDDA GABLER in 1890 and presented it as an indictment of the wrongs society and tradition inflicted upon the women of his era. The play concerns primarily the themes of power/control and sex as they relate to women who are denied equality and opportunity. You may recall another of Ibsen's plays, THE DOLL'S HOUSE, which also presented a woman who had been denied equal opportunity and who sought to find herself and the meaning of her own life rather than identifying herself as a possession of her father or husband. Hedda Gabler finds herself in a similar predicament to that of Nora Helmer in THE DOLL'S HOUSE, but Hedda has only recently become the wife of Professor George Tesman, whose major interest is in the medieval history of the town of Brabant. Their honeymoon was spent primarily in researching that city, although they did combine travel to other areas. However, Hedda and George have returned home - to the house that George has bought because he was led to believe that Hedda longed to live in it. Their neighbor, Judge Brack, longs to have what he calls a "triangular" relationship - in which he is able to maintain a friendship with George while secretly carrying on an affair with Hedda. Hedda, who fears gossip more than anything else, will not accept such a relationship, though she does find Brack intelligent and witty - and more of her own aristocratic background than she believes George to be. Brack and Hedda enjoy a flirtation which Hedda believes will become nothing more than just that. Ibsen creates in HEDDA GABLER a play with similar character dynamics to that of THE DOLL'S HOUSE. Two couples maintain relationships from their pasts and an extra male acquaintance is added to complicate the cast. The secondary female character seems to serve as a foil for the female protagonist, although she is not truly an antagonist. The female protagonist is primarily her own antagonist, in that her most serious conflicts are within herself and against the narrowness of the role society has forced her to accept.

Who is in control? That is one of the major questions that Hedda asks herself. She wants to be not only in control of her own life, but also in control of some other person's life...however, she does not really care to control George as she considers his life too boring. Hedda is also uninterested in controlling the life of a child - she does not wish to become a mother, as that role would limit her even more than the roles of woman and wife do. She does believe that she has some control over men, but Judge Brack and her old friend Eilert Loevborg do not seem willing to allow Hedda to control them - although they do wish to have some control over her. To the left you see Hedda and Judge Brack in one of their bantering conversations. Hedda believes that she can "handle" Brack's advances. After all, she is the daughter of an aristocratic and powerful general, whose dueling pistols she enjoys brandishing and shooting into the air through her windows to startle passersby. But she is unaware of the complications of plot that will soon be presenting her with new conflicts: the arrival of Eilert and Thea, one of Hedda's old school "friends" and Eilert's devoted and adoring supporter. Hedda believes that Eilert has changed from the "loser" that he was when she turned him down in the past. Now he has authored a powerful and unique book and he also wishes to rekindle his relationship with Hedda. He can not believe that she married George Tesman. Hedda begins to manipulate both Thea and Eilert, focusing on their weaknesses as she attempts to gain control over their lives and separate them.

In such a small Norwegian town, everyone is interested in the latest news. Hedda is news. She is a well-known person from an important family, and we can well imagine as we get to know her that she has probably made a few enemies among the women of the town. Since she has recently married Tesman, an eligible bachelor now taken off the market, and has moved into a large house that is being redecorated, she is newsworthy. Now, however, she is linked with the Tesman family which consists of George and his two elderly maiden aunts. Hedda is embarassed by George's aunts and shows little civility, much less kindness, to them - even when one of them is on her deathbed. Finally, Hedda and the town are learning of Eilert and Thea's relationship, which includes Thea's leaving her husband to follow Eilert and "protect" him from himself. Eilert was in the past a real "party animal", frequently drinking and carousing so much that he was unable to fulfill the intellectual potential that he so obviously had. Now this group of five inter-connected characters are gathered for an afternoon, an evening, and the following day - and their interactions create truly "dishy" gossip for the small university town in which Hedda has grown up. Ibsen is masterful at creating tension-filled plots that are driven by the actions of characters who are motivated by their own desires and insecurities as well as fear of the attitudes and influences of society and their peers.

Symbolism is very important in HEDDA GABLER. To the left you see Hedda with the manuscript of Eilert's second book - which Thea has helped him complete, almost as if it were a "child" that they had brought into the world. The manuscript is symbolic of Eilert and Thea's collaboration. There are a number of symbols that enrich the meaning of the play by emphasizing aspects of character and conflict. The dueling pistols are important symbols. Consider how Hedda uses them and what they represent to her. They belonged to her father who was a powerful and influential man. If Hedda had been born a man, her life would be quite different. She would have been able perhaps to become a general and certainly she would have had more control over her social and economic status, as well as the decision about whom to marry. As a woman, she could not do any of these things, and though she might have accepted the control of a powerful and important man (like her father) in her life, she could not accept George's power over her, gentle and loving as he was. So the pistols can only be toys for Hedda; she can never have the power that they represented when they belonged to her father. Another symbol is the manuscript. It represents intellectual power and it also represents Eilert's creative powers: he can influence the world with his ideas just as her father influenced the world with his military power and status as represented by the pistols. Can you identify any other symbols in the play? What about a hat, someone's hair that Hedda once threatened to burn off, and the "vine leaves" Hedda imagined crowning Eilert's brow? What about the piano, the house, and the phrase "do it beautifully"? All of these - and other- items and motifs expand the meaning of the play by revealing aspects of character and situation. Thus when any of these symbols is mentioned, the associated ideas are emphasized. That is the way that symbols work in literature. These symbols are mostly identified specifically with this work, just as hearts and cupids are identified with Valentine's Day and love. However, some symbols seem to be universal because they have been used in many cultures throughout history. Such a universal symbol is the vine-leaf crown, which was associated with the crowning of victors in classical Greece. In addition to symbolism, irony enriches the play. Many ironic situations - in which things turn out differently than expected - serve as situational irony. Verbal irony is used when characters say one thing and really mean another. Finally, dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the character or characters do not. Irony emphasizes the disparity between appearances and reality - which confuses human beings and obstructs their efforts to achieve their goals. Hedda's goals of relieving her own boredom and gaining control over the life of someone important are totally thwarted when she becomes an accessory to Eilert's botched suicide. The very object that she used to gain control over Eilert's life turned out to be the object that gave control over her life and future to Judge Brack. How ironic! Consider the "survivors" at the end of the play. Ibsen seems to have "voted off the island" the two most promising characters. Why? Who is left and why did those characters survive? How much will they miss those who have departed? Many questions arise when we consider the play's symbols, conflicts, characters, and conclusion. What do you think Ibsen was saying about his society? What do you think Ibsen was saying about relationships and control?

Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian dramatist of social and psychological explorations

Above you see a photograph of Ibsen. Below you will find a critique borrowed from the Shakespearean Theatre in Washington, D.C.. Dr. Fisk presents her views on Ibsen's plays.

Here's a great critique of the play by Dr. Deborah P. Fisk

This essay about Hedda Gabler, the character, and HEDDA GABLER, the play by Ibsen is by Dr. Fisk, who is a professor at American University.

"The Many Faces of Hedda Gabler"

"In a gallery of startling portraits of female characters, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler nonetheless stands out. Mercurial, attractive, and cursed with frustrated ambition, Hedda is both victim and victimizer. Arguably, no other female character in Ibsen’s pantheon is as cruel—or tormented—as Hedda. It is precisely this tension at the heart of her character that makes the role of Hedda so challenging for actresses and directors. To audiences she presents a similar challenge, showing us several faces that, while different, are harmonized within the complexity of her character. Hedda is the casualty of social expectations. She is a classic casebook study in psycho-social repression. She is also Circe, a demonic force. Ibsen, at the height of his dramatic powers when he wrote the play, resists easy explanations for the various catastrophes Hedda engenders. Like Shakespeare, he teases us with too many motives or, alternately, too few. Unlike Shakespeare, who typically confined "motiveless malignity" to male characters like Iago or Richard III, Ibsen found that by 1890 the public could tolerate—although just barely—a female character as complicated, elusive, and brutal as Hedda Gabler.

There is much in the play to qualify it as a "liberal tragedy," the expression coined by the English Marxist critic Raymond Williams. In these plays, an alienated individual (usually a male) struggles against a stifling bourgeois society, finding himself hamstrung by the ever-tightening ropes of conformity. Ibsen, himself at odds with late nineteenth-century Norwegian culture, perfected this form of social drama and gave us memorable types of the alienated individual in Oswald Alving in Ghosts or Dr. Thomas Stockmann in An Enemy of the People. Although Raymond Williams has a particularly Marxist take on the alienated individual, the annals of drama (and literature, for that matter) are full of disaffected males. It is to Ibsen’s credit that he was one of the first major dramatists to show how the same forces that estrange men from society can also affect women. Nora in A Doll’s House or even young Hedvig in The Wild Duck struggle as much as their male counterparts; however, among Ibsen’s characters it is Hedda who most acutely embodies the dilemma of the socially-frustrated female.

Born into an aristocratic-military household, Hedda experiences that most troubling of nineteenth-century impasses: she possesses more class than money. Indeed, late nineteenth and early twentieth-century literature is filled with female characters who cope with some version of status insufficiency. Like Hedda, they are born to a station in life they can no longer afford (think Edith Wharton here), or they have money but no class (think Trollope or Mrs. Gaskell), or they lack money and class (think Dickens), or, worst of all, they have money but also the ill fortune to be American (think Henry James). In Hedda’s case, her expectations collide with the social reality of having married an academic who provides her with a comfortable but hardly grand lifestyle. That her desires outstrip their means is everywhere evident in the play, from the lavish honeymoon Tesman must provide to the "vast sums" he borrows to outfit their new home. The proscriptions placed upon women in that society further compound Hedda’s woes. A respectable, upper-class female, she cannot move about freely, she cannot harbor professional ambitions, nor can she experience firsthand the louche escapades available to her former suitor, Eilert Lovborg. Instead, Hedda lives vicariously, quizzing Lovborg about "a world. . . that she isn’t supposed to know anything about."

That curiosity about the more forbidden aspects of male life—the brothels and all-night benders—shows us another face of Hedda Gabler: the woman frightened, if not repulsed, by her own sexuality. There is a strong suggestion in the play—and, indeed, Ibsen himself famously remarked—that Hedda wants to "live the life of a man." The social consequences of such a wish are apparent enough: more freedom, more choices, even the possibility of rebellion. These outcomes, though, also apply to female sexuality and Hedda equally struggles against a destiny that is as much biological as social. In the years preceding the action of the play, Hedda keeps suitors at arms’s length, a game she continues to play with Lovborg and Brack after marriage. She is without a significant dowry by the time she succumbs to Tesman’s proposal, having "danced myself tired" as she remarks wearily to Judge Brack. Marriage, of course, negates the game of endlessly deferring the desires of suitors. The play hints that Hedda has returned from the honeymoon pregnant, but she impatiently brushes aside any suggestion of her "condition," refusing to acknowledge this tangible evidence of her femininity. Instead, Hedda attempts to maintain the fiction with her importunate lovers that she is still the beautiful General Gabler’s daughter, not the pregnant Mrs. Tesman, as the title of the play makes evident. Above all, Hedda rejects the somnolent ripening of the pregnant female, the woman who waits for an event that will happen of its own accord. "For once in my life," Hedda declares, "I want to feel that I control a human destiny." Because she cannot control the life within her (or even her own life), Hedda turns to that most masculine of pastimes: guns and destruction. One need not stress the obvious Freudian overtones and, not surprisingly, Hedda turns to firearms at the very moments her own sexual powerlessness threatens to overwhelm her.

Annihilation takes us to the final face of Hedda: Circe, the goddess and sorceress who figures in Greek mythology. Hers is a dual nature, split between primal, destructive urges and nurturing, womanly impulses. She provides food and wine to Odysseus and his men, but she also turns his sailors into swine. She destroys what has momentarily pleased. Hedda too is associated with the chaos that comes of these discordant elements. She repeatedly offers wine to Lovborg, but this otherwise hospitable act is poisonous to a reformed alcoholic, as Hedda well knows. When Lovborg falls mightily, Hedda urges him to destruction, envisioning him "crowned with vine leaves" like an Olympic hero. She directs equally ruinous behavior at her husband and Mrs. Elvsted. Sometimes Hedda is merely feline in her cruelty, languidly watching the discomfort of her squirming victims. She jokingly threatens to set fire to Mrs. Elvsted’s abundant red hair, and she deliberately "mistakes" Miss Tesman’s new hat for a dirty castoff left by the maid. Nettled that Mrs. Elvsted could inspire reform in the dissipated Eilert Lovborg, Hedda sets about dismantling all that is wholesome in their relationship.

Not surprisingly, many productions of Hedda Gabler focus on one of her visages to the exclusion of the others. Both Eleanora Duse in the 1905 London production and Eva Le Gallianne in the 1928 Broadway production stressed Hedda’s loneliness and isolation, portraying her as the victim of an indifferent bourgeois society. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the actress beloved of George Bernard Shaw, underscored Hedda’s frustrations and her desire to "live the life of a man:" she began each performance with a short improvised scene in which Hedda fired her gun at various members of the audience. The Russian-born actress Alla Nazimova (who had studied with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre) emphasized Hedda’s demonic, smoldering sexuality. When she reprised the role in her sixties, she played Hedda as an older woman married to a significantly younger man. So skillfully is the play constructed that even those productions that strive for a singular explanation of Hedda’s character cannot repress entirely the other troubling and elusive facets of her personality. Ultimately, we don’t know exactly what motivates Hedda, and therein lies the dark lure of Ibsen’s tale. The play’s concluding line—Judge Brack’s horrified exclamation that "people don’t do such things!"—has particular resonance. As the media daily remind us, people continue to "do such things," and we still know as little of the mysteries of the human heart."

Dr. Deborah Payne Fisk Departments of Literature & Performing Arts American University


Hedda and the Men in her Life

Here's Hedda with Eilert Loevborg, her first romantic interest. In her youth, Hedda met Eilert when he came to visit her father, the General. They often sat, pretending to be looking at a picture book or journal, while actually gossiping and talking about Eilert's wild life. Only through Eilert's stories was Hedda able to glimpse what life was like for a young man. Eilert found in Hedda a confidant to whom he could tell these stories and be appreciated, rather than reprimanded. It seems that the relationship between Hedda and Eilert was symbiotic: they fed off of each other, Eilert enjoying the company of a well-brought up young lady rather than the wild women with whom he kept company (like Madame Danielle) and Hedda experiencing vicariously the life she might have been leading had she been born male. BODY>

Here's Hedda with her husband George. Notice the body language differences that the actress presents to reveal Hedda's true feelings about these three men with whom her life was inextricably connected. As you read the play, you will note the reasons that Hedda married George - hardly romantic reasons - and the future she faces with George. No matter that George is a scholar and will take care of her and slowly ascend in his academic career, he will never have the brilliance and wild decadence of Eilert or the social and political status and power of Judge Brack. Yet Hedda did not allow herself to become romantically involved with either of these men. What are the reasons that Hedda did not accept Eilert as a suitor when they were younger? What are the reasons that Hedda refuses the "triangular" arrangement that Brack offers - an arrangement quite common, if kept secret, in Hedda's society?

Here's Hedda with Judge Brack, her social equal and probably a friend of her late father. Would Hedda have married Brack had he not been involved with another woman or at least not interested in courting Hedda during the time that she became involved with George...or allowed George to fall in love with her? Judge Brack may have perceived that Hedda was too complicated and demanding a woman to marry - or he may not intend to marry at all! At any rate, Judge Brack, Hedda's social and psychological equal, did not want to marry Hedda. But now he does want to have a psysical relationship with her right under poor George's nose! To preserve her "reputation" and to prevent possible scandal, Hedda can not become intimately involved with either of these men...she can not control or manage the life of either man in whom she actually has an interest. She is facing life with George, a man who is more interested in history than in politics. Ibsen creates great tension in the drama with the dilemma in which he places Hedda. In contrast to Hedda, Ibsen presents Thea, a woman who supports the man she loves, rather than desiring to control him. We learn about Hedda and get "into her mind" primarily through her internal conflicts that are motivated by her relationships with these three men and Thea. Society has limited Hedda's scope in life (and Thea's) because they are female; Ibsen presents two ways that women of his day might have reacted within the constraints of their gender roles.




Ibsen Links

Ibsen general info: go to the top left of page and: Click on the British flag to get English
Ibsen's play as staged today:
A site from Norway about Ibsen:
American Theatre and Ibsen: