Friday, 22 June 2001

Henrik Ibsen: Hedda Gabler (1890)

Translation: Una Ellis-Fermor, 1950
Edition: Penguin, 1961
Review number: 847

The character of Hedda is in some ways an inversion of that of Nora in The Dollshouse. Nora starts out as the quiet, dutiful wife, and is eventually driven to rebellion by the bourgeois conventionality of her husband. Hedda was a society success who married a wrong choice after the death of her father, and who is very quickly crushed by his dullness.

Hedda and her new husband, Jörgen Terman, begin the play by returning to Norway from their honeymoon. (The fact that Hedda is generally known by her maiden name is significant of her attitude to her marriage.) It is almost immediately clear from her interaction with Tesman's maiden aunts (who brought him up) that there is a wide social divide between them, and her conversation with the urbane Judge Brack reveals that there is a similar gap in terms of their interests. Brack's aim is to pressurise Hedda into accepting him as her lover, something that she is unwilling to do because she doesn't want anyone to have power over her.

This is really the character background; the plot itself is about the attempts of a former suitor of Hedda's, Ejlert Lövborg, to put his life back together after succumbing to alcoholism. While the Termans were away on their honeymoon, he has produced a book (on the history of culture), which has taken the town by storm. His rehabilitation was the result of the inspiration given him by Thea Elvsted, who was at school with Hedda but who doesn't remember her as a friend. Hedda manipulates Lövborg into returning to his self-destructive hedonism, and by taunting him about a lack of courage when he thought about killing himself when earlier rejected by Hedda, eventually drives him to suicide; at the same time, she destroys the manuscript of his new book, which should prove even more original. This is all because of jealousy over the fact that he has found true love with Thea, a girl she has always despised.

There was always an important place for the individual in Ibsen's work (think of both Brand and Peer Gynt among his early plays, both about how an individual expresses himself). The social plays such as The Dollshouse are often about the relationship between an individual and society as a whole, and particularly about the difference between private and public morality. By the time he wrote Hedda Gabler, Ibsen's focus has moved back to his earlier theme of the expression of individuality; the difference between Hedda and Peer is that Peer Gynt is trying to work out who he is while Hedda knows her identity but is increasingly unable to express it except destructively. She is so much the centre of the play that there is far less symbolic context than usual in Ibsen's work; the main symbols have to do with posterity and children (Lövborg's new manuscript is called his child; Tesman's aunts are tremendously excited by the idea that Hedda might be pregnant). Thus the portrayal of Hedda is of vital importance to the production of the play, and it is a pity that the one performance I have seen (Fiona Shaw in the mid-nineties) was rather marred by turning it into melodrama.

No comments: