Thoughts on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (by Bethany)


I am rarely compelled to write plays. My ideas usually always come to me as either novels or short stories. I wrote poetry a long time ago, and once, recently, a sonnet came to me fully formed and I wrote it down, just like that. I never – thank God – think of writing screenplays. I’ve only once thought seriously about writing a play, and I still think the idea was a good one, and I did work on it for a while, but I never finished it and I think the bottom line was that I didn’t know the genre well enough at the time (1999 or 2000ish) to have a fair shot at success. But all that has changed now, because I have read Hedda Gabler, and Hedda Gabler has made me want to write a play.

The idea for the play is very simple. It’s set in 1890 in some European capital, and the plot is this: Freud goes to see a production of Hedda Gabler, and Hedda Gabler inspires him to invent penis envy.

I don’t know if the dates work precisely. I do know that Ibsen and Freud’s life spans generally overlap, and they could plausibly have both been in Berlin or Vienna or Copenhagen or Oslo at the same time. It may be, though, that Freud wrote about penis envy before this play was produced for the first time, and I know that a little bit of easy research could give me the answer. But I kind of don’t want to know right now. I kind of just want to revel in my idea and its perfection for a while before I start to think about all the things that are wrong with it.

But while I’m reveling, I’ll tell you about Hedda Gabler. Because I can totally multitask.

Hedda Gabler’s name isn’t really Hedda Gabler. Gabler is her maiden name, and at the beginning of the play she is just returning from her honeymoon after her marriage to George Tesman – so, of course, her name is Hedda Tesman. It’s significant, of course, that the play is titled after her maiden name, as she does seem very much to cling to the identity of who she was before she married the mild-mannered George.

As a character, Hedda is equal parts Emma Bovary and Lady Macbeth. It’s never entirely clear why she married George (although she does allude to pitying him), but she exhibits an ennui similar to Emma Bovary’s and starts complaining about the blandness of her life almost immediately after the play begins. She dislikes George’s aunt and the servant he brings with him from his childhood home, and as early as the middle of Act I she is shown in the stage directions pacing around and clenching her fists, complaining about – of all things – the colors of the autumn leaves outside her window. And, because Hedda was considered such a “catch” back in her single days – and also because this is an Ibsen play – she is constantly receiving visits from her old friends, including a couple of former suitors. The first to arrive is a female friend named Thea Elvsted who is in the process of leaving her husband. Thea has reunited with an old friend named Eilert Løvborg (who coincidentally happens to be both a former suitor of Hedda’s and a professional rival of George’s), and the two plan to elope after she leaves her husband. The arrival of Thea early in is play made me think of the arrival of Kristine Linde early in A Doll House. Both women serve as signal flags of sorts in their respective plays. In A Doll House, Mrs. Linde is tired and pathetic, but she is a tangible signal to Nora that women can exist outside of marriage and can support themselves by working in a male-dominated world. Unlike Mrs. Linde, Thea Elvsted is leaving a loveless marriage, so her presence in Hedda’s life sends a message that is somewhat bolder and more shocking.  Thea strikes me as similar to what Nora might be like after she leaves Torvald – in a sense, Hedda Gabler is a very anticlimactic Act IV of A Doll House, in which Nora roams the world demonstrating her freedom and its perils to other women. I guess that’s why teachers and anthology editors so often pair these two plays.

Throughout the play, Hedda is associated with guns. A portrait of her father – a general – hangs in her living room, and a number of references are made to the fact that Hedda’s prestigious parentage is part of the reasons she had so many suitors as a young woman. At the end of Act I, when George is nervous about his finances because he has just spent so much money to decorate his house the way Hedda wanted it and because he has just learned that Eilert Løvborg is being considered for the professorship that George had thought had been secured for him (and also because this is an Ibsen play) and has just told Hedda that she will not be able to have a butler or a riding horse, we find the following sinister exchange. Be sure to pay attention to the stage directions:

HEDDA (crossing the room). Well, at least I have one thing left to amuse myself with.

TESMAN (beaming). Ah, thank heaven for that! What is it, Hedda? Uh?

HEDDA (in the center doorway, looking at him with veiled scorn). My pistols, George.

TESMAN (in fright). Your pistols!

HEDDA (her eyes cold). General Gabler’s pistols. (She goes through the inner room and out to the left.)

TESMAN (runs to the center doorway and calls after her). No, for heaven’s sake, Hedda darling – don’t touch those dangerous things! For my sake, Hedda! Uh? (247)

You’re seeing where I got the idea about penis envy, right?

These are the final lines of Act I, and Act II begins with her lovingly caressing a rifle and then loading it and FIRING IT (aiming to miss, of course) at Judge Brack, another one of her former lovers who likes to pop in on Hedda from time to time. Like in The Wild Duck, the foreshadowing is so heavy that it’s comical, and also like The Wild Duck this play made me think of Chekhov’s rule of plots: If there’s a gun on stage in Act I, it has to go off in the play’s final act. This rule could easily have been written by Ibsen, or by someone else who was using it to explain Ibsen’s habits in structuring his plays. The play’s eventual ending – in which Hedda, OF COURSE, shoots herself with one of her father’s guns – is unintentionally funny because of the heavy foreshadowing, but it’s also the only possible ending this play could have.

In A Doll House, Nora tells Mrs. Linde that the experience of borrowing money and financing her husband’s recuperation in Italy was “wonderful fun… almost like being a man (55), and in that play, Nora’s decision to slam the door on Torvald is essentially the equivalent of slamming the door on a protected world – she leaves the world to face it “like a man.” In other words, for Ibsen, masculinity is heavily associated with secure work and financial solvency. When Hedda Tesman complains to her former suitor Judge Brack about her misery and ennui, she alludes to a similar idea – namely, that she has “talent for only one thing in life… Boring [her]self to death” (257). Hedda is consumed with her lack of something to be consumed with. This comment comes from a discussion with Judge Brack in which Brack suggests that Hedda’s life will find its purpose when she has children, a possibility that Hedda finds appalling.

Readers who fail to sympathize with Nora Helmer’s decision to leave Torvald usually cite the fact that in slamming the door on Torvald Nora is also abandoning her children – an act that few readers can fully condone. The same argument often comes up in discussion of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a novel that I thought of often when I read both of these plays. In Hedda Gabler, this theme plays itself out somewhat differently, in that Hedda is pregnant when she commits suicide (this fact is hinted at throughout the play and is clear by the end) and not happy about the idea of settling down to care for children.

We know from a number of hints that the young Hedda Gabler liked to torment people who were weak and good, and as an adult she turns this bullying spirit on her husband, her husband’s aunt, and her old friend Thea, and her former suitor Eilert Løvborg, who isn’t exactly weak and good in the way that Tesman is, but she does take advantage of his vulnerabilities to destroy his manuscript – the one that could potentially help to secure Løvborg’s reputation. Løvborg refers to the manuscript as his “child,” and he confides to Hedda that he knows that this manuscript can potentially redeem him from the mistakes of his dissolute youth (like others of Ibsen’s, this play is full of futile attempts at redeeming and absolving and cleansing). Hedda’s “murder” of Løvborg’s “child” of course foreshadows her own killing of herself and her unborn child later in the play. Løvborg later kills himself (shooting himself in the chest, just like Hedvig in The Wild Duck), and it is his suicide that leads Hedda to kill herself as well.

To paraphrase John Cheever: What can we do with a play like this? What can we do? The connections to Madame Bovary and Lady Macbeth are apt, I think – Emma Bovary expects that the very act of marriage will turn her bland husband Charles into a romantic hero and becomes trapped in a web of lies and affairs and debt and self-destruction when she finds that this transformation is beyond Charles’ abilities, and Lady Macbeth is inspired by ambition on behalf of her husband (just as Hedda acts in part to advance George’s career when she burns Løvborg’s manuscript) and becomes first intoxicated by the power she feels after committing murder (Hedda’s power comes from her ability to manipulate) and later crippled by remorse.

This play is much harder to sum up in a few paragraphs than A Doll House. It is complex and well structured, and I haven’t done justice here to its many complex characters. I would love to see it performed. I could do more to talk about the thematic elements of this play – gender issues, activity vs. passivity, money and debt, ambition, motherhood. I was sort of joking about writing a play about Hedda’s character inspiring Freud’s ideas about penis envy, although I would love to sit down and have a conversation with that good doctor about this play. Hedda does envy something, but I don’t think she knows what she envies – and that is part of her problem. For me, one of the best things about this month’s installment of the A.P. English Challenge is the chance to see Ibsen’s dramatic strategies play themselves out in ways that are different in each play but very obviously overlapping. Even his set designs are always similar – his plays always seem to be set in the “public” area of a house – a living room or parlor or studio – with the “private” areas just barely visible through doors, suggesting a parallel to the exterior and interior identities of his characters. We can see little glimpses of what happens in the back rooms of an Ibsen set, and we can hear the dialogue (and gunshots!) that emerge from these rooms, but there is always an element of mystery surrounding the interior lives of Ibsen’s characters.

This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Authors, Drama, Henrik Ibsen, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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