Book/Play review: Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen + National Theatre Live

This is going to be the review for both the script and National Theatre Live production, as there are some certain differences to Hedda’s character, which I found really interesting. Beware of plot spoilers ahead.

“Hedda Gabler” is a four act play written by the norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1890. The edition that I read was translated by Jens Arup and the introduction written by James McFarlane (Oxford World’s Classics). The introduction gives us a brief synopsis of Ibsen’s life and work.

 

The play starts on the morning after Hedda and her husband, Jorgen Tesman, arrived from their six months long honeymoon. Tesman holds a University Fellowship in cultural history and used the opportunity of their honeymoon to do his research, which Hedda finds incredibly boring and ridiculous. They are visited by Tesman’s aunt, who lives nearby and takes care of her seriously ill sister. The next visitor is Mrs. Elvested who brings the rumour of Ejlert Lovborg being back in town. There is also a rumour, brought by Tesman’s friend, a judge named Mr. Black, that Lovborg is going to apply for the same position in University as Tesman and that his latest book was very successful. All of this prompts a series of events that snowball to a climatic ending.

 

“Hedda Gabler” is a very interesting play with multiple layers. Written in the 19th century, it shows us a character of Hedda who is quite obviously ahead of her time. Ibsen even intentionally titled the play with Hedda’s maiden name as if to show that she was not just her husband’s wife. Hedda is smart and strong-willed, she is hungry for knowledge and dominance – things that were only available to men in that time. She was brought up by her father, the general, and is said to have learnt to ride a horse and fire a gun – as a matter of fact, she owns a pair of pistols that play a prominent role in the play. She despises any sign of weakness, expressed by either a man or a woman. There are mentions of her pregnancy throughout the play, but she ignores or diverts the attention whenever the subject is brought up, which made me think that she viewed her pregnancy as yet another boundary of the marriage and the weakness.

 

Hedda can be quite cruel and unsympathetic towards people in her quest to overpower them, and Ibsen even said that the play is “the study in demonic”, which made me think at the very beginning that Hedda exhibits signs of psychopathy. It is, obviously, almost impossible to prove, and I think it would be safe to assume that Hedda was suffering from some sort of mental illness, as a result of her life.

 

Hedda is trapped by the society norms and expectations. She married Tesman because it was expected of her. She doesn’t love him, she doesn’t care about his research, but she does care about appearances and social status. She has high expectations for his potential promotion at University, as that would bring money and status, and that is why the moment that promotion is threatened, she springs into action. Hedda does all she can to protect herself and her status, however, it still leads to her downfall, as she is unable to break away from the society’s rules. She can’t leave her husband, she has no way of making money or supporting herself. In a way, she even envies Mrs. Elvested her simple courage to leave her husband for Lovborg. At the end, she takes her own life as her only way of escape.

 

I found the way Hedda manipulates people incredibly fascinating. She is a true mastermind in this play, although she does fall prey to Mr. Black. In many ways, “Hedda Gabler” is a feminist play as it shows a woman struggling to be on the same level as men. Since it was set in the 19th century, it is obvious, that the root of all her troubles is the time and society itself. That is why I was incredibly excited to learn that National Theatre production moved the time of the play to contemporary age.

 

 

 

 

If we take Hedda out of the 19th century and the boundaries that existed there, would she still exhibit the same internal conflict? Would she be still trapped? How different would she be? Those were the questions that kept running through my head.

 

This new version of the play was written by Patrick Marber. He quite masterfully adapted the script, changing some of the settings and dialogues to fit the modern time. Hedda is played by Ruth Wilson, who brings both fierceness and vulnerability to her character.

 

Why did modern Hedda marry Tesman? She didn’t have to. But she did because she felt that she was getting old. Was she really as trapped as she thought she was? Because she could have left her husband, she could have divorced him, she could have started a new life. So, why?

 

I think, that the difference between Ibsen’s and Marber’s Hedda lies in the fact that while the former is trapped by society – something that she unable to change, the latter is trapped in her own mind. Modern Hedda is brilliant and beautiful but she is also lost and unable to find her way out. Why? It is hard to say as we don’t get any glimpses into her childhood. However, it is clear that there are certain, probably self-imposed, rules, that Hedda has to abide by. And that makes me believe that Hedda is plagued by mental illness more so in the modern version than the original play. I found both the script and the NT production to be equally fascinating, but for me those were two different Heddas: one trapped by society and another by herself.

 

Was Hedda a demon, who gave a recovering alcoholic a drink and then a gun to “do it beautifully”? Or was she a coward with “no talent for life”, who couldn’t break the chains of marriage and society? I believe that she can be viewed as both and none at the same time. Hedda Gabler is a unique character, who defies all expectations.

 

Sources:

 

  • Ibsen, Henrik. Four Major Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Hedda Gabler – National Theatre Live. March 26, 2017. http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/59687-hedda-gabler

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