Hedda Gabler

by Pericles Lewis

Hedda Gabler (1890) is the last of Henrik Ibsen’s realist plays, published at the height of his fame and performed all across Europe in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Even at this point in his career, Ibsen shows the influence of two popular dramatic forms of the nineteenth century, melodrama and the “well-made play.”[1]

Hedda, a general’s daughter who has had many admirers, marries a scholar of modest accomplishment, George Tesman. The action begins after they return from their honeymoon to a grand villa, which Tesman has bought for Hedda on credit. Although Tesman keeps saying that Hedda is “filling out,” there is some doubt as to whether Hedda is pregnant; at any rate, she prefers to deny it. Hedda is no conventionally virtuous heroine, but Ibsen treats her sympathetically, as a victim of forces beyond her control. In the middle of the first act, an old school acquaintance, Mrs. Thea Elvsted arrives and announces the arrival of a more portentous visitor from the past, Eilert Lovborg, formerly a rival of Tesman’s and lover of Hedda’s. Lovborg, a recovering alcoholic, has written a brilliant book “on the course of civilization—in all its stages.” More importantly, inspired by Thea Elvsted, Lovborg has completed the manuscript of a sequel, which carries the history of civilization into the future. Tesman is amazed: “The future! But good Lord, there’s nothing we know about that.” Yet, Lovborg, the romantic poet figure, seems to have access to knowledge about the future. Looking for an escape from her married life and eager to exercise “power over [another] human being,” Hedda encourages Lovborg to start drinking again, and hopes to see him “with vine leaves in his hair.” Lovborg gets drunk and misplaces his manuscript. Tesman recovers it, but, in a fit of jealousy, Hedda burns it. Lovborg considers the manuscript to be the child born out of his relationship with Thea Elvsted, and as she burns the manuscript, Hedda gleefully whispers, “Now I’m burning your child, Thea.”

The play makes use of some the devices of the “well-made play” typified by the works of Eugène Scribe—for example, the audience’s knowledge about the fate of the manuscript—but with a more condensed pattern, closer to the unities of time, place, and action that Aristotle described as typical of tragedy and that had been crucial to seventeenth-century French classicism. As in a Greek tragedy, although the events all take place over a short span of time, they are the culmination of a series of past events, which are narrated by the characters: Lovborg’s relationship with Hedda, Tesman’s courtship of her, Lovborg’s recovery from alcoholism and relationship with Thea. The entire play takes place in the drawing room of the villa Tesman has purchased, in which Hedda feels herself a prisoner; to her, “there’s something in it of the odor of death.” The drawing room as confined space was to become a distinctive feature of modern realist drama, whether in the townhouses of Ibsen’s Norwegian middle classes or the country estates of Chekhov’s declining Russian gentry.

As against Aristotle’s strictures, however, and in line with the well-made play tradition, Ibsen makes considerable use of props, like the manuscript of Lovborg’s book. No prop is more important than Hedda’s two pistols, a bequest from her father the general. Chekhov later gave famous advice about constructing a play: “if in Act I you have a pistol on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”[2] This rule encapsulates the use of props in the well-made play. In Hedda Gabler, the two pistols are mentioned at the end of the first act and appear for the first time at the beginning of the second. They are indeed fired by the end of the play, but Ibsen puts them to rather different use than would a typical author of well-made plays like Scribe. The first mention of a pistol occurs in the first act, when Mrs. Elvsted comments that one of Lovborg’s earlier lovers threatened him with a pistol. At the end of the act, Hedda for the first time refers to her own pistols; this revelation confirms what the audience (but not Mrs. Elvsted) has suspected—that she is Lovborg’s former lover. The second act begins with Hedda playfully shooting at—and deliberately missing—a family friend, Judge Brack. In the third act, she gives Lovborg one of the two pistols, which eventually kills him.

Hedda thinks that Lovborg’s suicide will be beautiful, and is disillusioned when Judge Brack reveals that Lovborg has not shot himself in the temple or the chest. Rather, during a fight with the singer and prostitute Mademoiselle Diana, he has been shot in the groin, possibly by Diana. The moral atmosphere of the play is shaped by the conflict between the romantic values championed by Hedda and Lovborg and the banal bourgeois reality of the Tesmans, Thea Elvsted, and even Judge Brack. Judge Brack plays the part of the seducer from melodrama but is also the voice of realism in the play. Friendly enough at first, he is eager to have an affair with Hedda; when he finds out that she has caused Lovborg’s death, he uses the information to blackmail her. Hedda threatens to kill herself, and the judge responds: “People say such things. But they don’t do them.” Realizing that she is in the judge’s power, Hedda retires into an inner room (upstage) and shoots herself with the second pistol.

Judge Brack is given the final words of the play: “People don’t do such things!” And yet they do, in Ibsen’s play. Even the most apparently realist of Ibsen’s plays contain heavy doses of symbolism; Ibsen referred to the symbolic qualities of his plays as “the vein of silver ore in the mountain.” In Hedda Gabler, the vine leaves in Lovborg’s hair, the manuscript that he considers his child, even such props as General Gabler’s pistols, all take on almost magical qualities, recalling Ibsen’s earlier poetic dramas and pointing ahead to the mythical explorations of his late work. Hedda’s suicide, like Nora’s departure from home in A Doll’s House, demonstrates the possibility of a self-destructive, radical, romantic action that can break through the routine, realistic world of middle-class life.[3]

  1. ↑ John Fletcher and James McFarlane, “Modernist Drama: Origins and Patterns,” in Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 501. On Ibsen, see also Richard Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), 35-83, and Century of Innovation, 54-67.
  2. ↑ Ilia Gurlyand, “Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov,” quoted in Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997), p. 203.
  3. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 181-183.