Powerless Pistols: Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler

March 15th, 2009 § 0 comments

Hedda Gabler has recently been revived on Broadway with a prestigious cast and director, an awaited revival that revealed a disastrous interpretation filled with stilted performances—I can’t help but wonder why this play and why now. Being a critic by nature, or rather because of five years of art school, even I was not as unforgiving as the new york times or the new yorker. The play, like most, had its brilliant moments, and the rest was awkward at best. Interestingly, the better moments were brought about through the reinterpretations of the text, small alterations and additions to words and gestures that brought to life a little of the drama Ibsen likely had in mind, and that was so lacking in Sunday nights performance.

Ibsen, I have often thought, is more a feminist than most women who call themselves that. Watching last weekend’s performance I realized it was easier to misunderstand Hedda as a monstrous being without passion or feeling than to paint her in the light of the causes for those feelings. Rereading the play, I found that as unlikely as the story seemed onstage, there were small moments in the text that still ring sharply true. Her dialogue remains a critique of the obviousness and manipulation of the opposite sex, a thoughtlessness that over the last centuries has simply shifted, and has not yet disappeared. Hedda is not haunted and harassed by inner demons, she possesses a deformed conscience because she is fraught with discontent at her complete lack of control, over herself, her life, and those around her that she desperately tries to influence. In a rare moment of enthusiasm, when she believes her old lover has committed suicide at her insisting she states, “it’s liberating to know that there can still actually be a free and courageous action in this world. Something that shimmers with spontaneous beauty.” Though this notion is hastily stamped out it is as close as Hedda comes to disclosing her desire, and even hope, for life. Though the revival dwells on her talent for “feeling dead,” a line altered from “boring myself to death,” she is neither bored nor dead, and reading her frustrations as such is a dismissal of the insightful brilliance of Ibsen’s character.

The play open with an added, or imagined, scene. Hedda prowls the stage in a lose nightgown, shoving furniture, removing dust covers, breathing not life onto the set but restlessness. Before we realize what a brat her character will be acted as, she creeps over to her piano and plays a few chords of a melancholy song. Haunting music by PJ Harvey scores the play throughout, and echoes the mood of this opening scene. It was a rare moment that showed Hedda as a person, as a character with a life or will, as a human with private thoughts not shared, as a woman of beauty and desperation. Her feet, pale and thin, flex over the peddles with the same gesture as her fingers, and alone on the set, overshadowed by a large, dark mirror, Hedda commanded respect, or at the very least feeling, from the audience—her harmful nature seemed only a threat to herself, and we felt something, perhaps pity or understanding, for her.

Just as this introduction was a singular moment showing a slight piece of a real Hedda Gabler, a brilliantly acted later moment by Mary-Louise Parker was the only other time I felt a kind of respect for this fictional woman, and some sympathy for her situation. Parker stands at the window, as in the play, firing her father’s pistols at “the disgusting Judge” (as she accurately calls him) as he sidles up her back pathway. “That’s what comes of sneaking in the back way,” she calls out as she aims and shoots. In the book it is a playfully desperate Hedda that fires at the world outside, in the play it is a defiant Hedda that fires at the Judge. He enters, demanded that she cease, and Parker tosses her head while laughing, calling out, “I stand and shoot at the big blue sky!” A subtly shifted line changes, for an instant, her strong resignation to boredom, or death, into a kind of fight, or rather the fight all women know a little to well. As she stands there, gun in hand, tall and amused, I thought, as I am sure Ibsen intended, what a woman she could have been. As the gun is taken hastily from her hand, her action scolded, and the pistol encased again, we are left only with the woman she is allowed to be.

The ending line of the play, as she lies dead, seems self explanatory. Who would do such a thing? Hedda Gabler. The question is, rather, who would do such a thing to a woman?


(Elizabeth Robins, 1891, as the original Hedda Gabler. )

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