Shaw Festival Review Series: HEDDA GABLER
Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic masterpiece marks the final Shaw review by Canadian author, Hermine Steinberg.
Hedda Gabbler is one of Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic masterpieces that explore the life of a woman repressed by Victorian social conventions and her own inability to find any fulfillment or happiness in her life. When the play premiered in 1891 it was very controversial. Hedda was not your typical heroine. In fact, she was considered by many as a perversion of her gender and too wicked to be released on to the public. Others saw her as a feminist triumph condemning the social restraints placed on women. The role has been described as an actress’s female Hamlet. A lot to live up to in this age of Reality TV, female super heroes, and Dangerous Housewives of every major city on the continent. One thing is clear. You won’t like Hedda Gabler – the character. Whether you see her as simply a spoiled bitch, a neurotic, self-absorbed elitist, or a woman tormented by a psychological prison constructed by her class, her parents, and her circumstances, Hedda may be interesting but she is not someone with whom you would want to really spend any time.
It is difficult to view Hedda Gabler through a contemporary lens without having fundamental questions about Ibsen’s intention for the character he created over one hundred and twenty years ago. Her motivations seem to defy any easy categorization or interpretation and there has been volumes written on the subject. But even as a historian and feminist it is difficult for me to see Hedda as much more than a self-absorbed and superficial character who becomes a victim of her own making.. Next to Shakespeare, Ibsen is the most produced dramatist in history and is known as "the father of modern drama." This play has a cult-like following. So who am I to question his choices or approach? Nonetheless, as I sat watching the play I found myself thinking that ironically as many male dramatists before him, in trying to create a strong female character that illustrates the frustration, oppression, and discrimination facing women at the turn of twentieth century, he also perpetuates the stereotype of the wicked witch driven to evil and madness by a those who did her wrong. And death is seen as a better option than change. Melodramatic? Yes. But a vehicle to further the feminist cause? I don’t think so.
However, what is much more identifiable is a woman caught in a vicious cycle of expectation and disappointment. Unrealistic, over romanticized expectations of what her life should be combined with her own lack of courage to free herself from limiting beliefs and conventions lead Hedda to becoming an incredibly superficial, cruel, and unfulfilled individual. Despite her beauty, status, and upper class education, she does not choose to pursue any interests, develop any talent, nor engage in any activity other than entertaining herself through games of manipulation. And it was not that Hedda did not have choices. There were many women in her era who were involved in the arts, fought for women’s rights, and even were academics themselves. But Hedda is a character study of a woman who does not see these possibilities. To underline this fact, Ibsen juxtaposes the character of Thea Elvsted who has the courage and strength to turn her back on convention, pursue her passions, and inspire the man she loves.
This is also the one time I must openly disagree with what was written in the program. It asks “Why does Hedda continue to appeal to us? She dreams of beauty, a term she connects with vitality, freedom, and grandeur yet she lives in a world of petty people.” I believe quite the opposite. It is Hedda who is immature, petty and cowardly. But that may be the exact reason why she continues to appeal to us. It is always easier to blame others when our choices do not work out the way we had hoped, and it is definitely more painful to confront our own shortcomings than to point them out in others. As she sees her power waning and others able to exploit her due to the position she has placed herself in, she chooses the only option she believes is left under her control. She lacks the resiliency, true self-esteem or even desire to turn her life around and that becomes the real tragedy of Hedda Gabler as well as the timeless theme to which we can all relate. Hate, frustration, and apathy are the monsters borne of self-loathing and desperation – whether nurtured within us by others or adopted by us due to our own frailties and lack of inner strength. And it is as common and tragic today as it was in the late 19th century.