Jacob Shuler (Contributor) is a BFA 3 Playwright. His recent works are Assistant Dramaturg for DePaul’s A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Assistant Director for Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley and is currently working as co-dramaturg on The Theatre School at DePaul University’s upcoming Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen.
With a slew of traumatic suicides plaguing teens across the country, a period play concerning a woman’s escape from the boredom of life may seem, at least, trivial if not altogether counterproductive. In the midst of a modern day media frenzy urging America’s youth toward tolerance with the promise: “it gets better,” what is boredom to us? In retrospect, Hedda Gabler didn’t have it that bad. Now more than ever, it is imperative that Hedda’s act of hidden heroism be not only justified but also necessary. But sowing the seeds of Hedda’s journey in a way that will reap the audience’s sympathy and understanding is easier said than done. Which qualities of this spoiled socialite are supposed to guide the audience toward enlightenment?
American writer and devotee of Ibsens’ work, Henry James claims, “Almost any single interpretation of Hedda’s character is an unfortunate reductionism which ultimately weakens the play.” To focus on any particular driving force behind Hedda’s course of action would be to ignore a countless number of other factors. Of all Ibsen’s characters, Hedda Gabler is the most complex. She must bear the burden of A Doll House’s Nora in asserting the power of the female in a world clearly dominated by men. She is faced with The Lady From the Sea’s struggle to contain the free spirit of an independent woman in the confines of marriage. And she must ultimately take up the Ghosts’ Helene Alving—encumbered with the decision of when to “pull the plug,” and end the impending suffering of her own child. To play Hedda Gabler is to play each of Ibsen’s women at once while still juggling the given circumstances of the Tesman household.
Yet, Hedda is more of a real person than any of Ibsen’s previous characters, working with what August Strindberg calls “the multiplicity of motives” in his preface to Miss Julie. Still, the universality of what may be everyone’s struggle does nothing to justify the end to the means. If anything, it makes the resolution all the more a glorified release in death—not something most productions would aim for. It is important, then, to alter our perception of Hedda. While many theorists assess Hedda Gabler as Ibsen’s most strictly realist work, with symbolism only in material objects, it must be made possible to qualify her final act as something profound and expressionistic beyond mere mortality of the singular human soul.
Written in a time not only of the women’s suffrage movement, but in the heat of Norway’s struggle for independence from Sweden, Ibsen defended his work as not particularly feminist, but more generally humanist. In a speech he delivered to the Norwegian Women’s Right’s League, Ibsen confessed “it is the women who shall solve the human problem,” but went further to explain this offhand statement: he philosophized that within the progress of the fight of the minority was the progress of the majority—that hope for peace and prosperity was only possibly with a unified people and that this could only be done with equality in every respect. The struggle of the woman is nothing if not a symbol for the struggle of humankind. While Hedda Gabler is a woman fighting for her rights as a woman, her act itself does nothing for her gender. But what does it do for people in general?
In the late 1880s, a series of events forced Ibsen to confront his own ghosts. Ibsen was able to come to terms with his past as he collected stories from his memoirs in preparation for the writing of his biography. Paired with an enlightening vacation back to the fjords, the land of his childhood, Ibsen was revitalized and re-inspired as never before—drastically altering his perception of life and writing. While it is clear that Ibsen’s reversal in style reflects a change in emphasis (in his work) from the workings of society to the construct of the individual mind, it may also be viewed as an evolution from asking questions to providing answers. Hedda Gabler is the second work born of Ibsens’s last and self-proclaimed “optimistic” period. In The Lady from the Sea, the title character, Ellida, is able to put her past behind her—give up her ghosts and turn her eyes to a future with her new husband (the happiest ending you will find in any of Ibsen’s works). It would be disheartening to assume that Ibsen had only one hopeful play in him before resorting back to the degradation of hope. Perhaps, instead, it is possibly to explore the end of Hedda as nothing but a more intricate and more realistic approach to Ellida’s situation.
The key to this theory can be found in one of the most pivotal scenes: the burning of Loveborg’s manuscript. The author’s new work, a study on trends of the present into the future (second to his publication detailing the past), should be an exciting prospect of hope to come. However, when it becomes clear that Loveborg is in no way a reformed man (succumbing to Hedda’s taunts of alcohol and his final moments with the prostitute, Diana) it would seem that Loveborg is not fit to write of an alternative future—that no hope of change can be born of a traditional mindset. The burning of the manuscript, however, is not a complete destruction. Moments before Hedda’s suicide, Thea and Tesman discover the possibility of reconstructing Loveborg’s manuscript with his notes—a resurrection born of reform. If Hedda’s final act can be made to parallel this revelation, if her suicide can be less of a death and more of a rebirth, then perhaps there can be a glimpse of hope, rather than detriment. If her suicide is not a physical reproduction of suicide, but rather an expressionist resemblance of transition, then perhaps the audience can take away a bit of optimism as Ibsen intended.
In the early stages of pre-production, delving into Ibsen provokes questions, with only the occasional answer. However much theorizing one can do on the importance of Hedda Gabler today is all but futile without the proper precautions in design and rehearsal. How these ideas can be manifested and realized on stage is still a work-in-progress, but progress nevertheless. Rooted deep in his own philosophy, Ibsen’s hope for a unified body of people, not for the sake of any group in particular but humanity as a whole, mirrors the hopes of many today. If these theories can only be made practical, then a possibly outdated show may be able to inspire.