Tuesday, February 17, 2009

That Oh-So-Unsympathetic Hedda Gabler

I’m trying to find time in my schedule to see the new Hedda Gabler in New York. Mary-Louise Parker is an inspiring choice. When I was young, I remember sitting down to read the plays of Henrik Ibsen all at once. Of Ibsen’s entire collection, the one that always stood out to me was Hedda Gabler, and this was before the corruption of my mind by gurus and ideas about sympathetic protags with goals.

There was a recent article in The New York Times that I loved, which inspired me to re-read the play. (I have an old Eva Le Gallienne translation, although you can now read for free the
Edmund Gosse and William Archer translation at Project Gutenberg.) The NYT article, by Charles Isherwood, explored why Hedda still fascinates us so:

So what is the mystery of her attraction? Probably her mystery itself. No matter how many times we encounter her, how many new angles we view her from, Hedda remains strangely inscrutable, her essence as elusive as the murky depths of our own tangled psyches.

If she were created by a playwright today, a new-model Hedda Gabler would probably stride onstage waving the standard flags of dysfunction and emotional disorder. Between bouts of pistol-polishing she’d be blabbing away about her issues with daddy worship, her husband’s inability to fulfill her needs, the oppressive social order and the sterility of Norwegian towns.

Exactly! That is exactly why years from now Hedda will continue to tower over so many contemporary characters. We explain too much. We reveal too much. And it’s the characters with depth but without the self-analysis and Freudian explanations that draw us back to them again and again in search of answers, in search of new insights we hadn’t noticed before, and all the while seeing our own personal attitudes about that character change with time and maturity and wisdom. There is a joy in that process with drama.

Hedda is why I say you don't always need sympathy and empathy with a goal. Sometimes just plain old fascinating and entertaining will do the trick, and Hedda is a prime example. She is just a bigger-than-life character with great
depth. In fact, in the first act, Hedda’s husband, Tesman, is speaking with his Aunt, who at one point says “the fascinating Hedda Gabler.” And I think Ibsen was inviting the audience to analyze this character. And to ask yourself, “why is she this way?” “What’s wrong here?” Because he will not verbalize why, but he will pepper the play with clues everywhere. It's a game between playwright and audience, and I love it!

On the topic of her being an unsympathetic protagonist, Hedda is, in many ways, an evil bitch. As Mr. Isherwood wrote:

She’s mean at the beginning and even meaner at the end. For her first trick, she mercilessly derides a sweet old lady’s brand new hat. Later she uses a visiting guest for target practice in the backyard. And for a big finish, she consigns a baby to the flames. (A metaphorical baby, that is.) Through it all she exudes tetchiness, weariness and a general contempt for everything in sight. She finds everybody a bore, and even bores herself — to death, essentially.

None of the things Mr. Isherwood wrote are factually incorrect. But those scenes can be played a variety of ways. The episode with the hat, for example. You could play that as Hedda insulting obscenely a sweet old lady’s hat for no reason whatsoever to the horror and revulsion of everyone in the theater. OR that hat truly was the ugliest piece of headgear ever conceived in the history of women’s fashion, and you can laugh that Hedda cut through the bullshit to point out something no one in civilized society had the courage to say.

Now I lean more toward the second interpretation because I think there has always been an undercurrent of humor and entertainment throughout Hedda Gabler. She could be very funny. There is a scene where a neighbor, Mrs. Elvsted, stops by because her husband had asked her to find the tutor to their children, Mr. Eljert Lövborg, who had gone missing. Well, Hedda quickly sees through this woman’s bullshit. She gets her husband to leave the room, expresses a desire to be friends, and gets her to confess her sins, that is, she was looking for Mr. Lövborg herself because they were having a torrid affair.

In some respects, you gotta love Hedda.

But there is a moment where Mrs. Elvsted confesses her fear that there’s another woman Mr. Lövborg has been unable to get out of his heart, a crazy woman who he spoke of vaguely and admitted that she once threatened to shoot him with her pistols. And we all know that crazy woman was Hedda, and we laugh at her reaction and evasion. “What nonsense,” she says. “No one does that sort of thing here.” What else can you do in that moment except laugh? And I think Hedda’s just as amused by that little turn of events as we are, because she lives to be in the middle of drama. There is both a lightness and a darkness to her that must be carefully balanced. To make her completely dark robs her of not only her humanity but the necessary depth that keeps audiences fascinated. She can’t simply be flatly unsympathetic, a
maniacal ice queen for four acts. No protagonist should be. But she is living proof that a protagonist can be ultimately unsympathetic in her behavior so long as she possess great depth, contradictions to her character, a lightness to contrast the darkness, a mystery to her nature, and also a strong entertainment value in her story to keep us engaged.

In the clip below, you can see in the first minute a glimpse of that scene with Mary-Louise Parker in which Mrs. Elvsted talks about the crazy woman who threatened to shoot her secret lover with a pistol. It is played for laughs, and that’s the way to go, if you ask me.

Also - Hedda is unique in that she has no goals whatsoever. Nothing in the plot directly effects her, except perhaps the position that her husband hopes to get. Beyond that, she’s just entertaining herself by getting involved in other people’s affairs (and making them worse). Of course, she’s bored. Of course, she embodies the phrase, “Idle hands do the devil’s work.” Of course, she’s not happy. She married a man out of pity and reasonable assurance that he’d keep her financially comfortable. But her Tesman is a weak and whipped man. He would do anything she asks him to do like an obedient dog. Plus, I think he repulses her with his constant praise of her beauty. In fact, I think she was repulsed by most men around her for their weaknesses, which may be why she gave Mr. Lövborg a pistol and told him to do the “courageous” thing. In her mind he was a coward like all the others, and she would be greatly amused by the drama that would unfold if he actually goes through with it. We also know she was a spoiled child. She cannot stand responsibility, which she had never really known and I think would have brought her some happiness.

But if you were to ask her why she does these things? She wouldn’t be able to tell you anymore than she could explain to Judge Brack why she trashed the old lady’s hat.

Mr. Isherwood, an avid supporter of preserving her mystery, wrote:

The urge to clarify — and to forge a connection with the audience by evoking sympathy or amusement — can trip up an actress in this role perhaps as in no other. Hedda must captivate without seducing, and that can rub against the grain of an actress’s natural instinct. Attempt to reveal too much about Hedda that Ibsen did not specifically plant in the text, or settle too firmly on a neat psychological formula, and you risk reducing her to a bored housewife, a frustrated neurotic, a thwarted artist. She is all these, in part and in theory, but she must be more, too, larger somehow than both her personality and her predicament.

There was also an interesting comment
on Wiki, that Joseph Wood Krutch made a connection between Hedda Gabler and Freud: “Hedda is one of the first fully developed neurotic heroines of literature… Hedda is neither logical nor insane in the old sense of being random and unaccountable. Her aims and her motives have a secret personal logic of their own. She gets what she wants, but what she wants is not anything that the normal usually admit, publicly at least, to be desirable. One of the significant things that such a character implies is the premise that there is a secret, sometimes unconscious, world of aims and methods — one might almost say a secret system of values — that is often much more important than the rational one.”



Thanks for a insightful piece on Hedda. Especially for highlighting the comedic aspect.
In general Ibsen (and the other great Scandinavian playwright, Strindberg) has much more comedic potential than directors normally realize.
In the late 90s I had the honor of working on a production of "Ghosts" as assistant director for the Norwegian director Terje Mærli, an Ibsen-specialist. He had an acute eye for the moments of comedy. The two first acts played very much like comedy, filling the house with laughter. This only served to bring the tragedy home much stronger in the final act.

Laura Deerfield said...

I'll have to go back and re-read this. It's been many, many years... but my favorite unsympathetic protags are the couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I love they way they make an art and a game out of humiliating their guests.

just me said...

If anyone can bring the dry humor, it's MLP. That woman is 100 pounds of awesome.

...Also, [in the East Village, I think?] a few months back there was a production of Hedda that involved robots.

It was interesting for 5 minutes, but I mean, robots can't act.

Bruce Nelson said...

Well done, a great piece of writing. I hope you get to see Ms. Parker's Hedda.

Mystery Man said...

TC - Very cool. Thanks for that. I always thought Chekhov had touches of humor in his plays, too. His shorts before he delved into feature length plays were comedies, I believe, perhaps vaudeville-type styles.

Laura - Ohh, yeah! That's in my Netflix queue. On the play, I also admired Ibsen's exposition, which I didn't have room to write about. In the first act, he sets up a lot of names, rather seamlessly, and I never felt it was forced. And it was done in that tried-and-true way, feeding the audience exposition in the context of something else, which in this case was the maid who was nervous about her first day on the job.

Just Me - She really is. I saw a picture of the photo on the NYT of that robot play. I was... amused.

Bruce - Thanks, man. Nice to meet you!



Chekhov's plays has even more comedic potential than the two other 'inventors' of realism in drama. As I read the plays, they all have this existential ur-comedy of human beings stuck in a situation - incapable of acknowledging it, blind to reality and going on and on about their dreams, emotions and the glorious past.

Saw the interview clip with Parker about Hedda now - and noticed she talked about going back to the original Norwegian version. Another aspect of Ibsen's plays is often overlooked. His language is not actually realistic, but is pretty far from everyday language of the period and has a poetic tone and peculiar expressions invented by Ibsen.

Laura Deerfield said...

Ah, I look forward to reading your thoughts once you see Who's Afraid of virginia Woolf. I had actually read the play before I saw the film, and Burton and Taylor really brought out a lot that is easy to miss in reading it. Brilliant performances. A brilliant play. Really, really messed up and manipulative, but in a great way.

crossword said...

It's pretty amazing to me... the fascination with this character will probably not end.

Coincidentally I went down and caught Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler in Ashland a few months ago (the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)

Still a very current character...

Mystery Man said...

TC - I loved this comment: "His language is not actually realistic, but is pretty far from everyday language of the period and has a poetic tone and peculiar expressions invented by Ibsen." I'm not much of a believer of realism in dialogue and prefer Ibsen's approach so much more. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with realism, but it'll hardly elevate the material. Screenwriting to me has always been more about elevating the language as opposed to just capturing it.

Laura - I had an article on Virginia Woolf called Where Do I Put My Characters?. If the film inspires me, I'll post more.

Len - Yes, she is!


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