Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen

Introduction

From Munich, on June 29, 1890, Ibsen wrote to the Swedish poet, Count Carl Soilsky: “Our intention has all along been to spend the summer in the Tyrol again. But circumstances are against our doing so. I am at present engaged upon a new dramatic work, which for several reasons has made very slow progress, and I do not leave Munich until I can take with me the completed first draft. There is little or no prospect of my being able to complete it in July.” Ibsen did not leave Munich at all that season. On October 30 he wrote: “At present I am utterly engrossed in a new play. Not one leisure hour have I had for several months.” Three weeks later (November 20) he wrote to his French translator, Count Prozor: “My new play is finished; the manuscript went off to Copenhagen the day before yesterday. . . . It produces a curious feeling of emptiness to be thus suddenly separated from a work which has occupied one’s time and thoughts for several months, to the exclusion of all else. But it is a good thing, too, to have done with it. The constant intercourse with the fictitious personages was beginning to make me quite nervous.” To the same correspondent he wrote on December 4: “The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda, as a personality, is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife. It was not my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.”

So far we read the history of the play in the official “Correspondence.”1 Some interesting glimpses into the poet’s moods during the period between the completion of The Lady from the Sea and the publication of Hedda Gabler are to be found in the series of letters to Fraulein Emilie Bardach, of Vienna, published by Dr. George Brandes.2 This young lady Ibsen met at Gossensass in the Tyrol in the autumn of 1889. The record of their brief friendship belongs to the history of The Master Builder rather than to that of Hedda Gabler, but the allusions to his work in his letters to her during the winter of 1889 demand some examination.

So early as October 7, 1889, he writes to her: “A new poem begins to dawn in me. I will execute it this winter, and try to transfer to it the bright atmosphere of the summer. But I feel that it will end in sadness — such is my nature.” Was this “dawning” poem Hedda Gabler? Or was it rather The Master Builder that was germinating in his mind? Who shall say? The latter hypothesis seems the more probable, for it is hard to believe that at any stage in the incubation of Hedda Gabler he can have conceived it as even beginning in gaiety. A week later, however, he appears to have made up his mind that the time had not come for the poetic utilisation of his recent experiences. He writes on October 15: “Here I sit as usual at my writing-table. Now I would fain work, but am unable to. My fancy, indeed, is very active. But it always wanders awayours. I cannot repress my summer memories — nor do I wish to. I live through my experience again and again and yet again. To transmute it all into a poem, I find, in the meantime, impossible.” Clearly, then, he felt that his imagination ought to have been engaged on some theme having no relation to his summer experiences — the theme, no doubt, of Hedda Gabler. In his next letter, dated October 29, he writes: “Do not be troubled because I cannot, in the meantime, create (dichten). In reality I am for ever creating, or, at any rate, dreaming of something which, when in the fulness of time it ripens, will reveal itself as a creation (Dichtung).” On November 19 he says: “I am very busily occupied with preparations for my new poem. I sit almost the whole day at my writing-table. Go out only in the evening for a little while.” The five following letters contain no allusion to the play; but on September 18, 1890, he wrote: “My wife and son are at present at Riva, on the Lake of Garda, and will probably remain there until the middle of October, or even longer. Thus I am quite alone here, and cannot get away. The new play on which I am at present engaged will probably not be ready until November, though I sit at my writing-table daily, and almost the whole day long.”

Here ends the history of Hedda Gabler, so far as the poet’s letters carry us. Its hard clear outlines, and perhaps somewhat bleak atmosphere, seem to have resulted from a sort of reaction against the sentimental “dreamery” begotten of his Gossensass experiences. He sought refuge in the chill materialism of Hedda from the ardent transcendentalism of Hilda, whom he already heard knocking at the door. He was not yet in the mood to deal with her on the plane of poetry.3

Hedda Gabler was published in Copenhagen on December 16, 1890. This was the first of Ibsen’s plays to be translated from proof-sheets and published in England and America almost simultaneously with its first appearance in Scandinavia. The earliest theatrical performance took place at the Residenz Theater, Munich, on the last day of January 1891, in the presence of the poet, Frau Conrad–Ramlo playing the title-part. The Lessing Theater, Berlin, followed suit on February 10. Not till February 25 was the play seen in Copenhagen, with Fru Hennings as Hedda. On the following night it was given for the first time in Christiania, the Norwegian Hedda being Froken Constance Bruun. It was this production which the poet saw when he visited the Christiania Theater for the first time after his return to Norway, August 28, 1891. It would take pages to give even the baldest list of the productions and revivals of Hedda Gabler in Scandinavia and Germany, where it has always ranked among Ibsen’s most popular works. The admirable production of the play by Miss Elizabeth Robins and Miss Marion Lea, at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, April 20, 1891, may rank as the second great step towards the popularisation of Ibsen in England, the first being the Charrington–Achurch production of A Doll’s House in 1889. Miss Robins afterwards repeated her fine performance of Hedda many times, in London, in the English provinces, and in New York. The character has also been acted in London by Eleonora Duse, and as I write (March, 5, 1907) by Mrs. Patrick Campbell, at the Court Theatre. In Australia and America, Hedda has frequently been acted by Miss Nance O’Neill and other actresses — quite recently by a Russian actress, Madame Alla Nazimova, who (playing in English) seems to have made a notable success both in this part and in Nora. The first French Hedda Gabler was Mlle. Marthe Brandes, who played the part at the Vaudeville Theatre, Paris, on December 17, 1891, the performance being introduced by a lecture by M. Jules Lemaitre. In Holland, in Italy, in Russia, the play has been acted times without number. In short (as might easily have been foretold) it has rivalled A Doll’s House in world-wide popularity.

It has been suggested,4 I think without sufficient ground, that Ibsen deliberately conceived Hedda Gabler as an “international” play, and that the scene is really the “west end” of any European city. To me it seems quite clear that Ibsen had Christiania in mind, and the Christiania of a somewhat earlier period than the ‘nineties. The electric cars, telephones, and other conspicuous factors in the life of a modern capital are notably absent from the play. There is no electric light in Secretary Falk’s villa. It is still the habit for ladies to return on foot from evening parties, with gallant swains escorting them. This “suburbanism,” which so distressed the London critics of 1891, was characteristic of the Christiania Ibsen himself had known in the ‘sixties — the Christiania of Love’s Comedy — rather than of the greatly extended and modernised city of the end of the century. Moreover Lovborg’s allusions to the fiord, and the suggested picture of Sheriff Elvsted, his family and his avocations are all distinctively Norwegian. The truth seems to be very simple — the environment and the subsidiary personages are all thoroughly national, but Hedda herself is an “international” type, a product of civilisation by no means peculiar to Norway.

We cannot point to any individual model or models who “sat to” Ibsen for the character of Hedda.5 The late Grant Allen declared that Hedda was “nothing more nor less than the girl we take down to dinner in London nineteen times out of twenty”; in which case Ibsen must have suffered from a superfluidity of models, rather than from any difficulty in finding one. But the fact is that in this, as in all other instances, the word “model” must be taken in a very different sense from that in which it is commonly used in painting. Ibsen undoubtedly used models for this trait and that, but never for a whole figure. If his characters can be called portraits at all, they are composite portraits. Even when it seems pretty clear that the initial impulse towards the creation of a particular character came from some individual, the original figure is entirely transmuted in the process of harmonisation with the dramatic scheme. We need not, therefore, look for a definite prototype of Hedda; but Dr. Brandes shows that two of that lady’s exploits were probably suggested by the anecdotic history of the day.

Ibsen had no doubt heard how the wife of a well-known Norwegian composer, in a fit of raging jealousy excited by her husband’s prolonged absence from home, burnt the manuscript of a symphony which he had just finished. The circumstances under which Hedda burns Lovborg’s manuscript are, of course, entirely different and infinitely more dramatic; but here we have merely another instance of the dramatisation or “poetisation” of the raw material of life. Again, a still more painful incident probably came to his knowledge about the same time. A beautiful and very intellectual woman was married to a well-known man who had been addicted to drink, but had entirely conquered the vice. One day a mad whim seized her to put his self-mastery and her power over him to the test. As it happened to be his birthday, she rolled into his study a small keg of brandy, and then withdrew. She returned some time after wards to find that he had broached the keg, and lay insensible on the floor. In this anecdote we cannot but recognise the germ, not only of Hedda’s temptation of Lovborg, but of a large part of her character.

“Thus,” says Dr. Brandes, “out of small and scattered traits of reality Ibsen fashioned his close-knit and profoundly thought-out works of art.”

For the character of Eilert Lovborg, again, Ibsen seem unquestionably to have borrowed several traits from a definite original. A young Danish man of letters, whom Dr. Brandes calls Holm, was an enthusiastic admirer of Ibsen, and came to be on very friendly terms with him. One day Ibsen was astonished to receive, in Munich, a parcel addressed from Berlin by this young man, containing, without a word of explanation, a packet of his (Ibsen’s) letters, and a photograph which he had presented to Holm. Ibsen brooded and brooded over the incident, and at last came to the conclusion that the young man had intended to return her letters and photograph to a young lady to whom he was known to be attached, and had in a fit of aberration mixed up the two objects of his worship. Some time after, Holm appeared at Ibsen’s rooms. He talked quite rationally, but professed to have no knowledge whatever of the letter-incident, though he admitted the truth of Ibsen’s conjecture that the “belle dame sans merci” had demanded the return of her letters and portrait. Ibsen was determined to get at the root of the mystery; and a little inquiry into his young friend’s habits revealed the fact that he broke his fast on a bottle of port wine, consumed a bottle of Rhine wine at lunch, of Burgundy at dinner, and finished off the evening with one or two more bottles of port. Then he heard, too, how, in the course of a night’s carouse, Holm had lost the manuscript of a book; and in these traits he saw the outline of the figure of Eilert Lovborg.

Some time elapsed, and again Ibsen received a postal packet from Holm. This one contained his will, in which Ibsen figured as his residuary legatee. But many other legatees were mentioned in the instrument — all of them ladies, such as Fraulein Alma Rothbart, of Bremen, and Fraulein Elise Kraushaar, of Berlin. The bequests to these meritorious spinsters were so generous that their sum considerably exceeded the amount of the testator’s property. Ibsen gently but firmly declined the proffered inheritance; but Holm’s will no doubt suggested to him the figure of that red-haired “Mademoiselle Diana,” who is heard of but not seen in Hedda Gabler, and enabled him to add some further traits to the portraiture of Lovborg. When the play appeared, Holm recognised himself with glee in the character of the bibulous man of letters, and thereafter adopted “Eilert Lovborg” as his pseudonym. I do not, therefore, see why Dr. Brandes should suppress his real name; but I willingly imitate him in erring on the side of discretion. The poor fellow died several years ago.

Some critics have been greatly troubled as to the precise meaning of Hedda’s fantastic vision of Lovborg “with vine-leaves in his hair.” Surely this is a very obvious image or symbol of the beautiful, the ideal, aspect of bacchic elation and revelry. Antique art, or I am much mistaken, shows us many figures of Dionysus himself and his followers with vine-leaves entwined their hair. To Ibsen’s mind, at any rate, the image had long been familiar. In Peer Gynt (Act iv. sc. 8), when Peer, having carried off Anitra, finds himself in a particularly festive mood, he cries: “Were there vine-leaves around, I would garland my brow.” Again, in Emperor and Galilean (Pt. ii. Act 1) where Julian, in the procession of Dionysus, impersonates the god himself, it is directed that he shall wear a wreath of vine-leaves. Professor Dietrichson relates that among the young artists whose society Ibsen frequented during his first years in Rome, it was customary, at their little festivals, for the revellers to deck themselves in this fashion. But the image is so obvious that there is no need to trace it to any personal experience. The attempt to place Hedda’s vine-leaves among Ibsen’s obscurities is an example of the firm resolution not to understand which animated the criticism of the ‘nineties.

Dr. Brandes has dealt very severely with the character of Eilert Lovborg, alleging that we cannot believe in the genius attributed to him. But where is he described as a genius? The poet represents him as a very able student of sociology; but that is quite a different thing from attributing to him such genius as must necessarily shine forth in every word he utters. Dr. Brandes, indeed, declines to believe even in his ability as a sociologist, on the ground that it is idle to write about the social development of the future. “To our prosaic minds,” he says, “it may seem as if the most sensible utterance on the subject is that of the fool of the play: ‘The future! Good heavens, we know nothing of the future.’” The best retort to this criticism is that which Eilert himself makes: “There’s a thing or two to be said about it all the same.” The intelligent forecasting of the future (as Mr. H. G. Wells has shown) is not only clearly distinguishable from fantastic Utopianism, but is indispensable to any large staTesmanship or enlightened social activity. With very real and very great respect for Dr. Brandes, I cannot think that he has been fortunate in his treatment of Lovborg’s character. It has been represented as an absurdity that he would think of reading abstracts from his new book to a man like Tesman, whom he despises. But though Tesman is a ninny, he is, as Hedda says, a “specialist”— he is a competent, plodding student of his subject. Lovborg may quite naturally wish to see how his new method, or his excursion into a new field, strikes the average scholar of the Tesman type. He is, in fact, “trying it on the dog”— neither an unreasonable nor an unusual proceeding. There is, no doubt, a certain improbability in the way in which Lovborg is represented as carrying his manuscript around, and especially in Mrs. Elvsted’s production of his rough draft from her pocket; but these are mechanical trifles, on which only a niggling criticism would dream of laying stress.

Of all Ibsen’s works, Hedda Gabler is the most detached, the most objective — a character-study pure and simple. It is impossible — or so it seems to me — to extract any sort of general idea from it. One cannot even call it a satire, unless one is prepared to apply that term to the record of a “case” in a work of criminology. Reverting to Dumas’s dictum that a play should contain “a painting, a judgment, an ideal,” we may say the Hedda Gabler fulfils only the first of these requirements. The poet does not even pass judgment on his heroine: he simply paints her full-length portrait with scientific impassivity. But what a portrait! How searching in insight, how brilliant in colouring, how rich in detail! Grant Allen’s remark, above quoted, was, of course, a whimsical exaggeration; the Hedda type is not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end. But particular traits and tendencies of the Hedda type are very common in modern life, and not only among women. Hyperaesthesia lies at the root of her tragedy. With a keenly critical, relentlessly solvent intelligence, she combines a morbid shrinking from all the gross and prosaic detail of the sensual life. She has nothing to take her out of herself — not a single intellectual interest or moral enthusiasm. She cherishes, in a languid way, a petty social ambition; and even that she finds obstructed and baffled. At the same time she learns that another woman has had the courage to love and venture all, where she, in her cowardice, only hankered and refrained. Her malign egoism rises up uncontrolled, and calls to its aid her quick and subtle intellect. She ruins the other woman’s happiness, but in doing so incurs a danger from which her sense of personal dignity revolts. Life has no such charm for her that she cares to purchase it at the cost of squalid humiliation and self-contempt. The good and the bad in her alike impel her to have done with it all; and a pistol-shot ends what is surely one of the most poignant character-tragedies in literature. Ibsen’s brain never worked at higher pressure than in the conception and adjustment of those “crowded hours” in which Hedda, tangled in the web of Will and Circumstance, struggles on till she is too weary to struggle any more.

It may not be superfluous to note that the “a” in “Gabler” should be sounded long and full, like the “a” in “Garden”— not like the “a” in “gable” or in “gabble.”

W. A.

1Letters 214, 216, 217, 219.

2In the Ibsen volume of Die Literatur (Berlin).

3Dr. Julius Elias (Neue deutsche Rundschau, December 1906, p. 1462) makes the curious assertion that the character of Thea Elvsted was in part borrowed from this “Gossensasser Hildetypus.” It is hard to see how even Gibes’ ingenuity could distil from the same flower two such different essences as Thea and Hilda.

4See article by Herman Bang in Neue deutsche Rundschau, December 1906, p. 1495.

5Dr. Brahm (Neue deutsche Rundschau, December 1906, P. 1422) says that after the first performance of Hedda Gabler in Berlin Ibsen confided to him that the character had been suggested by a German lady whom he met in Munich, and who did not shoot, but poisoned herself. Nothing more seems to be known of this lady. See, too, an article by Julius Elias in the same magazine, p. 1460.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/ibsen/henrik/hedda/introduction.html

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