The Curse of Hedda Gabler

Photo: Nigel Parry

They all want to play Hedda, the female stars of stage and screen unjustly deprived of characters in the canon with real stature—despite the fact that she is a borderline psycho who resists our sympathy, and that Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is an obstacle course over a minefield: creaky, exposition-laden, rife with the potential for unintentional laughs, bound by conventions of drawing-room realism. Beside Hedda, Hamlet is a walk in the park: At least he can talk to the audience, establish a rapport—help us to, you know, relate to his predicament. Chill Hedda is forever out of reach.

Yet here she is again, modern drama’s least happy newlywed, with yet another star having a go: Mary-Louise Parker, for the Roundabout Theatre Company, under the direction of Ian Rickson (who recently staged The Seagull with Kristin Scott Thomas). And once more we are driven to ask: Why, in spite of everything, is Hedda still the most popular girl in her class—and can anyone manage to get her right?

Ibsen might have wondered the same thing, since she is, in his work, an anomaly, a puzzle, a rebel with no cause except self-gratification. Married (as a last resort) to a mollycoddled academic with a propensity for cataloguing domestic artifacts, the aristocratic Hedda focuses her titanic will on an ex-flame, the unstable visionary Ejlert Løvborg, determined to pry him loose from the golden-haired maternal simp who inspired him to sober up and write. A case has been made that, as the daughter of the late revered General Gabler, Hedda is as much a frustrated feminist as Nora in A Doll’s House and Mrs. Alving in Ghosts, that if she’d been allowed to train her treasured pistols on battlefield foes instead of feckless lovers, she’d have found her place in society. Maybe. Maybe not. What brings her down is small-mindedness and fear of scandal. In the Ibsen plays that followed, Rosmersholm and The Master Builder, young women also drive their men to destruction—but inadvertently, in the name of some higher ideal. That Hedda’s Dionysian hero has a messy, sordid demise is poetically apt. Her cowardice makes a travesty of tragedy.

As a headstrong female protagonist, Hedda was ahead o’ her time, yet she’s also marooned in the era of the “well-made play.” It’s important to remember that naturalism in the late-nineteenth century was radical, that Ibsen’s turn from the peaks and fjords of poetic epics like Peer Gynt to the musty drawing rooms of A Doll’s House was for the sake of social reform—and profoundly self-effacing. (Robert Brustein has gone as far as calling Ibsen a “saint of literature.”) The challenge for the modern director is serving both Ibsen the brilliant realist carpenter and Ibsen the visionary poet. It’s tough, and every so often a director will say “to hell with four-wall realism” and, in an attempt to excavate the mythic-poetic underpinnings, take a chainsaw to that remarkable carpentry.

That was the case with the Dutch director Ivo van Hove’s ferociously loopy Hedda Gabler at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2004, in which Elizabeth Marvel’s Hedda floated around the nearly bare stage in a slip, growing more monotonic as her universe contracted. On a druggy wavelength of her own, she was finally more sinned against than sinning, going slack in the end as the nasty Judge Brack dribbled V8 juice over her head. The production was appalling. And yet … Marvel conveyed the desperation of a trapped tigress; and with the others seen through her eyes, the play became a woman’s paranoid fever dream, a female version of—dare I blaspheme?—Ibsen rival Strindberg’s The Father.

But it wasn’t by a long shot Hedda Gabler. I’ve never seen my ideal production, the equivalent of the Swedish-language Ghosts directed by Ingmar Bergman that had a scant few performances at BAM in 2003. Apart from having the gall to interpolate several lines from Strindberg, the Swedish master staged the old warhorse daringly straight, with microscopic attention to Ibsen’s dramatic beats, the tragedy building inexorably out of each subdued encounter. It reminded me of one of the great experiences of my educational life, a seminar taught by a professor named Robert Scanlon in which students spent weeks breaking down Rosmersholm, marking out the beats as in a score, finding every instant in which, as the Wiktionary website defines dramatic beat, “increasing … tension produces changes in the consciousness of one or more characters.” When you study the architecture, you see why actors are engaged by Ibsen on every level.

The fusty translations are a barrier, however, which is why the Sydney Theatre Company’s Hedda Gabler (at BAM in 2006) was such a rush. Andrew Upton modernized the text by breaking up and overlapping lines, turning declarations into groping half-thoughts. Very modern, very Mamet. The lure—and the problem—was Cate Blanchett, whose Hedda was an actress with a talent for concealing her true intent. Pouting prettily, she might have been the flibbertigibbet Nora from the first half of A Doll’s House—until the tinkle vanished from her voice and she became disgruntled to the point of demonism. It was a refreshingly different take, yet Blanchett’s temperament seemed wrong. Her success has been built on accents and expert impersonations, on her readiness to transform herself into anything her directors want her to be; she didn’t know how to play a character who cannot be anything other than what she is. If Hedda were so malleable, if she had an antic spirit, she wouldn’t be Hedda.

Jolie in Original Sin (2001), and as she might look as Hedda.Photo: MGM/The Kobal Collection

Now it’s Parker’s turn. The Roundabout Hedda opens with the actress splayed out on a sofa, her lovely gams exposed, introducing the idea that Hedda is one sexy, unfulfilled babe. Having seen the production at a preview, I’m not inclined to pass judgment—except to say I loved watching her (she’s one of the few TV or movie stars who can hold the stage)—but there’s little trace of “General Gabler’s daughter.” Parker’s Hedda is a neurotic alpha girl whose desire for power over someone else’s destiny seems more idle than driven by a fierce need for self-fulfillment. The question is whether Parker, so pretty and girlish and neurasthenic, is a natural Hedda—or a born Nora in Hedda’s clothing. She must have wondered that herself. In an interview in Playbill, she says, “People have been asking me to do this play for a long time … I never felt inspired by it. I was leaning toward Doll’s House for awhile.”

Are there any natural Heddas out there? I wish I’d seen Annette Bening’s in Los Angeles—although the actress does best with characters who are themselves actresses, so that you always see the tension between the mask and the uncertain human beneath. The only living English-speaking star who seems a perfect match is—laugh all you like—Angelina Jolie. I have no idea if she has the theatrical chops (movie stars who rule in close-up—like Julia Roberts—have a way of shrinking onstage), but Jolie has the size, the unyielding self-containment, the take-no-prisoners craziness, the will of a temperamental Greek goddess. She routinely incinerates her male co-stars with a simple glare. Jolie would never do an eeny-meeny-miny-mo between Hedda and Nora; she would blow the roof off the most fortified dollhouse. She could demonstrate, definitively, just as Ibsen did, why Hedda is the most alive anti-heroine in modern drama: It’s what happens when you put a very large spirit in a very small box.

The Curse of Hedda Gabler