Monday, 18 September 2017

Hedda Gablar - Life Beyond the Wedding Day

All I can say after watching this play is that I have seriously under-estimated Henrik Ibsen. Okay, I have given him a second chance after my first encounter with him in high school, but half the reason that I didn't like him was that the subject of 'A Dolls House' made me decidedly uncomfortable. The thing with being young, and a Christian, is that you tend to be pretty dogmatic in your beliefs (though being old, and a Christian tends to have a similar effect), so when we read a play which was basically about how a woman walked out on her husband I basically threw the book down in disgust and pretty much considered Ibsen a heretic that I vowed I would never touch again. In fact I even gave the play a shockingly low rating on Goodreads.

Then I discovered Peer Gynt, and then I reread A Dolls House (along with the other plays in the book), and now I have seen Hedda Gabler performed, while not live, but at least on stage. No, Ibsen is no heretic that is seeking the destruction of the family unit, but rather a playwright that sees, and understands, the dark side of humanity. Yet it seems that while both Ibsen and Shakespeare seem to be able to explore the human condition, the settings of the plays seem to reflect the times in which it was written - in Shakespeare were were looking into the lives of Kings and Queens, Dukes and Princes, however in Ibsen we are being given a look into the lives of the middle class, which is interesting because in Shakespeare's day it was a world that many of the theatre goers, who tended to be lower classes, normally didn't get to see, whereas in Ibsen's day most of the theatre goers would have been middle class.

Home from the Honeymoon

The play is set entirely in an apartment in a nameless city (most likely Christiana, which is now Oslo) and takes place over the course of two days. Like a lot of Ibsen's other plays the play is set in two acts, with the first act setting everything up, and then the second act having everything begin to unravel. As for the play itself, while it has a lot of tragic elements about it, and Hedda is most definitely a tragic figure, I feel that I can't go as far as calling it a tragedy - rather the term more appropriate to me would be a domestic drama. What Ibsen is doing is opening up the curtains to enable us to look into the world of the middle class and to remind us that this life isn't as flowery as it appears.

The play begins when Hedda and her new husband George return home from their honeymoon to begin a life together as a married couple. Hedda is basically a socialite from a well to do background (and the suggestion is that she is aristocratic), while George is an academic who is waiting to hear back about a posting as a professor, which means that they will then have enough money to be able to live the life that Hedda wants. They have already bought an apartment (though in the play it is a villa), and they are significantly in debt, but everything seems to be okay because the job appears to be there, it is just they have to wait for the official letter.

However, they suddenly turns out to be a problem because one of George's friend, a woman who found herself being tormented by Hedda when they were young, tells them that one of George's old colleagues, Lovburg, has just written a book that is also in George's academic field, and is also putting his name down for the position. All of a sudden there is a competition where at first there was none. The problem is that George is a reformed alcoholic, which is why nobody actually considered him to be a contender at first, but it appears that he has not only managed to turn his life around, but has shown his full potential. Sure, Lovburg has suggested that he doesn't want to go into competition with George, and he will be holding off publishing his masterpiece until after the position is confirmed, but Hedda just doesn't seem to trust him.

This is basically where everything begins to go down hill because when it is revealed that George isn't a shoe-in for the job, she suddenly realises that this life of socialising and parties may not actually turn out the way that she expected. In a sense George may not end up being the man that she thought he was going to be, but because she has married him she is now stuck with him - it seems as if all of a sudden the life that she thought she was going to have is all of a sudden starting to unravel. So she decides to take matters into her own hands, but in doing so actually begins to make things much, much worse to the point that by the end everything has begun to collapse around her.

Modern Times

There is an ongoing debate among some people as to whether we should leave the plays in their original settings or attempt to bring them into a modern era. It seems that most (not all, but most) theatre companies prefer to use a contemporary setting. This isn't so much a problem, particularly if we are just looking at the costumes and maybe a bit of the stage, however this does turn into a problem when, like a version of Saint Joan that I saw recently, the directors go completely over board. While I can understand that the director may want to try and create a timeless aspect of the play, and remind us that while the play was written, and set, in the past, what the play is exploring is still very much pertinant to us today.
The the question really comes down to whether it is possible to modernise Hedda Gabler. The setting is clearly Norway in the late 19th century, but ns some cases there is very little difference to 19th Century Norway and modern Australia - Hedda Gabler looks at the life of the middle class, in a middle class society, that wants to live the middle class dream. Well, maybe I am pushing the whole middle class aspect of it a little too much, but the thing is that George is an academic, and while he is looking to gain a chair at the university, he generally isn't a member of the upper class, or at least the upper class that we know of today - rather he would be a member of the intelligentsia.

The thing about the middle class is that they seem to exist in this bubbled utopia. The reason I say this is because we are given so many images of the tranquillity of the middle class - the nice house in the suburbs with the white picket fence, socialising with the neighbours, the good job and the great retirement, we don't see the reality behind what is in effect a stage show. In fact there are many middle class families out there that have effectively become masters of putting on a stage show - for instance there was once when I wandered into a church to see a young couple holding a baby, what was in effect a symbol of their success, and I literally cringed at what in my mind was little more than a farce.

Okay, maybe, actually quite possibly, there is jealousy in my cringing in the sense that I never got the opportunity to experience this middle class dream of being happily married with lovely children and a good job, but then as I sit down in my chair five years later writing this after scrolling through my Facebook feed I notice that I'm not the only one who has been denied this dream. The friend's weddings who I went to who are now divorced, and the broken families remind me that the dream that I desired so much when I was young was basically that - a dream. Even if I did get married, and had children, there was no guarantee that that dream was going to come to fruition, and while that couple stood there, their faces beaming with the joy of holding a human life that they created in their hands, I just pray that they don't come anywhere near the pain and heartache that some of my friends have experienced.

Shattering the Middle Class Utopia

I don't think that Ibsen is necessarily saying that there is anything inherently bad in this idea of the middle class, but what he does seem to be saying is that we hold it in such a high regard that when things don't end up working out the way that we want them to it can be absolutely shattering. The impression that I got was that Hedda was a pretty wild woman, having flings and making friends, until such a time came about that she realised that she wasn't getting any younger, so she grabbed the first guy that she saw that she believed would continue that lifestyle. However, it is in many cases maintaining that lifestyle that was at the forefront of Hedda's eyes.

In the modern industrialised world life seems to move in a specific fashion, were we begin as children, move through highschool, enter the adult world through college, get our first fulltime job, get married, have children, watch our children grow up, and then once they have left home, we then go on to live our golden years enjoying everything that we have saved up. In fact this is the dream that seemed to have been propagated during the fifties, and in any ways people look on the fifties as the golden age of Western society - we had finally overcome tyranny, and we now had years of prosperity to look forward to.

Yet this dream was shattered, namely because the next generation, tasting the freedom that their parents had won, sought to push those freedoms further and further out. As such we had the swinging sixties, and then the seventies and eighties where the baby boomers settled down and started to marry. Now the baby boomers are entering their retirement and this dream of their parents (and my grandparents - I'm an X'er) has been shattered. Sure, there are many who have retired, but Global Financial Crisis of 2008 has effectively destroyed the savings of many. Then we look at the millennials, who are seeing a dream of being able to own a piece of property to call their own going up in smoke.

In a way, this dream of living a comfortable middle class life is suddenly becoming less and less achievable as time moves on, but maybe this has something to do with a lot of things, such as a world of limited resources, of stagnating wages, and of the older quickly pricing the younger out of any opportunity available. I'm not necessarily talking about a stagnating minimum wage, but rather even those in professional jobs, or even management positions, finding themselves in a situation where the dreams of their parents have up and vanished.

The Dream is Over

I have to admit that Hedda is one selfish individual - everything she says and does is for her own comfort. It is interesting when she wakes up after the honeymoon only to make a comment that she doesn't actually love George - he is an academic, but she is a socialite - in a way they simply aren't meant for each other. However, when George joins Thea in attempting to recreate that which Hedda has destroyed (I am being deliberately vague here because I don't want to give to much away), it becomes apparent that she simply cannot return to where she was before. Sure, George is more than happy for Judge Brack to keep her company, but it seems as if the relationship that she once had simply cannot be reinstated.

The thing is that Hedda has brought the world down around her in an attempt to advance her husband's potential. In a sense this is a clear case of 'behind every great man is an equally great woman', however the difference is that Hedda is more than willing to destroy people in order to advance her husband, and in turn her own lifestyle. Sure, the idea of the cut-throat and aspirational employee that tries to get to the top by any means possible is a cliched reality in our world, but what we have here is Hedda not so much pushing her husband forward, but preventing anybody else from getting in the way - which is why she puts so much pressure on Lovborg to have a drink. The problem is that since he is a recovering alcoholic, that one drink pretty much sets him off and everything goes downhill from there.

When we first come into this particular play, we find ourselves in an apartment, and by inference it is a pretty large apartment. However it is yet to be furnished, and decorated. As they mention, the reason for the apartment is so that they can entertain guests, namely because Hedda is a socialite (and even though George is an intellectual, in a way he would find himself moving around the intelligentsia of late 19th Century Norway). However, that sudden discovery that George's job is not assured, means that there is a chance that the dream that Hedda has will not come to pass, and the fact that they are laden down with debt simply isn't going to help.

In a way it is foolishness on their part because no doubt George extended himself to this extent to attract Hedda, who was clearly a desirable woman. Yet it is interesting to note that they don't necessarily seem to be meant for each other. However, this is possibly the nature of the intelligentsia of the late 19th Century - they are intellectuals, but they also move amongst the upper classes, and marry women who are socialites. In a way the intellectuals of today are seen just as out of touch as many of our leaders - in fact many of the middle class seem to be out of touch with the realities of the world in which we live, and the struggles facing the poor, the disadvantaged, and the young.

The Demonic Debt

The thing with debt is that it is toxic. Okay, not all debt is toxic, and unfortunately companies do need to go into debt to either meet their day to day expenses, or to be able to expand. In fact it is common practice not only for major companies to be in debt, but also for governments. The thing is that technically this debt isn't actually ever paid back. What is interesting is that as I follow the stock market I notice how companies in Australia, who are sitting on bucket loads of cash, are more interested in buying back shares than paying down debt. It seems as if this debt is never meant to be paid off, but rather exists in perpetuity.

However we aren't talking about investment, or commercial, debt, which is used to generate an income, but rather consumer debt, which is designed to encourage somebody to get something sooner rather than later. While there are some instances where going into debt is necessary, such as buying a house, or a car (though theoretically you don't need to go into debt to buy a car), much of the time consumers go into debt not because they need something, but rather because they want something. What is more concerning is that people go into debt for one off experiences such as weddings and holidays - in a sense it is like buying drugs on credit because you need the hit now.

The reason that I raise this issue is because we are reminded through the play that Hedda and George are burdened down with debt because they are basically buying a lifestyle. This seems to be the case these days where while we might work, we also want a lifestyle, and we will borrow, and banks will lend, to us to experience that lifestyle. The catch was that it became clear that the job wasn't 'in the bag' as they say. Hedda wanted the lifestyle, and she wasn't going to let anything get in the way of that lifestyle, to the point that she had no problems completely destroying somebody's life to get that lifestyle, with the expected tragic consequences.

As I mentioned to somebody at church the day after I saw the play - Ibsen is brutal. When I first read him I was really, really uncomfortable to the point that I literally threw the play out of the room and claimed that I never wanted to see, or read it, again. In a way it is like A Street Car Named Desire, another play that I read in High School and another play that I hate - however what the plays aren't is that they aren't fairy tales - in a way they are tragedies, but moreso they are domestic dramas that rips apart the veil that our middle class society hides behind and exposes the dark underbelly for all to see. If you feel uncomfortable watching, or even reading, the play then that is because Ibsen wanted to you feel uncomfortable.

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Hedda Gablar - Life Beyond the Wedding Day by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. I read some of Peer Gynt in high school, and it was kind of lost on me - which was disappointing because Grieg's music for that play is so amazing - I really wanted to like it. I should go back and read it again, I suppose. On the other hand, I read Ghosts about 5 years ago, and, like you, I gained a totally new appreciation for Ibsen's work. (You can find my analysis on my blog - but there are spoilers.)

    I haven't read Hedda Gablar, but it really sounds relevant. In my practice, I do divorces (among other things), and I have noted that it is very difficult for a marriage to survive a financial disappointment - such as the lost of a job by the man. In fact, in my experience, those most committed to an idea of "traditional" gender roles, with the man as the sole provider and the woman (who has, of course, kept herself "pure" until marriage - so she really deserves to have her financial desires...) as the supported spouse, tend to have the worst time of it. Not just because there is no second income to fall back on (although that would be nice) but because of the expectation of entitlement to that middle-class existence.

    With the exception of Peer Gynt (which is a pretty fantastical story, in any event) I have found Ibsen to be strikingly relevant to modern American society too.

    Ghosts is also set in a single indoor location. I wonder if Ibsen liked the feeling of claustrophobia - it seems to be an element in several plays.

    1. Thankyou for your comments. I have Ghosts sitting on my shelf waiting to read. I haven't had much to do with family law in the legal sense, having avoided it at uni, but I am not surprised that the traditional single income marriages tend to suffer the most strain when the bread winner loses a job.

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