Henrik Ibsen’s ‘heroine’ Hedda Gabler has taken residence up at Teatre Lliure for a while and is today leaving town. Good riddance! Students of Victorian Literature will recall Shaw’s claim in The Quintessence of Ibsenism that whereas late 19th century British plays generated nothing much except entertainment, Ibsen’s generated discussion. Well, here it is: I’m generating discussion about why we put up with them. Entertained, I surely wasn’t.
The poster announcing David Selvas’s production (based on Marc Rosich’s version –how I hate that word in relation to the theatre) was promising enough, with actress Laia Marull (as Hedda) happily waving a gun. Yet, in the end the Chekhovian gun mentioned in Act I goes off predictably in the last act, killing the female protagonist. I’m sick and tired of so-called 19th century heroines who kill themselves rather than put up with the strictures of patriarchal society, and the fact that this one has been rewritten against a contemporary setting makes things much, much worse. Particularly so when I think of Laia Marull’s courageous Pilar in Iciar Bollaín’s hair-rising denounce of marital abuse, the film Te doy mis ojos (2003). Marull decided that Hedda is mad as a hatter, and she plays her like that with total glee; she’s right, for I believe that this is the only way to make sense of a useless woman like Hedda today.
Selvas’s production is, simply, anachronistic. A production set in 1891 when the original play was first performed, which needn’t be a conservative production, could have worked very well as a poignant document about the past and, implicitly, about women’s progress in the last 100 years. By freezing Hedda in time rather than updating her Selvas and Rosich also highlight this progress but only unwittingly. Today, Hedda and Thea would be fighting themselves for an academic position, rather than help husband or (male) lover, as they do, to get the one they ambition. I’m sure certain parasitical upper-class women still expect their husbands to provide for all their caprices but they’re not representative of today’s women as Hedda Gabler was of her time. And I’m not paying to see a play about them.
So, why did I pay to see this one? Frankly, because having seen last October that well-made production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at Teatre Gaudí I was curious to see how different this would be from an Ibsen at Teatre Lliure. I got an attack of Shavian blues, so to speak, and wanted to get serious after getting trivial. My opinion after the event is that Wilde wins by a few heads: his ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ is fresh as dew whereas this Hedda Gabler smells or, rather, stinks.
As happens, I support legally-sanctioned suicide (or euthanasia) for medical reasons and generally believe that suicide is an act of courage in most circumstances. What annoys me is how often authors chose suicide for their ‘heroines’ in the 19th century: from Maggie Tulliver to Emma Bovary, passing through Edna Pontellier, Lily Bart and, yes, Hedda Gabler. And how today, in the 21st century, those deaths are still celebrated, somehow. I was happy to see that idiot Gabler top herself, but I deeply regret that her suicide is the central act of a so-called literary masterpiece. I am going to suppose that, having allowed Nora to slam the door on her husband in A Doll’s House (1879), Ibsen killed off Hedda more than a decade later as a way to denounce the uselessness of women like her. Yet, the popularity of play and role is annoyingly suspicious, reeking of that glamour attached to the female literary suicide but not quite for the same reasons to her male counterpart. Whereas she kills herself because she’s trapped, he kills herself because he’s free to do it. Not the same thing…
In my own updated version, Hedda finds in shooting her father’s guns the talent she lacks at everything else, becomes an Olympic champion and stops pestering those around her… Otherwise, keep her in Ibsen’s original 1891 setting. Or put her out of her misery for good.