Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book 143, Norway: “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen

I’m in Paris now! Accompanying my mother on a little excursion. And while she’s been shopping in the Rue du Fauborg St Honoré, I’ve been sitting around reading stuff like this:

Yeah, I know I said I’d do An Enemy of the People, which is relevant to Singapore because it’s about a man trying to convince people that the very system of capitalism that their community runs on is poisonous. But I did so want to check out a book from the library with a properly illustrated cover, instead of the dreary cloth hardbacks that UEA tends to stock.

And Hedda Gabler... well, I've heard about it for years. My old playwriting mentor Robin Loon told us in Writers Lab how beautifully she manipulates other people; my old drama club teacher Nicola Perry played her in a production by the Stage Club; I've even read a book on directing way back that cited a version of the play in which she rides a colossal pistol like a mechanical bull.

And you know what? The story lives up to the hype. Almost sad I didn't watch it on stage first. It's a classic drawing room drama, with all the action set in the salon of her villa on the western side of Kristiania (now Oslo). She's just come back from her honeymoon with her new husband, the mediocre medieval material cultures academic George (Jørgen) Tesman, who's fully expecting to receive a professorship that will enable him to pay off the debts he's incurred to buy and redecorate said mansion, just so he can please his glamorous twenty-nine year-old wife, whose life as a General's daughter has been parties and libertinism, who wants a place where she may entertain guests and live out a little more of her fading glories...

But that's a much too romantic portrait of Hedda. She is a great Freudian neurotic, according to the Wikipedia article about the play, and the truth is that she loves Tesman not at all, and has already lost her fascination with the house, and now the only pleasure she can find in life is to seek power over others, and so when it seems Tesman may not get the professorship after all, as his former rival Eljert Løvborg has bounced back with a brilliant publication, Hedda glides into malicious action, destroying, burning, blasting...

God, it's so wonderfully dramatic. Everyone talks about A Doll's House when they speak of Ibsen, but the fact is that Nora is quite in possession of her senses, even when she's dancing the tarantella, and her tale of feminine liberation is a little out of date today. Hedda's firing off her pistols in the garden, boom boom, feeding pages of manuscript into the fire. She's whacko. She's the madwoman who's in the living room but is dying to rise up to the attic.

I've actually read a fair bit of Ibsen for a Modern Drama class at Columbia - we read A Doll's House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and the crazy-weird-wonderful Peer Gynt. And this seems to have been the last of his major works, and it's possibly one of the most thrilling, for its brilliant depiction of nihilism in corsets. But I'm honestly feeling a tad guilty for selecting just this one play, rather than a collection to wade through. The Lady From the Sea, The Master Builder, and of course An Enemy of the People... ah, why do libraries not simply stock the volumes one hasn't yet read in the same book?

Anyhow, next week we'll have our hands on another great nineteenth century dramatic portrait of a lady from Scandinavia. Can it stand the comparison? We'll see.

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Representative quote: 

MRS. ELVSTED: You've got some reason for all this, Hedda!

HEDDA: Yes I have. For once in my life I want to feel that I control a human destiny.

MRS. ELVSTED: But surely you do already?

HEDDA: I don't, and I never have done.

MRS. ELVSTED: But what about your husband?

HEDDA: Yes, that would really be something, wouldn't it. Oh, if only you knew how destitute I am. And you're allowed to be so rich! [She passionately grips MRS EVLSTED in her arms.] I think I'll burn your hair off after all.

Next book: August Strindberg's Miss Julie, from Sweden.

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