Ibsen is called the father of modern drama and Hedda Gabler (1890) perfectly exemplifies the ways that he leapt forward from more traditional 19th century theater. Focused on character rather than plot, on contemporary people and society, and plumbing psychological depths in a realistic style, Ibsen challenged contemporary audiences accustomed to lighter entertainment and the "well-made play."
Which is not to say that Hedda Gabler does not have a reasonable complexity of plot–many events transpire here, including three deaths, albeit all of them offstage. The focus, though, is on Hedda, the daughter of a ranking military officer whose portrait looms over the proceedings throughout, suggesting, perhaps, the structured society of the military and the rigidity of its role definitions which are reflected, if not generally articulated, in the broader society of the time. Women’s place was to be wife, mother, and caretaker, all roles largely defined by others, leaving little room for an independent thinker or one who could not adapt within those limitations.
Hedda has married George Tesman, who adores her. He’s naive, a scholar, a bore, a bit of a ninny, and he seems rather oblivious to the financial realities of supporting Hedda in the style she has deceptively led him to believe she requires. Hedda, a beauty of social standing, is a catch for George, but he is clueless as to just what it is that he has caught.
Hedda is an indifferent wife, barely tolerating George, and she is in abject fear and rather hysterical denial of her pregnancy. That leaves only the role of caregiver, exemplified in the play by George’s aunt, who is selfless and finds genuine fulfillment in caring for others, as well as by Mrs. Elvsted, who centers her life in assisting and supporting the work of another. But Hedda, selfish and self-centered, is a taker, not a giver, so this last socially acceptable route is not an option for her.
Indeed, each of Hedda’s relationships–with her husband, with her alcoholic friend Lovberg, and with Judge Black, a predatory manipulator, is based on what she can gain from the other. And control is her unstated, but core issue–constrained by the rules of a society that she doesn’t have the courage to flaunt, she, like the judge, ruthlessly attempts to influence the events unfolding around her, but those events take turns she did not anticipate. She waves pistols about–and shoots them–with carefree abandon on the surface, but those weapons express a sort of control and power that might be seized by the otherwise powerless.
Jon Robin Baitz’ new adaptation plays smoothly for the contemporary audience, avoiding some of the period stiffness of earlier translations. Kate Burton, an actor of intelligence and charismatic stage presence, is a memorable Hedda, quickly shifting moods in her interactions with the other players and as events conspire to thwart her manipulations. She plays the sympathetic friend to Mrs. Elvsted in such a way that Elvsted credibly believes her, while the audience sees right through to her insincerity and manipulative motivations. It’s a tricky combination of craftiness and charm and Burton gets it just right.
Jennifer Van Dyck catches the worshipful devotion of Elvsted and Angela Thornton is charming, making the selflessness of Aunt Julia seem natural and uncloying. David Lansbury makes a passionate Lovberg and Harris Yulin an appropriately understated Judge Brack. Michael Emerson, whose role as Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency was a tour de force of subtle characterization, here seems miscast. George Tesman is a difficult role to play, calling for an impression of intelligence along with devotion, dullness, and naivete. Emerson gets only a childlike, rather annoying side of George and it’s all too easy to sympathize with Hedda’s disdain for him. As a result, a certain balance is lost, which removes some of the dramatic underpinnings of the play.
The functional setting by Alexander Dodge seems more oriented towards a tight budget than to any sense of period realism.
This Hedda Gabler is a great turn for Kate Burton, but a less than fully satisfying outing for Ibsen. Whether the latter is even possible a century after the play’s writing is a question which other producers no doubt will try to answer in the future, for the the role of Hedda Gabler is as seductive as is she.