“Shot me down with the love and it go bang bang”

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsenfour major plays

The story

Ibsen lived quite a while ago, so you would be forgiven for thinking that, when he sat down to write about the faults of modern society in his exciting Hedda Gabler, his views might be a little old-fashioned. Not so.

Published in 1890, Hedda Gabler is a world which is both recognisable and alien. It was a time when Aunt Julle could still care about her fancy hat, and the late General Gabler could carry pistols. Homely, mundane and utterly vicious. If you just happen to be middle or upper class though, it’s a world you should still be familiar with.

The story follows the supposed wedded bliss of Mr. and Mrs. Hedda Tesman, an academic and his discontent, and most likely pregnant, wife. Both have just returned from a long honeymoon. Of course, Mr. Tesman remains blind to the secret manipulations that his spouse inflicts on his rivals.

All the while, Hedda plays with her late father’s pistols, and we are all made to wonder who is going to end up shot. The synopsis offers us:

“In Hedda Gabler… Ibsen shifted his focus… to the pressures individuals exert on other individuals in their urge to dominate and control one another. Hedda Gabler, ‘a-crawl with the foulest passions of humanity’, as one contemporary reviewer claimed, is also a flawed idealist in an anguished private dilemma; in creating her Ibsen brought dramatic prose towards the expression of a reality beneath the surface of words.”

Worst bits

Hedda Gabler is, in many senses, baffling. You don’t quite understand why everyone puts up with, and even adores, the rudeness of its protagonist (all the males, of course, being in love with her, whilst all the females’ lives seem to revolve around her). You don’t understand why the protagonist is so rude. Most of all, the idealization of death – not even martyrdom – as beautiful is essential to the play’s progression, but completely bizarre.

There are also slight issues which only occur if you read this play, instead of watching it. A lot of double entendre is put in; the important things are never vocalised. In an effort to leave a lot of this heavily implied, Mrs. Tesman and, metaphorically speaking, her puppets talk with… the constant use of ellipsis… Which, well… can be overused…Very irritating…

Best bits

The titular character of Hedda Tesman is one of the best pseudo-villains I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. She is rude, unlikable and self-centred, but able to bring such happiness to her adoring companions with just a few insincere phrases. She seems to be the one with all the strings attached to her fingers, yet Ibsen also shows her as incapable of controlling her own life, caring too much about the perceptions others have of her.

How can we feel sorry for someone so self-absorbed? Ibsen makes us do just that. As Hedda grows more wildly dangerous, a spoiled little girl who cannot grow up, she also becomes less able to deal with the lack of artistry in real life. All the while, her sinister, vulnerable presence creates a foreboding that lets us know that the play can only end with someone on the other end of her pistols.

The idea of conflicting ideals in this play is completely perfected. The world itself brings this immediately to the fore. On one hand, everyone is eager to help the newly wed Mr. and Mrs. Tesman settle into a new home. On the other, various men harbour more selfish intentions towards Mrs. Tesman. What Ibsen creates for us is a dog-eat-dog fishbowl.

My book

Hedda Gabler is another fairly short read at just 99 pages of the 355 page Four Major Plays, from Oxford World’s Classics. I have already written a review for another play in this collection, A Doll’s House, which you can find on this blog under the title of Squirrels make unwise financial decisions.

The quote that I have used as a title to this review is not, as you may have realised, a quote from Hedda Gabler, but instead from Will.i.am’s Bang bang – a song which I adore. Although it was written about that literary classic The Great Gatsby I find that Bang bang could equally apply to Hedda Gabler.

Overall

I’ve never read a play that managed to be so sinister, without being macabre. If you aren’t looking to deviate too far from the modern world, but you are looking for a scathing view on the upper classes, this is perhaps the play for you.

2 thoughts on ““Shot me down with the love and it go bang bang”

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