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NA226512 - IBSEN, H.: Hedda Gabler (Unabridged)

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen

Hedda Gabler

From the Introduction

By William Archer


From Munich on November 20, 1890 Ibsen wrote to his French translator, Count Prozor:


“My new play is finished; the manuscript went off to Copenhagen the day before yesterday… It produces a curious feeling of emptiness to be thus suddenly separated from a work, which has occupied one’s time and thoughts for several months, to the exclusion of all else. But it is a good thing, too, to have done with it. The constant intercourse with the fictitious personages was beginning to make me quite nervous.”


To the same correspondent he wrote on December 4:


“The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda, as a personality, is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife. It was not my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.”


Hedda Gabler was published in Copenhagen on December 16, 1890. This was the first of Ibsen’s plays to be translated from proof sheets and published in England and America almost simultaneously with its first appearance in Scandinavia. The earliest theatrical performance took place at the Residenz Theater, Munich, on the last day of January 1891. Not until February 26 was the play given for the first time in Norway, where it has always ranked among Ibsen’s most popular works. The production of the play at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, April 20, 1891, may rank as the second great step towards the popularization of Ibsen in England, the first being the production of A Doll’s House in 1889, which play it has subsequently come to rival in worldwide popularity. It has been suggested that Ibsen deliberately conceived Hedda Gabler as an ‘international’ play, and that the scene is really the ‘west end’ of any European city. To me it seems quite clear that Ibsen had Christiania (later called Oslo) in mind, and the Christiania of a somewhat earlier period than the ‘nineties. The electric cars, telephones and other conspicuous factors in the life of a modern capital are notably absent from the play. There is no electric light in Secretary Falk’s villa. It is still the habit for ladies to return on foot from evening parties, with gallant swains escorting them. This ‘suburban-ism’, which so distressed the London critics of 1891, was characteristic of the Christiania Ibsen himself had known in the ‘sixties rather than of the greatly extended and modernized city of the end of the century. Moreover Lovborg’s allusions to the fiord, and the suggested picture of Sheriff Elvsted, his family and his avocations, are all distinctively Norwegian. The truth seems to be very simple – the environment and the subsidiary personages are all thoroughly national, but Hedda herself is an ‘international’ type, a product of civilization by no means peculiar to Norway.


We cannot point to any individual model or models that ‘sat to’ Ibsen for the character of Hedda. But the fact is that in this, as in all other instances, the word ‘model’ must be taken in a very different sense from that in which

it is commonly used in painting. Ibsen undoubtedly used models for this trait and that, but never for a whole figure. If his characters can be called portraits at all, they are composite portraits. Even when it seems pretty clear that the initial impulse towards the creation of a particular character came from some individual, the original figure is entirely transmuted in the process of harmonization with the dramatic scheme. We need not, therefore, look for a definite prototype of Hedda; but two of that lady’s exploits were probably suggested by the anecdotic history of the day.


Ibsen had no doubt heard how the wife of a well-known Norwegian composer, in a fit of raging jealousy excited by her husband’s prolonged absence from home, burnt the manuscript of a symphony which he had just finished.

Again, a still more painful incident probably came to his knowledge about the same time. A beautiful and very intellectual woman was married to a well-known man who had been addicted to drink, but had entirely conquered the vice. One day a mad whim seized her to put his self-mastery and her power over him to the test. As it happened to be his birthday, she rolled into his study a small keg of brandy, and then withdrew. She returned some time afterwards to find that he had broached the keg, and lay insensible on the floor. In these two anecdotes we cannot but recognize the germ, not only of Hedda’s temptation of Lovborg, and the burning of his manuscript, but of a large part of her character.


Out of small and scattered pieces of reality Ibsen fashioned his close-knit and profoundly thought-out works of art.


Of all Ibsen’s works, Hedda Gabler is the most detached, the most objective –

a character-study pure and simple. It is impossible – or so it seems to me – to extract any sort of general idea from it. One cannot even call it a satire, unless one is prepared to apply that term to the record of a ‘case’ in a work of criminology. Reverting to Dumas’s dictum that a play should contain “a painting, a judgment, an ideal”, we may say that Hedda Gabler fulfils only the first of these requirements. The poet does not even pass judgment on his heroine: he simply paints her full-length portrait with scientific impassivity. But what a portrait! How searching in insight, how brilliant in coloring, how rich in detail! (Grant Allen’s remark, above quoted, was, of course, a whimsical exaggeration); the Hedda type is, mercifully, not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end! But particular traits and tendencies of the Hedda type are very common in modern life, and not only among women. Hyperaesthesia lies at the root of her tragedy. With a keenly critical, relentlessly solvent intelligence, she combines a morbid shrinking from all the gross and prosaic detail of the sensual life. She has nothing to take her out of herself – not a single intellectual interest or moral enthusiasm. She cherishes, in a languid way, a petty social ambition; and even that she finds obstructed and baffled. At the same time she learns that another woman has had the courage to love and venture all, where she, in her cowardice, only hankered and refrained. Her malign egoism rises up uncontrolled, and calls to its aid her quick and subtle intellect. She ruins the other woman’s happiness, but in doing so incurs a danger from which her sense of personal dignity revolts. Life has no such charm for her that she cares to purchase it at the cost of squalid humiliation and self-contempt. The good and the bad in her alike impel her to have done with it all; and a pistol-shot ends what is surely one of the most poignant character-tragedies in literature. Ibsen’s brain never worked at higher pressure than in the conception and adjustment of those “crowded hours” in which Hedda, tangled in the web of Will and Circumstance, struggles on until she is too weary to struggle any more.


Notes by Sheridan Morley


The Cast of Hedda Gabler


Hedda Gabler          Juliet Stevenson

George Tesman      Michael Maloney

Judge Brack Philip Voss

Mrs. Elvsted  Emma Fielding

Lovborg         Robert Glenister

Aunt Juliana  Brenda Kaye

Berta  Melinda Walker


Director          John Tydeman

Producer       Nicolas Soames

Studio Manager       Peter Novis

Recording Engineer           Mike Etherden


JULIET STEVENSON has worked extensively for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. She won an Olivier Award for her role in Death and the Maiden at the Royal Court, and a number of other awards for her work in the film Truly, Madly, Deeply. Other film credits include The Trial, Drowning by Numbers and Emma.


MICHAEL MALONEY’s many Shakespearean roles on the London stage include Edgar in King Lear, the title roles in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2; on film he has appeared in Branagh’s productions of Hamlet and Henry V, as well as in Parker’s Othello. Other notable films include Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply. He frequently performs on radio and TV.


PHILIP VOSS is an associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The roles he has played for that company include Prospero, Malvolio and Shylock. On film he has appeared in Alive and Kicking, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Octopussy and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. He plays the Lord of the Nazgul in the BBC recording of The Lord of the Rings.


EMMA FIELDING trained at RSAMD. She has worked for the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, most notably in John Ford’s The Broken Heart, for which she won the Dame Peggy Ashcroft Award for Best Actress and the Ian Charleson Award. She has also appeared in numerous radio plays for the BBC and performed the parts of Desdemona in Othello, Ophelia in Hamlet and the title role in Lady Windermere’s Fan, as well as many readings for Naxos AudioBooks.


ROBERT GLENISTER’s varied theater credits include Measure for Measure, The Tempest and Little Eyolf for the Royal Shakespeare Company; The Duchess of Malfi, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and Hamlet. His television credits include Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders, A Touch of Frost, Bramwell, Prime Suspect, Only Fools & Horses and Soldier Soldier.


BRENDA KAYE trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her extensive repertory experience includes Sheffield Playhouse, Liverpool Playhouse and Bristol Old Vic. For the Royal National Theatre: Hamlet and Plunder. West End credits include Night Must Fall for Theatre Royal, Haymarket. She is a former member of BBC Radio Drama Company with over 200 broadcasts including The Woman’s Hour Serial, Poetry Please and With Great Pleasure.


MELINDA WALKER has performed in countless radio plays and theater nationally. As well as narrating television documentaries, she was the voice of the daily quiz show 100% Gold. She devises and performs poetry and song events, and read in a commemorative edition of Radio 4’s Something Understood for the Princess of Wales. Melinda writes for the theater with her husband.


JOHN TYDEMAN played a key role in BBC radio drama for nearly four decades, as producer, Assistant Head and then Head of Radio Drama. During that time he directed most of the major plays in the classical repertory, from Greek drama to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw. He was also active in contemporary theater, directing works by Osborne, Stoppard, Albee, Pinter and many others. Directing for television and the stage has been a regular feature throughout his busy career.

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