Stagestruck: Woman on the Edge

For a 19th-century male, Henrik Ibsen was quite the feminist. His best-known play, A Doll’s House, ends with one of the theater’s most famous sound effects as his protagonist, Nora Helmer, leaves her stifling marriage with the finality of a slamming door.

An equally definitive offstage bang concludes Ibsen’s other great marital drama, Hedda Gabler. While his title character is not at all like Nora, and her final action an even more radical response to her circumstances, both endings carry the same message — two women taking control of their own lives.

Ibsen’s antiheroine is an intelligent, captivating, willful, manipulative woman whose desires cloud her judgment and whose impulsive actions lead to dreadful outcomes. She’s a brand-new bride in an already loveless marriage, wedded to a milquetoast scholar and, she fears, already pregnant. Her husband, George Tesman, is in competition for a prestigious professorship with her secret former lover, Eilert Lövborg, a dashingly romantic alcoholic. Add to that mix Hedda’s jealousy of her old schoolmate Thea, a timorous young woman who, like Nora, has just left her marriage, for Eilert, and you have the ingredients of an explosive and tragic chain of events.

The “Gabler” in the title is Hedda’s maiden name, not her husband’s. She’s the daughter of an aristocratic general, from whom she has inherited a steely charisma and a taste for power. Ibsen explained that he wanted her “to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife.”

The production that premieres this weekend at UMass goes a step further. Titled simply Hedda, it seeks to move the play and the character away from both male-imposed identities. “Instead,” says director Christina Pellegrini, “we are asking our audience to see her as a full person, separate from her attachments to men.”

The name change also signals that “we have adapted this play a fair distance from the original text, making this production its own creation. We are hoping to inspire audiences who do feel connected to the original text, but also to hint that this play is something new, something different.”

And different it certainly is. For one thing, the production is “an exploration that uses portions of the original text combined with sections of devised work and movement sequences.” For another, the seven-member cast are all women. They become a composite Hedda, reflecting all the performers’ responses to her. The role is shared by all seven actors, with five of them also playing the other characters.

But as Pellegrini explains, that casting decision was not part of her and dramaturg Finn Lefevre’s original concept. “During our auditions we played around with actors switching in and out of various roles, and discovered very quickly that when our female actors played the male roles, the affectations of masculinity and patriarchal power were much more apparent. When men played these roles, those traits or mannerisms were often taken for granted, but juxtaposing male privilege with the image of a woman made the power structures clearer.”

When Hedda Gabler premiered in 1891, it caused a scandal. An early review called Hedda “a hopeless specimen of degeneracy … a vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen.” But while “this play was dangerous in its time, it has now been produced so often it has stagnated,” Pellegrini says. “We are looking to make it as dangerous and bold as it once was.”

Hedda is often seen as an “enigma” whose decisions and actions are irrational and self-defeating, or subjected to rather formulaic Freudian interpretations. But, says the director, “We see her as far more human and relatable than that. Her actions come from specific types of patriarchal structures, feelings of being trapped, fear of others’ perceptions, a desire to see into a world she cannot access, and a desire to not be pregnant. These are things we and the women around us still find connections to, and they make her choices, though often rash or problematic, understandable.”

Feb. 22-March 4, Rand Theater, UMass, Amherst. Tickets and info at http://www.umass.edu/theater.

 

Hedda in London

Next month another Hedda arrives in the Valley, just as radical in its own way as the one at UMass. It comes from Britain’s National Theatre as part of the NT Live series of satellite broadcasts to cinema screens around the world. It’s at the Amherst Cinema on April 1 and 19.

This production, directed by the Dutch auteur Ivo van Hove (his A View from the Bridge played in New York last season), is set in a white-out of ultra-modern blankness (like “an unforgiving art gallery,” as one reviewer put it) mirroring Hedda’s desperate alienation. Ruth Wilson plays the title role in a new version by Patrick Marber that another critic called “a drastically new interpretation that burns off the clutter of tradition” — not unlike this week’s version at UMass.

“Hedda Scream” image by Gaven Trinidad
National Theatre photo by  Jan Versweyveld

Contact Chris Rohmann at stagestruck@crocker.com.

Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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