By Mary Christian
When Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler first took the London stage in 1891, many critics did not receive it warmly. Here is a sampling of some of the epithets they flung about:
“Unadulterated stupidity”—Illustrated London News
“Sorry spectacle”—Reynolds’ Newspaper
“Stuff and nonsense”—Punch
“Tedious turmoil of knaves and fools”—The People
“A bad escape of moral sewage-gas”—Pictorial World
But Elizabeth Robins, who produced the play at the Vaudeville Theatre and acted the title role, reports that many women in the audience thought differently. “Hedda is all of us,” she heard one female spectator say. Robins herself qualifies the statement: “Hedda was not all of us, but she was a good many of us.”
Hedda’s situation is common to many nineteenth-century women. In Hedda’s world, women have one acceptable career path:
- Live quietly and ornamentally at home with your parents until an eligible man proposes to you;
- Marry eligible man;
- Live happily ever after (i.e. have sex with your husband, bear and raise his children, manage his household, and, in return, be financially supported for the rest of your life).
A woman who fails at marriage might look after other people’s children as a governess or maiden aunt; she might look after other people’s houses as a servant; she might earn her living by giving pleasure to men as an actress or singer, mistress or prostitute. But in any case, being a woman, as Hedda sees it, means being controlled by other people, usually male people. Hedda is determined not to be controlled; she will do the controlling. “Just once in my life,” she says, “I want to shape someone’s destiny.” But as to how, or who, or for what, she has no idea.
She makes her first attempt at destiny-making, while a single girl, as she becomes friends with the young scholar Eilert Løvborg. She questions him, and he tells her his life story—of the late-night drinking parties, of the glamorous and disreputable women he’s kept company with, and also something of his intellectual ambitions and the great books he plans to write. Hedda finds out his secrets—not meaning to make any specific use of them, but enjoying the power of knowing—and also learns something of the “man’s world,” the world that is forbidden to her. But when he makes sexual advances—when he attempts to claim power over her—she threatens him with her father’s pistol and chases him from the house.
This recurring contest—struggling for moral, emotional, and intellectual power over men, and staving off their physical power over her, at gunpoint if necessary—becomes a pattern for Hedda, not only with Løvborg, but also with her old admirer Judge Brack. With her husband, George Tesman, she puts up with sex and pregnancy because she has to, but even this she can barely endure. She irritably cuts short any mention of love or even vague hints about the expected baby. For her, these references are humiliating reminders of her loss of control—control over her body and her future.
Hedda’s old schoolmate Thea Elvsted is in many ways like Hedda, a woman under other people’s power. After working as a governess, she has made a marriage of convenience to her employer, a man twenty years older than herself, who views her more as a housekeeper than a companion. Thea, like Hedda, has formed a close friendship with Eilert Løvborg, in which she both learns from him and gains a form of control over him. But rather than vicariously reveling in Løvborg’s forbidden pleasures, Thea uses her power to build up his strength and intelligence, to help him toward a constructive, meaningful life. With her encouragement he gives up his drunken riots and, rather than simply talking of the books he plans to write, he writes them, with her as scribe, and becomes a celebrated historian as a result.
Hedda, finding she has lost her hold over Løvborg, struggles to regain it. One might imagine the ensuing scene almost as a morality play with Hedda as bad angel and Thea as good, each struggling for the soul of the mortal Løvborg, whispering temptations or warnings into his ear (“Drink, drink!” No, no, don’t drink!” “Go to the party!” “No, don’t go to the party!”). Yet in Ibsen’s hands, a scenario that might be preachy or cartoonish becomes instead painfully human, for the tempter is not a demon, but a living woman, and we feel with her in spite of ourselves. Hedda sees Thea gain what she herself has lost, and put her power to use in ways Hedda never thought to try. She sees power, sees success, sees beauty, sees joy, and is shut out from them. We cringe at Hedda’s destructive rage as she pulls Thea’s hair and urges Løvborg to suicide; yet with all her monstrous actions, she remains very much a human being. Though a veteran at concealment, for one haunting moment she reveals herself in her lament to Thea: “Oh, if you could understand how poor I am! And fate has made you so rich!”
To the end of the play, Thea continues to gain power, and Hedda continues to lose it—over Løvborg, over her husband, over her reputation and physical privacy. But she is not utterly helpless: once again, with her father’s pistol, she asserts control over her body and her destiny. For Hedda, suicide is the only escape from the slavery of being a woman.
Ironic, then, that for another woman, Hedda became an inspiration and a catalyst for action. Elizabeth Robins, like most nineteenth-century actresses, had for years acted under the authority of male actor-managers who chose plays mainly to showcase their own talents and valued actresses primarily for their pretty faces and figures. Robins saw Ibsen’s plays as a unique acting opportunity for women, with roles that required far more psychological nuance and intelligent interpretation than the heroines, seductresses, and ingénues that formed the stock repertoire of most working women on the stage.
Yet putting Hedda onstage proved a difficult task, for, in approaching one leading London actor-manager after another, Robins was rebuffed with “There’s no part for me!” and, “But this is a woman’s play!”
Robins concluded, along with her friend Marion Lea, that a woman’s play could be produced only by woman managers, and so they launched themselves as managers. The two women borrowed sufficient money to lease the Vaudeville Theatre, pledging their jewelry and other valuables as security. They gained the support of Ibsen’s English publisher William Heinemann and translators Edmund Gosse and William Archer, mediating feuds between the men when necessary. With Robins as Hedda and Lea as Thea, they recruited a cast and rehearsed. Robins drew on her knowledge of Norwegian to develop an English translation that was at once speakable, playable, and faithful to the original. The resulting performance baffled and disgusted some critics, but it ran longer and drew larger audiences than any English Ibsen performance up to that time, and brought the managers out, not rich, but on the right side of the ledger.
Robins went on to produce and act in later Ibsen plays. In the following decade, she became active in the women’s suffrage cause, serving on committees and promoting the cause through fiction and drama of her own. Her play Votes for Women! (1907) featured a women’s-rights activist who was described as an Ibsen heroine “harnessed to a purpose.”
Robins described Hedda as “a bundle of unused possibilities,” and she put those possibilities to use. For Hedda, bottled-up anger and rebellious energy can only wound others and destroy herself. Yet for Robins and her fellow suffragettes, these forces fueled a movement that changed the world.
For further reading, see:
Gates, Joanne. “Elizabeth Robins and the 1891 Production of Hedda Gabler.” Modern Drama 28.4, 1985, 611-619.
Robins, Elizabeth. Ibsen and the Actress (1928). New York: Haskell House, 1973.
Mary Christian is working on a Ph.D. in IU’s English department, specializing in drama and Victorian Studies. Her dissertation, Performing Marriages in Late Nineteenth-Century Theatre, examines changing attitudes toward marriage in the 1880s and 90s, and the ways in which these changes were represented onstage in the plays of Henrik Ibsen and Elizabeth Robins, among others. She is also author of an article on Ibsen’s Doll’s House, scheduled to appear in Theatre Survey in January 2016.