In Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen constructed a complex play that caused considerable bewilderment among his contemporaries. Some found fault; some simply confessed puzzlement. One problem was that the play, one of Ibsen’s later ones, was often judged in the context of his earlier work. When the broad social issues treated in earlier plays were found lacking or deficient, Hedda Gabler was pronounced inferior. The most common misperception of Hedda Gabler stemmed, however, from a tendency to interpret the play through its title and hence its protagonist, who was considered totally devoid of any redeeming virtues.
Later critical opinion focused more carefully on the structure of the play. One critic called attention to a typical Ibsen device that came to be characterized as “retrospective action.” That term describes Ibsen’s way of revealing the crucial events preceding the action of the play in the first few scenes of the exposition by reuniting characters after a long absence and allowing them to bring each other up to date on past events. In Hedda Gabler, the Tessmans, returning from their extended honeymoon, tell much of themselves in conversation with Juliana and others. Despite this sophisticated device for surmounting a theatrical obstacle, however, the play is not without structural weaknesses. Lovberg’s apocalyptic attitude is unconvincing; Ibsen’s view of scholarly enterprise as a batch of notes in someone’s briefcase is ludicrous; and Hedda’s lack of affiliation with the play poses a threat to dramatic unity. The play nevertheless holds up under critical review because the dialogue, characterization, and strong underlying theme carry it through.
Ibsen’s method of playwriting is largely responsible for the verbal polish and linguistic sensitivity of the dialogue. After completing a play, Ibsen habitually rested and let his mind lie fallow for a while, during which time he would allow ideas for his next work to begin incubating. When he did begin writing, he wrote quickly, and he usually completed a first draft in about two months. Next, he set the draft aside for another two months or so to “age,” and only then did he begin the final process of refining each nuance to perfection. That stage usually took him two to three weeks, and the final version was usually ready for the printer within a month (by the following month, the play was off the press and ready for distribution). It was in that final process of refining Hedda Gabler that Ibsen added George Tessman’s fussy expostulations, his characteristic tendency to repeatedly say “Hmm?” and “Eh.” He also added Judge Brack’s inquisitorial manner; as well as such fillips of imagery as “vine leaves in his hair.” Out of these final revisions came the exquisitely fine-tuned dialogue of Hedda Gabler.
Because the character of Hedda Gabler stands out in bold relief by contrast with the other characters in the play, those others must be given serious consideration at least as the medium for Hedda’s development. Hedda’s three major counterfoils, George Tessman, Eilert Lovberg, and Brack, are all rather static characters. Although their personalities are revealed gradually as the play progresses, none undergoes any fundamental change. George Tessman begins and ends as a somewhat abstracted, woolly-headed personality; Lovberg is incurably incompetent; and Brack is a coldly calculating, manipulative type. In interaction with these men, Hedda dominates the scene: a self-centered creature of impulse and indulgence, she was her father’s spoiled darling (significantly, the play is titled Hedda Gabler, not Hedda Tessman). Hedda’s contempt for Tessman and her opportunism grow in inverse ratio to her husband’s declining prospects, but when she is caught in the matrix of Lovberg’s inelegant death, Tessman’s ineffectuality, Brack’s obscene proposition, and her unwanted pregnancy, Hedda prefers an efficient suicide to end a messy life. Hedda’s life does not meet her exacting standards, but her suicide fulfills her sense of style in a way that living could not. Ibsen’s deep insight into one vivid personality thus constitutes the play Hedda Gabler.