Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

Hedda Gabler was published in December of 1890, a few weeks before it was first performed. Norwegian, English, German, French, Russian, and Dutch versions were printed almost simultaneously, with the result that the consternation many readers felt quickly spread throughout Europe. The play garnered the worst press reviews of any of Ibsen's mature plays, even Rosmersholm, which had been critically mauled four years earlier. The newer work offended many and puzzled more critics, who, as Hans Heiberg noted in Ibsen: A Portrait of the Artist, found the main character too monstrous, a ''revolting female creature'' who ''received neither sympathy nor compassion.’’ Just as damning, the work seemed to lack a message, a corrective purpose, the sort of social critique for which Ibsen had become so famous.

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Hedda's character was the principal target of much of the negative criticism. Quoted in Ibsen: A Biography, Alfred Sinding-Larsen called her ‘‘a horrid miscarriage of the imagination, a monster in female form to whom no parallel can be found in real life,’’ suggesting that the great realist had completely missed the mark in creating her and that he was only ''pandering to contemporary European fashion.’’ Similar complaints came from even the most ardent admirers of Ibsen, including Bredo Morgenstierne. Reprinted in Ibsen, the critic opined: ‘‘we do not understand Hedda Gabler, nor believe in her. She is not related to anyone we know.'' Also quoted in Ibsen, Gerhard Gran observed that while the play aroused his curiosity, it did not and never could satisfy it. For Gran, a figure as complex as Hedda was not suited to drama and could only be satisfactorily treated in the novel; the play, he argued, only ''leaves us with a sense of emptiness and betrayal.’’

Much of the criticism was lodged on moral grounds, renewed objections that Ibsen had faced with earlier plays like A Doll's House (1879) and Ghosts (1881). Some Scandinavian critics suggested that the printed play ''should not be found on the table of any decent family.’’ Others dismissed the work as either too puzzling or too decadent. Harald Hansen, reviewing stage productions of 1891, dismissed it in as single sentence as ‘‘an ungrateful play which hardly any of the participants will remember with real satisfaction’’ (Ibsen).

Ibsen and his play had their champions, including Henrik Jæger in Norway and Herman Bang in Denmark. Jæger, who had once gone on tour lecturing against A Doll's House, had become a pro-Ibsen convert. He saw Hedda as a very realistic, earth-born female, ''a tragic character who is destroyed by the unharmonious and irreconcilable contrasts in her own character’’ (Ibsen). He suggested that the poor reception of Hedda Gabler stemmed from the general unpopularity of tragedy, not from faults in the play. Meanwhile, Bang, in some of the play's most perceptive early criticism, argued that Hedda was the female counterpart of a familiar Ibsen character, the egotistical male. Without the socially-sanctioned outlets afforded men, she is driven ''into isolation and selfadoration." "Hedda," Bang observed, ''has no source of richness in herself and must constantly seek it in others, so that her life becomes a pursuit of sensation and experiment; and her hatred of bearing a child is the ultimate expression of her egotism, the sickness that brings death’’ (Ibsen).

Most criticism, both of the printed play and first staged productions, was hostile, which, in retrospect, suggests a remarkable short-sightedness on the part of Ibsen's contemporaries. Now, over a century later, Hedda Gabler is considered one of the principal stars in the dramatist's artistic crown, and it has been for some time. In his 1971 biography Ibsen, Michael Meyer said that the work was then ‘‘perhaps the most universally admired of Ibsen's plays,'' and noted that it was Ibsen's most frequently performed work in England. Today, its chief competitor in Ibsen revivals is A Doll's House, in part because of its protagonist Nora Helmer's appeal to the women's liberation movement. Unlike Hedda, there is nothing vicious about Nora, who is mostly pure victim in a society under male control.

Interestingly enough, it is because Hedda so completely dominates her play that her role soon became very attractive to actresses, and because it proved a great vehicle for the most talented and highly regarded among them, it evolved from its maligned beginning into a stage favorite. Among those who undertook the role were leading international stars, including Eleonora Duse, Eve Le Gallienne, Nazimova, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Claire Bloom, Joan Greenwood, Ingrid Bergman, and Glenda Jackson. That is the final irony, for it was the ''monstrous'' Hedda who, in the minds of the early critics, condemned the play, whereas it is now her character that makes it one of Ibsen's most durable works. The attraction of the part remains, despite the fact that the society that the play depicts is virtually extinct.

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