Edmund Gosse

Hedda Gabler anmeldt av Edmund Gosse i The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XLIX. New Series. January 1 to June 1, 1891 (Vol. LV. Old Series), s. 4-13, London/New York.


IF proof were needed of the extraordinary growth of interest in the work of Henrik Ibsen, it would be found at the back of the title of the play which will be issued in Copenhagen as these pages leave the press in London. In his latest drama, The Lady from the Sea, there was printed for the first time the announcement that a German translation would appear simultaneously with the original. In the new volume it is stated that translations in English, French, German, Hungarian, and Italian will be issued in the same manner. The firm of Gyldendal, in Copenhagen, not accustomed to conducting business with this dazzling haste, has been actively engaged in supplying proof sheets to the length and breadth of Europe, and, it may be added to complete the picture, the English version appears simultaneously in New York as well as London. Outside France, there is no writer, with the doubtful exception of Tolstoi, whose successive publications create so intense a curiosity, or so impatient a demand. It seems paradoxical to say, in the face of such facts, that Ibsen continues, and will probably always continue, to be an unpopular writer. He tantalises and irritates, he awakens controversy, he stimulates speculation, and where he moves at all, he produces an agitation which is almost feverish. This agitation does not affect any national type, but individual instances of character to be found in all parts of the world. It is probable that those individuals will crave more and more impatiently to know what the fantastic oracle at Munich is saying, and will sustain his apparent popularity by a certain hungry demand for the earliest transmissions from the tripod. This position is helped by his own regularity. No magazine editor, with proffered gold from Ophir, succeeds in tempting Ibsen to contribute to «symposia» on current topics. No miscellaneous poems, no pamphlets, no manifestos of any kind break the absolute silence with which he surrounds himself. During each period of four-and-twenty months Ibsen is the least accessible of European authors. Then, early in December of the alternate year, the mephitic vapour begins to rise from the well of Cassotis, the journalism of Scandinavia shudders in prophetic paragraphs, the chasm of the Gyldendalske Boghandel is shaken, and suddenly, about a week before Christmas, the Pythian utterance, in four acts, and in prose, is communicated to Germany and Italy, to Hungary and France, to the parts of Massachusetts about Boston. The whole proceeding has the regularity of an astronomical phenomenon. The author who, in these seductive years of enterprise, has the force to remain so true to a system of his own may well reap the reward.

The new drama is the longest which Ibsen has published, with the exception of The Wild Duck. In comparison with the seven social plays which have preceded it, its analogies are rather with A Doll`s House than with the rest. It attempts no general satire of manners, as do The Pillars of Society and An Enemy of the People. It propounds no such terrible questions in ethics as Ghosts; it is almost as perplexing, but not nearly so obscure, as The Wild Duck. In style it is a return to Ibsen`s old realistic manner, without a trace of the romanticism which cropped up so strangely in The Lady from the Sea, and even in Rosmersholm; while the dialogue is more rapid and fluent, and less interrupted by long speeches than it has ever been before. In the whole of the new play there is not one speech which would require thirty seconds for its enunciation. I will dare to say that I think in this instance Ibsen has gone perilously far in his desire for rapid and concise expression. The stichomythia of the Greek and French tragedians was lengthy in comparison with this unceasing display of hissing conversati onal fireworks, fragments of sentences without verbs, clauses that come to nothing, adverbial exclamations and cryptic interrogatories. It would add, I cannot but think, to the lucidity of the play if some one character were permitted occasionally to express himself at moderate length, as Nora does in A Doll`s House, and as Mrs. Alving in Ghosts. None the less is the feat of combining a story with a play, and conducting both in meteoric bursts of extremely colloquial chat, one which Ibsen deserves the highest praise for having performed. And, on the stage, no doubt, this rapid broken utterance will give an extraordinary sense of reality.

As is known, Ibsen, like Euripides, does not present his characters to the public until their fortunes are determined. The heightened action of a third act in a «well-made» play is no luxury which he offers himself. But the Norwegian tragic poet cannot present a herald to his audience, or send Hermes down to tell the story in heroic verse. He has to explain the situation out of the mouths of his characters, and this he has an unrivalled adroitness in doing. We are never conscious of being informed, but, as we read on, the situation gradually and inevitably becomes patent to us. In the present case the state of affairs is as follows: A promising young man of letters, George Tesman, has gained a stipend, a sort of travelling scholarship, with the vague understanding that when he returns he will be appointed to the vacant Chair of the History of Civilisation, presumably at the University of Christiania. He is now looked upon as the principal rising authority in that science, a friend or rival of his, of far more original genius, one Ejlert Lövborg, having sunken into obscurity through drink and ill-living. Tesman, a sanguine, shallow youth, proposes to marry the beauty of the circle, Hedda Gabler, the orphan daughter of a late General Gabler. Tesman is himself an orphan, having been brought up by two maiden aunts, one of them a confirmed invalid. Hedda Gabler is understood to express a great desire to live in a certain villa. They marry, and they depart for six months on the Continent. A judge (assessor), Mr. Brack, who has been an intimate friend of both of them, contrives to secure and to furnish this villa for them during their absence. It seems a little rash that, having no income, they should launch into these expenditures, but it is excused on the score of Tesman`s practical certainty of being made a university professor. And their affection is supposed to be, and on Tesman`s side is, of so tender and idyllic a character that it is really cruel to disturb them about money. The reader takes it for granted that they are going to be disappointed of the Chair, and accordingly ruined, but that does not happen. Ibsen does not play these obvious old games of comedy.

It must now be explained that during the honeymoon of the Tesmans an event has occurred in the literary world. Ejlert Lövborg, who was supposed to have become submerged for good and all, and who was hidden in a mountain parish, has suddenly published a volume on the progress of civilisation which surpasses all his previous writings, and which creates a wide sensation. It is whispered that a lady up there in the mountains, Mrs. Elvsted, the wife of a sheriff of that name, has undertaken his social restoration. Lövborg is once more a dangerous rival to Tesman, who, however, with generous enthusiasm, hastens to pay his tribute of praise to the new publication. The play opens on the morning after the arrival of the Tesmans at their villa, and the action occupies forty-eight hours, the scene never changing from the suite of apartments on the ground floor. It may be conceived from these brief preliminaries that action, in the ordinary sense, is not the strong point of the drama, the interest of which, indeed, is strictly psychological. It consists, mainly, of the revelation of the complex and morbid character of Hedda Gabler, attended by the satellites of Mrs. Elvsted, Brack, and Lövborg, the husband, Tesman, being in reality a semi-comic character, not much more subtle than Helmer in A Doll`s House, but no whit the less closely studied.

Hedda is one of the most singular beings whom Ibsen has created. She has a certain superficial likeness to Nora, of whom she is, indeed, a kind of moral parody or perverted imitation. Hedda Gabler is a spoilt child, whose indulgent father has allowed her to grow up without training of any kind. Superficially gracious and pleasing, with a very pretty face and tempting manners, she is in reality wholly devoid of moral sense. She reveals herself, as the play proceeds, as without respect for age or grief, without natural instincts, without interest in life, untruthful, treacherous, inplacable in revenge. She is a very ill-conditional little social panther or ocelot, totally without conscience of ill or preference for good, a product of the latest combination of pessimism, indifferentism and morbid selfishness, all claws and thirst for blood under the delicate velvet of her beauty. A characteristic insight into her indifferentism is given by herself in the following dialogue, from the second act, between Hedda and Judge Brack, her old flame, to whom she has been cynically confessing how tedious she found her wedding journey: –

BRACK (behind the arm-chair) – You are not really happy, – that is what is the matter with you.
HEDDA (looks in front of her) – I don`t know why I should be – happy. Or can you perhaps tell me?
BRACK – Yes, – among other reasons because you have got just the home that you were wishing for.
HEDDA (looks up at him and laughs) – Do you too believe in that story of the wish?
BRACK – Is there nothing in it, then?
HEDDA – Yes, to be sure, – there is something.
BRACK – Well?
HEDDA – There is this in it, that I used Tesman to take me home from evening parties last summer -
BRACK – Unfortunately, – I was living in the opposite direction.
HEDDA – That is true. You went in quite the opposite direction last summer.
BRACK (laughs) – Shame upon you, Mrs. Hedda! Well – but you and Tesman – ?
HEDDA – Yes, well, we came by here, one evening. And Tesman, poor fellow, he was at his wit`s end to know what to talk about. So I thought it was too bad of such a learned person -
BRACK (smiling dubiously) – Did you? Hm -
HEDDA – Yes, I positively did. And so – in order to help him out of his misery – I happened, quite thoughtlessly, to say that I should like to live in this villa.
BRACK – Nothing more than that?
HEDDA – Not that evening.
B RACK – But afterwards?
HEDDA – Yes. My thoughtlessness had consequences, dear Judge.
BRACK – Unfortunately, your thoughtlessnesses only too often have, Mrs. Hedda.
HEDDA – Thanks! But it was in this enthusiasm for Mrs. Falk`s villa that George Tesman and I found common ground, do you see? That was the cause of engagement and marriage and wedding tour and all the rest of it. Yes, yes, Judge – one builds one`s nest and one has to lie in it – I was almost going to say.
BRACK – That is extraordinary! And so you really scarcely cared for this place at all.
HEDDA – No, goodness knows I did not.
BRACK – Yes, but now? Now that you have got it arranged like a home for you!
HEDDA – Ugh – there seems to me to be a smell of lavender and pot pourri in all the rooms. But perhaps Aunt Julie brought that smell with her.
BRACK (laughing) – No, I think that must be a relic of the late Mrs. Falk.
HEDDA – Yes, it belongs to some dead person. It reminds me of flowers at a ball – the day after. (Folds her hands behind her neck, leans back in the chair and looks at him.) O, Judge – you cannot conceive how frightfully bored I shall be out here.
BRACK – Is there no occupation you can turn to, to make life interesting to you, Mrs. Hedda?
HEDDA – An occupation – in which there might be something attractive?
BRACK – Of course.
HEDDA – Goodness knows what sort of an occupation that might be. I often wonder whether – (Interrupts herself.) But it will never come to anything either.
BRACK – Who knows? Let me hear what it is.
HEDDA – Whether I could get Tesman to take to politics, I mean.
BRACK (laughs) – Tesman! No, don`t you know, – such things as politics, they are not the sort of occupation for him – not the least.
HEDDA – No, I believe that is so. But could I not make him take them up all the same?
BRACK – Yes, – what satisfaction would that be to you? If he is not a success. Why would you have him do that?
HEDDA – Because I am bored, I tell you. (After a pause.) Do you think it would be absolutely impossible for Tesman to become a Cabinet Minister?
BRACK – H`m, – you see, dear Mrs. Hedda, – in order to become that he must first of all be a tolerably rich man.
HEDDA (rising impatiently) – Yes, there you have it! It is this poverty that I have come into (crosses the floor). It is that which makes life so miserable! So perfectly ludicrous! For that`s what it is.

Hedda Gabler is a more pronounced type of the fin de siècle woman than Ibsen has hitherto created. She is not thwarted by instinctive agencies beyond her authority, like Ellida Wangel; nor drawn aside by overmastering passion, like Rebekka West; personal refinement distinguishes her from Gina Ekdal, and deprives her of an excuse; she is infinitely divided from the maternal devotion of Helene Alving. As I have hinted before, the only figure in Ibsen`s rich gallery of full-length portraits which has even a superficial likeness to her is Nora Helmer. But Nora is intended, or else the play is a mere mystification, to be a sympathetic individual. Whatever view we may take of her famous resolve and her sudden action upon it, we have to understand that ignorance of life and a narrow estimate of duty have been the worst of her defects. In her child-like or doll-like sacrifice of principle for her husband she has acted with a native generosity which it would be monstrous to expect husbands, at any rate, wholly to disapprove of. But Hedda Gabler has no such infantile unselfishness; no such sacrifice of self even upon a squalid altar. Curiously enough, when confronted with the terrible act, the destruction of Lövborg`s manuscript, which she has committed purely to revenge herself on that personage, she deftly adopts Nora`s excuse for the forgery – she has done it for her husband`s sake. Here, and not for the first time, Ibsen seems to be laughing, if not at himself, at those fanatic disciples who take his experiments in pathology for lectures on hygiene. Here is the fragment in question: –

TESMAN – Let me have the manuscript, Hedda! I will rush round with it [to Lövborg] at once. Where is the packet?
HEDDA (cold and motionless, supported by the arm-chair) – I haven`t got it any longer.
TESMAN – Haven`t got it? What in the world do you mean?
HEDDA – I have burned it all up – the whole of it.
TESMAN (breaks into a scream) – Burned! Burned Ejlert Lövborg`s manuscript!
HEDDA – Don`t shriek so! The servant might hear you.
TESMAN – Burned! But, good God – ! No, no, no, – this is absolutely impossible!
HEDDA – Well, it is so, anyhow.
TESMAN – But do you know what you have been doing, Hedda? It is a misapplication of goods found. Think of that! Yes, if you only ask Judge Brack, he will tell you what it is.
HEDDA – It will certainly be best for you to say nothing about it, – neither to the Judge nor to anyone else.
TESMAN – Yes, but how could you go and do anything so monstrous? How could such a thing come into your mind? How could it occur to you? Answer me that. Eh?
HEDDA (suppresses an almost imperceptible smile) – I did it for your sake, George.
TESMAN – For my sake!
HEDDA – When you came home yesterday and said that he had been reading aloud to you -
TESMAN – Yes, yes, well?
HEDDA – Then you acknowledged that you envied him the work.
TESMAN – O my goodness, I didn`t mean that literally.
HEDDA – All the same, I could not bear the idea that anyone else should put you into the shade.

This is dangerously like a caricature of the similar passage in A Doll`s House.

In depicting Hedda Gabler, Ibsen seems to have expended his skill on the portrait of a typical member of that growing class of which M. Jules Simon spoke so eloquently the other day in his eulogy on Caro. To people of this temperament – and it is one which, always existing, is peculiarly frequent nowadays – the simple and masculine doctrines of obedience to duty, of perseverance, of love to mankind, are in danger of being replaced by «a complicated and sophisticated code which has the effect of making some of us mere cowards in the face of difficulty and sacrifice, and of disgusting all of us with the battle of life.» In Hedda Gabler we see the religious idea violently suppressed under the pretext of a longing for liberty. She will not be a slave, yet is prepared for freedom by no education in self-command. Instead of religion, morality, and philosophy her head is feverishly stuffed with an amalgam of Buddhism and Schopenhauer. Even the beautiful conventions of manners are broken down, and the suppression of all rules of conduct seems the sole road to happiness. In her breast, with its sickly indifferentism, love awakens no sympathy, age no respect, suffering no pity, and patience in adversity no admiration.

By the side of Hedda Gabler are arranged five principal characters who possess a higher ideal of life, and are, at least, not so entirely subjugated by egotism as she is. In particular, Mrs. Elvsted, the blonde enthusiast whom Hedda so easily turns inside out, like the finger of a glove, is, with all her faults, a charming being. Without personal originality, she is formed to inspire others, and she is the feeble good genius who struggles with Hedda for the soul of Lövborg, and is worsted. From a very interesting scene in the early part of Hedda Gabler a fragment may be given, which displays at once the distinction between the two women – the one of devilish subtlety, the other naïvely simple – and also exemplifies in other respects the character of Mrs. Elvsted, who has run away from home, where she was unhappy, that she may continue to watch over the interests of Ejlert Lövborg in the city.

HEDDA (after a short silence) – What do you intend to do next? What will you take up?
MRS. ELVSTED – I don`t know yet. I only know that I must live where Ejlert Lövborg lives – if I am going to live.
HEDDA (moves a chair nearer, away from the table, sits down close to her, and strokes her hands) – Thea – how did it come about – this friendship – between you and Ejlert Lövborg?
MRS. ELVSTED – Oh, it came about little by little. I got a sort of power over him.
MRS. ELVSTED – He gave up his old habits, not because I begged him to, for I never dared to do that; but he noticed that I was vexed at them, and so he left off.
HEDDA (conceals an involuntary smile) – So you restored him – as people say – you little Thea?
MRS. ELVSTED – Yes; at least that is what he says himself. And he – on his side – he has made a kind of real person out of me. Taught me to think – and to understand certain things.
HEDDA – Did he, perhaps, read with you as well?
MRS. ELVSTED – No, not exactly read, but he talked to me, talked about such an endless variety of things. And then came the lovely, happy time when I was able to take part in his work! Was allowed to help him!
HEDDA – So you did that?
MRS. ELVSTED – Yes! When he wrote anything he always wanted me to be with him.
HEDDA – Like two good comrades, I suppose.
MRS. ELVSTED – Comrades! Yes, think, Hedda – that was the very word he used. Oh! I ought to feel so thoroughly happy. But I cannot. For I don`t know whether it is going to last.
HEDDA – Are you no surer of him than that?
MRS. ELVSTED (gloomily) – A woman`s shadow stands between Ejlert Lövborg and me.
HEDDA (looks keenly at her) – Who can that be?
MRS. ELVSTED – Don`t know. Somebody or other from – from his former life. Someone whom I am convinced he has never really forgotten.
HEDDA – What has he said – about her?
MRS. ELVSTED – He merely once – in a casual way – referred to it.
HEDDA – Well! And what did he say?
MRS. ELVSTED – He said, that when they parted, she wanted to shoot him with a pistol.
HEDDA (coldly, with self-command) – Oh dear me! Nobody does that sort of thing here.
MRS. ELVSTED – No. And therefore I think it must be that redhaired opera-singer, whom he once –
HEDDA – Yes, I should think it might be.
MRS. ELVSTED – For I recollect hearing it said that she went about with loaded firearms.
HEDDA – Well – then of course it is she.
MRS. ELVSTED (wrings her hands) – Yes; but just think, Hedda – I have been hearing that that singer – she is in town again. Oh – I am perfectly in despair –
HEDDA (glances towards the back room) – Hush! Here is Tesman!

In Hedda Gabler, I believe it will be admitted that Ibsen has gone further than ever before in his disdain for the recognised principles of scenic art. In this connection, it is amusing to note that the situation on which his new play is based has a very curious resemblance to that of M. Henri Becque`s much-discussed comedy of La Parisienne. As in that play, so in Hedda Gabler, the three central figures are a wife of seductive manners and acute perceptions, devoid of all moral sense; a husband, who is a man of letters in search of a place; and a lover, who is the sympathetic friend of the husband, and even his defender against the caprices of the wife. The difference between French and Scandinavian convention is shown, indeed, in the fact that while Clotilde is pre-eminently unfaithful, Hedda has no virtue left but this, the typical one. Through the tempest which has raged in her moral garden, elle a sauvé sa rose. But in each play the tame lover, Lafont or Brack, endeavours to restrain the tendresse of the wife, Clotilde or Hedda, for an unseen or suspected second lover, Sampson or Lövborg, and to prevent a scandal in the interest of the husband. I do not push the parallel further than this, nor would I affront convinced Ibsenites by comparing so serious a work as Hedda Gabler with La Parisienne, which is doubtless a trifle, though a very brilliant trifle. But this accidental resemblance to the work of Henri Becque turns up again in the last act of Hedda Gabler, where all the personages appear in deep mourning, and irresistibly remind «the inner eye» of the lugubrious mise-en-scène of Les Corbeaux. Probably the reason why the name of Becque occurs to us once and again as we turn the pages of Ibsen`s last drama is, not so much these superficial resemblances of situation as the essential identity of the theatrical ideal in these two dramatists. Each is fighting, in defiance of the Clement Scotts and the Francisque Sarceys, agains t the tradition of the «well-made» play; each is trying to transfer to the boards a real presentment of life, or of a fraction of life. It is therefore curious, to say the least, to find them hitting upon forms of expression so similar. Unless my memory fails me, a piece of Becque`s was acted at the Théàtre Libre in Paris on the same night, or nights, on which Ghosts was performed there. It must have been very interesting to compare work so like and yet so essentially dissimilar.

We are often told that a taste for Ibsen is not a spontaneous one. No one can nowadays deny that it has been very widely acquired. The new drama will not disappoint those who are prepared for the feast this writer habitually spreads. In these few words I have intentionally withheld any intimation of the manner in which the elements of dramatic interest are mingled, and still more any statement of the mode in which the tragic excitement is heightened in the last act, which is one of the most ingenious and extraordinary that Ibsen has written. Readers who begin with the third volume of a novel never deserve to be encouraged, but for the enjoyment of Ibsen`s plays, in particular, a patient attention is required from the first scene to the last. What the moral of Hedda Gabler is, what «gospel» it preaches, and what light it holds out to poor souls tossing in our sea of «hysterical mock-disease,» I will not pretend to conjecture. Doubtless there will be scarcely less discussion over the ethics of Hedda`s final resolve than there was over those of Nora, when she slammed the front-door so vigorously eleven years ago. These are matters which, I conceive, interest the great magian at Munich less than they do his disciples. He takes a knotty situation, he conducts it to its extreme logical conclusion, he invites the world to fight over it, and then he retires for another two years of solitary meditation.


(1) Hedda Gabler, skuespil i fire akter. Af Henrik Ibsen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Copenhagen. Mr. Heinemann, who, with the sanction of the poet and his Danish publishers, issued a small edition of the original in London some days before publication in Copenhagen, having by this means secured copyright for Great Britain, has reserved all rights of translation.

Publisert 6. apr. 2018 09:57 - Sist endret 6. apr. 2018 09:57