In 1891, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler debuted at the Residenzentheater in Munich, Germany. Hedda Gabler has been adapted to screen several times since it’s original 1891 run, though the majority of English translated versions remained televised adaptations. The most notable stage to screen adaptation is the 1975 remake which was adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and stared Peter Eyre, Patrick Stewart, Glenda Jackson as the titular character. This version garnered critical acclaim from the New York Times and The Saturday Review and earned Jackson a nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Actress — the Trevor Nunn adaptation of Hedda Gabler is the first (and only) major theatrical adaptation of the play.
Hedda Tesman is considered one of the greatest dramatic roles in theatre — her depth and development throughout the text cements her place as the “first fully developed neurotic female protagonist in literature.” But is Ibsen’s titular character simply a representation of the troubled opinion of those who suffer from mental illness – do her problems lie in a struggle with a failing mental state or is Hedda Gabler really the tale of a woman taking control of her life for the first time in a moment where she feels truly trapped?
It’s clear that Hedda’s mental state is in question. She lacks sympathy and empathy, treats people like toys and pawns in her game, and she’s selfish. In a more physical show of her disregard for human life, Hedda shoots at the judge and jokes about hitting him. She even so much as claims that she has no control over what she does to Brack ( “Well, it’s—these things come over me, just like that, suddenly… and I can’t hold back.”) Clearly, Hedda’s not in a totally clear state of mind. But there’s more to this than just calling her character neurotic or offering some type of diagnosis for Hedda’s behavior and of course to assume that her suicide is simply a result of her declining mental state.
Hedda Gabler takes place in a society still very much focused on class. Hedda herself is very concerned with making the correct choices in order to retain her position as an aristocrat. This society also highlights the importance of gender roles and knowing your place in the world based on your gender. The women of the play, Hedda and Thea Elvsted seem to be very focused on marriage and in Hedda’s case marrying “the right man” — hence, why she’s even married to George Tesman, who she never loved but married out of convenience.
Still, Hedda’s femininity is called into question numerous times throughout the work. Her feelings of negativity toward Thea, who represents all that is feminine, are perhaps the most pertinent clue that she might be struggling with her own desire to crush societal norms. Thea is the picture of a perfect Victorian wife, demure, sweet, and beautiful; she’s not manipulative or often times outright cruel like Hedda — Thea is Hedda’s perfect foil. Perhaps that is why she has always been so quick to dismiss Mrs. Elvsted as stupid and weak or why she’s always tried to undermine her by burning her hair (the source of her femininity) or patronizing her — it’s frustrating for her to witness someone fall so far into the trap of gender norms and in a sense, perhaps she’s trying desperately to wake Thea up. Yet in her behavior, maybe there’s a bit of jealousy — because Hedda recognizes that Thea is all that she’s not, perhaps she fears that Thea can easily take away all that she’s fought for (particularly in reference to the men whose attention and affection she’s so easily captured.) Yet, we as an audience recognize that perhaps Mrs. Elvsted is stronger than everyone realizes — her ability to leave her husband in the 19th century speaks volumes.
Poster of Alla Nazimova as Hedda Gabler, 1907
Perhaps Hedda’s greatest downfall is the volume at which she shuns these traditional notions of gender — she shoots guns, she lacks maternal instinct, she lives vicariously through the men in the play. But to reduce her ultimate decision to commit suicide to a mere case of ‘Male Envy’ is not only an insult to Ibsen’s piece but dismisses Hedda’s character as one dimensional (not to mention contributes to a heteronormative way of thinking and completely disregards that women ought to be able to own their sexuality.) No, Hedda’s decision to take her own life is bigger than that — her choice represents her finally taking matters into her own hands and doing what she wants. The entirety of the work, the women of the world wonder what they’re going to do next, who or what they should devote their time to. By committing suicide, Hedda finally makes that decision; she’s going to devote her time to herself.
It’s impossible to write Hedda Tesman off as a character who is simply evil or to just claim that she’s merely “insane.” The most pertinent theme of Hedda Gabler is the struggle to balance societal pressures with freedom — and for every character, not just Hedda, freedom appears to be a the major objective; whether that’s a freedom from economic, social, or financial pressures.