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Theatre / Hedda Gabler

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The original cover of the 1890 version.

Hedda Gabler is an 1890 play by Henrik Ibsen. Full of hidden meaning, double entendres, hints, and angst, it is often considered Ibsen's finest work. Critics hated it when it first appeared saying that the character of Hedda Gabler was immoral, and even suggesting that such a woman could not exist in real life. The play challenged the Victorian view of women as frail, feminine and obedient.

Hedda, a spoiled, beautiful aristocrat, has married Jørgen Tesman. Tesman is a silly but well meaning man who utterly adores her. She, however, used to higher society and a luxurious life, is hopelessly bored and stifled. She resorts to playing cruel mind games with Aunt Julle, Tesman's aunt and former guardian, and Thea Elvsted, a beautiful, innocent woman who has fled from her home. Also involved is Ejlert Løvborg, Hedda's former lover, although Ibsen is unclear on that point. There is also Judge Brack, who lends Tesman money but actually lusts after Hedda. Spoilers ahead!

It's well worth noting that Ibsen is considered the father of Modern drama.

This play contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: The invalidity of Sheriff Elvsted's wife left him lonely enough to start an affair with their governess, Thea Rysing, and marry her. Then Elvsted's job as sheriff left him to travel and be away from home for long enough that Thea's heart went yonder, causing her to leave his house to pursue a relationship with Eilert Løvborg.
  • Absent-Minded Professor: Tesman. He's said to be very bright in his field, but he's completely clueless in practical matters, repeatedly referring to Thea Elvsted by her maiden name of Thea Rysing and never picking up on the increasingly obvious signs that Hedda is miserable in her marriage to him.
  • Accidental Misnaming: Tesman can't stop referring to his now-married ex-girlfriend by her maiden name, indicating both his lack of intelligence and the attachment for her that lingers in him.
  • Accidental Suicide: When Løvborg returns to the brothel to try and recover his manuscript, his gun accidentally goes off, striking him in the gut and killing him slowly.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Thea Elvsted's husband is twenty years older than her, leaving them with little love between them and nothing in common. The gap is one of the causes for Thea's departure from the house and her romance with Løvborg, a man her own age.
  • Agonizing Stomach Wound: Hedda tries to drive Løvborg to suicide by giving him a pistol and telling him to "make it beautiful". Instead, the gun accidentally discharges while Løvborg is in a brothel, striking him in the bowels and causing a slow, Undignified Death.
  • The Alcoholic: Løvborg was once drunk night and day, but thanks to Mrs. Elvsted's help, he's gone off the drink and is working on an amazing manuscript while refusing so much as a sip of cold punch as if it was poison.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Oh boy, where to start. Tesman loves Hedda who does not love him. Ejlert loves Hedda who does not love him. The Judge lusts after Hedda who denies feeling the same way. Can you see a pattern here?
  • Alpha Bitch: Hedda was one at school, and she used to pick on Thea because of her hair. When Thea shows up, she continues the old behaviour.
  • Anti-Villain: Hedda. She's like Iago seen through a sympathetic point of view.
  • Bearer of Bad News: Brack shows up at the Tesman home in the first act to deliver the unwelcome news that Tesman's promised university position is no longer guaranteed, as Eilert Løvborg is now being considered for the same position. Tesman and Hedda have already been spending as though the income the position will provide is as good as theirs, which means that the luxuries to which Hedda is accustomed from her childhood—servants, a horse—must wait a bit longer. Lifelong Rich Bitch Hedda does not take this news well.
  • Betty and Veronica: Two notable examples:
    • The first has Ejlert as the Archie with the kind and caring Thea Elvsted (who spent two years helping him recover from his alcohol addiction) as the Betty, and the cunning Hedda Tesman who mutually sees him as the one that got away (and manufactures his relapse to control him) as the Veronica.
    • The second example involves Hedda as the axis with her sweet but bumbling husband Mr. Tesman as the Betty, and her former lover and recovered debauchee Ejlert Løvborg as the Veronica.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted with Hedda. Subverted a lot. Played straight with Thea though.
  • Beta Couple: Subverted with Ejlert and Thea; they have feelings for each other, but Eljert was, and is, madly in love with Hedda, or at least his idea of Hedda.
  • Blackmail: Judge Brack is the only person to know that Hedda's guns have been stolen and used for a horrible crime and he admits he'll use this knowledge in the future if Hedda doesn't do what he wants. He doesn't say what he'll have her do, but it is heavily implied to be something sexual.
  • Black Comedy: Whilst it is generally treated as a shocking act, some productions seem to treat Hedda's death with a sort of befuddled incredulity.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Judge Brack attempts to blackmail Hedda into being, as she puts it, a slave to him after he reveals that he has enough evidence to incriminate her for what happened to Løvborg. Upon realizing she has no choice but to do whatever he says, Hedda shoots herself in the head.
  • The Bore: Tesman spends his vacation across all of Europe locked inside to enthusiastically study "the domestic industries of Brabant during the Middle Ages." His entire life's work is dedicated to this uninteresting subject, which tortures his house-bound wife as she tries to vicariously be free through him.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: Thea refuses to hear whatever Ejlert has gotten himself into following his relapse and resolves to stay by his side no matter what. Ejlert tells her they can no longer associate with each other and to live her life as if she'd never known him. He implores her to return to her stable, if miserable marriage, and at her protest that they must complete his manuscript together (which they both see as their child), he lies that he's destroyed it himself. After Thea leaves, Hedda asks Ejlert why he was so cruel and he tells her that he couldn't take Thea down with him.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Aunt Julle is passive-aggressively taunted by her nephew's wife despite the fact that she has put her and her sister's finances on the line to furnish the couple's first house, and by the end of the play, she loses her beloved sister to illness.
    • Jørgen Tesman loses his aunt to a terminal illness, finds out his wife has burnt his friend Ejlert Løvborg's magnum opus that Jørgen himself regarded as "one of the most remarkable things that have ever been written" (which he intended to return once his friend sobered up), discovered that said friend shot and killed himself, and finally witnessed his wife's suicide... In one day.
    • Thea pleads with Hedda but is ultimately powerless to stop her from convincing the man she loves, whom she's spent two years helping to get clean of his addiction, from relapsing. She stays up anxiously all night waiting for Løvborg, who doesn't show up despite his insistence she wait for him. The next time she sees him, he tells her that the manuscript they've created together, which both refer to as their child, has been purposely destroyed at his hand (a lie) and that they can not see each other any more, insisting that she return to her miserable marriage to the sheriff. Despite this, she is absolutely distraught when she has a feeling that Ejlert may have hurt himself, and is heartbroken when Judge Brack tells everyone he shot himself. Her final act of the play is discovering that her "friend" Hedda Tesman has shot herself in the next room over.
  • Brutal Honesty: Hedda does not care if she insults people around her, when she utters her feelings and opinions.
  • Bungled Suicide: Hedda wants to vicariously kill herself through Løvborg, so she gives him a gun and euphemistically tells him to make it quick and pretty. Unfortunately for him, it doesn't exactly go according to plan.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Literally, guns; the pistols that Hedda's father gave to her become the most important objects in the play.
  • Daddy's Girl: Hedda was very close to her father. In fact, the play is called "Hedda Gabler" instead of "Hedda Tesman" because it's more about Hedda as her father's daughter than as the wife of her husband.
  • Death Before Dishonor: Hedda's reaction to realizing that her two options at the end of the play are to either do whatever Judge Brack wants for the rest of her life or be the victim of a scandal at having what she's done revealed, she opts instead to commit suicide.
  • Double Entendre: Brack likes to take "the backroads". And then Hedda comments that he also prefers a gun with sharp shots. At the same time...
  • Downer Ending: For Hedda. After she encourages Ejlert to commit suicide, telling him to "do it beautifully," Ejlert goes to a brothel and is accidentally killed by a shot to the stomach ("Lower," according to Brack). She is unaware of this until Judge Brack informs her that he knows she caused his suicide, and furthermore, he also knows she burnt the manuscript. He implies he'll force her into a sexual affair, and she, who cannot stand the thought of anyone controlling her, shoots herself in the head.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: In response to their break-up, Hedda threatened to shoot Løvborg. Now, Hedda isn't the most sympathetic of characters, but her willingness to kill a lover is not as central and important to her character as it might have been had she been a man threatening to shoot his girlfriend.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Tesman can't catch a break. Though he's actually oblivious to just how much dogged he is.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Tesman. He's not stupid exactly, just sweet, naive and innocent to the point of being really, really silly; Aunt Julle points out that Hedda has "filled out" a lot, and tells him she's expecting a special surprise, but he still doesn't realise what she's getting at. He also misinterprets pretty much all of what Hedda says; he isn't aware of Hedda's distaste for him and thinks he's happily married, and is utterly shocked at the end when she commits suicide by shooting herself in the head.
  • Driven to Suicide: Hedda drives Ejlert to suicide, and then Judge Brack drives Hedda to suicide.
  • Fiery Redhead: The singer Diana.
  • First Girl Wins: Sort of. Hedda had some kind of a relationship with Ejlert first, and isn't bothered by his relationship with Thea Elvsted because she thinks she can manipulate him into doing whatever she wants. She's kind of right: Ejlert tries to do whatever Hedda wants him to, but he usually fails.
  • First-Name Basis: Hedda is contemptuous that Aunt Julle insists they use each other's first names since they are now family. She however, insists she and Thea Elvsted refer to each other by first names since they were school-girls together to strategically manufacture closeness. Of course, Hedda tortured Thea back in school and even now she thinks her name is "Thora," so its clear she insists on first-names so Elvsted will feel like she's talking to a friend trustworthy of her secrets.
  • Fish out of Water: Hedda. It has been commented that she is a daughter of a General, and raised in a society that no longer exists. The play is written after the rise of parliamentarism in Norway, and the old ruling class (where officers were a prominent part) had lost much of their influence to the new democratic standards. No wonder Hedda feels powerless.
  • Foil:
    • Løvborg is Tesman's foil. While Tesman writes obsessively on the past, Løvborg is set on the future of humankind.
    • Thea is Hedda's foil. Thea is a kind and well-meaning woman who follows her heart without regard to public opinion while Hedda is a manipulative and callous woman who is driven by fear of scandal.
    • Hedda Tesman and Ejlert Løvborg are also foils to each other. Whereas Hedda feels inclined to pretend to love things she does not (such as Mrs. Elvsted, Aunt Julle, and her own husband) as part of her Bitch in Sheep's Clothing act, Ejlert seems to do the opposite. He puts down that which he loves, culminating in the last interaction he has with Thea Elvsted in which he Breaks Her Heart to Spare Her.
  • Foreshadowing: At the end of the first act, Hedda claims that she at least has her father's pistols to keep her occupied. And we already know where this is leading.
  • For the Evulz: Hedda seduces Løvborg and drives him to suicide because she hated Thea and burns his manuscript because it amused her and because of jealousy over Thea's influence over Løvborg.
  • Give Geeks a Chance: One of the reasons that Hedda married Tesman was because she felt sorry for him; the irony of course is that one of her few kind acts leads to her boredom, misery and eventual suicide.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: And How. The only people who are "white" are Thea (who still, mind you, left her husband which was a big no-no at the time) and Aunt Julle (a rather minor character anyway); the rest are various shades of grey.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Thea Elvsted, as one of the kindest characters in the show and being described as follows:
    "Her hair is remarkably light, almost flaxen, and unusually abundant and wavy."
  • Hopeless Suitor: Hedda implies Tesman was like this before she married him out of pity.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Hedda's ultimate undoing is that after manipulating everyone around her, culminating in pushing Løvborg to kill himself and providing him with the pistol to do so, Judge Brack recognizes the gun used as the one Hedda had pointed at him prior, and uses that leverage to manipulate her into an explicit relationship with him.
  • Hufflepuff House: The two Tesman sisters Juliana and Rina. Rina is never on stage (at first because she is too ill, later because she has died), and Juliana/Julle is the only person in the play without the faintest idea of what's going on.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Played partially straight with Thea, though there are hints that she, um, knows Ejlert in a way that Hedda doesn't.
  • Ironic Echo: Hedda complains she has to stay everlastingly with Tesman and gets mad when Judge Brack redundantly describes marriage instead as "morning, noon, and night." She uses the "morning, noon, and night" phrase slightly later and Brack takes the opportunity to describe it as "everlastingly," much to Hedda's satisfaction.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Ejlert Løvborg can be a bit of a jerk, talking lowly of Tesman and Elvsted's intelligence to Hedda when they're not around, but he cares for both of them as evidenced by his excited desire to share his manuscript with Jørgen and the fact that he sobered up for his companion and respected co-author Thea, not because she asked him to, but because he saw that his alcoholism made her upset. The epitome of Ejler fulfilling this trope is when he brutally cuts Thea off to save her repuation, but at seeing how upset she is when he tells her he's destroyed the manuscript they worked on together for a year, he returns to the brothel that he believes he lost it in to plead for the book one last time. It backfires. Literally.
  • Kick the Dog: Hedda does this all the time, most often to Thea Elvsted and Tesman. When Tesman is kicked, it's a sad moment, but when Thea is kicked, it's truly cringeworthy.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: Hedda gives Ejlert one of her father's pistols and instructs him to "make it beautiful".
  • Life's Work Ruined: The loss of the manuscript for Ejlert and Thea. Subverted when it turns out Thea and Tesman together might be able to reconstruct it.
  • Like a Son to Me: Tragically, Thea, Ejlert, and Hedda each refer to Ejlert's manuscript as his and Thea's child.
    "Do you know, Lovborg, that what you have done with the book—I shall think of it to my dying day as though you had killed a little child." (Thea to Ejlert)
    "But to kill his child—that is not the worst thing a father can do to it. Suppose now, Hedda, that a man—in the small hours of the morning—came home to his child's mother after a night of riot and debauchery, and said: "Listen—I have been here and there—in this place and in that. And I have taken our child with—to this place and to that. And I have lost the child—utterly lost it. The devil knows into what hands it may have fallen—who may have had their clutches on it."" (Ejlert to Hedda)
And most upsettingly:
"Now I am burning your child, Thea!—Burning it, curly-locks! Your child and Eilert Lovborg's. I am burning—I am burning your child." (Hedda to herself as she burns the manuscript)
  • Love Dodecahedron: Tesman loves and is married to Hedda who has feelings for Ejlert who loves Hedda but is also in love with Thea Elvsted who loves Ejlert but used to date Tesman. Tesman is Brack's best friend but Brack also has feelings for Hedda. Whew.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Tesman to Hedda, Thea to Ejlert. Ejlert to Hedda. If you're in love with someone in this play, odds are they don't feel the same way.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Or rather, in Brack's case, lust makes you morally questionable. When Tesman finds out Hedda has burned the manuscript, she claims it was out of love. Snort.
  • Love Triangle: Sort of, with Hedda, who feels a vague affection towards Ejlert, the best she can do; Thea who both loves and hero worships Ejlert, and Ejlert, who loves Thea but is obsessed with Hedda. Considering the lesbian implications on Hedda and Thea, the confusion is complete.
  • Lowest Common Denominator: In-Universe, Løvborg describes that his book has become so highly praised because he put as little in it as possible so as not to add anything people could disagree with. The sequel he's writing, however, will be a true masterwork.
  • Maiden Aunt: Tesman's father's sisters, Aunt Juliana and Aunt Rina, have never married, and they both took an active role in raising Tesman. Juliana dotes on her nephew incessantly whenever she is on stage, and he affectionately refers to her as "Aunt Julle", as he has done since childhood.note 
  • Malicious Misnaming: Hedda calls Mrs. Elvsted "Thora" instead of "Thea" in the same conversation we learn Hedda relentlessly bullied her all through high school. Either Hedda cares so little about Mrs. Elvsted that she couldn't bother to learn her name or she said it wrong deliberately to get under her skin like she did back in school.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Hedda agreed to marry Tesman because she expected his academic work would naturally lead to his financial success and a stable job.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Everyone is a bit shocked that a woman as beautiful, cultured and intelligent as Hedda chose to marry Jørgen Tesman; in the first act, Aunt Julle is tells her maid, Berte, that she never thought the two would end up together. Hedda of course is horrified once she realises how simple and common Tesman is.
  • Off the Wagon: Hedda's rejection and verbal destruction of Løvborg sends him running back to alcohol, getting so drunk that he repeatedly passes out and throws himself at fellow party-goers. In his drunken stupor, he shoots himself in the groin and dies.
  • Old Flame:
    • Hedda discovers her husband's ex-girlfriend, Mrs. Elvsted, is visiting later in the day and directly accuses her of being an old flame for the Mister, which he laughs at. At the end of the play, Hedda's fears that Elvsted will take her husband are reignited when the two of them agree to spend years and years and years working to complete Løvborg's life work, the same work which brought Elvsted and Løvborg together!
    • Løvborg doesn't reciprocate Mrs. Elvsted's feelings because he's still in love with Hedda, who herself seems to love him and only remains with Tesman in order to maintain her good name.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: The second act begins with Hedda shooting off into her garden without a care, even as she hears Judge Brack approaching.
  • Rich Bitch: Hedda is the trope. She is clearly not satisfied because she married under her position, and reacts badly when she realizes that her more upper class habits (servants and a horse) are put on hold. It easy to pity Tesman for this.
  • Rich Boredom: Hedda plays this very straight. She sets up people for the fun of it because she is bored out of her skull. And she lampshades it!
  • Right in Front of Me: Mrs. Elvsted confesses to Hedda that the one thing standing between her and Mr. Løvborg's love is his affection for a woman who left him years ago. Unknown to Elvsted, the gun-toting woman she describes is actually Hedda herself.
  • The Rival: Løvborg and Tesman.
  • Sexual Extortion: Judge Brack attempts to blackmail Hedda into becoming his lover by revealing that he knows that she supplied the pistol Eilert used to commit suicide.
  • Spell My Name With An S: In the original Norwegian, Tesman's first name is Jørgen, but English translations sometimes use this name and sometimes Anglicise it as George. Similarly, Ejlert Løvborg the original Norwegian may be Eilert Løvborg, Ejlert Lovborg, or Eilert Lovborg in English.
  • Stepford Smiler: Hedda when she tries to play nice.
  • The One That Got Away: Hedda and Ejlert mutually see each other as this.
  • The Teetotaler: After suffering for years as The Alcoholic, Løvborg has developed a rejection of all alcohol, referring to it as poison when he rejects a light drink early in the story. As the tragedy of the play ensues, he regresses back to his former reputation as The Alcoholic.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Hedda and Thea.
  • Trouble Entendre: Brack's attitude towards Hedda at the end of the play gets more and more disturbing, not least when she discovers he has gained some power over her.
  • Tying Up Romantic Loose Ends: It's implied that Tesman and Thea will get together as they piece back Løvborg's manuscript because of how similar they are in personality (especially as it's established early in the play that they were a couple before they met their respective spouses).
  • The Unfettered: What Hedda wanted to become.
  • Villainous BSoD: Brack at the end, depending on how it's played. Some versions have his final line come across as unintentionally hilarious.
  • Villain Protagonist: Hedda is the title character (albeit under her maiden name), and the focus of the play is on how she manipulates everyone around her purely for her own amusement; she is openly contemptuous of her dull husband Tesman, treats Thea Elvsted with much of the same scorn as she did when they were at school together, and toys with Løvborg's affection for her while burning the manuscript Thea inspired him to write and driving him to a badly-executed suicide.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Hedda's eyes are grey.
  • Woman Scorned: In response to their parting, Hedda threatened to gun her lover, Løvborg, down. Its had such an effect on him that it is the only event from their time together that he mentions to others.
  • Working with the Ex: Tesman and Ms. Elvsted were once in a brief relationship that neither seems to think about when agreeing to help finish Mr. Løvborg's manuscript. Neither is thinking of romance, especially since Tesman has just been married, but Hedda fears that the long nights of them alone together will eventually re-kindle their relationship.