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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 Lovborg.
  • 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.
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  • 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 Lovborg, a man her own age.
  • Agonizing Stomach Wound: Hedda tries to drive Lovborg to suicide by giving him a pistol and telling him to "make it beautiful". Instead, the gun accidentally discharges while Lovborg is in a brothel, striking him in the bowels and causing a slow, Undignified Death.
  • The Alcoholic: Lovborg 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 Lovborg 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Brutal Honesty: Hedda does not care if she insults people around her, when she utters her feelings and opinions.
  • 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.
  • 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 Lovborg. 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: Ejlert is probably the most sympathetic person in the play, yet he still can't catch a break.
  • 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: Heavily implied with Hedda. In a throwaway line, it is stated that she is one.
  • 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 insists she and Thea Elvsted refer to each other by first names since they were school-girls together. 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.
  • 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 Lovborg 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 Lovborg.
  • 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.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Løvborg had the hots for Hedda from early on.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Hedda implies Tesman was like this before she married him out of pity.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, Lovborg 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 Lovborg 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 Lovborg's life work, the same work which brought Elvsted and Lovborg together!
    • Lovborg 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. Lovborg's love is his affection for a woman who left him years ago. Unknown to Elvsted, the gun-toting red-head she describes is actually the red-headed gun-totter she's confessing to.
  • 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.
  • The Teetotaler: After suffering for years as The Alcoholic, Lovborg 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.
  • 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 Lovborg'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).
  • 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 Lovborg'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, Lovborg, 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. Lovborg'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.


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