Hedda Gabler was written by Henrik Ibsen, arguably the father of modern drama, in the late 19th Century. Ibsen was among the first to write in a realistic style on subjects affecting the middle class society in which he lived. Many of his plays, including A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and An Enemy of the People, are considered classics, and Hedda is among the most frequently performed of his works.
For me, there are many reasons that the theatrical world in New York and beyond continually returns to watch the fate of General Gabler’s vibrant, desperate daughter play out. From the acting standpoint, many consider Hedda to be Hamlet’s female counterpart – the role that many a gifted actress is eager to tackle. And for this reason, I feel truly lucky to have the brilliant Mary-Louise Parker playing the title role. Mary-Louise is well-known for her Tony-winning performance on stage in Proof and has been lauded for her work on television in Weeds, Angels in America, and The West Wing. She is exactly the kind of smart, modern actress who can breathe new life into this famously ambiguous character.
And it is that ambiguity that I think is the other reason that we return to Hedda Gabler – we still haven’t figured her out. When we first meet Hedda, newly returned from a lengthy honeymoon, she is already dissatisfied. The trip, like her scholarly new husband, was dull; the house is not to her taste; the in-laws are meddling; and worst of all, the most exciting man ever to have romanced her has reformed under the influence of a good woman. As Hedda’s frustration with these circumstances grows, so does her desire to play games and manipulate everyone who crosses her path, often in ways that can hardly do her any good. There have been many interpretations of Hedda’s actions over the years, always stuck on the question of what motivates this woman to be so destructive. Is she a victim of gender inequality, caged in by society’s rules and going mad in a world that has left her no options? Is she simply a monster, this woman who seeks to bring about disaster with no clear objective other than her own amusement?
For me, the most interesting reading is the one to which this production’s director, Ian Rickson, and adaptor, Christopher Shinn, subscribe. They have argued that Hedda Gabler is all about possession. Every character in this play is driven by their desire to possess something that may or may not rightly be theirs. They pursue past loves, professional positions, and illicit affairs, sometimes because they truly want them and often out of mere petty jealousy. For Hedda herself, there is an element of a need for control in these actions. Many things in her life suddenly seem beyond her own control, so she grasps onto the things that she does have the ability to manipulate – because it is only that feeling of being able to control someone’s destiny that makes her feel like she is truly alive. The danger in this character is clear, and perhaps it explains why she has been so enduringly fascinating.
I know that this production is in good hands with Ian, who ran London’s Royal Court Theatre for many years, and Chris, the author of plays such as Dying City and Where Do We Live. They have enjoyed several strong collaborations and have both admitted to a bit of an obsession with Ibsen, so it will be wonderful to watch them shed new light on this much-discussed story. I hope that you are as eager as I am for this fresh examination of one of our greatest playwrights and that you will share your thoughts on it with me.
I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!
2008-2009 Season, Hedda Gabler