Really, there is no reason to like the fictional character Hedda Gabler.
She’s vain, contemptuous and competitive. She’s not someone with whom you could let down your guard or trust with confidences.
Yet, she can be witty and charming. She’s knowledgeable and smart – and that is the problem. Hedda Gabler is too smart for her own good.
Hedda Gabler, the woman and the play, comes to us courtesy of Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), a Norwegian playwright who also wrote Peer Gynt and A Doll’s House. Ibsen completed Hedda Gabler in 1890; it premiered in 1891 to negative reviews.
The play is centred around an unhappily married woman who manipulates those around her.
Hedda Gabler is still considered to be one of the Great dramatic female roles of the stage. She is a complex character: she chafes at convention yet doesn’t have the guts to live an unconventional life.
She’s a self-centered woman without purpose, someone who must find ways to amuse herself. This makes her dangerous.
On paper, the play Hedda Gabler seems rather ridiculous; the whole thing depends on the performances of incredibly talented actors. Fortunately, a 1962 BBC production recruited some of the best.
Michael Redgrave is Hedda’s husband, a brilliant scholar but a dunce of a spouse. He is a man who spent much of his honeymoon researching historical texts and sees nothing unusual with it.
Ralph Richardson plays a long-time friend who is an untrustworthy opportunist, but is someone with whom Hedda can flirt and speak candidly about her marriage.
Trevor Howard is a former boyfriend and Hedda’s main preoccupation. He is still in love with Hedda and she continues to encourage him, even in front her husband. But when this suitor gets a little carried away, Hedda’s allegiance to convention kicks in. “All the same,” she tells him, “no unfaithfulness.”
Because she’s a complicated character, and the one upon whom everything hangs, you need a strong, charismatic actress like Ingrid Bergman to play the title role of Hedda.
Hedda is in a tough spot. Since her beloved father’s death, she lives adrift in a society with pre-set roles for women, none of which suit her Situation In Life. She doesn’t have the funds to be a society hostess, nor the opportunity to manage her husband’s career, nor the courage to live as she pleases.
Bergman convinces us of her character’s desperate unhappiness: Hedda thinks the only thing left in life is to bore herself to death. She laughs at the thought of a monotonous life, then starts to cry and nearly becomes hysterical. “What am I to do with myself all day long?” she moans.
Only Bergman can tell us why Hedda would marry an oaf like Redgrave’s character and make it believable. Her description of their courtship is not romantic; she describes her hand pistol with more tenderness. Even so, Bergman reveals some satisfaction with this marital conquest.
She’s deceptive, too. When an old school chum (Dilys Hamlett) pays a visit, Bergman exudes a charming warmth. However, her hospitality lasts only as long as it takes to mine some juicy gossip. Then, when Hamlett says she’s deserting her husband for Another Man, Bergman stiffens with disapproval.
Hedda, it seems, is satisfied with hypocrisy, but heaven forbid she be bored. It sounds preposterous, but Bergman makes us empathize with it.
We recommend this BBC version of Hedda Gabler because it doesn’t feel “stage-y” and the acting is very, very good – especially Ingrid Bergman, who is at her dangerous best.
- Note: For scholarly analysis of Hedda Gabler, click HERE.
Hedda Gabler: starring Ingrid Bergman, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson. Directed by Alex Segal. Written by Philip H. Reisman Jr. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1962, B&W, 75 mins.
This post is part of the The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Click HERE to see the fab entries.