Buffalo Theatre Ensemble
at the Theatre Building
There are some women whose status as icons is undisputed--Antigone, Joan of Arc, Nora Helmer. All performed decisive actions that have inspired women everywhere. Hedda Gabler, however, remains an enigma among the feminist candidates for canonization. Was she a spoiled and self-destructive neurotic whose suicide was precipitated by spite? Or was she a courageous martyr, choosing death before dishonor? Were her actions merely the exercise of what women traditionally have been told is their prerogative, if not their duty--namely, to cause trouble? Or was Hedda the last of the 19th-century Romantics, caught in an age when decorum ruled over sensibility?
The plot is complex enough to warrant a rebriefing. General Gabler's much-courted daughter has married George Tesman, who is expected to assume a prestigious position at a large university. Hedda's disappointment with married life begins early, when her husband spends their entire honeymoon poring over antique books, but she looks forward to the extensive social life George has promised her. When it looks as if George's ascension to academe, and the salary and social standing that go with it, may be postponed, Hedda finds herself facing--temporarily, at least--a life of genteel poverty. Meanwhile, the most ardent of her former suitors, Eilert Lovborg, has written a brilliant book with the assistance of Thea Elvsted, an old schoolmate whom Hedda has always openly scorned and secretly envied. Jealous over what she regards as Lovborg's betrayal of the bond between them, Hedda burns his manuscript and, after he has declared that its loss has destroyed his will to live, hands him one of her father's dueling pistols and requests him to "do it beautifully." His bungled suicide (he literally shoots himself in the balls) does not satisfy Hedda, and rather than deal with the public scandal and private ennui she feels is certain to ensue, she decides to kill herself.
If Hedda's behavior sounds vaguely sociopathic, much of it might be blamed on the repressive social conditions of Norway in 1890. Director Peter Forster has chosen to set the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of Ibsen's play in 1920 Chicago, however, and this presents several problems. For one thing, although a program note emphasizes that 1920 is the year when "women's long fight for the vote ended," Hedda could have voted several years earlier in any of 12 states (her mother could have voted in Wyoming, which legalized woman suffrage in 1869). For another, on her honeymoon, Hedda might have visited a birth-control clinic operated by the Malthusian League and so found the means to avoid the pregnancy that so depresses her. In short, the social pressures that restricted women's activities, though they were by no means eliminated by 1920, had eased considerably, and a Hedda Gabler of that time might have found many avenues open to her that would not have been possible for the Hedda Gabler of 1890.
So why doesn't this modern Hedda take advantage of these new opportunities? Forster seems to favor the view that Hedda is a Romantic among Victorians. Her milieu was to have been the salons and soirees that she had been told would make up much of her married life. There she would have reigned as hostess-queen, surrounded by subjects who would love her with the sexless adoration she enjoyed as the youthful belle of the county. She is unprepared to be baby-maker for George, baby-sitter for his aunts, and baby-plaything for the lecherous Judge Brack. Hedda's platonic idealism, which makes the sordid indignities of everyday existence repugnant, also prevents her from using the practical measures that might have enabled her to achieve at least a part of her goals. Unable to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, unwilling to be Elizabeth Regina, Hedda chooses to commit the ultimate act of will--to die, beautifully.
It's difficult to feel sympathy for Hedda in the best of circumstances--and one wants to feel sympathetic, if only because her opposite, Thea Elvsted, is such a goody two-shoes, and the self-sacrificing Aunt Julia is no less dreary. But Forster's relocation of the play not only offers no assistance to our sympathy but serves to diminish Hedda all the more. Hedda, who is supposed to be so clearly the daughter of a general, with his courage and sense of honor, has been put in a context where her father is unlikely to have seen battle. Or if he has, it's likely he's lost most of his ideals. So Hedda's play with General Gabler's side arms seems a petty bid for attention. And if General Gabler has opted to keep his daughter in boarding schools, as seems likely, how do she and the other characters come to know one another as childhood friends? And why has Hedda no other friends to alleviate her boredom?
Not content with obscuring any clues from the past that might help explain Hedda's behavior, Forster--to judge by his program notes--also seems to have confused her with Zelda Fitzgerald, the mad flapper-goddess whose mental instability went largely unnoticed amid the giddiness of the Roaring 20s. Unlike Zelda, Hedda has no wish to become a ballet dancer, but she does have a piano, which Forster places center stage. (Oddly, however, she never plays it, although its presence dominates the room.) If dance is Zelda's tragedy, Forster seems to reason, music must be Hedda's, and so he has her wander alone and silent onstage accompanied only by tragic arias from Italian operas, intercut with snippets of the gypsy song from Bizet's Carmen.
This Hedda appears to be more nerves than backbone, an impression that's heightened by having the actress deliver her lines in a brittle treble chirp and giving her a maquillage that makes her look like the bad fairy in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The sum is a Hedda who's not in the least heroic, but selfish, malicious, and bonkers in the bargain. It could be argued that this is the definitive Romantic female, but how are we to care about such a person?
She's not the only loony tune in this production. Forster has apparently taken as his motto Ibsen's observation that "Life is not tragic--life is ridiculous." Or as Hedda says, "Why does everything I touch become ridiculous and ugly?" To make sure that we understand the point, Forster repeatedly has his actors react as if crying--only to have them suddenly change to laughter. (Perhaps the raffish collegians chortling so obnoxiously in the audience on opening night were planted as part of this plan.) Unfortunately, the effect of even a few such ambiguities is to make all the characters seem hysterical and not a little unhinged.
Evaluating the performances of actors so handicapped is difficult. As Hedda, Julie Lemick is a caricature: affected, brittle, deliberately rather than thoughtlessly rude--a real bitch. Cynthia Desmond plays Thea Elvsted as stronger and more independent than in most interpretations of the role, but she succeeds only in making her character's effusiveness smothering as well as ingenuous. Jim Ortlieb plays George Tesman as a standard-issue wimp, and Craig Berger, as Judge Brack, has a rough-and-ready charm more suited to a frontiersman than to an experienced back-door man. Only Forster, playing the doomed Eilert Lovborg, comes across as a serious and unified character, possibly because Lovborg really has very little to do; he's a character more talked about than to.
Joanne Witzkowski Kalec has designed a number of stunning period ensembles for her leading lady--including a funeral dress more decollete than the evening gown--and Jon Gantt has assembled a shiny-white art-deco set cold and hard enough for a penguin sanctuary. Both designs would be wonderful for Noel Coward, but not for a play in which the protagonists die.
Those deaths are the Buffalo Theatre's greatest loss. Trying to make an old play new has always presented a challenge, and in this interpretation of Ibsen Forster may have wanted to suggest that Hedda gave it all up just a moment too soon. But would even the 20s have been what Hedda wanted? Would she have gone on to become a Dorothy Parker? Probably not. The price that Dionysian sacrifices must pay for the devotion of their followers is that they cannot change as mortals change. Lovborg has to die untimely to fulfill his promise, and Hedda's suicide may be the most perfect bid for glory she could make. This production, however, makes it impossible to consider their deaths seriously, and that is not only ridiculous but tragic.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.