The inaugural performance of esteemed Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler
, which Ibsen attended in person, took place in Munich on January 31, 1891. A classic example of dramatic realism
and nineteenth-century theatre, the titular character is viewed as one of the greatest dramatic stage characters of all time. The story, set in the late nineteenth century in Norway, follows Hedda Gabler, a bored newlywed and the daughter of the late General Gabler. Returning from her honeymoon, Hedda, who may be pregnant, begins seeking ways to manipulate a human fate. Although Hedda’s married name is Tesman, Ibsen chose to use her maiden name (Gabler) in the title of the play to reinforce the bond between father and daughter rather than that between husband and wife.
The play is set in the Tesman’s living room and a small adjoining room. George and Hedda Tesman (nee Gabler) are newlyweds fresh off their six-month honeymoon in Kristiania (Oslo). Hedda, the aristocratic daughter of the late General Gabler, enjoys the great wealth left by her father. George is an aspiring professor who opted to study during their honeymoon, indicating their strained romance. Throughout the play, it becomes clear that Hedda never really loved George. However, Hedda felt the need to marry before reaching an undesirable age. Throughout the play, it is suggested that Hedda may be pregnant, which she keeps to herself.
In act 1, George awakes in his villa to the arrival of his Aunt Julle, who raised him and still supports him monetarily. Hedda is immediately rude to Aunt Julle. George asks Hedda to be kinder, but she shrugs him off, showing clear disinterest in him as well. Later, Hedda’s old schoolmate Thea Elvsted arrives, bringing the news that George’s academic nemesis, Eilert Lovborg, is back in town. Eilert, a writer and recovering alcoholic, has wasted his talents, heretofore, but has recently published a bestseller on the same subject of George’s expertise. Hedda gets George to leave, at which point she coaxes Thea to confide in her. Hedda learns that Thea, who left her husband for Eilert, is worried that Eilert will relapse, confessing that she went out looking for him without her husband’s permission. The gossipy Judge Brack arrives, telling George that Eilert is poised to take the teaching position that George is also competing for. When Brack leaves, George tells Hedda they must begin saving money, as they can no longer afford their extravagant lifestyle.
In act 2, Brack shows up again later that day to find Hedda fooling around with her firearms. The two speak privately, deciding to forge a personal bond with one another. Hedda confesses to Brack how boring her honeymoon was, and how she feels indifferent about the house George went out of his way to purchase for her, falsely thinking she desired to live there. When George returns, the subject switches to the stag party Brack is throwing later that evening. Eilert arrives and speaks solemnly to Hedda, making it clear that they are former lovers. While the others dine, Thea arrives. Hedda, apparently jealous, wishes to come between Eilert and Thea. She makes Eilert think Thea is so worried about him relapsing, that he begrudgingly begins to drink anyway. At Hedda’s behest, Eilert joins George and Brack as they depart for the stag party, which enrages Thea. However, Eilert vows to return to escort Thea home later that evening.
Act 3 commences just before dawn. Thea is still awake waiting for Eilert to return. Hedda sleeps on the sofa. When Hedda awakes, she calls Thea to join her. George arrives claiming to have the manuscript of the sequel to Eilert’s bestseller, the sole copy of which Eilert dropped while walking home drunk. George plots to return the manuscript to Eilert but is distracted by news that his Aunt Rina is dying. When George leaves, Brack arrives to tell Hedda that Eilert has been arrested. Eilert, no longer interested in the professorship, arrives and proclaims that he has destroyed his manuscript, making Thea so upset, she immediately leaves (it’s revealed that Thea jointly wrote the manuscript). Eilert confesses to Hedda that he has actually lost his manuscript and that he wishes to commit suicide as a result. Hedda does not tell Eilert that she possesses the manuscript but, instead, offers him a gun that belonged to her father, telling him to enjoy a beautiful death. Eilert leaves and Hedda burns his manuscript, referring to it as Eilert and Thea’s baby. Hedda tells George that she burned the manuscript to protect their future.
Act 4 begins in the dark living room. Aunt Julle arrives dressed in black, signifying a state of mourning. It is expressed through dialogue that everyone in black is attending Aunt Rina’s funeral, rather than Eilert’s. Aunt Julle declares she must find a new patient to care for, and then leaves. Thea arrives, relaying the news she heard that Eilert is recovering in the hospital. Brack arrives, confirming Eilert’s whereabouts, but informs them he’s already dead. Brack explains that Lovborg died of self-inflicted chest wounds. Tesman and Elvsted rush home and attempt to reconstruct Eilert’s manuscript, using notes that Thea kept in her possession. Brack takes Hedda aside, privately confessing that Eilert’s death was far messier than reported. He explains that the gun went off accidentally and that Hedda could be held be caught in a scandal. Hedda is devastated that the beautiful death she hoped for was all for naught. Brack tells Hedda he will abide by her wishes and keep her secret if she chooses to remain silent. Soon, Hedda leaves the living room and enters the small adjoining room. She plays piano for a short time before shooting herself in the temple. The others hear the shot, but assume Hedda is just playing with her guns as always. The play ends with George, Thea, and Brack discovering Hedda’s corpse.