Hedda the 31st January 1891, the premiere took place

Hedda Gabler is a play about feminism. What is
feminism? “Feminism is quite simply the belief that women should be as free as
men.” (The Guardian, Feminism in the 21st Century). In this essay I
will explore how a play which is over one hundred years old looks at the theme
of feminism, how it is still relevant in today’s society and how it is shown
through performance.

Hedda Tessman formerly Gabler is the daughter of an Army
General. She has just returned home from her six month honeymoon. Already bored
of married life and feeling like she has lost her identity and control over her
life, Hedda wants to inject some excitement back into her life and gain control
over her own life by controlling and manipulating those around her.

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Hedda Gabler is a play written by Norwegian playwright Henrik
Ibsen. Published in 1890, Ibsen was there for its first performance on the 31st
January 1891, the premiere took place at the Residenztheatre (The Residents
Theatre) in Munich. Clara Hesse was the first actress to play Hedda and Ibsen
was very disappointed in her performance. The play is naturalism and the actors
would have used the Stanislavski Method to keep the performance as natural as
possible. Hedda Gabler is Ibsen’s sixteenth play. It became an iconic play
which explores the faults of modern society and many of the issues which are
still prominent today. Many of Ibsen’s plays covered social issues, however
this did not mean Henrik Ibsen was a socialist, he did not want to control society
he just wanted to improve it for the better.

In the 19th century, Norway and Sweden are sharing a kingdom,
through the “Treaty of Kiel, 1814,” (History of Norway) which lasted for over a
century. Whilst the Norwegian’s were able to keep their constitution and have
become an independent kingdom, they have had to hand over the throne to the
King of Sweden. In the 1890’s the women of Norway were living under strict
Victorian values. Industry was never better in Norway, with railways being
built all over the country and the economy growing, the “Crafts Act” of 1839
and the “Trade Act” of 1842 gave single women in Norway the opportunity to
trade and provide for themselves for the first time.” (Kilden Gender
Research.no) Despite the class system under the new parliamentary constitution
those owning or renting their land for five years or more were eligible for the
vote.  This sparked a wave of feminist movement which took
place across Europe. Although feminism was slowly starting to make it in
the public domain there was little impact in Britain

Hedda Gabler takes place during the late 1800’s, at the same
time as a feminist movement swept through Europe. With the class system
gradually being broken down, Ibsen takes the opportunity to make women the
forefront of his plays. Hedda is not your classic Victorian woman, she did not
marry for love and she would “rather lead an army of soldiers than have
children.” (Hedda Gabler) Hedda is a feisty and independent individual, it is
clear she feels like she has lost her identity similarly to what happened
between Sweden and Norway, when Norway handed over their throne to Sweden. In
Hedda Gabler, the women seem to exist in a time where women are constantly in the
shadow of men. Whereas Hedda wants more out of her life, she’s bored with her
mundane and mediocre life. She wishes she had power and control over people,
very much like her Father did. Hedda is a representation of women living in a
society which denies expression of freedom.

In Norway women who were able to trade felt like they had
some control and influence over their life. However unmarried women were
considered a burden not only to society but to their Fathers. In Hedda’s case
she did not marry for love she married because she did not want to be a burden
to society as her father was deceased. Despite the changing laws for women,
only a small percentage of women were able to trade, however this was enough to
start a feminist movement throughout Norway. Women who were able to trade and
support themselves quickly realised they were not as unintelligent as they were
first believed to be by the majority of men. Women believed if they were able
to contribute to the economy, then they should be able to vote for how the
country is run. They wanted to be treated and have the same rights as men.
Ibsen who had spent a lot of time in Norway, Germany and Italy noticed in all
these countries women wanted to be treated as equals and not be inferior to men.

Ibsen believed he had set the performance in contemporary
Norway. He believed it was relevant to the current issues affecting the women
of Europe. It is argued Henrik Ibsen was the first male feminist. “He was an
avid newspaper reader and he used a lot of the news stories to create his drama”
(The Sydney Morning Herald) just like modern day playwrights. Ibsen was aware
of the ongoing debates around female equality. “Ibsen viewed a women’s place in
society as mother and housewife but the playwright had eye for justice” (eNotes.com)
which appealed to the masses. Ibsen uses Hedda as a tool to show audiences to
think about how men have power and they use it in the domestic world.

By the time Ibsen had written Hedda Gabler he was a well
established playwright and his work was recognised and identified universally.
Although Hedda Gabler was originally Norwegian, the play has been translated
into many languages. Unfortunately a lot of Ibsen’s work is untranslatable
however “James Joyce admired Ibsen so much that as a youth he attempted to
teach himself Norwegian in order to read Ibsen in the original script.”
(Hedda Gabler Spark Notes) Although a lot of his work remains untranslatable
the main themes in his plays have never been lost in transcript. “Ibsen’s works
have held up over the years because he tapped into universal themes and
explored the human condition in a way unlike any of those before him.”
(Biography.com)

I recently saw a production of Hedda Gabler and just like the
original version it was set in a contemporary apartment and the theme of women
being inferior to men and being unable to live their own life was as prominent
as ever. The Director’s, Ivo Van Hove, interpretation of the version I saw
stuck closely to the way Ibsen envisioned it when he wrote it. I thought the
actress who played Hedda, Lizzy Watts, interpreted the role very well conveying
to the audience Hedda’s dissatisfaction with life and the controlling side of her
nature. Since 1890 feminism has come a long way, women now have the vote and
are predominantly treated as equals however a lot of women in the 21st century
are still living in the shadow of men. Just like in 1890 there are still ongoing
debates around equality and women’s rights for example the Tampon Tax debate
and whether it is right to tax an essential item vs. the free condom debate. In
today’s society there are many careers which are still considered to be part of
more masculine industry such as engineering. Pregnant women in the workplace
will often be mistreated and looked down on. In Hedda Gabler it is speculated
Hedda is pregnant when she kills herself, she wanted to be so much more than a
bored housewife who does nothing with her life apart from raise children. Hedda
saw having children as yet another way of suppressing women and keeping them
trapped in a life of domesticity they are unable to leave. Hedda believes the
only way she can truly liberate herself, break away from her husband’s shadow
and be in control of her own life is by choosing to take her own life.
The versatility of this play is what has made it such a success.

I believe Hedda Gabler is still as popular today as what it
was when it first premiered. Henrik Ibsen had an understanding of human nature
and was able to use the issues affecting the masses and promote any changes he
believed would improve society, he used his plays to do this and I feel Hedda
Gabler was his way of putting women at the forefront of society instead of them
constantly being in the shadow of men. Despite a huge upsurge in the feminist
movement across Western Europe and the United States of America, feminist writers
such as Germaine Greer would argue there is still fundamental inequality in
society today. In “1975 the Sex Discrimination Act made it unlawful in England and
Wales for women to be treated less favourably than men.” (Legislation.Gov.UK) “In
2016 Nottinghamshire Police went one step further to include misogyny in its
list of hate crimes.” (Nottinghamshire Police) Despite these huge steps forward
many women in the work place are still under represented in traditionally male
dominated environments. The “glass ceiling” effect is well documented. Ibsen
with his play Hedda Gabler was instrumental in fostering a change in attitude
towards women therefore this play continues to stand the test of time in our
ever changing society.