Focused on character rather than plot, on contemporary people and society, and plumbing psychological depths in a realistic style, Ibsen challenged cotemporary audiences accustomed to lighter entertainment and the “well-made play.” Which is not to say that Hedda Gabler does not have a reasonable complexity of plot, many events transpire here, including three deaths, albeit all of them offstage.The focus, though, is on Hedda, the daughter of a ranking military officer whose portrait looms over the proceedings throughout, suggesting, perhaps, the structured society of the military and the rigidity of its role definitions which are reflected, if not generally articulated, in the broader society of the time. Women’s place was to be wife, mother, and caretaker, all roles largely defined by others, leaving little room for an independent thinker or one who could not adapt within those limitations.
Hedda has married George Tesman, who adores her. He’s naïve, a scholar, a bore, a bit of a ninny, and he seems rather oblivious to the financial realities of supporting Hedda in the style she has deceptively led him to believe she requires. Hedda, a beauty of social standing, is a catch for George, but he is clueless as to just what it is that he has caught.
Hedda is an indifferent wife, barely tolerating George, and she is in abject fear and rather hysterical denial of her pregnancy that leaves only the role of caregiver, exemplified in the play by George’s aunt, who is selfless and finds genuine fulfillment in caring for others, as well as by Mrs. Elvsted, who centers her life in assisting and supporting the work. But Hedda, selfish and self-centered, is a taker, not a giver, so this last socially acceptable route is not an option for her.
Indeed, each of Hedda’s relationships with her husband, with her alcoholic friend Loevborg, and with Judge Brack, a predatory manipulator, is based on what she can gain from the other. And control is her unstated, but core issue constrained by the rules of a society that she doesn’t have the courage to flaunt, she, like the judge, ruthlessly attempts to influence the events unfolding around her, but those events take turns she did not anticipate . She waves pistols about —and shoots them–with carefree abandon on the surface, but those weapons express a sort of control and power that might be seized by the otherwise powerless.