Fascinated with a Savage

I do not speak a word of any of the Scandinavian languages. When I was asked to do the adaptation of Hedda Gabler it crossed my mind that it was somewhat like asking me to write a travel piece on Norway (where I have never been) with only the guide books as my reference.

Oh well, I thought if we are all aware of these limitations, I’ll give it a go. I am asked what I want. I request a translation as literal and devoid of inflection as possible in a piece of drama. Kind of like adding, to my (slightly) more sprightly second-hand references, a highly technical and very dry survey map of the country to which I am about to feign a visit. Waiting for that to arrive I reacquainted myself with the play. I started with the common-or-garden, locally bought, semi-academic paperback. It is creaky to say the least. The jokes seem torturous. The character of Tesman preposterous. His aunt only marginally more believable. Hedda and Lovborg… graceless springs to mind. And stupid, why is she so witless and thick? And married to him? And flirting with that old fart, Brack?

The play, in those versions, reads hammy and I am thinking anxious moment for moment how can this add up? But of course it does. I mean, I know it adds up. It must. But after that initial reacquainting read – which I did calmly and slowly in one sitting – I was filled with dread. Then I received the literal translation: two hundred thick, gluey pages of tightly spaced junk. It seemed, then, I was faced with an ugly nonsense task. Because everybody can’t be wrong. It must be a great play – hell, I know it’s a great play. I can remember it’s a great play. The story is so powerful and the dynamics between the characters, even though obscured by the crust of language, still resonate and feel taut and… there is a dark engine in there but who said I was going to be able to uncover it? Or rather, chart a clear enough path for the actors to uncover it.

I break it down into action and events. Little scene-lets. What happens in each, who does what to whom? What are they after in the scheme of things and in the moment? Nothing new here. The paper mound is rising exponentially, it makes me think of that story of the cartographers who set out to make a scale map of their country. Every nook and cranny carefully and faithfully rendered, then papered over.  But if helps, this detail, I am detecting one sure, categorically certain thing. Tesman is NOT a fool. That is the point of all this work. Tesman goes quite neatly from point A to point B to point C. Yes, he encounters obstacles on the way. Yes, he blunders comically on, but know this – only Tesman gets what he wants in this play. And that is funny. In a black and visionary way.

VISIONARY? Yes, I must always remember that Ibsen started life as a poetic dramatist. That these plays are poems artfully buried in a distillation of reality. The map is actually a portrait. Norway is irrelevant. This is the West. This is a vision of the Western World about to embark on the most horrific century in its wicked history. There are glimpses in Tesman of Himmler, of bureaucracy triumphing over humanity. The soulless horror that would send shivers down Kafka’s creative spine. And the play between these characters throbs with Eros and reeks of Thanatos which unsurprisingly reminds me of Sigmund Freud and I remember him noting some years later that wherever he goes he finds the poet has been there before him. In my reading around I see that thirty years after this play Freud wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principle in which he developed the structural theory of mind that placed great emphasis on aggression. In which he posited “the death drive as the pitiless adversary of Eros’.

And this all makes sense and fills me with the thrill of the play. The power of the play, the importance of the play. The deep cultural resonance of the play. Let alone the brilliantly realised power shifts in each scene and the incredible stakes in each interchange. The incredible stakes of, for example, Hedda’s slight on Aunt Julle’s fashion sense in Act One and the smiling satanistic response of Tesman and Aunt Julle circling the plump virgin to-be-sacrificed… The intimacy of the drama. Every moment delved into. This almost embarrassing sense of being amongst people fighting politely for their lives. Fighting politely for their souls.

When it was first performed the play received virtually no critical response. Even closed admirers were left… disinterested to say the least, worried that their champion (remembering that Ibsen was revered as a social commentator and satirist) was disappearing up an inconsequential  fundament. Here is a telling response from the time of the play’s first performance in Germany:

“Everything that should make this curious being intelligible to us, her development, her secret thoughts, her half-sensed misgivings and all that vast region of the human mind which lies between the conscious and the unconscious – all this the dramatist can no more than indicate.  For that reason I think a novel about Hedda Gabler could be extremely interesting while the play leaves us with a sense of emptiness and betrayal.”

Reading that now you hear ‘no more than indicate’. You hear ‘half-sensed misgivings’, ‘secret thoughts’, ‘the vast region…between the conscious and the unconscious’. You think Beckett. You think Pinter. You think Sub-Text and Dramatic Dialogue 101. You certainly do not think Novel. You wonder if the power of the secret drama hidden in Hedda Gabler so affected Gerhard Gran (who wrote this response) that he left the theatre feeling the deep emptiness and betrayal at the heart of these poor people’s lives and mistook it for a bad night out. He thought he had indigestion but was dying all the while of a heart attack.

And because the play didn’t set about critiquing society blatantly but rather dismantling a few choice bourgeois, it wasn’t about the world and what’s wrong with the world like The Pillars of Society, An Enemy of the People or even Ghosts. But then I don’t think anyone had coined the catch cry ‘the personal is the political’ in 1890. That would come some years later. Like everything else I’m beginning to think. This intimacy I can’t stop thinking about either. The obsessive close-up. The dare I say it – cinematic intensity. Delving in and closer ever closer. Trapping and unpeeling these people. No, that’s not fair – watching these people trap and unpeel each other. He must have been a merciless bastard too, because it is such fun. And I begin to sense the comedy in the midst of this devastation, the outrageousness of Hedda’s mischief. The joy of Hedda’s mischief. The innocence of Hedda’s mischief, really. No idea that Tesman and Brack would play so hard, all the way to winning. Everything. She who really outstrips them on so many levels was not worldly at all. Not worldly enough to understand the blunt object of her husband’s unstoppable ambition or the glittering surface of Brack’s impenetrability. The rock and the hard place indeed.

And could Lovborg save her? You know, just say. Could Lovborg actually DO anything? He is a great thinker and expresses ideas close to Ibsen’s own beliefs. He is a spirited individual, but is he as powerful as he would need to be? Is he a hope at all? A man filled with zeal for the future, for a world that seems manageable and new and controlled yet he can’t even control himself. Make himself anew. Can’t – as the saying goes – even kill himself properly.

Confident…no, in the thrall of the play’s modern-ness I am striving for spare dialogue and diminished exposition. I’m determined to see Tesman’s strategy unduffered. Of course the duffer is part of his strategy but it is not more than his strategy. And Hedda’s wit, her free form and strange self-confinement, her knowingness and her innocence. Her intricate contradictions. Translations set aside at last. Breathing at last and structure only (really) scene by scene, Act by Act, as my guide. It doesn’t really matter that I’ve never been to Norway and I don’t speak Scandinavian, the drama, like music, is a language of its own. It needs some English for the dialogue to make sense but the drive is there, a beating heart that needs me only to get out of the way.

The first two productions, in Germany and Copenhagen, were attended by Ibsen and he was unhappy with the performances in both. The German being too declamatory and missing the comedy and the Danish Hedda lacking colour and vigour. Interestingly it was an American actress in London who first grasped the subtlety of the role. I have to quote this review from 1891 because it is about the play in performance and because first and foremost Ibsen was a dramatist, then a poet (and never to my knowledge a novelist).

“Miss Elizabeth Robbins approached her task with artistic glee, and crowned it with undoubted success. The lovers of sustained art should not miss it, even if the play itself shocks them. The character grew under the influence of the actress. Her face was a study. No one could move their eyes from her… she has made vice attractive by her art… she has made a heroine out of a sublimated sinner. She has fascinated us with a savage.

Finally… I’m still reading around and in my journeys have come across a juicy tidbit. Strindberg, never a great friend of Ibsen’s (and vice versa), particularly loathed the play. Apparently he felt that the character of Lovborg was a slight on him. His dissipation. No doubt his unswerving belief in being a genius in his own lifetime. As far as Strindberg was concerned the play was an attack on him. Well all that’s as it may be, except Strindberg, as another writer, had sensed another layer to this brilliant poem. The fable of the writer. You cannot marry the muse and you cannot work by inspiration alone. Is Ibsen wondering that in order for art to finally become an object for the public, the inspiration and the muse must be banished (killed even) and the donkey work must be done? The collation and building of the piece. The care and attention to structure and, dare I say it, reputation. The ambition it takes to get beyond ‘imagine if’. And suddenly in the light of this, Tesman, Thea, Hedda and Lovborg take on new dimensions and resonances between each other.

None of which has anything to do with acting the play or writing the words on the surface of the scenes. But these thoughts and one or two others have been whirling around my head as I seek valiantly to disappear from the equation, which is the essential (and hardest) part of the adaptor’s job.

Andrew Upton
July 2004

This article first appeared in State of the Arts magazine July – September 2004 and is published in the Currency Press 2004 publication of the adaptation of Hedda Gabler.Reproduced here by kind permission of Currency Press, 2007.