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Henrik Ibsen’s works are dealing with the well kept secrets and dogmas in society. His plays strip away the defending layers of the established ethical and moral virtues of social life and therefore create a great commotion and distress among the general public. Ibsen’s radical exposure of highly tabooed themes such as sexually transmitted diseases, euthanasia, incest, dysfunctional marriages, and the “angel of the house” role of women causes the painful response of the spectators facing the brightness of the truth. Prof. Bjorn Hemmer in his “The Dramatist Henrik Ibsen” laconically summarizes the magnitude of Ibsen’s impact on modern theatre and social conventions: “However, drama was the focus of his real lyrical spirit.
For a period of many hard years, he faced bitter opposition. But he finally triumphed over the conservatism and aesthetic prejudices of the contemporary critics and audiences. More than anyone, he gave theatrical art a new vitality by bringing into European bourgeois drama an ethical gravity, a psychological depth, and a social significance which the theatre had lacked since the days of Shakespeare. In this manner, Ibsen strongly contributed to giving European drama a vitality and artistic quality comparable to the ancient Greek tragedies.”
“Hedda Gabler” and “Ghosts” are the two plays this essay will focus on and especially on the importance for the two protagonists-Hedda Gabler and Mrs. Alving- to defeat social constraints according to which they have structured their lives. The great dramatist Ibsen masterfully reveals the disastrous consequences on his heroines’ psyches and souls this social canon of conformity inflicts. Through the subtle play of light, language and stage position, Ibsen reinforces the tragic circumstance in which Hedda and Mrs. Alving exist, the mundane lamp and living-room furniture encapsulate the deep tragedy of human beings and simultaneously show Ibsen’s naturalistic talent in portraying life.
In “Hedda Gabler” the movement of the protagonist’s own pieces of furniture in the front and back room are emphasizing and helping even the spectator to anticipate her following action. Hedda Gabler is the daughter of General Gabler, who bequeathed her no financial independence, but a pair of dueling pistols and anachronistic, severely strict military aristocratic code of behaviour and is newly married to the historian George Tesman, whom she neither loves nor respect. She is conscious of her total dependency on the very reliable Tesman and this acknowledgement tears apart her being with rage and helplessness. In order to be able to continue living under these circumstances Hedda viciously emphasizes her intellectual and rank superiority over Tesman and his ever-sacrificing Aunt Julia and hurts them through her highly sarcastic language.
She denies in her mind falling into the frame of the assigned female societal role and therefore slips fully into the indulgence of nothingness and boredom. This state could have remained for ever unchanged until the abrupt reintroduction of her former platonic lover Lovborg who becomes what before seemed to Hedda “impossible”, i.e. “…some goal in life to work toward.”2 Ibsen confronts her with the reformed alcoholic and genius Eilert Lovborg and throws her back in the idyllic past of General Gabler reading a newspaper and her experiencing the “forbidden world” through the wild and seductive stories of young routhen Lovborg on the sofa behind him.
Lovborg is back on his feet fighting for a clean starting in life and writing books that are a tremendous success. But Hedda is not the inspiring power at Lovborg’s site anymore and that makes her extremely jealous of the woman who has such a positive power on him at the moment Mrs. Thea Elvsted and who is ironically a former flame of her husband. Hedda Gabler’s personality is a very complex mixture of the severely installed in her being notions of correct behaviour in social aspect of rank and class belonging and the fully suppressed personal creative potential.
Hedda is lamed with fear; her whole existence is driven not by the positive force of creating, but the devastating nihilistic grip of fear and conventions of society. In order to contradict this haunting power of correctness and properness Hedda searches through Lovborg life experiences to live out her inborn human desires for creative fulfillment. But Hedda is a woman of good standing, she cannot do as she pleases, she can do as she pleases solely within the framework of the norms prescribed by public opinion. Lovborg is only a feeble opportunity for her to show her creativity, because the fear of a scandal creeps in and Hedda’s creative potential and suppressed sexuality are distorted into a storm of malevolence.