The mid-nineteenth century realist playwright Alexandre Dumas wrote the following about his drama. “IfI can exercise some influence over society; if, instead of treating effects I can treat causes; if, for example, while I satirize and describe and dramatize adultery, I can find means to force people to discuss the problem, and the law-maker to revise the law, I shall have done more than my part as a poet, I shall have done my duty as a man.We need invent nothing; we have only to observe, remember, feel, coordinate, restore.As for basis, the real; as for facts, what is possible; for means, what is ingenious; that is all that can rightfully be asked of us.” Along with the realist dramatists of his time, Dumas wrote his plays with a noble mission: to ignite social change and to raise social awareness of a problem or issue through realistic dramatization of his environment. Like Dumas, Henrik Ibsen concerned himself with problems of human behavior and morality in society. And like his predecessors, Ibsen used naturalistic writing to exhibit human beings as they really are and as they really behave in the culture of his time. But the reasons why Ibsen was more effective and successful at Dumas’ objective that was Dumas himself was because he abandoned happy and acceptable resolutions to his plays, confronted human behavior with honesty and acute observation, often raising disturbing and embarrassing questions, and left out the didactic solutions to the problems in question in favor of offering no solution, leaving his questions open to thought and interpretation. Ibsen saw his wild success as a playwright well before he died, and it was in great part due to his rejection of realist proponents like the emphasis of mainly external detail and his uproar-causing and shocking resolutions to his plays. But in addition and I think more importantly, Ibsen’s triumph was because of his reach ahead of his time and his inclusion of symbolist elements in his drama. While at the base a naturalist play, the symbols and images in Hedda Gabler bring immeasurable weight and power his naturalistic depiction of a woman constricted by her society and, whether because of this constriction or simply because of her inherent nature, intent on similarly sucking the life out of other individuals. Ibsen did not strive to write a symbolist play. Naturalist drama is much better suited for social change than is symbolist drama. But the blending of a naturalistic portrait of a woman’s dilemma and symbolic language, images and characterization makes for a particularly powerful, provoking piece of theatre that packs a bigger visceral punch than either a purely realistic play or a purely symbolic one.
Like Dumas, Ibsen was strongly influenced by the French author of the well-made play, Eugene Scribe. His best plays reflect the structured formulaic presentation of a conflict, complication and resolve, but he innovatively disguised and altered Scribe’s structure and left out any resolve whatsoever in favor of deliberate ambiguity, leaving the audience open to their own unguided interpretations. This is perhaps one of the most elementary ways in which Ibsen dipped his pen into the symbolic ink jar. Instead of didactically coercing his audience to buy a completely subjective argument and wasting time proving why it’s correct, he instead chose to present the problem as it is, and offering no solution, simply illustrated the consequences of the problem. And neither did he placate his viewers with a palatable morally acceptable ending to his plays, but ended them with a bang and left us clinging to the edge of our seats at the drop of the curtain. The “thesis plays” of Dumas didn’t work because they instructed people how to think instead of leaving that to them.
Of course, complete and utter objectivity is nearly impossible. The French naturalist Emile Zola once defined art as “a corner of life seen though a temperament,” most likely meaning that a playwright’s personality shines though his work whether he likes it or not. In adopting symbolism, Ibsen consciously enhanced his descriptive ability and thus made his settings, characters and situations more rich, textured and multi-faceted and yet very identifiable. What he also brought to the table, whether consciously or not, was more subjectivity, as his choice of symbols in his plays says so much about Ibsen himself and his attitudes toward his work.
But just as much as purely realist drama is of little help to implement social change on its own, purely symbolic drama does less. Ibsen’s gift was his ability to, within one carefully written play, use seemingly realistic speech with unrealistic symbolic language and description to unleash a powerful message. The Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, considered to be one of the two major symbolist dramatists (along with French poet/playwright Paul Claudel), wrote theoretical essays to be presented in conjuncture with his plays, supposed to offer elucidation to his work. If Maeterlinck felt that an auxiliary disclaimer was necessary for his drama to be understood, then in a sense, it has already failed. Maeterlinck’s plays are by themselves unknowable because the intricacy of symbols eventually becomes convoluted and meaningless. An audience cannot be moved if its subject matter is undecipherable.
Above anything else, the emphasis of Ibsen’s work is on psychological conflict. Any external action is present only as a response to internal anguish or as a stimulus for it. At the same time though, he goes to great lengths to describe the settings, characters’ appearances, giving detail to the external and physical. As far as detail is concerned, that of his characters is the best. Symbols are a magnificent tool in description of psychological stitch work, and just as Ibsen has a knack for describing great interior room settings and visually creating specific bodily attributes, he likewise has a crafty and firm handle on symbolic description of human character and more generally, human nature. One of the most pressing and popular questions in psychology at that time, which had only just emerged as a scientific discipline, was the ways in which human nature was formed by experience. It’s no wonder why Ibsen created such intricate and significant character histories that occur long before the curtain rises. Given that Freud published his first major work Studies in Hysteria in 1895, and Hedda Gabler appeared five years earlier in 1890 (A Dolls House was staged as early as 1879), isn’t it quite plausible that Freud’s launching pad was the psychological drama of the late nineteenth century that Ibsen championed? Much of the work of a certain white-bearded cokehead/hero of the twentieth century, while brilliant and ground-breaking, might never have existed without Ibsen’s darkest plays like Hedda Gabler, which explore the fierce struggle between those who demand that everyone face unpleasant realities, confronting their fear and uncertainty, and those who construct illusions to make life bearable in spite of a past trauma or a repressed horrible experience. Freud later published his ideas on the significance of symbols in dreams in his Interpretation of Dreams, on repression in Studies in Hysteria and on why late nineteenth century women in Western Europe found such little satisfaction in their social lives in Civilization and its Discontents.
Among the most prominent and powerful symbols in Hedda Gabler, one is General Gabler’s pistols. They symbolize Hedda’s upbringing in an aristocratic and militaristic milieu and simultaneously stand for her masculine nature. They also show her rejection of social codes of conduct and provide nice images for her fending off the sexual advances of Brack and Lovborg, them being the only two people she shoots at. Let’s not forget how phallic and Freudian these images are. The pistols represent Hedda’s intense desire to be less feminine as well as the male world that opposes her. These two things at once indirectly lead to her death, and the pistols quite literally kill her.
The stage directions provide plenty of symbols, most notably the hair of both Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted. It may at first appear to be insignificant. But Ibsen’s description of his women’s hair can be seen as representative of their very personalities. Hedda’s hair is “an attractive medium brown in colour, but not particularly ample.” It is tied back when receiving visitors. It exhibits sexual restraint, at least it comparison to Mrs. Elvsted’s “strikingly fair, almost whitish-yellow, and unusually rich and wavy” hair. Mrs. Elvsted’s hair exudes sexual impulsiveness. These details are not to be taken for granted. No detail should in Ibsen’s drama. Hair was an extremely important ingredient in women’s sexuality and courtship and indeed still is.
Ejlert Lovborg’s book is another fine example of Ibsen’s brilliant symbolism. This book is key to the unfolding of the plot in this play, but it also allows Ibsen to deal with the subject of the future of civilization in quite an inspirational and stylized way. The book never was published, having been hidden from Ejlert and burnt by Hedda. Because it never made it to publication it can be seen as a work in progress, a child – another way in which it stands for the future. And what are we to make of a future rewritten by Tesman, one of the most hilarious and staggering fools I’ve ever come across in drama?
What exactly does Ibsen’s symbolism bring to his naturalism? What does it allow him to do that pure naturalists couldn’t do? An enormous amount. The marriage of naturalistic speech and setting with heightened, symbolic and efficient speech, imagery, allusion, metaphor, is a powerful, profound and visceral experience. Hedda Gabler is abound with symbols that allow its characters to reveal the internal workings of their minds without addressing the audience or breaking out into long poetic speeches. And that’s why it caused such uproar: because it was powerfully delivered and believably true.