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‘Hedda’ in the Age of Hitler

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Danielle Davy (left) portrays an anxious, young Thea, who is a rival to Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler, the quintessential mean girl, is strutting her stuff, shooting those pistols and ruining everyone’s life at the H Street Playhouse this month.

For those unfamiliar with Henrik Ibsen’s most famous play and his most complicated protagonist, let me paint you a picture. Gabler is the most beautiful, beguiling woman to enter any room. She’s the most talented person you’ve ever met. She is whip-smart and cunning, a true, ice-cold political strategist. She is also the world’s biggest coward, cowering from public criticism and judgment.

She is a damaged woman, jealous, petty, empty and bored. All of these together make her as dangerous as she is vulnerable.

Since she was first written, the eponymous main character of “Hedda Gabler” has become an icon and perhaps playwright Ibsen’s most perfect heroine, brought to life in his most tightly constructed play.

This is why a new, updated production of the classic is a risk for the director and the actors who chose to pick up the mantle. Gabler has been played by actresses ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Cate Blanchett. It is a brass ring for any performer.

“[Gabler] is the female ‘Hamlet’ without the monologues,” explained Robert McNamara, director of Scena Theatre’s current production of the classic.

Ibsen’s Gabler might be an even more complicated character than Shakespeare’s Danish prince. Though both Hamlet and Hedda struggle with the ghosts of powerful fathers, Hamlet has the luxury of at least speaking with the deceased in person.

Gabler, on the other hand, grapples with the legacy of her father, the late General Gabler, much like the rest of us do our own dead spirits: in our heads.

Ibsen’s play, therefore, is a tightly wound psychological portrait of a dangerous woman on the edge.

The translator Eva Le Gallienne explains in her 1932 introduction: “From a slow beginning the play gradually builds in tempo and the tension mounts until it becomes almost unbearable. One feels as if one were climbing up a spiral — faster and higher, faster and higher — until the final pistol shot, with its sense of relief.”

“Hedda Gabler” must be built firmly on the script with very little deviation, La Gallienne writes.

“The play is so closely knit, the dialogue so pointed, the characters drawn with such fullness yet such economy of means, that not one word — nor one silence — is superfluous; it is dangerous to cut any of Ibsen’s plays, but to cut ‘Hedda Gabler’ is impossible.”

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