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Mythic Structure in Hedda Gabler. The Mask Behind the Face Elinor Fuchs In December 1980, Ibsen wrote a letter to Moritz Prozor that is often quoted in support of the standard approach to Hedda Gabler as a psychological character study: What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, hu­ man emotions and human destinies, upon a ground work of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.1 Is this a snatch of the same detached irony that marks the play itself? For in the same month, Ibsen urged the head of the Christiania Theater to cast in the role of Hedda an actress who "will take pains to express the demoniacal basis of the character."2 Where there are demons there are also gods. As if to erase doubt on the point, it was not human detail nor present-day social conditions that Ibsen sought as he edited and refined his first draft of the play. Much of this, in fact, he removed. It was the subhuman and the superhuman allusions-the talk of hair­ burning, vine leaves, and the huntress Diana, erupting through the dry suburban chatter like a dangerous geyser-that Ibsen inserted into his final revised text.3 The perfected Hedda Gabler is as much a vision of the evolution of mankind from its divine and chthonic roots to its stunted maturity as it is a psychological portrait of a modem woman-and the woman cannot be deeply sensed without the vision. Behind Hedda Gabler's characters hover spiritual fore­ bears, the mythic masks from which modem man has dwindled ELINOR FUCHS is a theatre critic living in New York. She contributes frequently to The Village Voice, and is dramaturg of the Women's Interart Theatre. A published playwright, she is currently writing a book on Postmodern Theatre, for which she received a Rockefeller Fellowship in the Humanities during the academic year 1984-85. 209 210 Comparative Drama into personality. Behind the modern bourgeois society which Ibsen projects, there lingers a mocking shadow of archaic mysteries, now expressed as a vestigial outcropping of passion, now as a half-conscious enactment of ancient ritual. The story which Ibsen recounts in Hedda Gabler is an ironic recapitula­ tion of the history of civilization. Ought not this buried theme to be the "vein of silver ore in the mountain," as Ibsen once described the proper relations between symbolism and the drama that carried it, in a play in which the principal male antagonists are themselves historians of civilization?4 But Ibsen is no mere historian, whether antiquarian like Tesman or visionary like L�vborg. The history of civilization is his satirical two-edged sword. He turns it on the modern society that denies ecstasy, silences the Hellenic echo; and he turns it on himself, as it were, mocking almost to the border of farce his ridiculous characters who, in their reduced and fumbling imitation, are pretentious enough to re-enact the mysteries. This self-cancelling irony might be taken .as Ibsen's warning that the work will evade the schematization or separa­ tion of its layers. But perhaps Ibsen will not mind if we bring the buried ore to light. At the end of Act ill, Hedda Gabler performs two shocking actions: she hands L�vborg a pistol to use as a suicide weapon, and she burns his manuscript. The play-things and figures of speech of Act I have taken over the action of the play. No matter how sympathetic the imaginative leap we make, we can­ not "justify" these actions in the motivational terms of realistic drama. Ibsen deliberately frustrated such an effort by destroying bridges between wish and action. A comparison of the early and late drafts of the play will show how thoroughly the playwright de-psychologized his heroine.5 What Ibsen left was pure act, thrown into mysterious and powerful relief. We sense this power without being able to account for it immediately in the text. An actress must account for it, however; she cannot play "power" and "mystery." She must find an image large enough to encompass such acts. This she will find in the fleeting references...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 209-221
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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