"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hedda Gabler, Tennessee Williams, and Shakespeare


As I have written in a previous blog (Shakespeare’s and Tennessee Williams’ Women), I have been immersed in Tennessee Williams for the last three months or so in preparation for the Centennial Festival of his birth here in Columbus, Mississippi.  I have loved his women for their delicacy, frailty, and sensibility.  Williams has said that these delicate women had strength and courage – Amanda for her efforts to keep her family together; Laura for her foray into the threatening outside world; Blanche for her battle of wills with Stanley; Alma for her struggles to break out of the world which has been defined for her; but I always think of them as frail, struggling with their idealism (Amanda) or mental weakness (Blanche, Alma, Laura ) and ultimately failing. 

Williams has, of course, created more classically strong women – Maggie the Cat is the most notable in her obsessive, manipulative love for Brick – but I like her less because they fall far from my theatrical ideal of the aggressive, compulsive women in Shakespeare who accepted their socially inferior role in life and in the palace, but who used every bit of intelligence, wiles, cunning, deception, and duplicity to get what they wanted.  In fact, there is no reason why women should be classified in their own sexual category.  Goneril and Regan, my Nietzschian heros as “evil” as Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Iago, or Edmund (or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the ur-villain who inspired Shakespeare), are certainly the equal of their male counterparts in their ruthless, amoral, and ceaseless pursuits of power.

As I have also written, I re-read Chekhov’s Three Sisters because it was such an influence on Williams (as well as The Seagull, which he adapted).  The women in this play were not so much weak or debilitated by their fantasies and inability to cope with the real world; but unable to act to effect changes in what they clearly saw were the constraints on their intellect, spirit, and independence.  While they could have made dramatic changes – like return to the Moscow which had become their ideal – they did not.  Irina does make an attempt – she agrees to marry an older, spiritless man in her hope to change her life; but he is killed in a senseless duel.

Ibsen, however, more or less a contemporary of Chekhov, gave his female characters strength and will.  Nora, in A Doll’s House finally overcomes her reticence, frustration, and strict notions of society and propriety to leave Helmer; but it is Hedda Gabler in the play of that name that rises to my ideal of evil stardom.  She is a true Nietzschian character – “For once in my life”, she says, “I want the power to shape a human destiny” –and she goes through any means to attain her goal.  Lovborg is her project.  Although Mrs. Elvsted has recognized Lovborg’s genius and devoted herself to reforming him from his profligate ways to restore his talents, Hedda has a much more insidious plan in mind.  When she realizes that she cannot take credit, as Mrs. Elvsted has rightly done, for Lovborg’s new book of revolutionary ideas, she decides she must destroy Mrs. Elvsted in a spiteful, hateful and disgraceful way:

HEDDA: (She throws part of the manuscript [Lovborg’s new book] in the fire and whispers to herself): Your child, Thea – your child and Ejlert Lovborg’s.  Darling little Thea, with the curly hair. (Throws more of the manuscript into the stove). I’m burning your child, Thea. (Throws in the rest of the manuscript).  I’m burning it – burning it -

In doing this she quite realizes that hopes of positively influencing the destiny of Lovborg (“vines in his hair” for glory based on his book), she becomes focussed on destroying him, but gloriously.  She gives him one of her pistols to honorably end his life.  He botches the affair, associates himself with a local prostitute in so doing, and ends whatever dreams of power Hedda has (One thinks of the botched suicides in Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, so we can’t be too harsh).   Hedda is quickly found out by Judge Brack who blackmails her about the ownership of the pistols, and Hedda replies:

That means you have me in your power, Judge.  You have me at your beck and call from now on.

She kills herself – shoots herself in the temple, in her way, a death and a statement.

Hedda’s plotting was a bit dodgy.  How could she not have thought about the incriminating evidence of the pistols; or perhaps figured out some way of using the recovered manuscript as an instrument of power?  She changed strategies in mid-stream – at first she thought she would be seen as the power behind Lovborg, and when that changed, she became arch-villainess.  I don’t hold this against her, or rather Ibsen.  He has created a woman beyond good and evil, and one of the more interesting characters in Scandinavian theatre.

In many ways, Hedda Gabler brought me full circle to Shakespeare’s Histories after this long interlude with Tennessee Williams.  Williams and I are too different, I suspect, in our sensibilities and outlook to have connected.  I love what Jan Kott has called The Grand Mechanism of the Histories – the unstoppable movement of events that are moved by power, greed, aggression, she-bear protection, and the abandonment of morality for personal gain.   Tennessee Williams is writing of a different environment.  The world is threatening and qualitatively worse than the inner worlds created by his characters.  For Shakespeare the world simply is, and it is the stage on which his players act.

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