The Only Constant is Change




In many plays the stage directions simply give us a record of how a play was blocked the first time it was produced, in a particular theater, on a particular set. This is not the case with Henrick Ibsen as he writes Hedda Gabler. The stage directions are vital to understand the characters and the plot. Ibsen painstakingly sets the stage, props, furniture, and portraits to symbolize the dynamics and actions that take place. The entire action of the play, Hedda Gabler, takes place in the drawing room of a house in approximately a day and a half. There is a smaller interior room, which is just off, but able to be viewed during most of the play. Only curtains separate this room from us at all times. Although some action takes place outside of the house, everything that Hedda experiences happens in these two rooms. In this essay I will show how Ibsen uses symbolism in specific stage directions and juxtaposition of the two rooms to define the contrast between the public, “social” face Hedda presents to the world and the “private” interior face she keeps carefully guarded.

First Ibsen describes the set as “a large, attractively furnished drawing room, decorated in dark colors” (Jacobus 697). The large room symbolizes “society”, specifically the society that Hedda is in during the 1800’s, an upper class society dominated by men. Notice the room is “large” and “decorated in dark colors” which suggest the colors which might be used in a men’s club. The room is furnished with “a wide, dark porcelain stove (not one for cooking but for heating), a high-backed armchair, a cushioned footstool and two stools without back or arms” which is typically furniture that suggests a strong male influence. There is a “settee with a small round table” for entertaining guests and “a piano”, a necessity for every cultured home. During the first scene it is brought to our attention that Berta has “taken all the slipcovers off the furniture” (698) at the request of Hedda. This sets in our mind the fact that Hedda comes from a class of people who use luxurious furniture daily rather then saving it for a special occasion. It is clear we are in a male- dominated, socially conscious, upper class world.

Next, Ibsen goes on to say that there is “a wide doorway with curtains drawn back” which “opens into a smaller room in the same style as the drawing room.” (697) This is symbolic of Hedda’s place in the world, a much smaller space, dominated by the larger male presence. Notice that the smaller room is “in the same style” as the larger room, symbolizing that although Hedda is a women, and therefore much less important, she still reflects the heritage of the much more important males. Ibsen goes on to describe the furniture of the inner room as “a sofa, a table, and a couple of chairs” and most notably hanging above the sofa “a handsome, elderly man in a general’s uniform.” This is the portrait of Hedda’s father and it dominates the set, as does the General in Hedda’s life. There is also a “hanging lamp with an opalescent glass shade” which suggests an antique and brings to mind the concept of heritage. It is important to note that this is the Tesman household and yet Mr. Tesman is allowing the oversized portrait of the General to dominate his house. This is symbolic of the fact that Hedda is considered a valuable possession, not for her own attributes, but because of the status her name brings to the Tesman family. This room symbolizes Hedda’s existence, a lesser important space dominated by the presence of her heritage, specifically her father, the General.

Just as the action of the play is confined to these two rooms, so is Hedda’s life confined to limited ideas and opportunities available to her due to social conventions. In the drawing room, or public space, Hedda is “free” to enjoy what her husband can provide for her while he basks in the glow of Hedda’s ever-present family heritage. In her private space she maintains what is left of her illusion of power, her heritage represented by the portrait, the guns and the piano. As the play progresses and Hedda’s prospects shrink (due to Tesman’s job prospects) she retreats to the smaller room. This is symbolized specifically at the beginning of Act II with the movement of the piano which has “been moved into her room and an elegant little writing table with a bookcase” (706) moved in its place in the drawing room. The writing table is now the focus, emphasizing Tesman’s duty to provide for Hedda through his writing.

Next, props also play a prominent role in the symbolism of the play. It is important to note that the General’s guns have also been moved into the drawing room at the opening of Act II. The open pistol case lies on the writing table and Hedda is holding one of her father’s pistols and loading it with ammunition. The pistols are clearly a phallic image of male power, which Hedda lacks only in physique. Like Hedda, the pistols project a cold exterior housing a fiery inner danger. It is no accident that the gun case is on the writing table, symbolizing Hedda’s growing anger and resentment at being at the mercy of her ineffectual husband. Hedda stands alone in the drawing room, loading the pistol, symbolizing her yearning to be able to publicly take matters into her own hands.

It is important to note that at the top of Act III we find that the curtains have been drawn to Hedda’s room for the first time in the show. (717) As Hedda sleeps, harboring the secret that she has possession of Lovborg’s manuscript and has instigated his suicide, the curtains to her private room are closed, protecting her private world and indicating that there is something hidden. The use of lighting is also important here. At the top of the show Hedda is annoyed that “That maid has left the door open – and the sunlight’s just flooding in” (700) as she prefers a softer light, symbolizing the lack of power she feels. Now in the third act, Hedda wakes feeling energized by her power over Lovborg and “draws the curtains back. Bright daylight streams into the room” (718) symbolizing Hedda’s power, now strong through her manipulations of Lovborg and Tesman. She also goes to the writing table, the symbol of Lovborg & her husband’s work, gets a mirror and check’s her image. (718) This is a chilling image of Hedda’s cold satisfaction of having bested the men.

Finally, it is important to note specific times that Ibsen moves the action to Hedda’s private space as well as specific times he keeps the action in the larger drawing room. First, Brack propositions Hedda, Hedda questions Mrs. Elvsted to obtain information and Lovborg and Hedda speak of their past relations, all in the drawing room. This symbolically highlights the internal conflict Hedda experiences between her social self and her private self. In the drawing room we are reminded of the social constraints that are imposed on Hedda at all times. Next, when Tesman and Brackman “go into the inner room, sit down, drink punch, smoke cigarettes and talk animatedly” (712) they do so with the backdrop of the General. This emphasizes how Tesman uses the heightened social standing he enjoys as a result of his marriage to the General’s daughter. Next, “Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted go into the inner room” (728) to re-work Lovborg’s manuscript. This is a stunning intrusion and new disrespect or Hedda’s private world and her worth. They later come back into the drawing room complaining that “it’s nearly impossible to see in there under that overhead lamp” and asking if it would “be all right if we used your table for a while?” (728) Apparently Hedda’s light did not burn brightly enough for Tesman anymore. Finally, “Hedda goes into the inner room, pulling the curtains closed after her… plays a wild dance melody on the piano” and “a shot is heard within”. (730) Ibsen has placed Hedda in her inner room, with all the vestiges of her heritage while she exerts her only power and takes her own life.

The two rooms of the Tesman house stand in stark contrast. While the social world or the drawing room may be larger, the smaller room of Hedda’s private world looms prominently, making us aware of her internal conflict. This is achieved by Ibsen’s masterful use of sets, props, lighting and set decoration. Ibsen did not rely on dialogue and action alone, but added the important visual dimension to define the contrast between the public, “social” world Hedda lived in to the “private” interior world she so carefully guarded.

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