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Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Hedda Gabler, Schaubühne Berlin, 2005

From Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe (2013): Theatre, Opera and Consciousness: History and Current Debates Amsterdam: Rodopi, 85-92

 For the Schaubühne production of Hedda Gabler, which premiered on 26 October 2005, and has been revived on tour until 2013, director Thomas Ostermeier selected the German translation of the play by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel, a renowned translator of novels and plays, and frequent host, for radio, TV and theatre, of literary and cultural discussion events. The translation had been premiered at the Theater Basel in 2003. 

Thomas Ostermeier
Ostermeier had premiered the Schmidt-Henkel translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Schaubühne Berlin in 2002, and used Schmidt-Henkel’s translation of The Master Builder for his production of the play in 2004 at the Vienna Burgtheater. In later years, Schmidt-Henkel translated John Gabriel Borkman (2005, Schauspielhaus Zürich, directed by Barbara Frey), Rosmersholm (2006, Staatstheater Nürnberg, directed by Stefan Otteni), and An Enemy of the People (2008, Theater St Gallen, directed by Martin Schulze). The dramaturg for Ostermeier’s production of Hedda Gabler, German dramatist Marius Mayenburg, worked with the production team on further updating the text.

Mayenburg has an acute ear for the way contemporary Germans speak: his way of rendering Ibsen’s text makes it as characteristic as possible of everyday German of the middle of the first decade of the 2nd millennium. This applies in particular to the characters’ low key, understated responses to each other. When Hedda tells her husband that she is pregnant, he has his head in her lap. 

On hearing the news, he sits up and stares at Hedda in disbelief, takes his hands off her knees and moves away from her, uttering “Nee, oder?” “Nee” is a colloquial form of “Nein”, “no”, accompanied by an ever so slight shaking of the head. He moves away further from Hedda, while still looking at her. She does not react at all to his question. He turns his head away from her, and supports his left elbow on his knee and wipes his head with his left hand, accompanied by heavy sighs and a facial expression that demonstrates how deeply moved he is, close to tears. He briefly rests his chin in his hand, then turns again to Hedda, and stretches out his right hand to touch her belly. He turns away from her again with the words, again accompanied by tearful sighs: “Das gibt’s doch nicht”. [That’s impossible!] Then he bursts out into a howl, crying, wipes his face, howls again, jumps up, and moves to open the glass patio doors that lead to the outdoors patio. There he howls again, longer, accompanied by further jumping and shaking of his arms. Hedda comments this with expressions of disbelief and says: “Gott, ich bring mich noch um. All das hier bringt mich noch um”. [God, I’m going to kill myself. All this here is going to kill me]

Hedda Gabler
Juliane Tesman, Jørgen Tesman’s aunt, has been transposed successfully into the 21st century as well. She is in her mid-sixties, and comes across as a representative of a middle class woman who has retired from a moderately successful career, perhaps as a teacher, and who now enjoys her retirement, by looking after people who need looking after, by reading her monthly fashion magazine to which she subscribes; she will also have her subscription to the local opera and theatre company, and participate, on an annual basis, in high-brow, educational trips to places of cultural interest, and have a good amount of lady-friends and acquaintances with similar socio-economic and educational profiles. She has selected for her visit to Tesman’s house, on the return of the newly-weds from their lengthy honeymoon, a smart-casual outfit, of which the new hat is one integral part. It is not the kind of hat a woman without taste for fashion, or without money, would buy, and is thus not in itself ridiculous, or otherwise out of place in relation to her outfit, quite the contrary.

In comparison with productions in which the hat represents Aunt Juliane’s somewhat desperate attempt to “fit in” and to impress Hedda, the context established in Ostermeier’s production provides a new perspective on Hedda’s spiteful comments on Aunt Juliane’s hat as belonging to a servant: in the conventional scenario, where the hat is indeed somewhat out of place, Hedda responds instinctively to Juliane’s weakness: she senses and lashes out at it. In the Ostermeier production, on the other hand, Hedda randomly selects the hat to comment on because Juliane left it behind. Had it not been the hat, she would have made her comment on any other item of her outfit. There is no weakness involved on Juliane’s part, and her response is one of surprise rather than hurt, of wondering at Hedda’s motivation for such unprovoked nastiness, rather than feeling sorry for herself. 

Hedda Gabler

In many productions of Hedda Gabler, Judge Brack is cast with an older actor, in view of Brack’s seniority in social and professional position. In the Schaubühne production, Brack comes across as hardly much older than Tesman (the actor of Brack, Jörg Hartmann, is seven years older than the actor of Tesman, Lars Eidinger). The result is that the relationships between Brack and Hedda, and Brack and Tesman, are quite different than if an older actor had been cast as Brack. A younger Brack becomes a realistic rival to Tesman for Hedda’s favours: it is more believable that Hedda could agree to an extra-marital relationship with a younger Brack than with an older Brack, and Brack’s advances thus represent more of a temptation for Hedda. A younger Brack is attractive to her not only because he can talk cleverly, but also physically, and because in comparison with her husband, Brack has achieved so much more professionally, exudes so much more security, has so many more influential acquaintances, and is so much closer to the world Hedda grew up in as a general’s daughter, than Tesman can ever hope for, even if he gains his professorship.

Thus Hedda’s decision not to want to engage in an affair with Brack equally adds to the way this character is depicted in Ostermeier’s production. In Brack she would have all the things she desired, and which she is so frustrated of not having with Tesman. However, she is also aware that Brack could have approached her for marriage before her marriage to Tesman, and did not: he was not interested in her as a wife, and may not be interested in any woman for marriage. He is interested in Hedda only (but very much so) as a mistress, without obligations and commitments, but with the added excitement of the forbidden, which as a judge he encounters on a daily basis, and which fascinates him. Hedda knows that for Brack she will be only one aspect of his life of pleasure without commitment, and she is determined not to stoop to that position of inferiority. Hedda enjoys her banters with Brack, where things are said in a witty, immediate response to a preceding statement of the other party, without the contents of the responses necessarily intended to be taken seriously by the other party, and not usually taken seriously either.

The way Katharina Schüttler’s Hedda clearly tells Lövborg that hers is a marriage without love but also without betrayal, suggests that this is one of the few things she is convinced about: it is not the result of a vague, spoilt mood, not part of her banter with Brack. It is serious, it is one of very rare instances where Hedda does something because she has thought about it long and hard, and made that decision. Hedda does other things quite clearly without making a conscious decision: they just happen as immediate responses to various situations. Thus in an encounter with both Tesman and Lövborg in the same room, she invites Lövborg to sit, on the vast arrangement of sofas, very close to Tesman, and at a right angle to him. She then walks over to Tesman at a suitable point in the conversation and bends down and engages him in an extended French kiss that takes place at eye level for Lövborg, within inches of his own face. 

Hedda Gabler
The actor playing Lövborg, Kay Bartholomäus Schulze, managed brilliantly, overall, to portray the just-about-dry alcoholic, ever so fragile in his abstinence, ever so prone to moods and depressions that might be considered as still part of the range of withdrawal symptoms, and ever so close to the relapse into full-blown alcoholism due to the mess of his personal life and his self-doubts about his abilities as an academic. He is recognised clearly as a genius by Thea Elvsted, who has served as his muse in inspiring the latest book, and by Tesman, who openly admits that he is nowhere as inspired and original in his own thinking. Lövborg, however, doubts his own abilities. Hedda also recognises the threat he poses to Tesman’s career, and this plays one part in her on-the-spot decision to destroy the manuscript. 

In Ostermeier’s contemporary version, however, it is not a printed text, but exists only on the hard drive of a laptop, without backup—so to destroy the manuscript, Hedda smashes the laptop with a hammer. 

Lars Eidinger develops the image of a contemporary academic in his portrayal of Tesman. There are lots of books around the corners of the set, as well as stacks of paper. He matches Katharina Schüttler’s Hedda in the conversational, everyday use of language, which has a limited range of ups and downs, and is thus close to monotonous; he comes across as really very much, and indeed romantically, in love with his Hedda. He sees her as a child, given that she is smaller than him, and younger, with eyes that do not reveal much of what is going on inside her, and attractive, pouting lips. Eidinger’s Tesman is a modern man, full of feelings, and he cries on three occasions. There is the full outburst described above when Hedda tells him that she is pregnant; he also cries when he has beard that Lövborg is back and when he realises the threat that Lövborg might be to his own prospects of a professorship: Tesman may be a dreamer, stuck in his books and overall quite naïve, but he does realise that if Lövborg were to try to seal his comeback with an application for the professorship that Tesman is hoping to get, Tesman will have no chance in a competition with Lövborg. The third time we see Tesman cry is when Lövborg convincingly assures Tesman that he will not apply for the professorship, and that thus there is no more danger for Tesman to lose the prospects of his professional advancement and indeed future. The production’s emphasis on the crying man, Tesman, comes at a time (first in 2005), when a study of audience response to the third part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy found that among the audiences in a wide range of countries in Europe and beyond, the highest percentage of men responding to the film with tears came from Germany.

For the final scene of Hedda Gabler, Ostermeier has a striking contemporary twist in store for his audience. The set design allows the audience to see into several rooms in the Tesman home at the same time, either directly, or indirectly through strategically placed mirrors. Tesman and Thea Elvsted are busy recreating late Lövborg’s manuscript, with Brack in attendance: he is not merely observing, but is clearly interested in the work, and in observing how Tesman and Thea get closer to each other though their joint mission of restoring Lövborg’s work of genius. This is the kind of work that Tesman excels at: he and Thea inspire each other. Hedda is an outsider in this scenario, nobody is interested in her any more, not even Brack. She moves into the room next door, in full view of the audience, takes out the pistol, looks at it, leans against the wall, puts the pistol to her temple and pulls the trigger. Her head slumps to her chest, blood pours from her head, she slowly sinks down along the wall to a sitting position, leaving a streak of blood on the wall. Her hand still holds the pistol. Thea, Tesman and Brack hear the sound of the shot. They hardly look up from their work. Tesman comments that Hedda is playing around with those pistols again, implying that she has done this before, and reminding the audience of an earlier scene where Hedda took aim at a vase of flowers and shot it to pieces. They continue their work, without bothering to go and see whether anything has happened to Hedda. She lies in her blood, dead, while the others carry on with their work on the manuscript. Tesman adds jokingly that perhaps Hedda has shot herself, and Brack comments that people just do not do such things. This phrase, at the end of the play, implies that Tesman’s joke is poor.

Schüttler as Hedda in 2005
Katharina Schüttler as Hedda in 2012
The critical response to the production was overwhelmingly favourable. In many reviews, the most striking aspects of the story told by the production are re-told by the critics, as examples of the success of the play’s transposition into the 21st century. Tesman’s catch phrase “Ich glaub’ das jetzt nicht” [I just don’t believe this now] is noted, as is Hedda’s terror at the combination of Tesman’s red house shoes, Tesman’s petit-bourgeouis homeliness, and his primordial scream of happiness at finding out that Hedda is pregnant (Tilmann 2005). Several reviews note Hedda’s young age—the actress, Katharina Schüttler, was twenty-six when she first played Hedda in 2005. Gardner in the Guardian calls her a “damaged child”, a child-woman who is “trapped in her vast, minimalist, glass-walled apartment” (2008). Others comment on her fragile, slim body (Kohse 2005), referring to it as that of “a 14-year old” (Swann n.d.), and compare her young Hedda with the more mature nature of Hedda as portrayed by Isabelle Huppert or Corinna Kirchhoff (Tilmann 2005).

Hedda’s physicality attracts further attention when Isherwood reports that she “does not stand if she can slouch, and does not slouch if she can drape herself across the long modular couch like a bored housecat” (2006). The feline nature of Schüttler’s Hedda is equally central in a review that describes her first entrance thus: “We see this Hedda enter in her pyjamas with a naked midriff, looking just like one of today’s sulky, pre-teen, sex kittens” (Swann n.d.). Bassett in The Independent writes in a similar vein: “A skinny little thing with a touch of feral cat about her—not fully domesticated—she looks skeletally fragile but sexually assured and surly” (2008). Charles Spencer in the Telegraph finds it amazing how not only the “spoilt young wife”, but also the

nerdish husband (…) the alcoholic genius and the manipulative lawyer seem just at home in the 21st century as they did in the 19th. This is still emphatically Ibsen’s play but it also taps directly into the spirit of our own times—the moral equivocation, the curse of addiction, the sense of rootlessness, boredom and depression. (2008)

Tilmann emphasises that the way Katharina Schüttler says Hedda’s phrase “I am so bored” implies that all her life has been boring so far, and that she does not expect any real change to that state of affairs. Bassett agrees that Schüttler’s Hedda is “a horribly recognisable, 21st-century enfant terrible: materially indulged yet dissatisfied, already jaded and alarmingly amoral.” (2008)

This Hedda, Tilmann continues, is as much a woman looking for greatness (and not recognising it in Lövborg’s excessive nature) as a child that wishes for the moon (2005). Tilmann thus acknowledges an apparent reason for Hedda’s inability to break out of her cage. While the Hedda of Ibsen’s original was stuck because of the limitations society imposed on a woman in her time, Ostermeier’s Hedda is stuck because she is small and cowardly. She has chosen security, she shuns risks and scandal because of her fear; in this insecurity she is representative of her generation, and it is indeed—unnecessary—fear that is a major concern in the life of actress Katharina Schüttler: a life without fear is her highest dream (Böckem 2010). Spencer commends Kay Bartholomäus Schulze, whose Lövborg captures “all the agony and self-loathing of a reformed alcoholic falling spectacularly off the wagon” (2008).

Not all critics were convinced that the production’s transposition into the 21st century worked. Charles Isherwood, writing in the New York Times, found much to praise in the production, but concluded that “Mr Ostermeier’s cool and considered “Hedda Gabler” comes a little too close to proving the truth of that platitude used as a prim remonstrance to children whining to be entertained: that bored people are boring people” (2006). Bassett does not believe that genius Lövborg will not have made a backup or printed off a hardcopy of his masterpiece (2008), and Stasio argues that the men in Hedda’s life, “deprived of the 19th-century social privileges that would have blinded them to Hedda’s subtle wiles, (…) just seem uncommonly stupid” (2006).

Hedda Gabler
Despite those few concerns, for Ostermeier’s production of Hedda Gabler, the transposition into the 21st century works, overall, because it tells a consistent, cogent, and interesting story, in which the individual elements add up. The changes needed to accommodate the plot within a 21st century context make sense and bring the characters, their words and actions, close to the contemporary German audience— more, so, perhaps, than to the American audience, if the voice of American critic Isherwood is to be taken as representative: his assessment of the production and its characters as cool and distanced misses the point that the monotonous delivery of lines, misunderstood as cool, was indeed characteristic of much of German speaking at the time.

Works cited

Böckem, Jörg. 2010. Im Hier und Jetzt zu sein, wie ein spielendes Kind. Zeit Online, November 3. (accessed December 15, 2011).

Gardner, Lyn. 2008. Hedda Gabler. The Guardian, February 29. (accessed December 15, 2011).

Isherwood, Charles. 2006. Enter Hedda, Modern Chic but Still Fighting Boredom. The New York Times, November 30. (accessed December 15, 2011).

Kohse, Petra. 2005. Zwei verpasste Chancen, die Geschichte zu verändern. Frankfurter Rundschau, October 28. (accessed December 15, 2011)

Spencer, Charles. 2008. Hedda Gabler: Shocking then, shocking now. The Telegraph, February 28, (accessed December 15, 2011).
Stasio, Marilyn. 2006. Hedda Gabler, Variety, November 29, (accessed December 15, 2011).

Swann, Julia. N.d. Hedda Gabler. Birkbeck German Society, (accessed December 15, 2011).

Tilmann, Christina. 2005. Die Leiden der jungen H.: Ein Ibsen für heute: Thomas Ostermeier triumphiert mit Hedda Gabler an der Berliner Schaubühne. Der Tagesspiegel, October 28. (accessed December 15, 2011).

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