Theater archives

The Victorian Cult of Beauty Infuses Hedda Gabler and Freshwater


The Victorians had what they called a cult of Beauty, with a capital B. While they watched industrialism make their world increasingly drab and polluted, the rationalism that promoted it moved them steadily further away from the otherworldly cults proffered by religion. Lacking cult films to go to, or an Internet to feed them cult celebrities, what they had left to worship was Beauty. Poets sang to it; painters—academic or pre-Raphaelite—struggled to embody it on canvas; William Morris revolutionized home décor by marketing it. Rationalist men, maneuvering freely among the less mentionable parts of the world, might scoff at Beauty, but respectable women flocked to its shrines. (Things were somewhat different in Paris—but then, you know Paris.)

The heroine of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890) is a Victorian woman who, lacking other options, has enlisted in the cult of Beauty. But she’s unlike any other Victorian woman: Ibsen’s character-drawing is always specific, and in Hedda, as in her predecessors Nora Helmer and Helene Alving, he drew so precisely that he created a new prototype. A scandalous sensation in its own day, Hedda Gabler has stuck in the world’s craw. Because its heroine is young, and her situation isn’t simplistic (as Nora and Mrs. Alving’s seem to be, though in fact they aren’t), Hedda gets revived much more often than any of Ibsen’s other works. She has the advantage over her sisters of being evil—that is, if you think she’s evil, a notion that opens the door to endless debate.

In a sense, Hedda shows Ibsen taking on two targets at once: the stereotype woman as victim of Victorian sentimentalists, and the stereotype wicked woman of melodrama. Both were beloved of the Beauty-cultists: Mid-century opera-goers flocked to Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia; cheap reproductions of Burne-Jones’s “Drowned Ophelia” flourished on parlor walls. Hedda, the general’s daughter who rides and shoots like a man, then rushes to the piano to drown herself in music, is neither a Lucrezia nor an Ophelia. She’d like to be a bold person in a beautiful world, but she isn’t bold and the world isn’t beautiful. Trapped by her own rash bravado in a marriage she loathes in a house she hates, she’s further trapped by her own body—biology was destiny then—into an unwanted pregnancy.

Even then, bad girls could get rid of babies; brave girls could become feminists. But straitlaced Hedda has rebelled only through petty acts of malice, since the school days when she used to pull little Thea’s hair. Thea—whose name, not coincidentally, means “goddess” in Greek—is, by contrast, more heroic. She has slammed the door, like Nora, on her dreary arranged marriage, running off to reform a dissolute genius, Lovborg, and become his muse. Envious Hedda uses the one power she has, her sexual magnetism, to destroy Lovborg, then burns his “child,” the manuscript Thea has inspired. Trapped yet again by perspicacious, unprincipled Judge Brack, Hedda shoots herself, thereby also killing her own child—just as, ironically, her husband and Thea are reassembling Lovborg’s.

Despite its violence, Hedda is more dark comedy than stark tragedy. Full of undercurrents and nuances, it’s easy to grasp but extremely hard to realize. Ian Rickson’s new Roundabout production, though livelier in patches than his somnolent dead-zone Seagull last fall, is a baffling patchwork that quickly falls apart at the seams. At first, you think Rickson’s got matters in hand: Helen Carey’s Aunt Juliana, Lois Markle’s Berta, and Michael Cerveris’s Tesman all know what they’re doing. Christopher Shinn’s new adaptation, though streamlined to the point of anorexia, doesn’t jazz the language; if anything, it’s rather too literary (“wedding trip” instead of “honeymoon”).

Then there’s Mary-Louise Parker, who ought to be a great Hedda, and probably could be, in a different production. Here, she seems displaced, cut off from Hedda’s feelings except when asked to display them with the weird triple underlining that Rickson apparently considers the best way to convey sexual subtext. She may be trying to animate her unsupportive supporting players: Paul Sparks, excellent in other roles, makes a distressingly wooden Lovborg; Peter Stormare, once Bergman’s fire-breathing Hamlet, supplies a grumpy, de-energized Brack; Ana Reeder renders Thea as a frumpy barfly out of film noir. Don’t blame the actors: Rickson’s Seagull reduced similarly interesting performers to an equivalent drabness. You wonder if he would even know what Hedda means when she tells Lovborg, in other English versions, to “do it beautifully.” Without a sense of beauty, you can’t make sense of Ibsen.

Nor can you, particularly, make sense of Virginia Woolf that way, even when she jests. I’m not a great admirer of Woolf’s novels, the by-products of a brilliant critical mind whose questing intelligence is most at home in the essay form. But even the most ardent worshippers of Woolf’s fiction don’t have much good to say for Freshwater (1923), a caprice in dialogue, written as a country-house entertainment, that embodies the Bloomsbury generation’s faintly condescending affection for the Victorian artistic giants in whose shadow they had grown up. Woolf had known personally, or knew much lore of, most of the characters in Freshwater—Tennyson, the painter G.F. Watts, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the actress Ellen Terry. She minces together a cute, artsy, quasi-biographical fantasia about their brief time as a coterie (Terry fled her sexless marriage to Watts after two years), dotted with occasional glints of truth and genuine fun.

Alas, Anne Bogart’s determinedly self-conscious production stomps on both truth and fun, equating heavy overdoing with humor and shouting with Victorian solemnity. Ellen Lauren and Tom Nelis, as Mrs. Cameron and her spouse, each snatch a few moments of reality in the general din, but it’s puzzling that Bogart, with her scrupulous intelligence, should care so little about the reality behind Woolf’s jape, the ideas embedded in it, or the skills needed to execute it convincingly onstage. Even at their most mawkish, the artists Woolf pokes fun at here had a sharper sense of Beauty than that.