Hedda Gabler – Henrik Ibsen

The first thing you notice when you pick up Hedda Gabler is that there is no character of that name in the cast list. Gabler was her maiden name but at the start of the play she is just returning from honeymoon having married Jörgen Tesman so she is referred to in the cast as Hedda Tesman. As Ibsen himself wrote:

The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.

(Excerpt from letter to Moritz Prozor, December 4, 1890)

20181127 Hedda Gabler 1

The edition I have read is the Penguin Classic translated by Una Ellis-Fermor printed in 1950, she also translated a further collection of Ibsen’s plays for Penguin in 1958 entitled The Master Builder and other plays. When Penguin came to reprint this 1950 book it was retitled Hedda Gabler and other plays to match the later edition. In both volumes Ellis-Fermor describes the translations as ‘readers versions’. By which she means that although the plays could be performed from her translation her intention was to produce works that a reader would find comfortable to read. One thing I have definitely discovered during this month of reading plays is that although when performed on the stage a play can be a wondrous thing and transport you to worlds of imagination; when you sit and read them they are somewhat less satisfying. They were never intended to be read as literature after all, however Ellis-Fermor has, whilst retaining the structure of a play, made it so it can easily be read as a novella (102 pages in this version).

The play is in four acts all of which take place in the Tesman’s new home which has been purchased and furnished whilst they were away on their six month honeymoon under the supervision of Jörgen’s aunt Juliane. She has even put some of her own money into the purchase when finances became tight. It is clear the Jörgen needs the professorship that is available in order to finance is new life as a married man especially as Hedda appears to have quite expensive tastes. For her part Hedda is already bored of the marriage, Jörgen appears to be more interested in his work and books than her and the ‘honeymoon’ was really an extended research trip. There is a funny passage of dialogue near the beginning of act one where Juliane has clearly planned the layout of the house with two empty rooms to be used as nurseries and children’s bedrooms and Jörgen really can’t understand and thinks they are for his library extension and no matter how she hints at Hedda being possibly pregnant Jörgen just doesn’t twig.

When Hedda does finally appear on stage she is deliberately rude to Juliane and makes it clear that she doesn’t like the way the place has been decorated, Juliane leaves and in her place Mrs Thea Elvsted arrives with news of Ejlert Lövborg, Jörgen’s presumed rival for the professorship especially as he has published a book whilst they have been away on honeymoon. It is at this point that the complex relationships between the characters start to be explained. Thea was in a brief relationship with Jörgen before he met Hedda and she had also been at school with Hedda where she had been bullied by her. Hedda, for reasons of her own makes out that they were school friends and gets Jörgen out of the way to talk about Ejlert who Thea had moved in with after leaving her husband. Thea tells Hedda that she is worried about Ejlert as he has gone back to his old ways (presumably drinking) and that he had been threatened by a previous partner with a gun and she thinks he may meet her again. Hedda reassures her that no woman would do such a thing but as Thea leaves she goes to a cabinet and pulls out her fathers pistols as the first act closes.

Act two begins with Hedda firing one of her guns towards Judge Brack as he comes to visit Jörgen who is out at the time, she is clearly not mentally stable but as the play continues her instability revolves around a desire to totally control somebody else and it seems she is set on it being Ejlert. Whilst waiting Brack makes it clear that he also desires a relationship with Hedda although she is not at all keen on the idea. Jörgen returns and is soon followed by Ejlert at his invitation, once they actually meet Ejlert explains that he doesn’t want the professorship as he has a new book he is working on. Whilst Jörgen and Brack are talking in another room Ejlert tries to renew his relationship with Hedda and she sees that he can be the one she can control. Thea arrives towards the end of the act and the two woman settle down for the evening after Hedda has persuaded Ejert to accompany Jörgen and Brack on their planned night out with him to return at 10pm to escort Thea home.

Act three is set the next morning, both ladies are in front of the now cooling fire, Ejlert obviously didn’t return to take Thea home but when Jörgen comes in he is carrying Ejlert’s manuscript of his new book and is very excited about how good it is. He had seen Ejlert drop it in the street and picked it up but hadn’t returned it as he was afraid he would lose it again. However Jörgen gets a message that his other aunt is dying so needs to leave urgently. Ejlert meanwhile is convinced he has destroyed the book and arrives to tell Thea who is horrified as she had worked tirelessly on the book with him and leaves almost immediately. Ejlert left with Hedda is even more under her spell than when they were a couple and she seeing this as her chance to prove that she can control somebody presses him to commit suicide and gives him one of her pistols before he leaves. Afterwards she burns the manuscript.

The final act is very short and takes place soon after the previous scene. It turns out that Ejlert had gone from the Tesman house to the home of another previous girlfriend and there had died from a gunshot wound to the chest, Hedda thinks he shot himself in the heart (a truly romantic gesture) but no Judge Brack explains to her that the gun appears to have gone off accidentally and that he recognised the pistol thus insuring his power over her. Thea also reveals that she has the original notes from their work together so Jörgen and her start work to reconstruct the lost masterpiece. Knowing that her plans have failed and instead she is the one controlled Hedda retires to the other room and shoots herself which is where the play ends.

Hedda through out the play is depicted as a materialistic, narcissistic character, thoroughly unlikeable but someone who has drawn the three men to her in their own way. Jörgen has a wife who will help him progress in Norwegian society. Brack sees someone he can control and therefore use as he wishes. Only Ejlert Lövborg really loves her but she doesn’t reciprocate this love and he is apparently blind to the love from Thea Elvsted which could have made them both so happy.

At the end of the play you hope that Thea and Jörgen can get together as a couple during their work in resurrecting the lost manuscript. Finding through their shared loss a rekindling of the love they had in the past. Surely something good can come out of the tragedies.

Uncle Vania – Anton Chehov

Or is it Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, that appears to be the more usual spelling at least currently but I have spelt it the way I have in the title to this essay as that is how the Penguin Classics edition of 1959 which I have been reading has it so I will stick with it throughout.

20181113 Uncle Vania 1

The first thing that strikes you reading the play is that for the first two acts Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky, whom his niece Sonia calls Uncle Vania, is largely an ensemble character and it is only in acts three and four that he comes to the front. The first act sets the dynamic tensions between the protagonists. There had clearly been a quiet routine in the house for many years with Sonia and Vania running the estate which had been her mothers dowry when she married professor Serebriakov. Sonia’s mother died some years ago and the professor has now retired to the estate from his home in the city and brought with him his second wife Yeliena who is just 27 years old, between them they have seriously upset the normal running of the household. To make things more complicated Astrov, the doctor who looks after the professor’s gout is attracted to Yeliena as is Vania, whilst Sonia is in love with Astrov. You just know it’s going to get messy and Vania is gloomy about the future as only a Russian can be…

Yeliena – What a lovely day … not too hot either

Voinitsky/Vania  – It would even be pleasant to hang oneself on a day like this…

There are four other characters in the play, all of which play minor roles so beyond the list below I won’t cover their actions.

  • Maryia Voinitskaia is Sonia’s grandmother/ Vania’s mother
  • Ilyia Ilyich Telyeghin was a local landowner but has lost all his money and now lives on the estate.
  • Marina an old children’s nurse
  • A workman – just needed to fill in such as fetching horses etc. when the main characters wouldn’t do such things.

Act two sees the complicated relationships become more strained. The doctor has been summoned but the professor won’t let him see him this means that he is yet again at the house and wants to spend time with Yeliena to convince her to leave the professor. Vania muses to himself that he missed his chance with Yeliena ten years ago

Voinitsky – [Alone] She’s gone! ten years ago I used to meet her at my sister’s house. She was seventeen then and I was thirty-seven. Why didn’t I fall in love with her then and ask her to marry me? It could have been done so easily! She would have been my wife now.

The professor meanwhile is in pain with the gout and frustrated with his existence at the estate where he feels he is wasting his time and doesn’t get on with anyone there.

Serebriakov – After devoting all my life to learning, after growing used to my study, to my lecture room, to esteemed colleagues – to find myself suddenly, for no reason at all in this crypt, to have to meet stupid people every day, to have to listen to their trivial conversation. I want to live; I love success, I like being a well known figure, I like creating a stir of the world, but here I feel an exile. To spend every minute regretting the past, watching others succeed, fearing death. I can’t! It’s more than I can bear.

Meanwhile Yeliena decides to at least try to make up with Sonia and during their talk admits that although she loved the professor when they married she soon realised her mistake but will remain true to him come what may. At the same time Sonia confesses her love for the doctor and asks Sonia to see if she can find out if he loves her.

Things come to a head in act three, Yeliena talks to the doctor about Sonia and he says he doesn’t love her but interprets the conversation as Yeliena using that as an excuse to talk to  him about love. he makes a clumsy pass at her during which he kisses her as she is pushing him away and this is seen by Vania who is just coming into the room at that point. Straight after this before anyone can settle the professor calls everyone together to say that he has decided to sell the estate and buy a villa in Finland for himself and Yeliena. At this Vania explodes with fury, the estate doesn’t belong to the professor but to Sonia and he has given no thought as to where the people who have always lived there might go and it is his family that should decide what to do with the estate as they paid for it

Voinitsky – The estate was originally bought for ninety-five thousand roubles. My father only paid seventy thousand and twenty-five thousand remained on mortgage. Now please do listen! This estate would never have been bought if I hadn’t given up my share of the inheritance in favour of my sister, whom I loved deeply. What’s more, I worked like an ox for ten years, and paid off the whole mortgage.

Serebriakov – I regret that I started this conversation.

Voinitsky – The estate is free from debt and in good condition simply because of my own efforts, and now that I’ve grown old, I’m to be kicked out!

Serebriakov – I don’t understand what you are driving at!

Voinitsky – For twenty-five years I’ve been managing this estate, I’ve been working and sending you money like the most conscientious bailiff you could have, and all this time you’ve never once thanked me for it. All this time – when I was young and now just the same –  I’ve been getting a salary of five hundred roubles a year from you, a pittance! and never once have you thought of adding a single rouble to it!

Serebriakov – Ivan Petrovich, how was I to know? I am not a practical man and I don’t understand anything about these matters. You could have added as much as you liked.

Voinitsky – Yes indeed, why didn’t I steal? Why don’t you all laugh at me now because I didn’t steal. It would have been fair enough and I shouldn’t now have been a pauper now!

The professor leaves the room shortly after this, soon followed by Vania and a shot is heard off stage then both men run into the room and Vania fires again, both shots miss, Vania drops the pistol and collapses into a chair as the act ends.

To be honest act four which is set the next day feels like a bit of a let down after the excitement of act three. It has been decided that the professor and Yeliena will leave straight away. With them going the doctor has no reason to still be there and he also leaves. Vania and Sonia sit down to work on the books of the estate which have been neglected whilst the professor has been there and all returns to how it was before.

I’ve seen the play performed, although that was many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it but this was the first time I had read the script. The book contains eight plays in all so I will be reading those later.

The Frogs – Aristophanes

20181106 The Frogs

For November I’ve decided to read a selection of plays and the first one is The Frogs by Aristophanes. Normally I’m not a great fan of Ancient Greek dramas as you need a lot of knowledge of the gods and other characters involved but this translation is so readable I found myself laughing along as I read it. It was written in 405 BC and can be dated so precisely because it was created for drama competition as part of a festival honouring the god Dionysus in Athens where it took first place. Dionysus is one of the Greek gods with lots of jobs, according to the Wikipedia entry he is the god of the grape-harvest, wine making and wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre and it is in the latter one of these roles that a drama competition in his name becomes obvious.

The play tells the story of Dionysus deciding to travel to the underworld to bring back the playwright Euripedes who had died the previous year in order to rescue the arts in Athens back from the doldrums that he perceives it to be in. The first act sees Dionysus and his slave Xanthias on their journey, initially they visit Dionysus’s half brother Heracles for advice which causes him to collapse with laughter as Dionysus has decided to dress like Heracles with the lion head cloak and club but he really doesn’t have the build to carry off the look. Eventually they persuade Heracles to explain the route he used when he went to get the three headed dog Cerebus and they duly set off. When they meet Charon, the ferryman of the dead he agrees to take Dionysus and this is when he encounters the frog chorus who sing during the crossing. Despite the play being called The Frogs this is the only time they appear in it. After various encounters with people who think Dionysus is Heracles and either hate him for taking Cerebus or love him for it they finally reach the home of Pluto ruler of the Hades.

Act two takes place entirely at the Pluto’s house where they find Euripedes and also another dramatist Aeschylus who had died about 50 years earlier. These two had been arguing for the last year about which was the better writer and should therefore sit with Pluto for meals. Dionysus takes it onto himself to judge a contest between them and they take it in turns to be rude about the others works with the chorus commenting as though it was a fight with each man landing viscous blows on the other. This gives Aristophenes a chance to parody each of the two dramatists styles and throw in his own critical comments on both of them. Eventually Pluto gets fed up and decides to determine the winner via a special set of scales which can measure the weight of an argument. Each man gets to speak one line into the baskets on the scale and they are marked against one another with the scale, to Euripedes’s annoyance Aeschylus wins both attempts by mentioning heavier objects. In the end Dionysus decides to simply ask the two dramatists for advice to save Athens, Euripedes has lots of fine words but Aeschylus has more practical suggestions so instead of having Euripedes brought back to life he decides on Aeschylus. A final parting shot from Aeschylus is to insist that Sophocles should have the seat as the finest dramatist rather than Euripedes.

Translations of ancient Greek and Latin have become far ‘less stuffy’ over the last few decades and this can largely be thanks to Penguin Books who started their series of Penguin Classics in 1946 with the express intent of making the classics more approachable. Compare this extract from the Harvard Classics edition of 1909 which is available on Project Gutenberg, which deals with the god Dionysus rowing across the Styx with Charon and encountering the Frog chorus.  The specific translator is not given for this edition on the site as this was a massive group exercise resulting in 51 volumes of a wide selection of classic works.

FROG CHORUS
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   We children of the fountain and the lake
   Let us wake
   Our full choir-shout, as the flutes are ringing out,
   Our symphony of clear-voiced song.
   The song we used to love in the Marshland up above,
   In praise of Dionysus to produce,
   Of Nysaean Dionysus, son of Zeus,
   When the revel-tipsy throng, all crapulous and gay,
   To our precinct reeled along on the holy
   Pitcher day.
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.

 DIONYSUS. O, dear! O dear! now I declare I've got a bump upon my rump.

The same passage from the 1964 translation by David Barrett printed by Penguin and reprinted in the edition I have been reading.

FROGS
   Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax,
   Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Oh we are the musical Frogs!
   We live in the marshes and bogs!
   Sweet, sweet is the hymn,
   That we sing as we swim,
   And our voices are known.
   For their beautiful tone,
   when on festival days
   We sing to the praise
   Of the genial god -
   And we don't think it odd
   When the worshipping throng,
   To the sound of our song,
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.
   Brekekex!
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.

 DIONYSUS. I don't want to row any more.

 FROGS. Brekekex!

 DIONYSUS. For my bottom is getting so sore.

As you can see the Penguin edition is considerable more ‘lively’ and the translator has almost turned to the poetic structure of the limerick in order to emphasise the comic nature of the play. This is a form that he will return to several times during the translation in some places using the limerick itself. The play is only 110 short pages so I read it in two sittings, the edition is from the Little Black Classics series by Penguin and is one of the most expensive of these books at £2. I’m looking forward to reading more from this series of titles in the coming months.

 

The Devil’s Dictionary

20180327 Devil's Dictionary

Although now recognised as an American classic The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce was never originally intended to even become a book and certainly not intended to be read like one. It is, as the title implies, a dictionary; but full of alternative definitions, normally humorous, often satirical and sometimes it has to be said just plain strange at least to modern readers. But before looking at the book itself it is a good idea to know something about Bierce himself and how it came to be written and that is not as simple a task as it sounds as implied by the first sentence of the book summary in my copy.

The life of Ambrose Bierce is a tissue of facts embroidered with legend.

Normally at least birth and death dates of a well known journalist and author such as Ambrose Bierce would at least be known but although we know that he was born in 1842 the best that can be done for his death is ‘probably 1914’ when he went to Mexico during the revolution and was never heard of again.

But lets backtrack over what is known. In 1861 he enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry and fought in the American Civil War apparently with distinction and it was thought that he would go to a military academy after the war and make that his career but he was already interested in writing. So in 1866 he apparently ‘tossed a coin to decide whether to stay in the army or become a journalist. Journalism won the toss.’ By this time his army career had brought him to San Francisco, and that is where he started to teach himself what he needed to know; and started writing pieces some of which made it to print. In 1868 he got his first regular journalistic job and in a roundabout way this was to lead to the book I have. The job wasn’t journalism as such in that it didn’t involve factual reporting of news, instead it was a page in the San Francisco News Letter entitled ‘Town Crier’ which was a humorous and satirical view of life in the city and Bierce was set on his path to fame. He would over much of the rest of his life continue to write satire for numerous publications and by 1869 he had included his first multiple definition entry of what would eventually be a book although at the time it was probably just a useful space filler for the Town Crier page.

Over the ensuing thirty plus years Bierce continued his definitions in his various columns in publications not just in America but also in England where he lived for 3½ years in the 1870’s. They became increasingly popular and also much copied with Bierce sometimes entitling them The Devil’s Dictionary or later on The Cynic’s Dictionary until the idea of combining them into a book came to him in 1903. By the time of publication however not only had his idea been stolen but even the title of his column had been used by a competitor to publish their own set of definitions so he was forced to use the title The Cynic’s Word Book when it came out in 1906. Oddly it only included 521 definitions for the letters A to L with an intention to have a second volume covering M to Z later on, however it didn’t sell well enough for this plan to be realised.

And so it stayed as an unfinished work until 1911 when Bierce was working on his collected works and volume 7 was entitled The Devil’s Dictionary, this time covering the entire alphabet and with 1000 definitions, some of which were specially written for the book especially at the end of the alphabet because over all of his columns Bierce had only reached the word shoddy.

Shoddy: n. (vulgus) A term that expresses the status of a large part of our society, and furnishes a weakly page of matter to many of our time-serving dailies.

*Weakly is as written and implies a certain disdain for many of his less talented rivals producing similar columns for other newspapers.

The collected works was also a financial failure but The Devils Dictionary was recognised as probably his finest work and after his death went on to be published as a standalone volume by several companies and establish itself as a major work of American humour.

We then leap forward to 1963 when Ernest Jerome Hopkins, after a long career as a journalist, became Professor Emeritus of Journalism at Arizona State University and after discovering that the title didn’t actually come with any specific work decided to have another look at The Devils Dictionary and some strange gaps in the words chosen. It rapidly became clear that by no means all of the definitions Bierce had written for his various columns had made it into the published book, almost certainly because at the time of compiling he had been living on the Eastern seaboard of America and a lot of the early material was 3000 miles away in California and no copies would have existed in reference libraries where he was. Over the next few years Hopkins unearthed a further 851 definitions left out of the 1911 book and in 1967 the Enlarged Dictionary was published. My copy is the Penguin Classics edition, first issued under this imprint in 1985 although Penguin printed their first edition in 1971 in their main series.

To conclude let’s have a few definitions taken at random from the book, I have literally just opened the book and picked a word for each of these so it should give a flavour of the work as a whole, some are funny, some are sharp and some are odd, I’ll let you decide which are which. In the case of long definitions I have just included the first part, some go on a lot longer than others.

Edible: adj. Good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

 

Bald: adj. Destitute of hair from hereditary or accidental causes – never from age.

 

Riddle: n. Who elects our rulers?

 

Miss: n. A title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market.

 

Insurance: n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.

 

Dice: n. Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly on the wrong one.

 

Fauna: n. A general name for the various beasts infesting any locality exclusive of domestic animals, travelling menageries and Democratic politicians.

 

Road: n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is futile to go.