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Evoking the religious and the sublime … The Weather Project, an installation by Olafur Eliasson in Tate Modern, 2003.

It is not especially original, but it’s hard not to notice the striking similarities between theatre and organised religion: the communal experience, the gathering together in one place to bear witness; finding a space within a crowd to reflect in silence on one’s thoughts; the civic, social and, to an extent, pastoral needs which both can fulfil.

For the ancient Greeks, theatre clearly played an important part in the intellectual and moral life of the city; it’s probably reasonable to speculate that the day-long performances of tragedies must have accrued some of the heady atmosphere of the religious trance.

But in Shakespeare’s deeply sectarian Christian world, while frowned on by protestantism, theatres seemed to distance themselves from overt expressions of religious faith. And so, the raucous, secular, circular space of the Globe offers an almost precise opposite of the hushed, reverent cruciform of a cathedral.

From the 17th century onwards, an essential secularity seems to have been established in theatre, both in terms of content and architecture. There are superficial similarities between the narrower proscenium arch theatres and more ornate churches, but such similarities tend not to resonate. If the wings of the stage are the choir, then the altar has been excised; in theatre, at least, the cross has been decapitated.


Andrew Haydon


She’s mean at the beginning and even meaner at the end. For her first trick, she mercilessly derides a sweet old lady’s brand new hat. Later she uses a visiting guest for target practice in the backyard. And for a big finish, she consigns a baby to the flames. (A metaphorical baby, that is.) Through it all she exudes tetchiness, weariness and a general contempt for everything in sight. She finds everybody a bore, and even bores herself — to death, essentially.

A more repellent personality would be hard to imagine, and yet Hedda Gabler is one of the eternal fascinators of the world stage. Since she sprang from the imagination of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1890, this coldhearted antiheroine has maintained a tight grip on the attention of audiences across the globe, outstripping all the many other complicated women in Ibsen’s oeuvre, even the door-slamming Nora of “A Doll’s House.” This month “Hedda Gabler” sweeps back onto Broadway — for somewhere around the 20th time over the course of a century — in a new production from the Roundabout Theater Company starring Mary-Louise Parker and directed by Ian Rickson.

In a review of the first Broadway production, way back in 1898, a critic for The New York Times described Hedda as a “degenerate,” “selfish, morbid, cruel, bitter, jealous, something of a visionary, something of a wanton, something of a lunatic.” Another writer for the paper, on the occasion of a revival in 1903, moralized that “her soul is too small even for human sin.” Critical responses have calmed over the centuries as we’ve all become more comfortable with neuroses, our own and everyone else’s. But there’s no pretending that Hedda herself has gotten any warmer. Locked in the fastness of art, she is as she ever was, a scorpion in amber.

So what is the mystery of her attraction? Probably her mystery itself. No matter how many times we encounter her, how many new angles we view her from, Hedda remains strangely inscrutable, her essence as elusive as the murky depths of our own tangled psyches.

If she were created by a playwright today, a new-model Hedda Gabler would probably stride onstage waving the standard flags of dysfunction and emotional disorder. Between bouts of pistol-polishing she’d be blabbing away about her issues with daddy worship, her husband’s inability to fulfill her needs, the oppressive social order and the sterility of Norwegian towns.

She’d have done some time in rehab and maybe had cosmetic work done, although at the time of her marriage to Tesman she had not yet hit 30 (30 was the old 50). A Hedda Gabler newly minted would probably be a lot like the insufferable mascara-dripping gamin played by Anne Hathaway in the cinematic whine-fest “Rachel Getting Married.” “But what about me?” would be her rallying cry.

Actually, that line comes directly from the Rolf Fjelde translation of the original play. (The new production, opening Jan. 25, uses a new adaptation by Christopher Shinn.) One of the hallmarks of Hedda’s modernity — one of the keys to her constant contemporaneity — is the depth of her narcissism. She was far ahead of the curve in the rampaging ego department, obsessively self-involved before it became an acknowledged strain in the modern character. She seems contemporary, too, in the pettiness of her dissatisfactions and her irritated sense of entitlement. And her attitude toward marriage strikes a similarly current note: “To be everlastingly together with one and the same person,” she moans in complaint. Both Miranda and Samantha on “Sex and the City” evinced similar skepticism about the till-death-do-us-part part of marriage.

But Hedda also resists self-revelation. She keeps her deepest secrets to herself, hiding the truth of her motivations behind the steel-gray eyes so peculiarly specified by Ibsen. The deepest roots of her malaise are probably obscure even to her. She admits to Judge Brack, her father confessor figure, that she doesn’t really know why she took that nasty swipe at dear Aunt Julie’s hat. She just felt like it, really. For Hedda, actions do speak louder than words, and all her actions are destructive.

“The odd thing is that she is not particularly introverted or self-analytical,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in an illuminating essay on Ibsen heroines in from the collection “Seduction and Betrayal.” “There is not much pleasure in her self-love. It is of an unproductive, even useless sort and so in the end she looks in the mirror endlessly and yet does not feel ardor for what she sees there.”

Unraveling the coils of her psychology is, of course, what attracts so many stars to the role. For an actress, bewitching an audience through the vehicle of a manifestly unlovable character is a challenge hard to resist. Famous interpreters on Broadway have included Minnie Maddern Fiske, Alla Nazimova and Eva Le Gallienne, the great champion (and translator) of Ibsen in the 1920s. But the list of distinguished actresses who have portrayed Hedda could be elaborated endlessly: Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rigg in versions currently available on DVD, Glenda Jackson in another filmed version from 1975, Claire Bloom on Broadway in 1971, Annette Bening in a Los Angeles production just about a decade ago.

There is danger in trying too cleanly to diagram the roots of Hedda’s pathology. That way lies reductiveness. In fact, another remarkable aspect of Hedda’s character is how reliably she confounds or confuses even formidable actresses. (Brooks Atkinson was underwhelmed by the interpretation of Le Gallienne, whom he admired more in other Ibsen plays, describing her Hedda of 1928 as being at times “perfunctory rather than artful.”) Every actress with the right aptitude and intelligence wants to play Hedda, but relatively few stars manage to triumph in the role.

The urge to clarify — and to forge a connection with the audience by evoking sympathy or amusement — can trip up an actress in this role perhaps as in no other. Hedda must captivate without seducing, and that can rub against the grain of an actress’s natural instinct. Attempt to reveal too much about Hedda that Ibsen did not specifically plant in the text, or settle too firmly on a neat psychological formula, and you risk reducing her to a bored housewife, a frustrated neurotic, a thwarted artist. She is all these, in part and in theory, but she must be more, too, larger somehow than both her personality and her predicament.

In recent years I’ve seen half a dozen productions, and only one — the New York Theater Workshop production from the experimental director Ivo Van Hove, starring Elizabeth Marvel — was satisfactory. By yanking the play from its naturalistic frame Mr. Van Hove helped restore some of its resounding mystery, and Ms. Marvel’s coolly entrancing performance shimmered with eerie intensities.

Without having any inkling of how she will approach the role, I’d venture to say that Ms. Parker is a promising choice. There is a cool, withholding quality in her economical acting style that seems right for Hedda, a suggestion that calculations and assessments are continually going on behind the big, dark eyes. Even in the Showtime series “Weeds,” for which she is currently best known, Ms. Parker uses this elusiveness to strong effect, infusing her performance as a suburban mom trafficking in drugs with a sense of suppressed desperation.

Her director, Mr. Rickson, whose sensitive, resonant production of “The Seagull” was a highlight of the fall season on Broadway, would seem capable of bringing forth the richer currents of the play. “Hedda is unable to live,” Richard Gilman wrote in the chapter devoted to Ibsen in “The Making of Modern Drama.” “At the deepest level of Ibsen’s vision she is caught not so much in a particular set of circumstances — these make up the dramatic occasion, providing the details by which the dramatic vision is made possible — as in human circumstance itself. She is a victim of the way things are.”

This sharp insight points toward the fundamental appeal of so superficially repulsive a woman. Life just isn’t good enough for Hedda Gabler. That might seem dismissive, making her sound like a teenager having a tantrum. But there are surely passages in every life when the soul sends up a similar cry of frustration. Admit, please, that there are moments when we are all inclined to feel that this frustrating business of existence — as it is lived on the darkest days — isn’t good enough for us either.

Charles Isherwood
New York Times


Harold Pinter, who died Wednesday after a long bout with cancer, will go down as the most important modern English-language playwright after Samuel Beckett. He wouldn’t have minded coming in second. Plus he gave the world a sharper adjective — Pinteresque.

Beckett was an idol and mentor to Pinter, as well as a friend. Pinter took inspiration from the Irish writer’s profound concentration of language and metaphor, breadth of literary and philosophical knowledge, Proustian appreciation of the subjectivity of memory, recognition of the power struggles in human relations and harrowing comedy in the face of the 20th century’s apocalyptic worst.

In effect, Pinter brought Beckett’s game indoors, transferring it from barren heaths, garbage cans and mounds of earth to recognizable domestic English settings. Shabby in Pinter’s early years, these rooms became posher as he began to reap the fruits of his success in both theater and film, where he was a noted screenwriter (enjoying an especially productive relationship with Joseph Losey), a pungent actor and an occasional director.

But Pinter was always his own man. And to understand him, one has to recognize the specifics of his background, as a Jewish kid from the East End of London whose adolescence was darkened by the Second World War and as an actor who gleaned as much about playwriting from working as a rep player alongside such British acting legends as Donald Wolfit as he did from studying Beckett.

Where Pinter grew up, violence and anti-Semitic hatred weren’t abstract matters. After the war, in his economically debilitated, politically explosive part of town, he learned to avoid physical confrontations — a danger, he acknowledged, for anyone who “remotely looked like a Jew” — by talking to thugs hanging out outside the club he used to frequent: “Are you all right?” “Yes, I’m all right.” “Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it?”

Language, which is so often a weapon in his plays, is also a reliable shield, “a constant stratagem to cover nakedness,” as the playwright himself once described it. David Hare was right to pay Pinter the ultimate Auden compliment of having “cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly.” But Pinter’s poetic density, shot through with those signature gaping silences, wasn’t deployed for its own sake.

The assaultive threat hovering over his characters is what shapes their jagged conversation. In Pinter’s view, Kafka was one of the few writers who had got it right: The nightmarish knock on the door isn’t just a paranoid delusion. The urge to dominate is fundamental to our territorial natures. We know we’re not safe, and our canine vigilance readies us to attack and defend.

Pinter’s rough-and-tumble roots also informed his political perspective, which became more explicit in his plays in the 1980s and could admittedly become rather truculent in his speeches and editorials, most notably in his 2005 Nobel lecture, “Art, Truth & Politics,” in which he took the opportunity to rail against what he saw as the long-standing brutality of American foreign policy.

But for all his vehemence and posturing, Pinter was too gifted with words and too astute a critic to be dismissed as an ideological crank. He was also too deft a psychologist, understanding what the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott meant when he wrote that “being weak is as aggressive as the attack of the strong on the weak” and that the repressive denial of personal aggressiveness is perhaps even more dangerous than ranting and raving. (All that stiff-upper-lip business can be murderous.)


Charles McNulty
Los Angeles Times

Michael Boyd. Photograph: Gary Calton

Michael Boyd, announcing the artistic direction of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the coming three years this morning, suggested that theatre was in rude health in this country – not just because of regular, decent funding from the government, not just because of the healthy filtering upwards of energy and inventiveness from the fringe into the mainstream – but also because the very nature of theatre means that it is the artform that speaks most powerfully to the Zeitgeist. “It is the artform for now, at this fragmented time,” he said. “It has to do with how we can connect with each other. In theatre you deal with that – that is why theatre is important right now.”

“It is on its way to reasserting itself as the most urgent artform now, at a time when we are so disconnected. I cannot remember a time when the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Court were so ‘on song’. The hit rate at the moment is tremendous.”

I suppose he means that as communities become more fragile, the pull of sitting in a theatre and being part of a group of people engaged in a communal experience is all the more powerful. What he said reminded me of something Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Spoonface Steinberg) said to me in an interview the other week: “In miniature, drama is like a metaphor for how life and politics should work – you come together to create a common entity and you try to express yourself with and through other people. Whether you are a writer or an actor or a stage manager, you are trying to express the complications of life through a shared enterprise.”

Theatre, of course, is the medium of debate, of getting-to-the-bottom-of-things, of hammering things out – unlike more visceral and emotive performing arts, such as dance and classical music. It’s an intriguing idea of Boyd’s – that, above all other artforms it is theatre’s time and theatre is what we need now: not just because there are some good people making and directing plays and running theatres, but because of some deeper cultural forces. I’m not sure I entirely buy Boyd’s position – but it is one to chew on.

Charlotte Higgins