The introduction Hardit Kaur Gill, daughter of General Gill, brings to mind a woman brought up in the rarefied, strictly hierarchical world of army cantonments; probably unable to make friends or cultivate any lasting interests due to the itinerant life of the army man.
Which is why Hardit Kaur Gill, Ila Arun's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1891 play, Hedda Gabler, directed by KK Raina, works in contemporary India where women have made strides in education and career, but can still have the shackles of tradition weighing them down. Their ambitions probably not taken seriously enough. Even today, many Indian parents tell their daughters, “Get married, then do what you want.”
Using today's vocabulary, the viciously manipulative Hedda/Hardit would be called a psycho-bitch. Back then, after tragically self destructive heroines like Madame Bovary (Gustav Flaubert, 1878) and Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy,1878), the wicked Hedda Gabler (called “one of the first fully developed neurotic female protagonists of literature” by Joseph Woods Krutch, in his book on modern drama) baffled, if not outraged, critics.
George Bernard Shaw commented: "What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness."
Another review noted, “So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations, so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement Scott - The Daily Telegraph, 1891).
Hedda was such a complex character, that this one of Ibsen’s most translated, adapted and performed plays (along with A Doll’s House), and some of the world’s finest actresses have played her. An interesting observation that Ibsen made about 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.”
Hardit Kaur Gill is played by Ira Dubey, as a brittle, petulant woman, whose petite frame and delicate beauty do not take away from the power she has over her besotted husband Dev/George Tesman, and her former lover Inder/Eilert Lovborg. The only one who understands her twisted mind, is Dev’s jovial buddy, Balvinder/Judge Brack.
Hardit married the professor Dev because she probably ran out of attractive suitors. Hedda explains, “I had simply danced myself out, my dear Sir. My time was up.”
She believed marriage would bring her in contact with high society, but after a six-month honeymoon, during which her husband just visited libraries and museums, she realises her mistake and is already bored. She also cannot stand Dev’s affectionate, fussy aunts, who bring her flowers that remind her of death. When Judge Brack asked – as anyone would today of any educated woman, “Why should not you, too, find some sort of vocation in life, Mrs. Hedda?” she could not even think of what she might do, except push her husband into politics and then reap the benefits of his upward mobility.
Like so many women, brought up by indulgent parents, actual effort to realise her own ambitions seems beyond Hardit. She spends her time complaining, riding, shooting, and, when Inder walks back into her life, she cannot hide her envy at the success of the reformed alcoholic, and his genuine friendship with Kanta, who loves him, and has left her husband to help him with his work. Hardit cannot imagine breaking up her marriage either (“As one makes one's bed, one must lie on it," Hedda said), but in a fit of jealous pique, destroys Inder’s precious manuscript and drives him to suicide, before killing herself in despair.
Often called the “female Hamlet” what Hedda wants is “to have power over a human destiny.. I have never had that. Not once in my life.” When she cannot have what she wants, she destroys it.
A man behaving like that would be called ruthless in an admiring way, but it is difficult for even modern society to understand a cold-blooded female, despite having seen its share of evil women. Which is probably why Hedda Gabler remains exciting, and also why Ila Arun’s Hardit Kaur Gill does not seem out of place in the twenty-first century. She could very well be a woman who tried a career, failed and saw marriage as an escape from ennui.
Ibsen himself wrote, about this play, “The great tragedy of life is that so many people have nothing to do but yearn for happiness without ever being able to find it. To me, will is always the most important thing. Few people have strong wills. It always strikes me as comical when people tell me that something they wanted didn’t work out. They have merely desired or longed for something, not willed it. He who really wills something attains his goal.”
For a writer, director and actress, interpreting Hedda without making her seem outdated remains a challenge, at the core of the character of a bored wife is a woman who does not want to relinquish her life — whether to a loving husband, his family, or even to her unborn child. When she finds that Balvinder has seen through her and now has power over her, she shoots herself.
John Gassner, wrote in Masters of the Drama (1954), “Ibsen created a masterpiece in Hedda Gabler, a crystal example of a maladjusted woman. She has sisters in every city, for she belongs to the widely dispersed sorority of moderately comfortable women whose restlessness and envy arise from their false standards of happiness, as well as from their egotism and uselessness. No doubt she existed in the past but her specific type is undeniably modern. Unlike the women of the older middle class who had their noses to the grindstone of the hearth, who reared children and ran their home, the Heddas described by Ibsen are rootless.”
Years later, an American TV show coined the term that described Hedda/Hardit’s malaise perfectly — Desperate Housewives.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.