Sunday, February 06, 2005

"Ethics As Possibility," Part 2 of a report of an Aesthetic Realism class by Michael Palmer

Here is Part 2, of a report of a remarkable class given by Eli Siegel October 10, 1969, part of a series Eli Siegel gave on one of the important plays in the history of drama, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler of 1890. (Part 1 is below). I'm glad to have heard this class for many reasons--but in particular, because through it I came to have a deeper respect for women.

"Lovborg," he said, is "a somewhat learned [writer]...given to impressive theory, and also given to drink and flattering women." Hedda asks Thea how her friendship with Lovborg came to be.

TE. Oh, it grew up gradually, I gained a sort of influence over him.

HG. Indeed?

TE. He gave up his old habits. Not because I asked him to, for I never dared do that. But of course he saw how repulsive they were to me; and he dropped them.

HG. Then you have reclaimed him--as the saying goes--my little Thea.

TE. So he says himself at any rate.

Commented Mr. Siegel, "The sense of a woman's vanity and the sense of how to build it up was in Lovborg." And he added, "A subtitle of this play [could be] 'The Need for Compliments.' Contrasting the ethics of Thea and Hedda, Mr. Siegel explained, "Hedda Gabler wants to be praised truly if at all. Mrs. Elvsted wants to hear the praise first and the truth later, if at all. This is the first big division of ethics--As soon as there is a disproportion between yourself and the universe, there is the tendency to lie....I don't think Mrs. Elvsted loved the truth as much as [Hedda Gabler]....If we loved the truth 40 percent as much as ourselves, we'd be doing pretty well."

He then gave examples of injustice from man to woman and woman to man in some of the great works of literature--including Greek Drama, and the operas Carmen, Aida, and Tosca. And he said that there was something new which Ibsen was after in this play--even though he himself doesn't make it clear enough. What that something is Mr. Siegel described when he said:"A woman was able to ask a man questions which enabled him to see his thoughts more clearly, express himself more clearly, present them more effectively,"--and it was not liked, not acknowledged, by the man. "It's not that Ibsen says this [directly] but we have to ask why Hedda Gabler is displeased?"

It was exciting to hear Mr. Siegel then read from a 1903 New York Times review of a Manhattan Theatre production of Hedda Gabler, in which the reviewer writes:

"Mrs. Fisk played Hedda Gabler, the presentation of a part which [another actress, Eleanora] Duse studied ten years."

Actresses haven't known how to play Hedda, Mr. Siegel pointed out, because she has not been understood, but he said: "If a part is worth studying 10 years [as Duse did] and all that [Hedda] is is ill-natured, why do you have to study for so long?" The reviewer described the play as "strangely disquieting." And what Mr. Siegel said about that statement explains the art of Ibsen and why the play, while not being understood, has been liked by audiences. He said:

"The purpose of art is always, deeply, to bring something that can be called serenity, repose, to make for quieting. But because of the honest stirring, one is supposed to feel less at odds with oneself and the world."

That "honest stirring," we saw, is what Hedda Gabler makes for. She questions the complacency of people, their motives. She is going after what is true. Said Mr. Siegel, "To see that someone felt that honesty was worth a lot should not be disquieting, it should be encouraging and very often one is encouraged by being upset a little." The reviewer, comparing Hedda to one of the most famous characters of French fiction, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, writes: "All the glitter and tinsel of romance is absent in this Emma Bovary of the North. Even the romantic excuse for Emma's downfall is missing." And Mr. Siegel showed that this comparison is unfair to Hedda Gabler. "Emma Bovary quite definitely was a lady waiting for a man on a white horse," he said, "and that is not present in Hedda Gabler." "[Hedda]," he said, "felt that the man on the white horse would be someone...willing to have himself deeply affected by a woman, not neces­sarily complimenting her or going through all the congratu­lations and all the obeisance associated with love in the Palazzo."
Check back soon for Part 3, and the conclusion of this great class
Regards, MP