of an Aesthetic Realism class:
"Ethics As Possibility"
By Michael Palmer
Eli Siegel saw the Isben
play Hedda Gabler in a new way--different from how it's been previously
The class I'm reporting on of October 10,
1969 titled "Ethics as Possibility," was 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. Mr. Siegel used a portion of the play to show
how ethics has to do centrally with whether we want to tell the truth or
lie. "Ethics," he explained, "is always concerned with choices--one,
what to do; two, how beautiful will what I do look to me, to people and
maybe to God."
Mr. Siegel proceeded
to show what the character of Hedda Gabler truly is, and that critics in
both the 19th and 20th centuries have misjudged her. "It was thought,"
he said, "that she was more bent on ruining the lives of people than being
accurate and being just." But he said Hedda was looking for honesty from
people in a way that, while it often made a person uncomfortable, was deeply
good and on the side of ethics.
In a previous talk,
Mr. Siegel had spoken about the deep bitterness Hedda Gabler had because
a man resented the fact that she had an intellectual effect on him and
his work. Eilert Lovborg is the man who, because of questions Hedda
asked him and discussions they had, came to write an important book, but
instead of acknowl- edging the effect, Lovborg prefers to see their relationship
as physical and sexual. This is false and is deeply insulting to Hedda,
and as the plot develops, has tragic consequences.
The action of the
play begins some time after Hedda knew Lovborg. She has recently
married Jorgen Tessman, a scholarly but extremely dull and insensitive
man. As Act One opens, they have just returned to Christiania, Norway from
their honeymoon in Italy, and they are visited by Thea Elvsted, a woman
Hedda had gone to school with. Thea has left her husband, a Sheriff,
and come to Christiania in search of Eilert Lovborg, who had been working
as a tutor for her husband's children. At first she lies to the Tessmans,
saying it was her husband who sent her to find Lovborg. But when Hedda
questions her alone and asks what sort of man her husband is, Thea reveals
the truth. She says:
T. Elvsted. I
don't think he really cares for anyone but himself--and perhaps a little
for the children.
Some critics have seen Thea's leaving her husband
as courageous, honest, bold, but "one of the principle things in ethics,"
Mr. Siegel pointed out, "is motive. It is not the deed." Thea
Elvsted, he explained, was disappointed in her husband--his desire to understand
her was certainly not great enough--but the main reason she left him is
H. Gabler. And for Eilert
TE. For Eilert Lovborg?
What puts that into your head?
HG. Well, my dear--I should
say, when he sends you after him all the way to town. And besides, you
said so yourself to Tessman.
TE. Did I? Yes, I suppose
I did. ( No--I may just as well make a clean breast of it at once! For
it must all come out in any case.
HG. Why, my dear Thea--?
TE. Well, to make a long
story short: My husband did not know that I was coming.
HG. What! Your husband
didn't know it!
TE. No, of course not.
For that matter he was away from home himself--he was travelling. Oh, I
could bear it no longer, Hedda! I couldn't indeed--so utterly alone as
I should have been in the future.
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