NOTE: The physical set-up is IMPORTANT to the play. Make sure you read our description (or, even better, Ibsen’s) carefully.
The play begins in an elegant drawing room. At the back wall is a doorway opening to a smaller, inner room. The curtains adorning this doorway are currently drawn back, revealing the inner room behind them. On the left wall of the big front room is a glass door onto a veranda, also with the curtains drawn back, so that sunlight pours in from outside. There is a piano in the front room. In the inner room, above the sofa, hangs a portrait of a general. The front drawing room is full of vases of flowers. On the right side of the stage is a dark porcelain stove with an armchair next to it.
Miss Juliana Tesman (a.k.a. Julie) enters, wearing a hat and followed by Berta, the maid, who carries a bouquet. They are there to visit Julie’s nephew George and his new wife Hedda, who live here. Miss Tesman remarks that the couple must still be sleeping.
Through the conversation, we learn that Berta used to work as a maid for Julie and her invalid sister, Miss Rina, but now she’s going to work for George and his new wife instead.
Berta is worried about pleasing Hedda, who it seems is "particular" (that’s polite subservience for "demanding and impossible to please").
It seems Hedda is the daughter of the now deceased General Gabler (ahem, portrait on the inner room wall). She used to go riding around in a black outfit with a feather in her hat. She was hot stuff, and no one ever thought she’d end up with a guy like George, who quite frankly (though no one says this directly) is beneath her.
Speaking of George, he’s just been given his doctorate, while away on his trip. He has combined his research abroad with his honeymoon (we’re sure that was fun for the bride). Miss Tesman says that Berta will soon have something else to call George, hinting that he may be a father soon (though, again, she never says this directly).
Berta doesn’t get it. But that’s OK, as there will be several (hundred) more baby hints to come.
George enters; he’s thirty-three, blonde, wearing glasses and comfortable clothes. He and his aunt make small talk, which includes mention of the many, many bags Hedda brought on the trip.
Berta exits (leaving behind the bouquet of flowers she brought) to get to her work.
With his aunt, George discuses the research he got done on his honeymoon trip, which consisted mostly of rummaging through historical archives and taking notes. Like we said, lots of fun for the bride.
Miss Tesman takes off her hat, and George remarks on how elegant it is. She explains that she bought it especially for Hedda, so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed to walk down the street with her (with Miss Tesman that is). George is pleased with this.
Then we get some back-story through George’s conversation with his aunt. George’s own father, Jochum, has died, and Julie has taken the role of both father and mother for him.
The topic shifts to Miss Rina, Julie’s sister and George’s other aunt, who is terminally ill. Miss Tesman comments that she doesn’t mind taking care of her sister at all, because she doesn’t know what she would do with herself otherwise.
Then Miss Tesman congratulates her son on bagging the most eligible bachelorette in town: the beautiful Hedda Gabler. She also wants to know if George is expecting something (BABY HINT #2). He doesn’t get it, and thinks she’s talking about his (hopefully) impending position as a professor.
They talk some more about the honeymoon: George’s own costs were covered by a research fellowship, but Hedda’s coming along caused him considerable expense. There was nothing to be done, he says, as she "had to" have a big honeymoon trip.
The house they are in now is new digs for the couple. George says Hedda used to talk about it all the time, that she always wanted to live in this house. So he bought it for them to live in once they were married.
Julie, who apparently only talks about money and babies, reminds George how expensive it will be to live in a place like this (it’s rather large and ornately furnished). Then she admits that she’s taken out a mortgage on she and Rina’s pension, in order to provide security for the carpets and furniture.
George knows nothing about this – he’s all, ‘You shouldn’t have!’, but Miss Tesman explains that it’s only a formality, and that Judge Brack helped her take care of it. When George gets his position as a professor and has a solid income, he won’t need the financial support anymore.
Julie starts talking about George’s future, and how the path ahead is smooth for him now that the one guy who opposed him is out of the way, lying in a bed of his own making. (This will all be explained soon.)
The man in question is Eilert Løvborg, though we don’t know exactly who he is yet. Conversation shifts to George’s new book, which will explore "domestic handicrafts of Brabant on the Middle Ages." New York Times bestseller list, here we come.
Anyway, they agree that the best part of George’s life, professorship and published works be damned, is having the beautiful Hedda as a wife.
Speak of the devil, here comes Hedda. She’s twenty-nine, a brunette, aristocratic, pale, and has steely grey eyes.
Julie wants to know how she’s slept. Adequately, she answers. Hedda is calmly bothered that the maid has left the glass patio door open, letting all the sunlight in. George goes to close it, but she instructs him to leave it open for fresh air, but to draw the curtains to give a "softer light." (This stuff matters, we swear. Just read Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.)
Miss Tesman then busts out something she has brought over for George – his old bedroom slippers, to which he appears to have a great emotional attachment. In his excitement he tries to show them to Hedda, who’s reaction is, "I’d rather not go near your smelly old slippers."
Hedda remarks that she and George will never manage with the lousy old maid they have. Indicating Miss Tesman’s new hat, she remarks that Berta has left her old stuff lying around.
When Miss Tesman explains that it’s her hat – and that it’s new – Hedda just remarks that she hadn’t looked at it closely. (But she is hardly gushing with apologies.)
Changing the subject, Miss Tesman remarks that Hedda has "filled out" considerably on her honeymoon (BABY HINT #3). George pleasantly agrees, but Hedda insists that she hasn’t gotten any fuller.
Miss Tesman says her good-byes and leaves; George exits to accompany her out, leaving Hedda alone to essentially throw a silent temper tantrum. (She moves about the room clenching her fists and raising her arms in fury.) When George comes back, she composes herself again.
She then insists that Aunt Julie shouldn’t be throwing her hats around other people’s drawing rooms. George says he’ll speak with Aunt Julie so she doesn’t do it again.
He does ask that Hedda not be so oddly formal, now that she’s part of the family. (Hedda called Julie "Miss Tesman" while she was visiting.) Hedda refuses to use Julie’s first name but says she’ll try to call her "Aunt" next time.
Hedda moves across the room to the piano – her old piano, as she calls it. She wants a new one. George suggests that, when he draws his first paycheck, they can trade it in. But Hedda wants to keep this one in the inner room and buy a second piano outright.
George again takes it without a fight and says OK.
Hedda picks up the bouquet of flowers that Berta left in the drawing room. There’s a note on it from Mrs. Elvsted, the Sheriff’s wife, saying that she’s going to stop by later that day.
George remembers her by her maiden name, Miss Rysing, and Hedda remarks that she was an "old flame" of his. They were all in school together when they were kids.
From their conversation we learn that the Elvsteds live way outside of the city, around the same place Eilert Løvborg resides.
Berta then enters and reports that Mrs. Elvsted has just arrived for a visit. Hedda has the maid show her in, and then greets the woman warmly.
Mrs. Elvsted has very abundant, light hair and big blue eyes; she’s a slender woman and a few years younger than Hedda.
She is in a state of self-proclaimed "desperation." Hedda begs her to explain what’s wrong.
Mrs. Elvsted begins: Eilert Løvborg has been back in the city for a week, and she’s worried about his running around with a "dangerous crowd."
Hedda asks what Eilert possibly has to do with Mrs. Elvsted; she very quickly answers that he is her stepchildren’s tutor. (She has no children of her own.)
Tesman wants to know if Eilert is fit for such a position. Yes, says Mrs. Elvsted; he’s been perfectly fine for the last two years. Now that he’s back in the city, with a pile of cash to boot, she’s worried he’ll get into trouble. (Don’t worry, this is all explained shortly.)
Hedda wants to know why he’s back in town and why he has left the Elvsteds, where he was living as the resident tutor. Mrs. Elvsted explains that he just published his new book two weeks ago, and isn’t content hanging around in the boonies now that it’s out.
Hedda slyly remarks that it’s odd of Sheriff Elvsted to have sent his wife on an errand concerning another man. Mrs. Elvsted awkwardly says that he didn’t have time to do it himself.
Now the picture starts to unfold: George and Eilert are professional rivals. They do research in the same area of history.
George, who keeps accidentally referring to Mrs. Elvsted by her maiden name, agrees to watch out for Eilert while he’s in the city and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.
Hedda tells George that he ought to write Eilert a letter telling him to come by. A nice looooong letter, she says. And he should write it in the other room. Now. He should take his time.
Once her husband is out of the way, Hedda makes an under-the-breath comment about killing two birds with one stone. Now she has Mrs. Elvsted alone. Mwah-hah-hah.
Hedda starts grilling Mrs. Elvsted about her marriage; she should feel comfortable disclosing all her personal secrets, Hedda explains, because they were in school together.
But Mrs. Elvsted reminds Hedda, who is a year older, they weren't exactly friends – Hedda used to terrify her in school by constantly threatening to pull her hair.
Actually, Hedda once said she would burn it all off.
But Hedda insists that they were just children then, and now they are bosom buddies, as evidenced by them calling each other by their first names. Right, Thora?
Mrs. Elvsted explains that her first name is Thea. But she’s gullible and buys the whole act, declaring Hedda to be so nice and kind and warm, etc.
And so begins the prying. Hedda recalls that Mrs. Elvsted first came to the Elvsted household as a governess for the children. The first Mrs. Elvsted was an invalid; when she died, Thea took her place as the woman of the house. That was five years ago, and Eilert has been around for three of those years.
Raise eyebrows now, especially when Mrs. Elvsted admits that her husband is often away from home for work.
With Hedda’s goading, Mrs. Elvsted admits that her husband, the sheriff, who is twenty years older than she, has nothing in common with her and is pretty much an all-around jerk, especially to her.
She also concedes that her husband didn’t send her to town to look after Eilert; rather, she came herself, and her husband doesn’t know anything about it. She just packed up her stuff and left while he was out of town.
Mrs. Elvsted adds that she’s never going back. Now that Eilert Løvborg has left the boonies to come live in the city, she’s going to live in the city, too. She has to be where he is, and she doesn’t care what people will say.
Hedda wants to know how this little "friendship" between Thea and Eilert came about. Little by little, answers Mrs. Elvsted – and now she has "some sort of power" over Eilert.
Hedda: "Really?" (Right. As if Hedda doesn’t know anything about using her sexuality to manipulate men.)
Mrs. Elvsted’s point is that she and Eilert help each other. He has taught her to think and has "made a real human being out of [her]." They’ve been intellectual buddies; she even helped him write his book. Hedda labels them "companions." (Note: just because no one’s talking about sex doesn’t mean that Thea and Eilert’s relationship is platonic. See our discussion of "Sex" for more on this.)
Mrs. Elvsted laments that there is a "woman’s shadow" from Eilert’s past that stands between the two of them.
Hedda gets particularly interested at this point. What did Eilert say about this woman, she wants to know.
Well, says Thea, when Eilert and this mystery woman broke up, she threatened to shoot him with a pistol. (!) It must have been that redhead singer he was with once, she thinks. (Note: "singer" = "prostitute" back then.)
Hedda agrees that it must have been this woman.
This only adds to Mrs. Elvsted’s distress, as apparently this redhead is in town again.
As George heads back into the drawing room, Hedda quiets Mrs. Elvsted, telling her to keep this all just between the two of them. He gives Hedda the letter to pass on to Berta, who will take care of mailing it. Meanwhile Berta has entered and now reports that Judge Brack has arrived.
Brack enters. He’s forty-five, a "well-built" man, distinguished and groomed, with a carefully trimmed moustache and a monocle (a single eyeglass).
Everyone greets one another, we get BABY HINT #4, and both women exit, leaving the men alone.
Judge Brack, who helped George arrange buying this house, admits that the Tesmans aren’t in a great position financially. George isn’t worried – as soon as he gets his position as a professor…
Well, nothing is certain, hints the Judge before shifting topics to that of Eilert Løvborg. His book was a sensation, it’s great that he’s gotten "stable" again, and George wonders what Eilert will do for a profession now that he’s done writing his book…
Before George can connect the dots, Hedda enters. When she hears they’re talking about Eilert, she grows interested.
Brack reminds everyone that Eilert’s relatives are influential people. They disowned him in the past, but Hedda remarks that he’s rehabilitated now, so who knows.
Tesman explains to the Judge that Eilert is coming by that very evening. The Judge reminds Tesman that he’s supposed to go to the Judge’s "stag" party (all men, in other words).
Then the Judge finally spells it out for George: Eilert is his competition for the professorship.
Tesman flips out. He was told he would get the position for sure – that’s why he went into so much debt buying Hedda this house, and furniture, and paying for the six month honeymoon abroad.
Hedda’s response is (typically) removed. "It will be like a kind of championship match," she muses.
Brack advises her to stop her wild spending, but she simply remarks that all this doesn’t change a thing. The Judge exits.
Now alone, George is all, "Well, at least we have the house, even if I can’t buy you any more stuff." But that’s not enough for Hedda, who reminds her husband that he promised her they would "live in society" (which means owning lots of expensive things to impress other people).
Hedda laments that she can’t have a butler, or a riding horse. (Pouty face.) At least she has one thing left to play with….