Literary Daybook, Feb. 26

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

the Salon Books Editors
February 27, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 26, Susan has an appendectomy.
-- "Coma" (1977)
by Robin Cook

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History


On this day in 1891 Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" premiered in Oslo, Norway; this production, like a half-dozen others in Europe that first year, was a disaster. Ibsen had been stirring controversy and outrage for a decade with such plays as "Ghosts" and "A Doll's House" -- one reviewer said Nora leaving her husband and family in the latter was "the door slam heard 'round the world" -- but Hedda's longings took things a dark step further, and audiences or directors or actresses struggled to follow. One famous exception in this first year of failure was the English-language premiere that April. The expatriate American actress-novelist-suffragist Elizabeth Robins co-produced and played the lead role, to rave reviews -- though sometimes begrudgingly so, as with anti-Ibsenite Clement Scott:

"She [Robins] has made vice attractive by her art. She has almost ennobled crime. She has stopped the shudder that so repulsive a creature should have inspired. She has glorified an unwomanly woman. She has made a heroine out of a sublimated sinner. She has fascinated us with a savage."

Ibsen's "New Drama" was intellectually defended by many in turn-of-the-century England -- James, Wilde, Hardy, Shaw, a young Joyce -- but it was Robins' "epoch-making" performance that packed them in, and vindicated the plays in the only lasting way. Robins also borrowed Hedda for her feminist purposes: In the Coronation Suffrage Pageant of 1911, she had the Actresses' Franchise League march behind "Hedda Gabler, in the accomplished person of Princess Bariatinsky on horseback." Whether done as a Freudian case study, or as an anti-bourgeois, "gender war" tract, or as a reminder of "the original angry chick with a gun" (a recent review of Annette Bening's Hedda), the play has invigorated 20th century theater. As metaphor, Hedda has also done wide service; in a recent article, Camille Paglia enlists an analogy to "Ibsen's haughty, masculine Hedda Gabler" to help her roast Hillary Clinton's attempt at "self-transformation from butch to femme" -- thus giving a new century's about-face to the suffragist Hedda, and to the horse she rode in on.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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