This word has a special meaning for me.

Of course, all words to some extent have special meanings for each person who knows and uses them. Every person’s individual experiences and aesthetic proclivities are different, so meanings always have specific tinges. But some words are more variable by individual experience than others, and for any given person some words are more special than others.

Hedda is, of course, a name, specifically a female name. You probably already knew that. It’s Germanic, and in particular Scandinavian; it’s a diminutive of Hedvig (the German version, Hedwig, has an Anglicized diminutive Hedy, which has a somewhat different taste to it, thanks in no small part to Hedy Lamarr). The name comes originally from old Germanic hadu “battle” and wiga “fight”.

So if the name seems like a name for a headstrong or bellicose woman, it comes by it honestly. You might think of it as a name for a Wagnerian heroine, a sort of he-woman with DD cups and a type A personality, but there’s nothing about Hedda that requires massiveness, just a certain strength of will or character. Perhaps it’s the echoes of headstrong and head-butt and so forth. Perhaps it’s the drumbeat impact of the name. Or perhaps it’s who it’s associated with.

And who do you think of when you see it? There are three Heddas that come to my mind.

The first is a headstrong, bossy little girl from a comic strip I remember reading in my youth. I can’t remember what the strip was, but I think that was the first place I saw the name.

The second is Hedda Hopper. My junior high school library had a nice set of books about the different decades of the 20th century (stopping at the 1960s, I think, or perhaps there was a freshly finished 1970s volume as well), and the mid-century volumes of those, as well as some other books on Hollywood, could not fail to mention Hedda Hopper, an actress-turned-gossip-columnist. Hedda Hopper had had some middling success as a pretty young thing in the early days of movies, but her career was over by the 1930s, at which point she found great success in being a pretty nasty old thing – with a taste for huge hats. Her gossip column, “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood,” debuted in 1938, and she was a presence also on TV through the 1940s and 1950s. As it happens, she was born Elda Furry. Hopper was her husband’s name, and she was his fifth wife; the previous four were Ella, Ida, Edna, and Nella, so Elda was not very distinctive. She asked a numerologist what name to use, and was told Hedda.

The third Hedda is one I think I first became aware of through a New Yorker cartoon (or was it Writer’s Digest?). It had the caption “Ibsen wrestles with his muse,” and it showed a playwright angrily chasing an imp, which was shouting, “Then again, Hedda Gobbledegook!” I didn’t really get it until a couple of years later, when I was a drama undergraduate student and was introduced to Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler.

I was immediately impressed by the play, even though there were subtleties in it that my 17-year-old mind did not grasp. Its heroine seemed like a strong woman trapped in circumstances; I didn’t at first take notice of which of the circumstances were of her own choosing. She liked to play with pistols – ooh! “My pistols, George” always seemed like such a great zing line. She liked fire! She could be vengeful! And in the end… well, it was all candy for my not-really-post-adolescent brain.

I still think it’s a brilliant play, though I see it in a different light 26 years later. Hedda is certainly in part a victim of circumstance, but she is also neurotic and insecure – and very impulsive. Her romantic hero, Eilert Lovborg (Ejlert Løvborg), is smart but truly someone who uses others and lacks real self-discipline. The sweet Thea is quite cunning. The judge, seemingly in control, makes one miscalculation after another. And that dork, Hedda’s husband George (Jørgen), may not be the kind of dangerously charming guy susceptible women fall for, but he’s smart – if not creative – and genuinely nice. And the main lesson of the play, as of some other plays by Ibsen (notably The Master Builder), is that romantic idealists make horrible messes of things. (Ibsen had another play with a lead character of the same given name – but in The Wild Duck, the heroine is a young girl, and she goes by the full name Hedvig. Quite different, really.)

But whatever your view of the play and its characters, thanks to it, Hedda brings forth the image of a dark and dominant woman, a woman associated with guns and fire, a truly romantic heroine in her tragic way. And, honestly, I never tire of the play.

Perhaps if the 17-year-old me had read noted Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s adaptation, which is a bit more overt about some aspects, I would have understood it better quicker.

Well, Thompson hadn’t written it yet then. In fact, it’s still not published. So how have I had a chance to read it?

That’s the main thing that now gives Hedda a special meaning for me: I’m in it. The Alumnae Theatre’s production of Thompson’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is running from November 12 to November 27, 2010, and I’m playing Hedda’s husband, George Tesman. It’s the first play I’ve been in in about a dozen years. For more details, see www.alumnaetheatre.com/1011hedda.html.

3 responses to “Hedda

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