Hedda's moose

So many books, so little shelf space. I was weeding out playtexts today (I come from a line of great-aunt hoarders, and know that there's a bags-in-the-bathtub scenario which sits at the worst-case end of the stockpile spectrum).

There's a version of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler that I've been havering over. It's by Lucy Kirkwood, and, to be honest, is pretty flawed. Performed by the Gate Theatre in London's Notting Hill last year, transposes the play to the same desirable district - a posh area with boho pretentions. It's certainly Hedda territory, just the over-priced locale she'd demand - but a setting which references the streets beyond the auditorium becomes tricky. It's harder than ever to avoid the notion posed bluntly by Toby (Kirkwood's equivalent of the insinuating Judge Brack): 'get a bloody job, Hedda.' Although Hedda swallows a memory stick rather than shoving the manuscript of Lovborg's masterpiece into the furnace, the adaptation, if anything, otherwise hugged Ibsen's original too closely to work.

However, there was one spine-tingling moment in which Kirkwood levered open her heroine's well-defended inner life.

Want to meet Hedda's moose? Join me after the click:

'Your problem,' Toby tells her, 'is that you have never really been excited by anything.' Not true, she says, and describes a trip to Oslo in deep winter with her father, when she was 13, just after her mother's death:

I had a beautiful red, fur-lined coat with a hood and mittens on a string.

We didn't say a word to each other for three days. We just walked and walked around the city. Hand in hand. Then on the third night, we went out (very late it was, my father and I were owls, not larks), and -

there she was. Standing in the middle of a silent street.

A moose.

A great huge moose with very serious brown eyes, standing right there on the tarmac. She looked at us for a while. We looked back. And I thought I was ill because my heart, my heart was beating like bird wings in my chest. And then just like that she turned. And wandered away again. Back through the sleeping city.

My father and I waited until it had completely disappeared from sight. And then he said -

'Time for bed, Hedda Gabler' -

And we went home.

There's no equivalent speech in the original. Hedda doesn't let just anybody rummage around her psyche: she waits to be disappointed, expects to be bored, and - boringly - experience doesn't disappoint. This youthful memory, from the cusp of adulthood, reveals a longing for the uncanny, for an event which transforms the idea of familiar, over-indulged, routine, pierces the seal on the soul. No wonder that Hedda remembers herself in a red coat, that staple of the intrepid child (Little Red Riding Hood), or of imperilled innocence (Schindler's List), or of sheer eeriness (Don't Look Now).

It's rare that an adaptor invents memories or fantasies for classic characters. Those who engage in an argument with an original (Aimé Césaire taking on The Tempest; Arnold Wesker and Julia Pascal questioning The Merchant of Venice) may end up writing complete new plays. I can't, offhand, think of an equivalent of Kirkwood's bold, dreamy intervention. Can you? And, darn it, I may have talked myself into hanging on to the text...

March 7, 2009 5:11 PM | | Comments (4) |


Bruce, I like your style. And you're absolutely on the button with the comic book link - it's characters who do rather than feel (or, like Hedda, don't often tell people what they feel), who are ripe for this kind of intervention. Opening up spaces that are usually closed off, or that no-one suspected might exist...

The revelation of Batman's dark interior life was a landmark for me - no-one had an inkling it was there (but given what he had seen and done, how could it not be?), yet it made perfect sense.

Comic book characters have been working on this, sometimes successfully, for a couple of decades. The iconic figures had no interior life until Stan Lee, with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, introduced an interior life with Fantastic Four number 1 and the introduction of Spiderman in Amazing Fantasy 15. DC came on board around 1985 with a revamping of first Batman and then Superman and then everyone else. Alan Moore, of course, has taken this to rococo extremes in The Watchmen and in virtually all his other works.

Alison, thank you for introducing me to Bishop's moose. How very wonderful. But what is it with literary mooses at midnight? I guess that if horses, say, or deer were to wander into a play or poem, they would carry a certain amount of expected metaphorical baggage. A hart is a romantic image made flesh, but a moose is just, irredeemably, a moose - a stubbornly incongruous, hefty non-metaphor with extravagant antlers. What better beast to jolt characters out of the mundane?

(Having slept on it, I still can't think of an equivalent of Kirkwood's invented dream for Hedda. Even puckish Tom Stoppard doesn't do this in his Chekhov versions. Anyone have another example?)

Hi David - I can't offhand think of a similar thing, although it's hard to think also that it hasn't been done elsewhere. However, the encounter with the moose recalls irresistibly Elizabeth Bishop's poem The Moose, about a midnight encounter by a bus full of dreamy passengers with a moose that steps out of the road from the forest:

Taking her time
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

which similarly imagines a moose as an eruption of the uncanny into the mundane.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on March 7, 2009 5:11 PM.

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