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The pedants’ revolt

A New York professor on Ibsen, Chekhov and Broadway's unsubtle touch.

Norman Levitt

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This is, in very small measure, a theatre review from New York – where normally anything that is not a musical and not a comedy reaches Broadway dead on arrival.

This year, it helps to be Scandinavian, since the hot tickets are August Strindberg’s Dance of Death and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler – the latter featuring this year’s supposedly hot performance too, with Kate Burton as Hedda. But I found Hedda Gabler a disappointing experience – the director wasn’t much in evidence, and the players bounced around the oversized set doing their own numbers without much sense of what the others were doing.

Kate Burton’s own number was nothing special. Of course, this is an impossible role – Iago as sex goddess – and has mown down generations of overambitious actresses. Burton, having neither great physical presence nor the fire of youth, employed her survival strategy – which largely consisted of interjecting a bitter cackle whenever Hedda was feeling particularly aggrieved. What we ended up with was Burton’s analysis of Hedda rather than Hedda herself.

Critics are capricious creatures. A few years ago, film star Kelly McGillis did Hedda on Broadway to universal critical scorn. But she did as good a job as Burton, in a production no more creaky, while bringing a convincing physical presence to the role as well.

Be that as it may, the longeurs of the current staging prompted me to think about the tick-tock mechanics of Ibsen’s plot, something one has to put up with to get the inimitable Hedda on stage. This in turn led me to wonder idly about the one character nobody much cares about: poor old Professor Tessman.

In this production, as in every other I’ve seen, he was the standard myopic pedant, played for contemptuous laughs; the childish bookworm with his anemic academic vanity; the stodgy plodder whose only function, it seems, is to provide a foil for Hedda’s lost love – the impassioned genius Lovborg. A stock figure, pure and simple. And yet…

Indulging in the philosophical faux pas of assuming that dramatic characters are real persons, let’s put Tessman up against Lovborg on an intellectual plane. Tessman is Professor Dryasdust, rooting in old scriptoria, grinding out a magnum opus on domestic handicrafts in medieval Brabant. Lovborg, by contrast, is an historical Deep Thinker, a synthesiser on the grand scale. His first book brilliantly summarises the entire history of Western civilisation – and his follow-up, existing only as the notorious manuscript, even more brilliantly plots the future course of that civilisation.

But now imagine Tessman’s and Lovborg’s books standing today on the shelves of a university library. How brilliant would Lovborg’s thought appear to us? Chances are he’d strike us as yet another grand-historical windbag of the dubious lineage that stretches from Hegel through Marx to Spengler and Toynbee – an ideological huckster using questionable history and bad social theory as a canvas for his own obsessions.

Tessman, on the other hand – now that’s another matter. What we’re really interested in these days is history from below, history that methodically illuminates the material basis of society, in contrast to blowhard pontificating about the zeitgeist (at least that’s what the professionals tell us). Tessman’s imaginary book might now stand as a seminal work, among the first to lay out the concrete foundations of emerging bourgeois culture in the Low Countries, a work that every scholar in the field might be expected to know.

Obvious, isn’t it? Yet we, as playgoers, are oblivious to this. And so, it seems, is Ibsen – or is he?

In giving us Tessman, did Ibsen really mean to fall back on a cliché rather than a character? Or is he challenging us to think beyond stock figures? Did he sense a core of intellectual steel within Tessman’s fatuous exterior? Is he subtly and slyly suggesting that Lovborg is the scholarly empty kettle and Tessman the real goods? And perhaps, come to think of it, he is suggesting something else, too – after all, it’s Tessman, not Lovborg, who gets the ice-maiden Hedda in the family way. Perhaps her apparent scorn for her husband conceals a deep sexual yearning (for which Hedda, being Hedda, despises herself)? In any case, it would be good to see a production that takes these possibilities seriously for once, rather than giving us Tessman as the routine professorial dolt.

Brooding on the dramatic uses of pedants moves me to contemplate another favourite in which such a character prominently figures, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Here, the professorial lackwit is not the play’s loser, but its winner (if there be such a thing in Chekhov). Serebryakov, a vain, selfish, oblivious fool who casually smashes lives and dreams in pursuit of his own petty comfort. The loveable Vanya, his main victim, rages at him, scorns his intellectual worth, and paints him as the worst sort of scholarly routinier – a faker whose life’s work is puffed-up nonsense. And the audience, of course, tends to take Vanya’s word for it. We are as outraged as he that Serebryakov unaccountably monopolises the loyalty of his young, beautiful wife Yelena, and that stokes our eagerness to see Serebryakov as a pompous phoney.

Vanya’s mother Mme Voinitskaya dotes on the professor, thinking him a genius of the age. But she is an obsessive follower of fatuous intellectual fashion and a fool in her own right. Though Serebryakov is in some ways Tessman’s opposite, obtuse in his single-minded egoism rather than clueless in his deference to stronger personalities, his devotion to pedantic trivia licenses us to feel unconstrained outrage at his grasping ways.

Yet, as with Ibsen, the more you think about it, the more you tend to doubt whether Chekhov really means to authorise such unproblematic contempt. What evidence do we have for Serebryakov’s worthlessness as a thinker? Only his repulsive personality and Vanya’s ravings. But who says great thinkers must be gentle and considerate souls? If anything, the opposite seems usually to be the case.

And why are we to believe Vanya? He might be loveable but he is also consumed with envy, spite and erotic frustration. And why assume that Mme Voinitskaya is delusional in looking up to the professor? Here, we are being gulled by the stock figure of the dotty old lady, but this one might not be so dotty after all. All the ‘evidence’ against her comes from Vanya’s carping. Could it be that she is more clear-sighted than deluded – and right about Serebryakov? Perhaps that is the key to Yelena’s incomprehensible faithfulness – not erotic attraction, of course, nor even spiritual torpor, but rather, the brains to see that beneath his appalling facade, Serebryakov really is the epochal intellectual figure he fancies himself to be.

Chekhov, that shrewd old soul, must have meant us to consider these possibilities. But who has ever seen a production or a performance that so much as hints at this? Perhaps it is time for fusty old academic gnomes (like me) to rise in revolt. God (or at least actors and directors), stand up for pedants!

Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University. He is author of Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture and co-author of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

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