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Ibsen's central preoccupation as a dramatist was to present "the contradiction between word and deed, between will and duty, between life and theory in general." He has also tried to depict humans as being egotistically and selfishly sufficient unto themselves. The forms in which he chose to present these central human Themes kept changing from dramatic verse to poetry and then to modern drama. His work can be divided into three phases. The first is an early phase, dominated by historical plays that are written wholly or partly in verse. A middle phase marked by two dramatic poems, "Brand" and "Peer Gynt," and finally the phase of the great prose dramas that revolve around contemporary social and moral issues as seen in "The Wild Duck" and "Hedda Gabler."
When his later plays appeared, they succeeded in stirring up debates that were heated, protracted and widespread. He provided insights into the human condition that were quite rare during his time. "A Doll's House" (1879) is a good example of a play exploring women's role in society. It deals with a woman's position in marriage, and ends with the protagonist walking out on her husband and three young children. In Scandinavia, this play gave rise to a "Doll's House Debate" that raged for several years and many articles, essays and literary works were written on it. His next play "Ghosts" investigates what would have happened to Nora had she remained at home. In "The Wild Duck" Ibsen tries to show how it is better to cling to "life's lies" rather than have an idealistic viewpoint of a Gregers Werle imposed on the individual. In "Hedda Gabler," Ibsen investigates the psychology of a woman who desires freedom but is not strong enough to break off from conventional society.
Many of his plays had to withstand public controversy because of their progressive agenda or innovative subject matter. Often his plays were only produced and defended by the avant-garde, small theaters that were pushing the boundaries of dramatic literature. It is odd, therefore, that his plays have become such standardized fodder for repertory theaters worldwide and have become part of what is called "the Western canon" of literature. Almost anyone of any age or nationality can understand and enjoy Ibsen's plays.
Hedda Gabler was written in 1890. When it first appeared people were greatly puzzled by it because there was no controversial subject matter nor was there a program or a direct message of any kind for it did not deal with any contemporary social problems which were thrown open to debate. However, today it has the distinction of being "the most universally admired of Ibsen's plays." The enduring strength of this play derives from its poetic quality. Hedda Gabler is a portrait of the workings of a woman's mind in a male-oriented society who has few options open to her that are satisfactory.