The story is below IN FULL (SPOILER ALERT)
The first Act sets up the characters. George Tesman, an academic, has just returned from his honeymoon with the much-sought-after Hedda Gabler. How he persuaded her to marry him we will never know (she explains that she got tired of the dancing and was afraid of being left on the shelf) but a more mismatched couple you never did see. He is a mummy's boy or rather, since his mother is dead, an Aunty's boy; she is fussing over him from the start. He is working with painstaking care at a snail's pace on a history book that no one will ever read but will cement his small place as a small fish in a small pond. She is always looking for excitement. To keep her happy he spent more than he should have on the honeymoon and has bought a house he cannot afford; even his Aunty has mortgaged her future income for him.
In her very first two line speech Hedda enters and is rude to the Aunty:
We've scarcely arrived and here you are already.
Then Mrs Elvsted arrives. Swiftly, Hedda has ascertained that all is not right and persuades Mrs Elvsted (whom George mistakenly persists in calling Mrs Rysing) to confide in her: we discover that Mrs Elvsted has left her magistrate husband and followed a male friend, Eilart Lovborg, to this town. It seems that love and passion is just below the respectable surface, fighting to escape.
In Act Two Judge Brack, Tesman's friend, comes to the house and has some words alone with Hedda. The Judge appears to be a bit of a player, he drops heavy hints that he knows that Hedda's marriage is not happy. Tesman enters and the Judge reports that the job which Tesman thought was his, on the basis of which he incurred all these new debts, will be decided competitively between T and Eilart Lovborg who has written a book that the whole world is raving about. Thia makes it even less likely that T will get the job; he suggests that he and Hedda might have to wait before thy have the good life he has promised her. She announces that that sort of thing never changes her plans.
Eilart enters. Wickedly, Hedda lets Eilart know that Mrs Elvsted has come to town to chase after him and he is very angry with Mrs E. It seems probably that he has been naughty with Mrs E but it seems equally likely that he was an old boyfriend of Hedda's. George and his Aunties seem the only ones innocent of naughtiness.
Eilart, who has written another book, and Tesman and the Judge go off to a party at the Judge's house.
Act Three opens with Hedda asleep and Mrs E distressed because the boys have not come home and it is the next morning. Hedda wakes and persuades Mrs E to go into her room to get some sleep. Tesman arrives with news that Eilart has written a wonderful book but then got drunk and left it on the road. T has picked it up and asks HG to put it somewhere safe. T then has to rush off to be at the bedside of one of his Aunties who is dying.
The Judge arrives with the news that Eilart actually went to a prostitute's, lost his wallet, got into a fight and spent the night in the cells. It starts to emerge that the Judge, a bachelor, keeps tabs on the other men around and is prepared to use what he knows to get his own way, which seems to be access to Hedda. There is an interesting little conversation as he leaves:
HG: Are you going through the garden?
JB: Yes, it's quicker for me.
HG: As well as the back way?
JB: I've nothing against that. It can be almost an attraction.Triple entendres?
Eilart arrives and is reunited with Mrs E. He, shamed with guilt about last night which, of course she knows nothing about, more or less tells her to forget him. He tells her he destroyed the book, the book that the two of them had worked together on, that felt like it was almost their child. He ripped it up and threw the pieces into the fjord. Of course the audience and Hedda know this is not true. After the distressed Mrs E leaves, Eilart tells Hedda that he hasn't ripped the book up ('killed the child') but done something even worse; he abandoned the kid on the side of the road, he lost it and he doesn't know where it is. She gives him one of her pistols and he leaves.
Hedda burns the manuscript.
The original Auntie is with Hedda at the start of Act Four, sad that her sister has died but full of hints that Hedda is pregnant so that a new life is starting. She leaves.
Tesman arrives. He is horrified to discover that Hedda has burned the wonderful manuscript, although he is slightly mollified when she pretends she has done it for his career. He agrees with Hedda that they will have to cover up what she has done. Mrs E arrives in a panic. She can't find Eilart and has heard that he is in the hospital.
Judge Brack enters with the news that Eilart has is in hospital and is dying. Hedda states that Eilart has shot himself although she has to pretend she knows this by intuition.
The shocked T and Mrs E realise that they might be able to reconstruct Eilart's book from the draft notes that Mrs E just happens to have in her skirt pocket and they immediately go into the back room to make a start. This is perhaps the least believable moment of the play.
Then JB announces that Eilart didn't necessarily shoot himself but was found shot at the prostitute's with the pistol in his pocket, a pistol which the Judge recognised as belonging to Hedda. JB clearly sees this as something that will place HG in his power; she acknowledges this. George is busy working on the book and announces that he hopes the Judge will keep Hedda amused whilst he does this; JB announces it will be "Pleasure".
Hedda goes into the back room, plays dance music on the piano and is told off by George because of the sad circumstances of the day. From offstage she asks:
HG: How am I to spend my evenings here?
GT: Oh, Judge Brack'll drop in on you, I'm sure.
JB: My pleasure, Mrs Tesman. Every evening. We can be having quite a time, the two of us.
HG: Yes, you'd like that, wouldn't you Judge. Right on top -There is a shot and they discover that Hedda Gabler has shot herself.
What is brilliant about this play is how ordinary the dialogue is. These are just people chatting politely. It takes ages before you see the undercurrents. The tensions are set up quite quickly, ordinary, everyday tensions such as the extravagance of Hedda and the fact that dull pedestrian George has gambled everyone's financial security on the promise of a new job.
There is a lot going on under the surface and we have to read between the lines. Auntie hinting at Hedda having children and George not understanding the hints. Hedda manipulating Mrs E to confess about Eilart and leaving her husband. The growing suspicion that Hedda might have had a thing for Eilart when she was younger. The contrast between the brilliant but unstable Eilart and slow and steady George. But it takes much longer for the sinister character of the Judge to emerge.
The character of George is complex. In some ways he is the butt, the boring husband, too stupid to see his wife's intended infidelities, even at the end throwing her into the arms of the Judge. He is too good for this wicked world. His whole financial future depends on beating Eilart, a man who outshines him in every way, a man who has written one best-selling book and has now written another that George sees as a work of genius. At then end George is trying to reconstruct Eilart's book as a memorial to his rival. I love the way that, at the end of so many speeches, George says: Um? Almost the last thing Hedda does is to imitate him.
The Judge has the last line:
God have mercy! People don't - do that kind of thing.
This play could be read as a critique of a society where the important men (the Judge) use blackmail and their power to prevent the women (Hedda) from having a voice. More widely it could be seen as caricaturing how the establishment in the characters of George the complacent and the sinister and manipulative Judge stifle the talented: Eilart Lovborg and Hedda Gabler. It is interesting how we think of both these rebels with the first names but George is always Tesman and the Judge is the Judge: a sociolingusitic maxim is that the more powerful are addressed by their surnames or by their title and their surname or, as the most powerful, bu their title or even double title (as in 'Senator' and 'Mr President').
On the other hand, a feminist would probably point out that the male Ibsen has given Hedda the stereotypical weaknesses of woman: extravagance and irrationality. Men, of course, are allowed their little weaknesses although it is clear that Eilart's violence at the prostitute's will be used to destroy him; Hedda, on the other hand, must either submit to the Judge's unwanted sexual advances and dominance or kill herself to avoid a scandal because she provided the pistols which Eilart may or may not have used to kill himself.