Henrik Johan Ibsen, according to critics and historians of literature the father of modern drama, was born on March 20, 1828, as the eldest son of merchant Knud Ibsen and his wife Marichen Altenburg in the small coastal town of Skien in the southern part of Norway. The family originally belonged to the upper middle class, but suffered an economic and social decline when Henrik was a child. According to local tradition the boy took pleasure in presenting puppet shows to the children in the neighbourhood. He attended local schools and studied such subjects as religion, history, German and Latin. After Christmas of 1843, Henrik, aged 15, left his family in Skien and traveled to Grimstad, an even smaller coastal town farther south. A position had been found for him as a pharmacy apprentice. He planned to go on to study medicine, and he used much of his free time to prepare himself for the university entrance examination. He made friends of his own age, and he cultivated his literary interests; soon he began writing poems, the earliest one known being was written in 1847. In 1849 he wrote his first play, Catilina [Catiline], a tragedy in verse about the Roman nobleman who rebelled against the Republic and died on the battlefield in 62 B.C.
In 1850 Ibsen traveled to the capital, Christiania (now Oslo), where he attended a course as a final preparation for being admitted to the University. He failed the exams in Greek and algebra, and could have made a second try in the fall semester, but by then his literary interests had first priority. He was admitted to the Student union, and became one of the editors of the handwritten student periodical. Catiline had been printed, but it was refused by the Christiania Theater, and it sold poorly. His second work, Kjæmpehøjen [The Burial Mound], a one-act dramatic poem presenting a confrontation between Norse vikings and Christians on the coast of Normandy, was produced by the theater in late September of 1850. This meant he had free access to all the performances at Christiania Theater. Yet he was extremely poor in these early years, and relied on good friends. He wrote a number of reviews in Christiania, mostly in the periodical he now edited with two older friends, “Manden”, in 1851 named Andhrimner.
In September of 1851 violin virtuoso Ole Bull discovered Ibsen’s talents as a writer of plays and prologues, and he invited the young man to Bergen, where Bull just had founded Det norske Theater. Ibsen accepted employment as stage instructor and house author. He stayed six years in Bergen, and acquired an inside knowledge of the many aspects of theatre art. The contract did not specify how many plays he was to write, but it seems that he was expected to present one new play every fall, to be performed on January 2, the anniversary of the theatre. In order to qualify as a stage director, in 1852 he was awarded a travel grant for three months to Copenhagen and Dresden, two cities well-known for their advanced standing in theatrical art. He saw a number of performances, and talked to authors, directors and actors. Among the plays he saw on this first trip abroad were several by Shakespeare, such as King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and As You Like It. He also came across a book just published in 1852, by the German drama-critic Hermann Hettner, Das moderne Drama, which he read with great interest.
During the Bergen years, which can be regarded as the dramatist’s apprenticeship, Ibsen experimented with several kinds of drama. The first one, Sancthansnatten [St. John’s Night], inspired mainly by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and performed on January 2, 1853, was not appreciated by the spectators. His next contribution was an improved version of The Burial Mound (1854), which was moderately successful. For his third and more ambitious play he turned to the history of Norway in the 1520s and wrote a tragedy about a powerful woman, Fru Inger til Østeraad [Lady Inger of Oestraat], performed in 1855, printed in 1857. This play was recognized for the poetic quality of its dialogue. The 1856 production was a play which Ibsen had based on medieval ballads, Gildet paa Solhoug [The Feast at Solhaug]. This was his first success. He wrote another ballad play, Olaf Liljekrans, performed in 1857, but he was less fortunate this time.
Later that year Ibsen accepted a position as artistic director of a small theater in Christiania. In 1858 he married a girl from Bergen, Suzannah Thoresen, and a son was born to them in 1859. His next play, Hærmændene paa Helgeland [The Vikings at Helgeland] (1858), was based on material from the Icelandic sagas, among them the Volsungasaga. This play became one of his most frequently staged in the 19th century. The small theatre he was managing had financial difficulties and had to close in 1862. These were critical years for Ibsen and his family. He wrote some poems, among them “Terje Vigen”, which soon acquired a central place in Norwegian poetry. A verse play, Kjærlighedens Komedie [Love’s Comedy] (1862), airing some Kierkegaardian views on the trivializing effect of marriage on love, was not favourably received. In 1862 Ibsen received a university grant to travel across the mountains to the western fjords with the purpose of collecting folk tales. The next summer he was invited to a choral festival in Bergen, where he met other poets. He was much uplifted by their encouragement, and, upon returning to Christiania, he wrote Kongs-Emnerne [The Pretenders], a history play in prose about the civil war in Norway in the 13th century. Performed at Christiania Theater early in 1864 it was a great success, confirming Ibsen’s dramatic talents.After some rejected applications Ibsen was in 1864 awarded a travel grant, enabling him to go to Italy, where he settled in Rome with his family. The Danes had just lost the war against Prussia, and Ibsen was outraged by the passivity of Norway and Sweden. He gathered all his moral indignation in Brand, a dramatic poem in five acts completed in 1865. The central character is a pastor presenting a small fjord community with superhuman ideals. This work he sent to the Copenhagen publishing house of Gyldendal. Printed in 1866 it was an immediate success with an unprecedented reception in Scandinavia, creating a completely new situation for the author.
Peer Gynt (1867) is also a dramatic poem in five acts, yet very different from Brand. Instead of remaining true to his local community, Peer is mostly running away from his obligations, lacking courage and stamina, easily fooled and self-deluded. Ibsen has transformed a Norwegian folk hero and turned him into a braggart, agile, but not good at solving riddles. The Troll King explains to him the difference between troll and man, but Peer does not understand that he is losing his human identity. The text is complex, containing folklore motifs, literary allusions, satirical elements, animal metaphors and enigmatic monuments of Egyptian antiquity. Influenced by the philosophies of Hegel and Kierkegaard, it is an expanded Romantic version of the Christian morality play in the tradition of Everyman, in some ways similar to Goethe’s Faust. This last of Ibsen’s verse dramas can be regarded as his most impressive artistic achievement in this genre.
In 1868 Ibsen moved with his family to Germany and settled in Dresden. His connection with Gyldendal in Copenhagen secured him a wider distribution, and with a Norwegian state pension and an increasing income from theatre productions he was now comparatively well off. Brand and Peer Gynt were not written for the stage, but they were both adapted to the theatre, and Brand was produced for the first time in 1885, Peer Gynt in 1876.
Ibsen’s next play, De unges Forbund [The League of Youth], a comedy in five acts, was published in 1869. Here he is making fun of self-promoting politicians, being careful not to take any political stand himself. His individualist position had been strengthened, and he came to acquire anarchist sympathies when the political field in Scandinavia was increasingly divided between the Liberals and the Conservatives. An ambitious dramatic project, the short life and reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate, required research and was several times suspended, but in 1873 finally Kejser og Galilæer [Emperor and Galilean] was completed as a historical tragedy in two parts with five acts in each part. Ibsen regarded this work, inspired partly by Hegelian philosophy of history and more generally by the heritage of Schiller and German historical drama, as his most important intellectual achievement. In the first part, the young heir to the throne is a successful commander of his army against Germanic tribes. Ascending to the imperial throne he claims to be tolerant of all religions, but wants to promote ancient Greek pagan cults. In the second part the persecutions of the Christians become severe, creating a new determination among the Christians. Julian, who is less successful fighting against the Persians in the east, on his deathbed has to acknowledge that his policy has failed.
A collection of Ibsen’s best poetry was published in 1871. In the summer of 1874 he visited his home country for the first time since 1864, and was already honored as a famous playwright. In 1875 the family moved from Dresden to Munich. Due to the invention of the telegraph and its growing usefulness in the news service all over Europe and even in transcontinental connections during the 1860s and 1870s, the newspapers experienced a marked increase in public interest. This contributed to a certain decline in historical interest, and an increasing demand for literature dealing with contemporary matters. In Norwegian literature in the early 1870s the age of historical drama seemed to be over and Ibsen now began to write the sequence of prose plays for which he is best known today, a sequence of such dramatic brilliance that it ranks among the most remarkable of any playwright in history. The first of these works, Samfundets støtter [Pillars of Society] (1877), focuses on contemporary business methods and the lack of humanity. The powerful owner of a shipyard is the target of moral criticism, and after some shocking events he is ready to confess that he is not at all beyond reproach. The play was a tremendous success, both in Scandinavia and in Germany. It was performed simultaneously in five different Berlin theatres and in three different translations in February 1878, and in that same year it was staged in 26 other German theatres. This was Ibsen’s breakthrough outside of Scandinavia.
Et dukkehjem [A Doll’s House] (1879) was written in Italy, where Ibsen and his family had moved in 1878. This play was to prove one of the most sensational and successful that Ibsen wrote, focusing as it does on a housewife who discovers that her husband does not share her passionate belief in idealistic love and spirit of sacrifice, treating her rather as a doll-wife. Once she appreciates that her love has been founded in illusion she decides she must abandon him and her children. The conclusion of the play in particular aroused heated opposition, very few spectators and readers finding it acceptable that a mother should abandon her children. Such was the hostility of the press that actresses who undertook to play this role, such as Radclyffe Hall in London, found their careers forever blackened. This radical ending of a play presenting a seemingly average upper middle class family, made Ibsen not only famous, but controversial. People wanted him to change the scandalous last scene, but with the exception of one German production, where he consented to write a conciliatory version of the ending, he was firm.
The next play, Gengangere [Ghosts] (1881), was met with abhorrence rather than rational discussion, and no permanent theatre would accept it to begin with. One felt that Ibsen this time had overstepped the limits of decency. The play begins ten years after Captain Alving, an apparently respectable landowner and ‘pillar of society’, has died, and his widow Mrs Alving is about to dedicate the orphanage she has had built with his money in order morally to ‘cleanse’ the ghostly inheritance of a man whom she knows to have been an out-and-out philanderer, at one time driving his wife in desperation towards the love of the local minister, Pastor Manders, who rejected her love merely for the sake of maintaining appearances. Her own son, Osvald, has just returned from Paris and it transpires he is suffering from congenital syphilis contracted as a result of his father’s promiscuous and immoral ways, and that he wants to marry the maid, Regine, who Mrs Alving knows is his half-sister, fruit of some adulterous dalliance of Captain Alving. Osvald also reveals that visitors to Paris from Norway, honorable heads of family, often have a taste for improper pleasures. Most shocking of all is Mrs Alving’s readiness to countenance an incestuous marriage for her son. The play ends with Osvald being struck by cerebral palsy. Things like this did not belong on a Victorian stage. The compact dramatic power of the play, the sublime tragic composition, the art of thematically relevant scenography, were not appreciated.
In 1882 En folkefiende [An Enemy of the People] was published, partly as Ibsen’s answer to what he felt was a hysterical reaction to Ghosts. Here it is the uncompromising individualist, Dr Stockmann, who dominates the stage, the completely independent mind who prefers moral strength to the political power obtained by those who lack true intellectual spirit. Dr Stockmann is the medical officer of the spa in a small town which is hoping to relaunch the reputation of its medicinal baths when Stockmann discovers that the water supply is polluted by a local tannery, causing visitors to fall ill. When Stockmann refuses to hush matters up, he finds himself pilloried and almost driven from the town. The play offers a satire of the press and of political agents who are easily convinced by the manipulating authorities.
Vildanden [The Wild Duck] (1884) is void of political criticism. The focus is on the poor Ekdal family who live in an attic apartment and who need an existential illusion to be able to face their sordid conditions and entertain their dreams. Gregers Werle wants to purge these people of their false ideas, but the result is a catastrophe: the 14 year-old Hedvig shoots herself. Plays like these were mostly received as so-called “realist” presentations of everyday life. The allegory was not easily seen, such as the greenhouse in Ghosts, suggesting protection from the world outside, or the zoo motif in The Wild Duck, with the central characters mirrored by the animals in the attic who have forgotten the free and true life in the open air. The influence of Darwin’s Origin of Species can be noticed in this play.
Rosmersholm (1886) may be regarded as Ibsen’s best attempt to create the mood of a Greek tragedy. Rosmer’s gloomy ancestral and guilt-ridden house is haunted by the memory of his wife Beate who committed suicide a year earlier, by leaping into the local waterfall. Rosmer now lives on in rural isolation with his wife’s former companion, Rebekka West, a young woman who is secretly but passionately in love with him and who in fact encouraged the possibly infertile Beate to believe that she was preventing Rosmer from a more biologically and spiritually productive relationship with Rebekka. The plot thickens as the local schoolmaster, Kroll, who was Beate’s brother, urges Rosmer to support a conservative political line, whereas Rosmer announces that he has begun to believe in spiritual liberation. This change of political and philosophical sides is taken by Kroll to indicate that Rosmer’s relationship with Rebekka has become ‘emancipated’, and that therefore Rosmer can no longer be politically useful to him. Kroll tries to blackmail Rebekka with insinuations that her step-father, Dr West, conceived her out of wedlock, in the process of which Rebekka – who may have had sexual relations with her step-father, realises that Dr West was probably her natural father. As in Ghosts, incest rears its head again. Rebekka and Rosmer finally accept their guilt in connection with Beate’s death and they find that there is no atonement possible except going the way Beate went, so they leap together into the waterfall and die. The themes point to the Calvinist idea that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children and that all aspirations for change are blighted in the bud.
Less gloomy is Fruen fra havet [The Lady from the Sea] (1888), where an old carp-pond in the garden suggests the isolated existence of the men and women of the little fjord town. Together with Hedda Gabler (1890) these two plays make up what is called “the Munich trilogy”, as Ibsen lived in Munich when he wrote them. The heroines, Rebekka, Ellida, and Hedda are all determined women, but only Ellida is able to go on living and achieve freedom from the consequences of her actions in the past. In The Lady from the Sea most of the acts are played in the open-air. In Hedda Gabler the action is again behind closed doors, and Hedda, who has just married the dull academic Tesman to avoid a spinster’s life, realises that she has trapped herself in a life of impossible tedium, with suicide as her only way out. Traces from the vitalist writings of Nietzsche can be found in this play, and also in the following one.
After a voluntary exile of 27 years, Ibsen in 1891 returned to Kristiania, where he wrote his four last plays. In Bygmester Solness [The Master Builder] (1892) a powerful, aging architect, reluctant to let the younger generation start their own business, is called on by a young girl whom he knew when she was a child, and who is able to entice him into living out his youthful promise, here emblematized by climbing the tower of the villa he is currently building, and falling to his death.
Lille Eyolf [Little Eyolf] (1894) is a play about mourning, where the parents of a handicapped boy are on the point of divorcing after he is drowned. Going through a painful process of mutual accusations, they finally succeed in reconciling themselves with the memory of the boy, deciding on a project of taking care of children in need. The main character in John Gabriel Borkman (1896) has isolated himself upstairs in the family mansion after he has been serving time due to illegal speculation with assets belonging to the depositors of the bank he was managing. Confronting his first love, his wife, and his son, he leaves his solitary confinement and goes out into the cold and snowy forest, where he dies. The two women in his life, twin sisters, are finally reconciled at the side of his dead body.
In December 1899 Ibsen published his last play, Når vi døde vågner [When We Dead Awaken], which he called “A dramatic epilogue”, since it was the last play in the series which started with A Doll’s House. An aging sculptor, Professor Rubek, recognizes the woman who was his model when he, as a young man, created his masterpiece “The Awakening”. Their mutual love then was not consummated, and Irene reproaches him for having merely his art in mind. They decide to ascend the highest mountain together to make up for the neglected love, but are killed in an avalanche. Three months after this last play was published, on March 15, 1900, Ibsen suffered a stroke which made writing difficult. He suffered other strokes in the following years, and died on May 23, 1906.
While contemporary readers and critics hailed Ibsen as the controversial social critic, promoting the freedom of the individual as well as women’s liberation, his lasting influence can be seen rather in the development of dramatic form, in the way dialogue is supported by scenographic symbols. In each play the main plot is interwoven with subordinate plots which he uses to indicate the social extent, and the shading, of the major themes. Also to be mentioned is his use of symbols (for example the decorated and later stripped Christmas tree as a symbol of transitory festivity, congenital venereal disease as an indicator of paternal corruption, the “wild” duck as a symbol of adaptation to imprisonment, the duelling pistols Hedda inherits from her father as a symbol of aristocracy and male power), and the extraordinary concision and compression of his dialogue where each apparently banale phrase speaks volumes about what lies hidden and unsaid between the speaker and the past or between people living in the same house. His most outstanding achievement as a writer of modern prose plays may well be designated as the drama in the narrow room, creating in the characters as well as in the audience a dynamic urge for freedom. This claustrophobic impact seems to be a quality depending on theatrical performance, and it may help to explain the difficulty of transposing the effect of Ibsen’s prose drama from the stage to the screen.
In an influential study of modern drama Peter Szondi has claimed that Ibsen’s starting point was epic in nature. In plays like John Gabriel Borkman and Rosmersholm the past itself tends to become the subject, and such a subject is said to be alien to the stage. Ibsen’s solution, according to Szondi, was “to develop an incomparable mastery of dramatic construction” (Szondi  1987, 17) thus concealing the epic origin of his plays. Ibsen composed his best known plays at a time when the stage light was being radically improved, and this made him introduce stage directions and precise descriptions of the sets to indicate visual elements with thematic relevance (cf. Northam 1953). Critics who find the typical Ibsen play too verbal have tended to ignore the visual elements of his art, his use of the stage as a semiotic system (cf. Sprinchorn 1993).
Northam, John. 1953. Ibsen’s Dramatic Method. London.
Sprinchorn, Evert 1993.
- - -. “The Unspoken Text in Hedda Gabler”. Modern Drama, 36, 353–67.
Szondi, Peter  1987. Theory of the Modern Drama. Ed. and transl. by Michael Hays. Cambridge. Original ed. Theorie des modernen Dramas.
Citation: Aarseth, Asbjorn. "Henrik Ibsen". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 September 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2291, accessed 18 May 2022.]