Johan Ibsen was an extremely influential Norwegian playwright who
was largely responsible for the rise of the modern realistic drama
(dubbed "the father of modern drama"). It is said that
Ibsen is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after
Shakespeare. Despite spending much time in exile, living in Germany
and Italy, Ibsen is held to be the greatest Norwegian author of
all times, being celebrated as a national symbol by Norwegians,
and as one of the most important playwrights in world history.
His plays were considered scandalous to many of his era, when Victorian
values of family life and propriety largely held sway in Europe
and any challenge to them was considered immoral and outrageous.
Ibsen's work examined the realities that lay behind many façades,
possessing a revelatory nature that was disquieting to many contemporaries.
largely founded the modern stage by introducing a critical eye
and free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of morality.
Victorian-era plays were expected to be moral dramas with noble
protagonists pitted against darker forces. Every drama was expected
to result in a morally appropriate conclusion, meaning that goodness
was to bring happiness, and immorality only pain. Ibsen challenged
this notion and the beliefs of his times and shattered the illusions
of his audiences.
Henrik Ibsen was born to Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg, a
relatively well-to-do merchant family, in the small port town
of Skien, Norway, which was primarily noted for shipping timber.
He was a descendant of some of the oldest and most distinguished
families of Norway, like the Paus family. Shortly after his birth,
however, his family's fortunes took a significant turn for the
worse. His mother turned to religion for solace, while his father
declined into a severe depression. The characters in his plays
often mirror his parents, and his themes often deal with issues
of financial difficulty as well as moral conflicts stemming from
dark private secrets hidden from society.
fifteen, Ibsen left home. He moved to the small town Grimstad
to become an apprentice pharmacist and began writing plays. In
1846, he fathered an illegitimate child with a servant maid whom
he rejected. Ibsen came to Christiania intending to attend university,
but cast off the idea, preferring to commit to writing. His first
play, the tragedy Catilina (1850), was published under the pseudonym
Brynjolf Bjarme, when he was only 22, but it was not performed.
His first play to see production was The Burial Mound (1850),
however, it did not receive much attention. Still, Ibsen was determined
to be a playwright, although he was not to write again for some
He spent the next several years employed at the Norwegian
Theater in Bergen, where he was involved in the production of
more than 145 plays as a writer, director, and producer. During
this period he did not publish any new plays of his own. Despite
Ibsen's failure to achieve success as a playwright, he gained
a great deal of practical experience at the Norwegian Theater,
experience that was to prove valuable when he continued writing.
returned to Christiania (the name for Oslo in those days) in 1858
to become the creative director of Christiania's National Theater.
He married Suzannah Thoresen the same year and they gave birth
to their only child, Sigurd. The couple lived in very poor financial
circumstances and Ibsen became very disenchanted with life in
Norway. In 1864 he left Christiania and went to Italy in self-imposed
exile. He was not to return to his native land for the next 27
years, and when he returned it was to be as a noted playwright,
next play, Brand (1865), was to bring him the critical acclaim
he sought, along with a measure of financial success, as was his
next play, Peer Gynt (1867), to which Edvard Grieg famously composed
the incidental music.
success, became more confident and began to introduce more and
more his own beliefs and judgments into the drama, exploring what
he termed the "drama of ideas." His next series of plays
are often considered his Golden Age, when he entered the height
of his power and influence, becoming the center of dramatic controversy
moved from Italy to Dresden, Germany in 1868. Here he spent years
writing the play he himself regarded as his main work, Emperor
and Galilean (1873), dramatizing the life and times of the Roman
emperor Julian the Apostate. But although Ibsen himself always
looked back on this play as the cornerstone of his entire works,
very few shared his opinion. And his next works would be much
moved to Munich in 1875 and published A Doll's House in 1879.
The play is a scathing criticism of the traditional roles of men
and women in Victorian marriage.
followed A Doll's House with Ghosts (1881), another scathing commentary
on Victorian morality, in which a widow reveals to her pastor
that she has hidden the evils of her marriage for its duration.
The pastor had advised her to marry her then fiancé despite
his philandering, and she did so in the belief that her love would
reform him. But she was not to receive the result she was promised.
Her husband's philandering continued right up until his death,
and the result is that her son is syphilitic.
the mention of venereal disease was scandalous, but to show that
even a person who followed society's ideals of morality had no
protection against it, that was beyond scandalous. Hers was not
the noble life which Victorians believed would result from fulfilling
one's duty rather than following one's desires. Those idealized
beliefs were only the Ghosts of the past, haunting the present.
criticism of Ibsen was raised to a fever pitch at this point,
but Society itself was losing its control over the mass of people,
most of whom didn't live in the rarefied air of the Victorian
Gentleman. They wanted to see Ibsen's plays because he showed
what so many of them already knew to be the reality. The tide
An Enemy of the People (1882), Ibsen went even further. Before,
controversial elements were important and even pivotal components
of the action, but they were on the small scale of individual
households. In An Enemy controversy became the primary focus,
and the antagonist was the entire community. One primary message
of the play is that the individual, who stands alone, is more
often "right" than the mass of people, who are portrayed
as ignorant and sheeplike. The Victorian belief was that the community
was a noble institution that could be trusted, a fiction Ibsen
protagonist is a doctor, a pillar of the community. The town is
a vacation spot whose primary draw is a public bath. The doctor
discovers that the water used by the bath is being contaminated
when it seeps through the grounds of a local tannery. He expects
to be acclaimed for saving the town from the nightmare of infecting
visitors with disease, but instead he is declared An Enemy of
the People by the locals, who band against him and even throw
stones through his windows. The play ends with his complete ostracism.
It is obvious to the reader that disaster is in store for the
town as well as for the doctor, due to the community's unwillingness
to face reality.
audiences by now expected of him, his next play again attacked
entrenched beliefs and assumptions -- but this time his attack
was not against the Victorians but against overeager reformers
and their idealism. Always the iconoclast, Ibsen was as willing
to tear down the ideologies of any part of the political spectrum,
including his own.
Wild Duck (1884) is considered by many to be Ibsen's finest work,
and it is certainly the most complex. It tells the story of Gregers
Werle, a young man who returns to his hometown after an extended
exile and is reunited with his boyhood friend Hjalmar Ekdal. Over
the course of the play the many secrets that lie behind the Ekdals'
apparently happy home are revealed to Gregers, who insists on
pursuing the absolute truth, or the "Summons of the Ideal".
these truths: Gregers' father impregnated his servant Gina, then
married her off to Hjalmar to legitimize the child. Another man
has been disgraced and imprisoned for a crime the elder Werle
committed. And while Hjalmar spends his days working on a wholly
imaginary "invention", his wife is earning the household
displays masterful use of irony: despite his dogmatic insistence
on truth, Gregers never says what he thinks but only insinuates,
and is never understood until the play reaches its climax. Gregers
hammers away at Hjalmar through innuendo and coded phrases until
he realizes the truth; Gina's daughter, Hedvig, is not his child.
Blinded by Gregers' insistence on absolute truth, he disavows
the child. Seeing the damage he has wrought, Gregers determines
to repair things, and suggests to Hedvig that she sacrifice the
wild duck, her wounded pet, to prove her love for Hjalmar.
alone among the characters, recognizes that Gregers always speaks
in code, and looking for the deeper meaning in the first important
statement Gregers makes which does not contain one, kills herself
rather than the duck in order to prove her love for him in the
ultimate act of self-sacrifice. Only too late do Hjalmar and Gregers
realize that the absolute truth of the "ideal" is sometimes
too much for the human heart to bear.
Ibsen's most performed play is Hedda Gabler (1890), the leading
female role being regarded as one of the most challenging and
rewarding for an actress even in the present day. There are many
similarities between Hedda and the character of Nora in A Doll's
had completely rewritten the rules of drama with a realism which
was to be adopted by Chekhov and others and which we see in the
theater to this day. From Ibsen forward, challenging assumptions
and directly speaking about issues has been considered one of
the factors that makes a play Art rather than entertainment.
Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891, but it was in many ways not
the Norway he had left. Indeed, he had played a major role in
the changes that had happened across society. The Victorian Age
was on its last legs, to be replaced by the rise of Modernism
not only in the theater, but across public life.
died in Kristiania on May 23, 1906 after a series of strokes.
When his nurse assured a visitor that he was a little better,
Ibsen sputtered "On the contrary" and died. Ibsen was
a great influence on many intellectuals and activists of his time,
for instance anarchist Emma Goldman and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.