Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Ibsen is one of the leading figures in modern drama. Moving beyond the melodramas of the nineteenth century, Ibsen created a drama of psychological realism. His dramas helped to create modern realistic theater.
Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway, the second child of Knud Ibsen, a well-to-do merchant, and his wife, Marchinen, née Altenburg. Ibsen’s house, which faced the town square, was across from a church and a town hall that housed lunatics in its cellar. Early in life, Ibsen was faced with what he would later see as the symbol of spiritual freedom (the church spire) countered by the forces of confinement (the town hall). When his father went bankrupt and the family was forced to move to a small farm, Ibsen felt the pressures of being socially ostracized. Also, rumors that he was illegitimate haunted the young Ibsen.
Theater was one of Ibsen’s outlets, and by the age of twelve Ibsen had seen six plays by Eugène Scribe and had read Friedrich Schiller. As a child, Ibsen amused himself by staging puppet shows, magic acts, and ventriloquist’s routines. In 1843, Ibsen went as an apothecary’s apprentice to Grimstead, where he fathered an illegitimate child by a servant girl. This event would account for the themes of guilt, fear, and burdensome responsibility attached to sexual relationships in his works. At Grimstead, Ibsen absorbed himself in the realism of Charles Dickens, the biting satire of Voltaire, the explosive dramas of William Shakespeare, and the Romantic tragedies of Schiller. Also, he began to develop his skill as a social critic by writing lampoons and satires. In addition, he wrote poetry which ranged from introspective meditations to political propaganda, and he published Catalina (1850; Catiline, 1921), his first play. It focused on one of his favorite themes: the conflict between the lone individual and the forces of power. That same year, Ibsen moved to Christiana to study medicine, but he paid more attention to his literary pursuits and never finished his degree. His play Kjœmpehøien (1850; Burial Mound, 1912) was produced by the Christiana Theater. Ibsen continued to sharpen his skill as a poet, ventured into political journalism, and wrote perceptive theatrical criticism. Active in leftist political movements, he barely escaped being arrested. From then on, Ibsen distanced himself from political activism.
In 1851, Ibsen became stage manager and playwright-in-residence at Ole Bull’s Norwegian Theater in Bergen. Having received a travel grant, he toured Denmark and Germany to learn the latest developments in theater. Overworked, underpaid, and unable to produce innovative works, Ibsen left Bergen to become the artistic director of the Norwegian Theater in Christiana. This job was no less frustrating, however, and Ibsen was eventually driven to bouts of depression and alcoholism. Given a small travel grant and aided by friends, Ibsen finally left Norway for Italy. He was to spend the better part of his career in exile from family and country.
During Ibsen’s career in Norwegian theater, he wrote nationalistic sagas and satirical comedies. His experience as a director taught him how to structure his dramas and how to make effective use of visual and poetic imagery. Although the dramas of this early period are full of bombast and mechanical contrivances, Ibsen was starting to formulate a new kind of drama.
Ibsen’s career as a major world dramatist began in Rome. Exiled from a Norway whose narrow provincialism had stifled him, and infuriated over his country’s refusal to aid Denmark, Ibsen created Brand (1866; English translation, 1891), a monumental poetic drama delving into the spiritual crisis of a romantic idealist. Ibsen had now gone beyond the aestheticism of his earlier nationalistic sagas to write a profound drama which would rouse his countrymen from their complacency and force them to face the great issues of life. Widely discussed and hotly debated, Brand became a best-seller and won for Ibsen a pension from his government. Ibsen countered Brand with another massive poetic drama, Peer Gynt (1867; English translation, 1892), the story of an opportunistic double-dealer who compromises his inner self to achieve material gains. These two dramas established Ibsen’s reputation.
In 1868, Ibsen moved to Dresden. He was lionized by the king of Sweden and later represented Norway at the opening of the Suez Canal. By 1869, Ibsen started to move in the direction of modern realistic drama. De unges forbund (1869; The League of Youth, 1890) focused on a contemporary setting, employed colloquial speech patterns, and satirized political chicanery. In Kejeser og Galilœer (1873; Emperor and Galilean, 1876), Ibsen created an epic tragedy in prose. In this drama, Ibsen tried to reconcile the Christian call for self-sacrifice with the pagan command to enjoy the pleasures of life to the fullest, thereby exposing the underlying dilemma of the late nineteenth century.
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Ibsen’s work in the theater can be divided into three periods. The first phase, emphasizing historical dramas, featured such works as Peer Gynt (1867). His last phase, focusing on symbolist introspection, featured such plays as The Master Builder (1892). It was Ibsen’s middle phase, however, focusing on realistic social drama, that witnessed his most famous—and most widely censored—works for the stage. In particular, the male-dominated society of the later nineteenth century objected to his portrayals of strong women characters. His work was sharply scrutinized and criticized in efforts to suppress socially objectionable aggressive female protagonists. Bourgeois society was scandalized by such characters as Ibsen’s notorious Nora of A Doll’s House (1879), who abandons family in order to “find herself,” and the wicked heroine of Hedda Gabler (1890), who provokes her lover into shooting himself and then commits suicide, rather than be trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience. Ibsen himself noted that “a woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.” By late twentieth century standards, however, Ibsen’s plays seemed almost tame, at least in their treatment of women’s rights.
The barrage of negative criticism and attempts to restrain Ibsen from creating femmes fatales is demonstrated by the comments of many critics during the waning years of the Victorian era. For example, his women were perceived as “an unlovable, unlovely and detestable crew,” or, even worse, as “a lot of crazed, hysterical geese.” His fictional women did not fit the mold of societal propriety, virtue, and family dedication. Critics could not appreciate Ibsen’s truthful portrayals of women who were multifaceted and torn by emotional and spiritual conflicts, much as were their male counterparts. Owing in part to Ibsen’s plays, European countries began enacting legislation that supported women’s rights—such as their right to account for their own money.
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Henrik Johan Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, to a well-to-do merchant family of Skien, a small town in the county of Telemark in Norway, whose people Norwegian historians describe as “sanguine but often melancholic . . . proud and stiff . . . afraid openly to surrender to a mood,” people who have an apparent lack of spontaneity that Ibsen called “the shyness of the soul.” The Ibsens lived well, entertaining lavishly, until Henrik was seven, when financial pressures bankrupted his father, and the family was forced to move to an isolated farm. For the next eight years, young Ibsen felt himself an outcast from the provincial, snobbish social clique once eager to savor the family’s hospitality. When he was fifteen, Ibsen became apprenticed to an apothecary at Grimstad, a tiny shipbuilding village down the coast, and his poverty was intensified by the necessity of supporting an illegitimate son for the following fourteen years. The boy’s mother, a servant of his employer, was ten years older than Ibsen, and there was no thought of marriage. Though he was already writing poetry, Ibsen originally had considered becoming a physician, but the revolutionary fervor in the air in 1848 led him to write Catiline, a dramatic treatment in blank verse of the rebellious Roman senator.
After failing his entrance examinations for medicine, Ibsen turned wholeheartedly to literature. In the fearsome struggles that he experienced in the next two decades of his life, Fjelde sees “the seeds of so many of the themes and motifs that found their way into the series of masterpieces composed between Ibsen’s forty-seventh and seventy-first years.” Having already endured financial ruin and the scorn of “pillars of society,” Ibsen next faced the frustrations of an unappreciated author. Selling his painfully financed copies of Catiline as scrap paper, he realized only enough funds to buy himself and a friend one decent dinner during his six years as the new Norwegian Theater’s stage manager and resident playwright. From 1857 to 1862, he abandoned some of his early bohemianism to become artistic director of the poverty-stricken Norwegian Theater in Christiania (now Oslo), which then was a backward, swampy town whose audiences worshiped the dominant Danish theater. Ibsen wrote eight plays there, all stressing Norwegian history and national spirit; all failed. He had married Suzannah Thoreson in 1858, the Norwegian Theater closed in 1862, and in 1864 they left for the Continent with their only child, Sigurd. Ibsen chose not to live in Norway again for twenty-seven years.
The disillusionment that Ibsen must have felt toward his countrymen is clear in the two verse plays that he wrote in exile, Brand and Peer Gynt. Brand involves an unbending country pastor whose ideal is “all or nothing”; he sets out to reform his society but is destroyed. Peer Gynt, a folktale drama, chronicles the escapades of a picaresque rascal who wins forgiveness in a woman’s embrace. Brand earned for Ibsen fame and a modest stipend from the Norwegian government at the same time that it provoked fiery debate at home and abroad, while Peer Gynt, a witty criticism of the relatively comfortable life in eastern Norway, eventually became...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Henrik Johan Ibsen (IHB-suhn) was born in Skien, a small town on the east coast of Norway, on March 20, 1828, to Knud and Marchinen Altenburg Ibsen. By all accounts, he was a withdrawn and introspective child, much given to reading, painting, and creating puppets for the tiny theater that he had constructed in a storehouse attached to his childhood home. The financial decline of the Ibsen family severely curtailed his formal education. Though he had hoped to go to the university and study medicine, in 1843 he left school and became an apprentice to an apothecary in the small coastal town of Grimstad, where he was to spend nearly seven years. The revolution of 1848 in France, coupled with his study of Cicero’s oration against the...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Henrik Ibsen’s impeccable craftsmanship and his deep understanding of human psychology place him in the first rank of dramatists. His plays complement and correct one another in a dialectical manner. Though some of the ideas in the plays are now dated, he continues to hold the stage because of the vitality of his characters. By linking the dramatic device of gradual revelation of the past with the “ghosts” in the past lives of his characters, he found a way to make psychological development his main subject. In skillfully exploiting the relations between his characters and their environment, he used sets and props to suggest a psychological complexity usually considered beyond the scope of the theater. By means of these and...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The mature plays of Henrik Johan Ibsen (IHB-suhn), which are characterized by profound psychological insight, incisive exposure of social hypocrisy, and dramatic realism, have earned for him wide recognition as the founder of modern drama. His best plays fill the stage with life; moreover, they set the tone for the modern era of drama.
Born to upper-middle-class parents in Skien, Norway, in 1828, Ibsen lived an early life of poverty after his father suffered bankruptcy in 1836. His lot did not change even after he was apprenticed to an apothecary in Grimstad when he was barely sixteen. There loneliness drove him into the...
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Ibsen was born March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway, a lumbering town south of Christiania, now Oslo. He was the second son in a wealthy family that included five other siblings. In 1835, financial problems forced the family to move to a smaller house in Venstop outside Skien. After eight years, the family moved back to Skein, and Ibsen moved to Grimstad to study as an apothecary's assistant. He applied to and was rejected at Christiania University. During the winter of 1848, Ibsen wrote his first play, Catiline, which was rejected by the Christiania Theatre; it was finally published in 1850 under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme and generated little interest. Ibsen's second play, The Burial Mound, was also written under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme and became the first Ibsen play to be performed when it was presented on September 26, 1850, at the Christiania Theatre.
In 1851, Ibsen accepted an appointment as an assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. He was also expected to assist the theatre as a dramatic author, and during his tenure at Bergen, Ibsen wrote Lady lnger (1855), The Feast at Solhoug (1856), and Olaf Liljekrans (1857). These early plays were written in verse and drawn from Norse folklore and myths. In 1857, Ibsen was released from his contract at Bergen and accepted a position at the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania. While there, Ibsen published The Vikings at Helgeland and married Suzannah Thoresen in 1858. The couple's only child, Sigurd, was born the following year.
By 1860, Ibsen was under attack in the press for a lack of productivity—although he had published a few poems during this period. When the Christiania Theatre went bankrupt in 1862, Ibsen was left with no regular income except a temporary position as a literary advisor to the reorganized Christiania Theatre. Due to a series of small government grants, by 1863 Ibsen was able to travel in Europe and begin what became an intense period of creativity. During this period, Ibsen completed The Pretenders (1863) and a dramatic epic poem, "Brand" (1866), which achieved critical notice; these works were soon followed by Peer Gynt (1867). The first of Ibsen's prose dramas, The League of Youth, published in 1869, was also the first of his plays to demonstrate a shift from an emphasis on plot to one of interpersonal relationships. This was followed by Emperor and Galilean (1873), Ibsen's first work to be translated into English, and Pillars of Society (1877). A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and An Enemy of the People (1882) are among the last plays included in Ibsen's realism period. Ibsen continued to write of modern realistic themes in his next plays, but he also relied increasingly on metaphor and symbolism in The Wild Duck (1884) and Hedda Gabler (1890).
A shift from social concerns to the isolation of the individual marks the next phase of Ibsen's work. The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899) all treat the conflicts that arise between art and life, between creativity and social expectations, and between personal contentment and self deception. These last works are considered by many critics to be autobiographical. In 1900, Ibsen suffered his first of several strokes. Ill health ended his writing career, and he died May 23, 1906.
Although Ibsen's audiences may have debated the social problems he depicted, modern critics are more often interested in the philosophical and psychological elements depicted in his plays and the ideological debates they generated.
IntroductionWho is the father of realist theater? Without a doubt, the answer is Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright is considered the starting point for modern drama, particularly realism, which dominated the twentieth century. Rejecting the spectacular, sentimental, and over-the-top plays that marked the nineteenth-century stage, Ibsen turned his eye toward societal issues that marked the waning years of the Victorian era. Whether questioning the confines of marriage in A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler or the hypocrisy of politics in An Enemy of the People, Ibsen subverted social norms and their controlling institutions. Although many of his plays were criticized for their content at the time, Ibsen’s works helped lay the foundation for even more radical explorations in the following century.
- Despite Ibsen’s being touted as “The Father of Realism,” his career is often divided into three distinct phases. His early plays, such as Peer Gynt, were poetic epics. The middle phase consisted of realistic classics like A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People. Later in life, he veered toward symbolism, as exemplified by his play When We Dead Awaken.
- Although Ibsen would insist that he did not write plays about women’s rights, A Doll’s House is a critical portrayal of marriage as a kind of prison for women.
- As with A Doll’s House, his play Ghosts dealt with issues that were controversial in Ibsen’s time. Having a main character die from syphilis was highly scandalous.
- Ibsen’s influence as a writer extended to his contemporaries, such as George Bernard Shaw and Anton Chekhov and beyond. Even twentieth-century playwrights like Arthur Miller have noted the impact Ibsen’s work had on their own writing.
- One of Ibsen’s most unlikely aficionados was the actor Steve McQueen, who produced and starred in a film version of An Enemy of the People shortly before his death.