illustrated portrait of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen

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Why is Henrik Ibsen considered the father of realism in theater?

Henrik Ibsen is considered the father of realism in theater because he focused on realistic settings, realistic dialogue, and, most of all, the creation of psychologically realistic characters in his plays. His dramas turned away from the escapist spectacles common in his time period to explore serious social issues.

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When Ibsen began writing plays in the 1850s, theater was dominated by melodrama, spectacle, and slapstick comedy, as well as by a tendency of performers to overact, reliance on spectacular costumes and effects, and use of farces, musical numbers, and other escapist and entertaining crowd pleasers that bore little relationship to real life. Underscoring the divorce from everyday reality, plays in this time period were often written in verse.

Ibsen pioneered a new approach to theater. Though his early plays were written in verse, he soon began to write in prose that made every attempt to mimic realistic speech, and even in his early, more fantastic work, he aimed at creating psychologically realistic characters. As he developed his playwright's voice, Ibsen increasingly turned to plays that were meant to accurately represent middle class life, with sets that reflected the kinds of homes people actually lived in and scripts that tried to capture the psychological depth and interior reality of people's experience. Rather than relying on spectacle and escapism, his plays increasingly confronted audiences with problems they or others might be encountering in their lives or societies.

Ibsen is known, too, for addressing social issues, including the plight of women in Victorian society, which he explored in such works as A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler. These plays created psychologically nuanced female characters who rebelled against middle-class women's constricted and repressed roles.

In his later plays, Ibsen turned from realism to symbolism but still was centrally concerned with accurately reflecting real human psychology. Overall, he produced dramas that examined serious social issues and their psychological repercussions, influencing playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw.

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