Henrik Ibsen Biography

At a Glance

Henrik Ibsen is, without a doubt, the father of realist theater. 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.

Facts and Trivia

  • 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.


(History of the World: 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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.


(The entire section is 2119 words.)