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.