BORN: 1828, Skien, Norway DIED: 1906, Oslo, Norway
GENRE: Drama, Poetry
Peer Gynt (1867)
A Doll’s House (1879)
The Wild Duck (1884)
Hedda Gabler (1890)
Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen, Henrik, photograph. AP images.
In the English-speaking world today, Henrik Ibsen has become one of three playwrights widely recognized as preeminent. Alongside William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, he stands at the very center of the standard dramatic repertoire, and no actor can aspire to the highest rank unless he has played some of the leading roles in the works of these three giants. In this triad, Ibsen occupies a central position, marking the transition from a traditional to a modern theater. While Ibsen, like all great dramatists who came after him, owed an immense debt to Shakespeare, Chekhov (who regarded Ibsen as his ‘‘favorite writer’’) was already writing under Ibsen’s influence. Ibsen can thus be seen as one of the principal creators and wellsprings of the modern movement in drama, having contributed to the development of all its diverse manifestations: the ideological and political theater, as well as the introspective trends that focus on the representation of inner realities and dreams.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poverty in Norway and the Beginnings of Poetry. Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, to wealthy parents in Skien, Norway, a lumber town south of Christiania (now Oslo). The family was reduced to poverty when Ibsen’s father’s business failed in 1834. After leaving school at the age of fifteen and working for six years as a pharmacist’s assistant, Ibsen went to Christiania hoping to continue his studies at Christiania University. He failed the Greek and mathematics portions of the entrance examinations, however, and was not admitted. During this time, he read and wrote poetry, which he would later say came more easily to him than prose. He wrote his first drama, Catiline, in 1850 and although this work generated little interest and was not produced until several years later, it evidenced Ibsen’s emerging concerns with the conflict between guilt and desire. While Catiline is a traditional romance written in verse, Ibsen’s merging of two female prototypes—one conservative and domestic, the other adventurous and dangerous—foreshadowed the psychological intricacies of his later plays.
From an Original Drama per Year to Life on Scholarships. Shortly after writing Catiline, Ibsen became assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theater in Bergen. His duties included composing and producing an original drama each year. Ibsen was expected to write about Norway’s glorious past, but because Norway had just recently acquired its independence from Denmark after five hundred years, medieval folklore and Viking sagas were his only sources of inspiration. Although these early plays were coldly received and are often considered insignificant, they further indicated the direction Ibsen’s drama was to take, especially in their presentation of strong individuals who come in conflict with the oppressive social mores of nineteenth-century Norwegian society. In 1862, verging on a nervous breakdown from overwork, Ibsen began to petition the government for a grant to travel and write. He was given a stipend in 1864, and various scholarships and pensions subsequently followed. For the next twenty-seven years he lived in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway only twice. While critics often cite Ibsen’s bitter memories of his father’s financial failure and his own lack of success as a theater manager as the causes for his long absence, it is also noted that Ibsen believed that only by distancing himself from his homeland could he obtain the perspective necessary to write truly Norwegian drama. Ibsen explained: ‘‘I could never lead a consistent life [in Norway]. I was one man in my work and another outside— and for that reason my work failed in consistency too.’’
Phase One: Verse and the Stage, a Transition from Poetry. Critics generally divide Ibsen’s work into three phases. The first consists of his early dramas written in verse and modeled after romantic historical tragedy and Norse sagas. These plays are noted primarily for their idiosyncratic Norwegian characters and for their emerging elements of satire and social criticism. In Love’s Comedy, for example, Ibsen attacked conventional concepts of love and explored the conflict between the artist’s mission and his responsibility to others. Brand (1866), an epic verse drama, was the first play Ibsen wrote after leaving Norway and was the first of his works to earn both popular and critical attention. The story of a clergyman who makes impossible demands on his congregation, his family, and himself, Brand reveals the fanaticism and inhumanity of uncompromising idealism. While commentators suggest that Brand is a harsh and emotionally inaccessible character, they also recognized that this play reflects Ibsen’s doubts and personal anguish over his poverty and lack of success. More significant still was Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, written while Ibsen was traveling in Italy and published in Denmark in 1867. Written in verse, Peer Gynt was not originally intended for stage performance, but has gone on to become a significant piece in Ibsen’s oeuvre, in good part because of the score written for it by composer Edvard Grieg.
Phase Two: Social Realism and the Prose Drama. Ibsen wrote prose dramas concerned with social realism during the second phase of his career. During his stay in Munich, when he was becoming increasingly attuned to social injustice, Ibsen wrote The Pillars of Society (1877). A harsh indictment of the moral corruption and crime resulting from the quest for money and power, this drama provided what Ibsen called a ‘‘contrast between ability and desire, between will and possibility.’’ Writing as the Industrial Revolution was making new labor relations possible throughout much of Western Europe, and writing from a Germany newly united as one nation (in 1871)—under the firm, if less than universally beloved hand of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia—Ibsen was in an excellent position to bear witness to both the power and the limitations of the human will. His protagonist here, Consul Bernick, while first urging his son to abide by conventional morality and become a ‘‘pillar of society,’’ eventually experiences an inner transformation and asserts instead: ‘‘You shall be yourself, Olaf, and then the rest will have to take care of itself.’’
Ibsen’s next drama, A Doll’s House (1879), is often considered a masterpiece of realist theater. The account of the collapse of a middle-class marriage, this work, in addition to sparking debate about women’s rights and divorce, is also regarded as innovative and daring because of its emphasis on psychological tension rather than external action. This technique required that emotion be conveyed through small, controlled gestures, shifts in inflection, and pauses, and therefore instituted a new style of acting.
Ghosts (1881) and An Enemy of Society (1882) are the last plays included in Ibsen’s realist period. In Ghosts Ibsen uses a character infected with syphilis to symbolize how stale habits and prejudices can be passed down from generation to generation. Written as much of Europe— though not Norway—was engaged in what has come to be called the European ‘‘scramble for Africa,’’ the effort to control colonies in areas newly desirable as sources of raw material and markets for consumer goods, An Enemy of Society demonstrates Ibsen’s contempt for what he considered stagnant political rhetoric. Audiences accustomed to the Romantic sentimentality of the ‘‘well-made play’’ were initially taken aback by such controversial subjects. However, when dramatists George Bernard Shaw and George Brandes, among others, defended Ibsen’s works, the theater-going public began to accept drama as social commentary and not merely as entertainment.
Phase Three: Negotiating the Symbolic. With The Wild Duck (1884) and Hedda Gabler (1890), Ibsen entered a period of transition during which he continued to deal with modern, realistic themes, but made increasing use of symbolism and metaphor. The Wild Duck, regarded as one of Ibsen’s greatest tragicomic works, explores the role of illusion and self-deception in everyday life. In this play, Gregers Werle, vehemently believing that everyone must be painstakingly honest, inadvertently causes great harm by meddling in other people’s affairs. At the end of The Wild Duck, Ibsen’s implication that humankind is unable to bear absolute truth is reflected in the words of the character named Relling: ‘‘If you rob the average man of his illusion, you are almost certain to rob him of his happiness.’’ Hedda Gabler concerns a frustrated aristocratic woman and the vengeance she inflicts on herself and those around her. Taking place entirely in Hedda’s sitting room shortly after her marriage, this play has been praised for its subtle investigation into the psyche of a woman who is unable to love others or confront her sexuality.
Ibsen himself returned to Norway in 1891 and there entered his third and final period with the dramas The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899). In these final works, Ibsen dealt with the conflict between art and life and shifted his focus from the individual in society to the individual alone and isolated. It is speculated that The Master Builder was written in response to Norwegian writer Knut Hamson’s proclamation that Ibsen should relinquish his influence in the Norwegian theater to the younger generation. Described as a ‘‘poetic confession,’’ The Master Builder centers around an elderly writer, Solness, who believes he has misused and compromised his art. Little Eyolf, the account of a crippled boy who compensates for his handicap through a variety of other accomplishments, explores how self-deception can lead to an empty, meaningless life. The search for personal contentment and selfknowledge is also a primary theme in John GabrielBorkman, a play about a banker whose quest for greatness isolates him from those who love him. And in his final play, When We Dead Awaken, subtitled ‘‘A Dramatic Monologue,’’ Ibsen appears once more to pass judgment on himselfas an artist. Deliberating over such questions as whether his writing would have been more truthful ifhe had lived a more active life, When We Dead Awaken is considered one of Ibsen’s most personal and autobiographical works.
After completing When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen suffered a series of strokes that left him an invalid for five years until his death in 1906.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Ibsen's famous contemporaries include:
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904): Along with Ibsen and August Strindberg, Chekhov is considered one of the three most important early-modern playwrights; his works deliberately challenged traditional dramatic structure.
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (1822-1907): An American educator, Agassiz cofounded Radcliffe College and served as its first president. The college was founded in order to give women access to the high educational standards offered by neighboring Harvard, which at the time was open only to men.
Thomas Edison (1847-1931): Perhaps the best-known inventor of all time, Edison pioneered several devices that are today considered indispensable to modern life as well as a new, industrial approach to scientific research.
Leopold II (1835-1909): King of the Belgians, Leopold became infamous in his own time for his ruthless exploitation of the Congo region of Africa, which he claimed as his own personal domain. His colonialism was too much to stomach for many of his fellow Europeans, and a campaign eventually forced him to relinquish his personal control of the region.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882): The English naturalist famous for his theory of evolution and natural selection. His Origin of Species caused a sensation upon its publication and stirred a fierce public debate that reverberates to this day.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Ibsen's plays derive much of their intensity from the relationships between the male and female characters, and the conflict of love versus honor that those relationships embody. Here are some other plays that have explored similar themes:
Hamlet (c. 1601), a tragedy by William Shakespeare. Arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, this tragedy- based on a twelfth-century account of Danish history, the Gesta Danorum (''Deeds of the Danes'')-revolves around a son honor-bound to avenge his father's death at the hands of his uncle, and the doubt and soulsearching this obligation inspires.
Trifles (1916), a play by Susan Glaspell. Written forty years after A Doll's House, this play examines similar themes of male-female relationships, but played out against a background of grinding poverty. The social and emotional differences between the sexes form the crux of the action, painting both men and women in rather broad strokes.
Miss Julie (1888), a play by August Stringberg. A Swedish contemporary of Ibsen and often compared with him, Strindberg in this play touches on class issues in addition to the contrast between love and lust and conflicts between men and women.
The Seagull (1895), a play by Anton Chekhov. Deeply influenced by Ibsen, this celebrated Russian playwright in this his first play adds a diverse cast to the standard Ibsenesque themes of love versus honor, strongly evoking Hamlet in the process.
Works in Literary Context
Ibsen’s first and most obvious impact was social and political. His efforts to make drama and the theater a means to bring into the open the main social and political issues of the age shocked and scandalized a society that regarded the theater as a place of shallow amusement. And Ibsen, too, seems to have been the only playwright to, in his lifetime, become the center of what almost amounted to a political party—the Ibsenites, who in Germany, England, and elsewhere appear in the contemporary literature as a faction of weirdly dressed social and political reformers, advocates of socialism, women’s rights, and a new sexual morality (as in the Ibsen Club, in Shaw’s The Philanderer). The fact that Ibsen was equated with what amounted to a counterculture has had a considerable influence on the subsequent fluctuations of his fame and the appreciation of his plays by both the critics and the public.
The Birth of Modern Theater. It is usually assumed that the shock caused by Ibsen, and the furiously hostile reaction his early plays provoked, were due to this political and social subversiveness. But that is only part of the truth. Another important cause of the violent reaction by audiences and critics alike lay in the revolutionary nature of Ibsen’s dramatic method and technique. This is an aspect which is far more difficult for us to comprehend today as we have become completely conditioned to what were then ‘‘revolutionary’’ conventions. Much of the fury directed at the time against Ibsen had nothing to do with his supposed obscenity, blasphemous views, or social destructiveness. What was criticized above all was his obscurity and incomprehensibility. Ibsen, it was said again and again, was a troublemaker who was obscure on purpose in order to mask the shallowness of his thinking, and whose dark hints and mysterious allusions were never cleared up in his plays.
Against Repression: A Precursor to Freud. Sexuality, and especially female sensuality, which did not officially exist at all for the Victorians, was seen by Ibsen as one of the ‘‘dangerous instincts’’ in the sense that when it is suppressed by societal demands it forces the individual to live an inauthentic life, creating feelings of inadequacy and conflict. Mrs. Alving’s failure to break out of her marriage in Ghosts foreshadows Hedda Gabler’s inability to give herself to Lovborg, and is shown by Ibsen to bring about similarly tragic results. In Little Eyolf the conflict is between motherhood and uninhibited female sensuality. Rita Allmers is the most openly sexually voracious character in Ibsen’s plays: here the rejection of motherhood derives from an obsession with the sensual aspect of sex. Rita’s exaggerated sexual drive may well spring from her husband’s equally disproportionate commitment to his work as a philosopher, which has led him to neglect both her sexual needs and their child’s emotional and educational demands. In his attention to these issues, Ibsen presaged the work of famous Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who developed a human science around the idea and the treatment of repressed sexuality.
Works in Critical Context
Although audiences considered Ibsen’s dramas highly controversial during his lifetime because of his frank treatment of social problems, today’s scholars focus on the philosophical and psychological elements of his plays and the ideological debates they have generated. Ibsen’s occasional use of theatrical conventions and outmoded subject matter has caused some critics to dismiss his work as obsolete and irrelevant to contemporary society, but others recognize his profound influence on the development of modern drama. Haskell M. Block has asserted: ‘‘In its seemingly limitless capacity to respond to the changing need and desires of successive generations of audiences, [Ibsen’s] work is truly classic, universal in implication and yet capable of endless transformation.’’
Peer Gynt The protagonist of Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt (1867), while witty, imaginative, and vigorous, is incapable of self-analysis. Although this play takes on universal significance due to Ibsen’s use of fantasy, parable, and symbolism, it is often described as a sociological analysis of the Norwegian people. Harold Beyer explains: ‘‘[Peer Gynt] is a central work in Norwegian literature, comprising elements from the nationalistic and romantic atmosphere of the preceding period and yet satirizing these elements in a spirit of realism akin to the period that was coming. It has been said that if a Norwegian were to leave his country and could take only one book to express his national culture, [Peer Gynt] is the one he would choose.’’
A Doll’s House. For those who have seen performances of A Doll’s House by Claire Bloom or Jane Fonda on stage, screen, or television in the last decade, there is little difficulty in understanding Ibsen’s reputation as a writer of social-problem plays. Most people still see the play as one about a heroic young woman’s victorious struggle for freedom from repressive social conventions. Some, however, like critic Hermann Weigand (writing as early as the 1920s), see Nora as a deceptive, selfish, intriguing young woman bent only on having her own way. These critics believe Ibsen is satirizing and debunking her rather than, as others believe, holding her up as virtue incarnate.
Most of the characters in the play are conceived of as playing roles drawn from the kinds of Danish and French romantic melodramas from which Ibsen learned his craft. As famed Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams points out, there is ‘‘the innocent child-like woman, involved in a desperate deception, the heavy insensitive husband; the faithful friend.’’ ‘‘Similarly,’’ Williams continues, ‘‘the main situations of the play are typical of the intrigue drama: the guilty secret, sealed lips, the complication of situations around Krogstad’s letter... Krogstad at the children’s party... the villain against a background of tranquility....’’ For Williams all of this is an indication of the play’s weaknesses: ‘‘None of this is at all new,’’ he says, ‘‘and it is the major part of the play.’’
Responses to Literature
1. The concept of integrity was a recurring theme in Ibsen’s plays. Select two of his plays in which integrity plays a central role and analyze them. Are characters with integrity rewarded or punished? What vision does Ibsen present of the value, or lack thereof, of integrity in a modern world?
2. In Ibsen’s works, how does the dialogue between closely related characters differ from the dialogue between strangers? What purpose does this difference serve?
3. Ibsen was forced to write a second ending to A Doll’s House, in which Nora decides to remain in her marriage for the sake of her children. Research which ending best reflects the cultural reality of the nineteenth-century Europe in which the play was written? Explain your choice.
4. Discuss the use of Christian allegory in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
5. Ibsen was just one of millions of Norwegians who emigrated during the nineteenth century. Research the motivations behind this mass exodus. How do Ibsen’s reasons for leaving match up with the average Norwegian’s?
Byran, George B., An Ibsen Companion: A Dictionary-Guide to the Life, Works, and Critical Reception of Henrik Ibsen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1984.
Chesterton, G. K., A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books & Writers. Ed. Dorothy Collins. Lanham, Md.: Sheed and Ward, 1953.
Corrigan, Robert W., The Theatre in Search of a Fix. New York: Delacorte, 1973.
Fjelde, Rolf, ed. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965.
Shaw, George Bernard, The Quintessence of Ibsenism. New York: Hill & Wang, 1957.
Weigand, Hermann, The Modern Ibsen. New York: Dutton, 1960.
Williams, Raymond, Drama: From Ibsen to Brecht. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.