Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)

Henrik Ibsen is the world's most frequently performed dramatist after William Shakespeare, and the founder of modern theater. Every year there are hundreds of Ibsen productions throughout the world, many of them adapted to meet the needs of local cultures. Ibsen is performed on every continent and in many different languages, and his ideas have energized social movements in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, China, and Nigeria. His dramas are studied in classrooms all over the world and discussed at international conferences in Europe, North America, and Asia. Each year brings an outpouring of scholarly work devoted to his life, times, and plays.


Henrik Johan Ibsen was born in Skien on 20 March 1828. His father, Knud, was a wealthy merchant and importer, and his mother, Marichen Altenburg, came from an affluent family. Skien is a coastal town in the province of Telemark; at the time of Ibsen's birth it was prospering from a boom in the shipping trade. Henrik was the oldest surviving child; his elder brother, Johan Altenburg Ibsen, died at the age of only one and a half years, three weeks before Henrik's birth. Knud and Marichen Ibsen had four more children in the next seven years: Johan Andreas in 1830, Hedvig Cathrine in 1831, Nicolai Alexander in 1834, and Ole Paus in 1835.

The Ibsen family lived in a spacious villa, well suited for a grand life and entertaining. Portraits of Marichen Ibsen preserved in newspaper clippings suggest that she was a beautiful woman. This opulent life ceased when Knud Ibsen's failures in financial speculations led to bankruptcy. Henrik was seven when the villa was sold and the family was forced to move to the large farm they owned, Venstøp, several miles out of town. Henrik's mother turned to religious musings and pursuits; his father started to drink excessively; and the Ibsen children were isolated from their former milieu. Henrik, the sensitive, vulnerable oldest son, became increasingly introverted. Encouraged by his mother, he started to stage puppet theater. He also read widely, drew, and painted. He felt himself an outsider, and suffered from his family's reduction in wealth, lack of unity, loss of happiness, and pervading sense of sorrow. Ibsen later described his childhood and boyhood in a short biographical fragment, "Fra Skien til Rom" (From Skien to Rome) written in 1881, the only one existing from his own hand. He was advised not to complete it by his Copenhagen publisher, Frederik Hegel. Despite its brevity, the fragment throws interesting light on the dramatist's upbringing, showing the fear and sorrow he felt when his happy childhood collapsed. Recent research on Ibsen's life is also casting new light on his childhood and youth, suggesting that they may not have been as bleak, desolate, lonely, and unhappy as previously posited.

Shortly after Christmas 1844--the year he was confirmed--the fifteen-year-old Ibsen left Skien aboard the coastal ferry Lykkens Prøve (The Lucky Chance) for Grimstad, another small town, further down the southern coast, where his father had arranged for him to become an apothecary's apprentice. The plan was for him to study medicine later. Although overburdened with work and having almost no money, he made some great friends and was able to read extensively, including classics by Shakespeare and Ludvig Holberg, by borrowing books from both private and public collections. In Skien the young Ibsen had been thought overly proud and arrogant, but he was accepted in Grimstad and became well acquainted with its eight hundred residents. His comrades invited him into their homes and provided him with contacts that later proved invaluable. While he was more interested in literature than in pharmacy, Ibsen studied and worked hard. His was a curious, inquiring nature, and he spent time gathering plants and herbs and studying their effects on the body.

In Grimstad and its beautiful surroundings, Ibsen began to write. He met a girl, Clara Ebbel, to whom he wrote his first love poems; some of them have survived. (Altogether, thirty poems have been preserved from the Grimstad period.) Ibsen's platonic relationship with Ebbel was of short duration and was followed by a more prosaic and physical relationship with the apothecary's servant woman, Else Sophie Jensdatter. Ten years older than Ibsen, Jensdatter was from a good family that, like Ibsen's, had suffered financial reverses and adversity. In 1846 Ibsen became the father of Jendatter's child, a boy she named Hans Jacob Henriksen. Ibsen's illegitimate son, who never had a relationship with his father, became a skilled blacksmith. Henriksen married three times; he died destitute, as did his mother.

The year 1848 brought revolution to France and Europe, a subject of deep interest to Ibsen and his intellectual friends. Inspired by the intrigue of contemporary events, Ibsen wrote his first play, which was about the Roman rebel and conspirator Catiline. Through the efforts of his friends in Grimstad, Catilina (1850; translated as Catiline, 1921), a blank-verse tragedy, was published just as Ibsen was getting ready to leave Grimstad and settle in the capital city, Christiania (now Oslo). Before he made this move, Ibsen visited his family in Skien, probably for the last time. Ibsen broke with his entire family, keeping in contact only with his sister, Hedvig. In Christiania, Ibsen decided to take the entrance examinations to study at the university. His failures in Greek and mathematics may have deprived the world of a doctor but decided the future path of the young playwright.

Ibsen thereafter devoted himself exclusively to his writing. In Christiania he continued to receive support from his friends from the Grimstad period, and he met new friends, such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and the young philologist Paul Botten-Hansen, a country lad who became his greatest friend. Together with another country genius, Aasmund Olavson Vinje, Botten-Hansen and Ibsen started a periodical, Andhrimner, named after the cook for the gods in Nordic mythology. The three young writers made a productive trio, reporting on everything from debates in parliament and theater performances to skiing competitions. Work as a journalist gave Ibsen valuable insights into contemporary society as well as experiences he drew on in his later writings.

Ibsen wrote several new poems in the 1850s. In one of these, "Bjergmanden" (The Miner), originally published in the 1 June 1851 issue of Andhrimner, the hero of the poem hammers his way through the rock of the earth to reach the heart of Nature--clearly a metaphor for Ibsen's vision of the work of the literary artist. Critics have linked this early poem, which Ibsen twice revised, to his 1896 play about a miner's son, John Gabriel Borkman (translated, 1897).

Ibsen wrote about the Christianization of Norway in his play Kjæmpehøien (translated as The Warrior's Barrow, 1921), which was staged at Christiania Theater in September 1850 but not published until 1902. He submitted it under the same pseudonym as he had used for Catilina, Brynjolf Bjarne. Encouraged by the successful staging of Kjæmpehøien, Ibsen started to work on a third play, "Rypen I Justedal" (The Ptarmigan of Justedal), about a small girl in Jostedal who is the only person to survive the Black Death, but did not complete it.

In 1851 Ole Bull, a violinist and composer Ibsen had met in Christiania, appointed Ibsen to the position of "theater poet," or playwright-in-residence, at the newly established Det Norske Teatret (The Norwegian Theater) in Bergen, Norway's second largest city. The theater was an important element in the effort to create a new awareness of Norway's own cultural heritage and language. Ibsen held the post of dramatist while also serving as stage manager for the next six years. During these apprentice years Ibsen traveled to Copenhagen and Dresden on a scholarship to study stage direction, learned about dramaturgy, staged his own productions and those of others, and drew designs for costumes and the stage. By contract, he was also required to produce a new drama for performance each New Year. Because of the theater's radical repertoire and its lack of an artistic ensemble, Ibsen faced hardships and failures also during this period.

To escape from the pressures of running, directing, and writing for the theater, Ibsen in the spring of 1853 began an affair with fifteen-year-old Henrikke Holst. Some of Ibsen's most beautiful love poems stem from his infatuation with Holst. The affair ended abruptly when Holst's father discovered their secret meetings. Recognized as an outsider and rebel in town, Ibsen was nevertheless invited to the literary salon of Magdalene Thoresen; she was the second wife of the dean of Korskirken (Cross Church) in Bergen, Hans Conrad Thoresen, and the mother of nine children, five of whom were the offspring of Pastor Thoresen's first wife. One of her stepdaughters was Suzannah Daae Thoresen, born in 1836.

Ibsen first met Suzannah Thoresen in her family home in January 1855. They were married in June 1858, one week after her father's death. Ibsen's twenty-two-year-old bride came from an extraordinary family. Her father was a kind-hearted intellectual, and her stepmother was untraditional, provocative, and passionately interested in theater, literature, and art while also being a loving mother to her large family of children and stepchildren. The Thoresens' library and the small theater they built in their backyard provided the children with possibilities and cultural privileges. The intellectual and artistic atmosphere the Thoresens cultivated appealed to Ibsen. This family of strong-willed individuals openly discussed a wide range of topics, from art and science to the question of equality for women to the development of democracy. Ibsen's beautiful proposal poem for Suzannah--with the final line "til mine tankers brud" (to the bride of my thoughts)--seems an indication of the quality of their relationship. The night of their marriage they left Bergen for Christiania by a steamship that brought them around the coast past the towns of Grimstad and Skien. Ibsen had been offered the position of theater manager for the Christiania Norske Teater (Christiania Norwegian Theater), which he held for two years.

During his Bergen period, Ibsen had completed five plays, four of which were produced at Det Norske Teatret: Sancthansnatten (1909, St. John's Night), a comedy inspired by Norwegian folklore, first performed on 2 January 1853; Fru Inger til Østerraad (1857; translated as Lady Inger of Östrat, 1890), a historical drama set in Trondheim in 1528, performed on 2 January 1855; Gildet paa Solhoug (1856; translated as The Feast at Solhoug, 1908), a ballad drama about a woman who married for money, performed on 2 January 1856; and Olaf Liljekrans (1902; translated, 1921), based on a medieval folksong, performed on 2 January 1857. The fifth play, Hærmændene paa Helgeland (1858; translated as The Vikings at Helgeland, 1890), based on an old saga, was Ibsen's first work performed at the Christiania Norske Teater, on 24 November 1858. Although they develop conflicts that anticipate Ibsen's later work, these apprentice works, which may be generally characterized as historical dramas, are seldom revived. The one exception is the oft-produced Fru Inger til Østerraad, which deals with Norway's last chance to gain independence from the union with Sweden and Denmark. In this well-structured play of political intrigue with excellent dialogue, Lady Inger fails to carry through her plan to liberate her country.

Ibsen's six difficult years in Bergen were followed by another six years of even greater obstacles and challenges. The Christiania Norske Teater was supposed to present new, Norwegian dramas and, at the same time, earn enough money to pay off the debts arising from an expansive and expensive building program. The theater gradually went under financially and finally closed in 1862; as a result, Ibsen's own situation became desperate. As a family man with a wife and a son--Sigurd, who had been born on 23 December 1859--to take care of, Ibsen did not meet either artistic or familial expectations. He took to drinking and was on the verge of giving up several times. He later admitted that his sheer survival at that time was a wonder.

Despite the desperate situation he was in during his association with the Christiania Norske Teater, Ibsen managed to compose two highly esteemed epic poems during these years: "Paa Vidderne" (On the Heights), which appeared in print in 1860, and "Terje Vigen," published in 1862.The first-person narrator in "Paa Vidderne" is an artist, struggling to become independent and pursue his vocation. "Terje Vigen" tells the story of an old sailor, full of bitterness and thoughts of revenge. Terje is haunted and deeply marked by his past, but he chooses to forgive those who have trespassed against him. In his next drama, Kjærlighedens Komedie (1862; translated as Love's Comedy, 1900), which was not produced until 1873, Ibsen for the first time questioned the rationale for marriage, as his protagonist chooses to remain free and not marry. Critics noted that his play suggested a strange attitude for a newly married man. Suzannah, however, remained his ardent supporter, "the only one who understood me," as Ibsen said later on. The last play Ibsen wrote before leaving Norway was Kongs-Emnerne (1864; translated as The Pretenders, 1890), a historical drama that was staged successfully in 1864, a short time before Ibsen moved to Rome, where he was joined by his wife and son, who had been staying in Copenhagen. Most of the family's personal belongings were left behind and sold at auction. Ibsen's voluntary exile from the Norwegian theatrical scene lasted for twenty-seven years.

In Rome, Ibsen was able to escape circumstances that had almost destroyed him and start anew. With a contract from the Danish publishing house Gyldendal and support from fellow writers, Ibsen set his family up in a small apartment in the foreign quarter in Rome, close to the Circolo Scandinavo (Scandinavian Circle), a group of fellow Scandinavian authors and artists. Suzannah took great interest in her husband's work. She learned Italian and borrowed works of modern literature from various libraries, keeping notes on what she read. In the four years he spent in the Italian city (1864 to 1868) Ibsen developed the genius that transformed him from an obscure Scandinavian author to the master builder of European drama, from being a poor and rejected writer to being the creator and diagnostician of the modern Western sensibility.

The first work Ibsen completed in Rome was Brand (1866; translated, 1891), a dramatic poem in rhyming verse that was not intended for the stage. This story about a dynamic, idealistic country pastor who forsakes his humanity in his uncompromising service to God went through many reprintings and won Ibsen fame far beyond Norway and Scandinavia. The poem ends with Brand being crushed in an avalanche, while a voice calls through the thundering roar: "He is the God of Love." After Brand, Ibsen received many assurances from friends and critics that Norwegians took pride in his achievements. He also received a substantial grant from the Norwegian government that enabled him to continue his work in Italy. Ibsen in part used his character Pastor Brand as a means of expressing his anger about the failure of the theater in Christiania; a lonely, passionate tower of a man, Brand, despite being misguided, in some ways was a model for the hero Ibsen wanted to be.

In the fantasy Peer Gynt (1867; translated, 1892)--like Brand a dramatic poem that was not intended for the stage--Ibsen tells the story of Brand's opposite, a charming country lad whose adventures and escapades are recorded in verse and prose. In a letter to his publisher in Copenhagen, Ibsen wrote that his protagonist in Peer Gynt was a figure from the recent past of the Norwegian peasantry, a half-mythical adventurer. Irresponsible, poetic, wild, and reckless, Peer as a young man is just the opposite of stern, unbending, uncompromising Brand. Through the love of Solveig, a much older Peer is saved from the consequences of his selfishness. Although Ibsen shows great empathy in depicting Peer's search for his "real" self, he was thoroughly criticized for his unconventional style and for shifting between reality and fantasy. The criticism stung Ibsen, and he wrote to his colleague Bjørnson: "Min Bog er Poesi" (My book is poetry).

The success of Brand and Peer Gynt changed Ibsen's life, attitudes, and manners. Having earned enough money to pay off his debts, he threw away his well-worn clothes and began to dress like a gentleman. He gained courage, and even his handwriting became more regular. Although his time in Rome had been happy, Ibsen decided in 1867 that the time was right to leave Italy. The family was cramped in their flat of one and a half rooms, and the Ibsens wanted their only son to receive a proper education in better surroundings. A sensitive, handsome, precocious boy, Sigurd had been allowed to roam all over Rome, visiting ruins, museums, and galleries.

The Ibsens left Rome in June 1868 for Dresden, Germany, a city with a relatively low cost of living in a country in which the theaters were beginning to show interest in Ibsen's work. Ibsen had started work on a new play, intended for the stage, De unges Forbund (1869; translated as The League of Youth, 1919), a realistic sociopolitical satire with a contemporary setting. The Ibsens settled in a nice area and lived comfortably and pleasantly, as he wrote to one of his old friends. A new grant from the government enabled Ibsen to travel to Sweden in 1869, leaving his wife and son behind in Dresden. Later that year, Ibsen was invited to visit Egypt as the guest of the khedive. While he was traveling and enjoying his growing fame, Ibsen received word that De unges forbund, which had opened at the Christiania Theater on 18 October, had met with organized whistling and boos. Ibsen's provocative portraits of contemporary Norwegian political life--interpreted as attacks on liberal politicians--resulted in broken friendships and hatred. His relationship with Bjørnson was problematic for the rest of their lives. Nevertheless, Ibsen also made new friends, among them the Danish critic Georg Brandes, who had discovered the Norwegian dramatist in 1868 and had written a long essay about his early works. When the two men met for the first time in Dresden in 1870, their discussions of books and politics ended with their shaking hands and promising each other friendship and a common fight for everything new and radical.

In 1871 Ibsen's revisions of his early poems along with new verse were published as Digte (translated as Poems, 1993). One of his new poems--a long, technically intricate rhymed letter of admiration to the Danish actress Johanne Luise Heiberg--was highly praised by Brandes. The reviews of Ibsen's poems were generally positive, though some critics compared Ibsen's work to Bjørnson's and maintained that the latter was the more gifted poet. Ibsen, who believed that poems were meant for visions and prose for ideas, was henceforward to concentrate on ideas.

Ibsen, who enjoyed arguments, discussions, and the expression of varying viewpoints, frequently became involved in controversies. The 1860s and 1870s were a period of great intellectual ferment. The ideas of philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer were much discussed. Karl Marx 's study of materialism laid the foundation for the Workers' Movement, which was gaining strength in the late 1860s. Works such as Charles Darwin 's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and John Stuart Mill 's The Subjection of Women (1869) sparked intense debate. Although Ibsen was certainly aware of the intellectual crosscurrents of his times, literary historians cannot say with certainty how deeply he studied such issues or where he stood on many controversies. When Brandes remonstrated with him for not having adequate knowledge of new achievements in science, Ibsen replied that he had the power derived from his senses and instincts--these were his "tools" as he participated in the struggle around him. One should not, however, take such a sentiment to imply that Ibsen was anti-intellectual.

In Rome, Ibsen had extensively studied art and art history, literature, and architecture. One of the historical figures who attracted his intense interest was the Roman Emperor Julian, who had turned against Christianity. Ibsen had abandoned the project of writing about Julian when he was in Rome, but in Dresden he resumed his work on the historical period in which Julian lived. He felt deep kinship with rebels, especially those who suffered defeat. Inspired by the thought of Schopenhauer and Hegel, Ibsen was interested in the possibilities of presenting a new kind of human being, who embodied both pagan and Christian ideals. Ibsen's play in ten acts, Kejser og Galilæer (1873; translated as The Emperor and Galilean, 1876), was built on the idea that a New World, the "third kingdom," was arising. Although Julian tries to bring this kingdom into being, his tyrannical rule and conflict with Christianity leads to the entrenchment of the religion on which he had turned his back.

The publication of Kejser og Galilæer, which was not produced until 1896, did not create the same level of controversy as did De unges Forbund. At the time--contrary to Ibsen's intent--people were inclined to interpret the play from a Christian perspective. Some critics, perhaps dismayed by how Ibsen's radical thinking had stirred the Norwegian public, stated that he was unloved and unpopular; critics suggested Ibsen was a doubter and a seeker, but his works lacked inner balance. Ibsen did not respond to this criticism. He spent summer 1873 in Vienna as a judge representing Norway in the art division of the World Exposition. Ibsen was quite famous by then. His books were being translated into German, and theaters outside Scandinavia were producing his plays.

In 1874 Ibsen and his family visited Norway for the first time since 1864. The visit was peaceful, and the Ibsens may have considered returning to the country permanently. Ibsen was affronted when he learned that old friends were critical of his political view of Norway. Ibsen decided to leave Norway again and, choosing not to return to Dresden, took his family to Munich, a city in which there were many Norwegian painters and authors. Ibsen's association with Brandes and the Norwegian writer Camilla Collett, regarded as the country's first feminist, gave new impetus to his progressive ideas. In the next few years Ibsen was troubled by the discrepancy between advancement in public life and the lack of a free inner life for the individual--a primary concern in the poem "Langt Borte" (Far Away). In the poem, Ibsen describes sailing with a corpse in the cargo. The visions of corpses and ghosts represent obstacles to freethinking and action.

Ibsen's next play, Samfundets Støtter (1877; translated as The Pillars of Society, 1888), took up the topic of the "corpse in the cargo," the old, rotten ethics of society being the main theme of this play set in a small Norwegian port town. The first in a series of twelve works that came to be known as Ibsen's "prose plays," Samfundets Støtter is focused on a wealthy local businessman, Consul Karsten Bernick, believed to be a man of high moral character. In the climactic scene Bernick, who nearly destroyed everything he loves, reveals his own hypocrisy and corruption in a public confession that renews his sense of self. After he has cleansed his soul with his honest declaration, Bernick turns to the "true and faithful women" who have continued to support him--his wife, his sister-in-law, his sister--calling them the "pillars of society." His sister-in-law, Lorna Hessel, corrects his "poor wisdom" with the final words of the play: "The spirits of Truth and Freedom--they are the Pillars of Society."

After the truth has made Consul Bernick a new man, he calls his sister, Martha, to him, telling her, "it seems as though I had never seen you in all these years." Lorna Hessel responds that his society has been one of "bachelor-souls" and that he had "no eyes for Woman." Her words might very well have been spoken by Collett, who had reproached Ibsen for neglecting women's issues. Collett found a kindred spirit and voice of great authority in Suzannah Ibsen. The question of women's emancipation became Ibsen's subject in one of his most important dramas.

In March 1878 the Ibsens returned to Rome. While his son began studying law at the university, Ibsen was working on a new play. A first draft of the play was finished in October of the same year. Ibsen at the time commented on the theme of his work: "There are two kinds of spiritual law, one for men and quite a different one for women. [Men and women] do not understand each another; but women are always judged in practical matters by men's law, as though they were not women but men." A woman could not be herself in contemporary society, Ibsen stated, because society was exclusively male. In his personal life Ibsen behaved paternalistically. His wife was not at all self-effacing, but she did devote herself to his talents.

Ibsen's Et Dukkehjem (1879, A Doll's House; translated as Nora, 1882), first performed in Copenhagen on 21 December 1879, was his most controversial play and with time has been recognized as both his most beloved and his most "dangerous" work. The story treats the relationship of a seemingly loving married couple, Nora and Thorvald Helmer, who have three children. In the course of a few days at Christmas, the family experiences events that lead to the breakup of the Helmer marriage and the departure of Nora, who famously slams the door as she leaves the home. Nora's action caused shock waves throughout the world, for it challenged firmly held ideas, such as the sanctity of marriage and the absolute authority of the man in the home. Suzannah Ibsen was adamant about the ending of Et Dukkehjem: "If you don't let Nora go, then I'll have to leave." Dramatically speaking, Nora's slamming the door was necessary; psychologically, it was not. Nora in the course of the play had already proved herself to be the stronger person in the marriage.

The reaction of the press to Et Dukkehjem was hostile; some critics even wrote that the works of the Norwegian dramatist were not suitable for performance. German theaters did not want to stage the play, and Ibsen went so far as to write an alternative ending in which Nora returns home. (This ending was not used again.) The role of Nora Helmer is one of the most famous female roles in world theater. Nora's complex charm and attractive human foibles resemble those of Peer Gynt. Ibsen's opening the curtains on a family living room for scrutiny by strangers was so shocking that even Nora's struggle to become a grown-up and a human being were of secondary importance to theater audiences of the time.

Ibsen's next play, Gengangere (1881; translated as Ghosts, 1888), which dealt openly with syphilis (though not mentioned by name), defended free love, and even implied that an incestuous marriage might not have been a bad thing, shocked contemporary audiences so much that bookshops and theaters rejected it. The play, though, was popular among young people, who arranged readings in secret, out-of-the-way places. The first performance of Gengangere, in Norwegian for an audience of Scandinavian immigrants, took place in Chicago on 20 May 1882. Ibsen lost money on the play as it simply did not sell. Nevertheless, Ibsen continued his fight against hollowness and provincialism: he waged war against the negative impact of the past on people's minds, and he stressed the need for each individual to find his or her own freedom. Ibsen warned against the danger of renouncing love in the name of duty, as Helena Alving did in Gengangere. In self-defense and in defense of his play, Ibsen wrote in January 1882 to his publisher in Copenhagen, predicting that all the fading and decrepit individuals who spat on his work would one day reap the crushing judgment of future historians: "My book contains the future," Ibsen said in ending his letter.

Only one year passed between the publication of Gengangere and En Folkefiende (1882; translated as An Enemy of the People, 1890). The story in En Folkefiende is timeless and relevant to any society, for it concerns a person of principle standing against the perceived self-interest of the group. Dr. Stockman, a physician at a small spa in Norway, discovers that the baths on which the town's prosperity depend are contaminated. Consequently, the spa closes for several years, and Stockman is declared an enemy of the people. He is abandoned by his patients; his daughter is fired from her teaching position; and a mob breaks his windows.

Ibsen agreed with Mill's definition of the public and their opinions as "the mass," or the collective mediocrity. All wise and noble things must come from individuals, Ibsen maintained, first and foremost from one individual. Ibsen's belief was in accord with Dr. Stockman's message, and he realized it was an unpopular viewpoint. In a 3 January 1883 letter to Brandes, Ibsen concluded: "I firmly believe that an intellectual pioneer can never gather a majority behind him." In Brand Ibsen had his main character cry out: "It is horrible to stand alone." In En Folkefiende Stockman states: "the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone."

En Folkefiende and its message received mixed reviews; in the twenty-first century the play continues to be criticized, though the grounds for the objections have shifted. In recent years the play has been frequently performed in countries where pollution and economic degradation are major issues. In such situations, Stockman is portrayed unequivocally as a hero. Some of the opinions that Stockman expresses, however, his contempt for the opinions of the masses, and his assertion that the "minority is always right"--come across as authoritarian and antiliberal.

Ibsen felt himself to be far ahead of "the masses," and he was right: a crowd was standing where he had stood when he had begun his career as a writer, but he was no longer with them. Ibsen had become an avant- garde artist. To Ibsen, "truths" had only limited duration; they were not everlasting. There is a bitter undertone in En Folkefiende. In Stockman's words, critics have recognized Ibsen's contempt for the ordinary man. But even more, Ibsen had uttered his contempt for petty politicians and town councils and pillars of society. After the outcry against him, Ibsen began to reconsider his own attitudes and his view of humanity and human life. Referring to this stage in Ibsen's dramatic production, the literary critic and historian Halvdan Koht in his introduction to Samfundets Støtter wrote that Ibsen "could not find firm ground under his feet, he became uncertain of his opinions and perplexed about all human existence." Ibsen continued to defend himself against accusations, telling Brandes in a 12 June 1883 letter that he felt an unrelenting compulsion to press forward.

In Vildanden (1884; translated as The Wild Duck, 1890), written in Rome and Gossensass, Gregers Werle, in the interest of "Truth," interferes in the marriage of his friend, Hjalmar Ekdahl, by informing him that Gina, Hjalmar's wife, has given birth to a child who is not his. When Hjalmar confronts Gina--the former mistress of Werle's father--she confesses that she does not know who is the father of their daughter, Hedvig. The festering family tension leads to a tragic ending, as Hedvig, encouraged by Werle to shoot the wild duck she loves to prove her love for her father, kills herself instead. The fanatic Gregers Werle shares some qualities with the uncompromising Pastor Brand, especially his search for the ideal. But the focus in Vildanden is as much on the family in distress and desperation. With a marriage breaking apart, the child is shown to be a vulnerable victim. The catastrophic conclusion of Vildanden linked the play to classical Greek drama, but at the same time the play contained some of the most humorous and charming scenes in all of Ibsen's plays. Ibsen's juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy functioned as one of the hallmarks of the drama.

Contemporary critics, readers, and audiences were often bewildered by Vildanden, which in its use of symbolism--especially that of the wild duck of the title--marked a definite change in Ibsen's writing. In his subsequent works, darker in mood and even more difficult for audiences, Ibsen seemed to be asking how far one can go in searching for the truth, how much one needs illusions, or "life lies." Ibsen increasingly pondered and posed such questions in the plays that were to follow.

Encouraged by Suzannah, who with Sigurd had made the long trip to Norway in 1884, Ibsen started planning his own journey to Norway in April 1885. On this first trip "home" in more than ten years, Ibsen and Suzannah traveled about the country for more than four months, visiting Trondheim, Molde, Ålesund, Bergen, and Christiania. The tour greatly affected Ibsen's life and work. He wrote to his editor Frederik Hegel at Gyldendal in Copenhagen that he had once toyed with the idea of buying a small villa in the vicinity of Christiania, someplace overlooking the fjord, but that this visit had caused him to change his mind. He returned to Germany introverted and distressed; he had left behind broken friendships and unpleasant confrontations with Norwegian officials. He was disappointed in the new liberal government. In short, Ibsen definitely did not want to move back to Norway.

With Sigurd serving in the foreign ministry of Sweden-Norway as an attaché in Washington, D.C., Ibsen rented a spacious and elegant flat in Munich, with plenty of room for his newly acquired paintings, bought in Italy. While he and Suzannah were well situated, the Ibsens' marriage was at a critical juncture. Suzannah suffered from bouts of rheumatism, and Ibsen, fifty-seven years old, had an eye for younger, more-attractive women, though his interest in women is believed to have been more of an artistic than a sexual nature. He was starting work on a new drama based on impressions he had received during the summer months in Norway and followed what had become his writing regimen. He wrote from nine o'clock in the morning until the lunch hour; then he read, had his dinner, and went for walks. Normally, Ibsen wrote in the summer, gathering his material and drafting his plots in the winter. In winter 1886 he started gathering material and plotting his drama; he wrote during the spring and summer in Munich, finishing his new play, Rosmersholm (1886; translated as Rosmersholm, 1889), in September 1886.

The action in Rosmersholm takes place in contemporary Norway at the remote Rosmer estate, Rosmersholm, on the western coast in a remote area. The main characters are the widowed former clergyman Johannes Rosmer and Rebekka West, a young woman who resides at the estate. Having turned his back on the church, Rosmer is devoted to his new, radical ideas of "enoblement." He believes the people in his former parish need to become free spirits, unbound by society's norms and regulations.

Robert Ferguson describes Rosmersholm as a play that connects two worlds previously kept apart in Ibsen's production: the public, quasi-political world of De unges Forbund, Samfundets Støtter, and En Folkefiende and the private, family world of Et Dukkehjem, Gengangere, and Vildanden. Ibsen's fascination with Rebekka--a complex character who is both manipulative and noble--adds her to the list of his best female characters, joining Helena Alving and Nora Helmer. Although Rosmer learns that Rebekka played a role in precipitating the suicide of his former wife, Beate, he still wants to marry her. When the couple end their lives by throwing themselves into the millrace at the same spot where Beate killed herself, the reader is left with a great puzzle. Readers and theatergoers were even more confused by Rosmersholm than they had been by Vildanden, but the characterization was undeniably powerful. Years later, Sigmund Freud was drawn to the psychological complexity of the drama and commented at length on Rebekka.

In the summer of 1887 the Ibsens went to Denmark and settled for some weeks at a seaside village, where Ibsen started working on Fruen fra Havet (1888; translated as The Lady from the Sea, 1890). He finished it in Munich in 1888. The main character is Ellida Wangel, the wife of an elderly doctor, who suffers from neuroses and lack of sleep. She cannot free herself from the memories of her former lover, a sailor who disappeared long ago. When he suddenly returns, Ellida faces a crisis and struggles to decide what to choose: her present, safe life with the reliable doctor and her stepdaughters or a new life with the attractive intruder, a lover who can promise nothing but excitement.

Like Rosmersholm, Fruen fra Havet failed on the stages of Europe. One reason for both failures was that the plays delve into complicated psychological problems that audiences found difficult to come to grips with. A second, more particular reason was that the parts and roles of Rebekka and Ellida Wangel made great demands on the actresses. When the roles were performed by the great Italian actress Eleonora Duse, the plays won great acclaim. The same situation pertained to Ibsen's next famous female character, Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler (1890; translated, 1890), written in Munich, was set in contemporary bourgeois Christiania. Many critics have suggested that the character Hedda Gabler, the daughter of a general, was inspired by Emilie Bardach, a young woman Ibsen met during his summer stay in Gossensass. Ibsen's drafts of the play are interesting for their general comments on the psychology of women. In a 4 December 1890 letter to the French translator of the play, Ibsen explained why he chose not to use "Tesman," Hedda's married name to title the play: ". . . I wanted to indicate that as a personality she is to be regarded more as her father`s daughter than her husband`s wife." Later in the same letter, Ibsen explained his intention in the play: "I have not really tried to deal with so-called problems. My main purpose has been to describe human beings, human moods and human fates on the basis of certain conditions and views prevalent in society."

Bored in her life as the wife of the young, dull academic Jörgen Tesman, Hedda at the beginning of the play is pregnant but does not want to be so. When her former admirer, Eilert Løvborg, reappears, she feels all the more desperate in her inactivity and lack of meaning. Caught up in her own machinations, Hedda becomes the target of Judge Brack, who is blackmailing her to become his mistress. Feeling she has nothing to live for, Hedda at the end of the drama takes her own life with one of her father's pistols. First performed in Munich on 31 January 1891, Hedda Gabler created a great stir. Audiences could not understand Ibsen's interest in what they regarded as abnormal psychology. Hedda was a darker figure than any of Ibsen's previous women, and the critics all around in Europe were shocked.

Hedda Gabler was Ibsen's last play written abroad. In 1891 he moved into Viktoria Terrasse, a fashionable new apartment building in Christiania. While Suzannah was in Italy, traveling with Sigurd and searching for relief from rheumatism, Ibsen sought the companionship of the Sontums, a family he knew from Bergen, and especially the company of the young daughter of the house, Hildur Andersen. Often seen as his companion in Christiania, she became "his little princess." There were rumors about a romance between the two, but Andersen left Christiania to continue her musical studies in Vienna. When Suzannah returned, Ibsen was in the midst of composing a new drama, Bygmester Solness (1892; translated as The Master Builder, 1893). A poem Ibsen wrote in March 1892, collected in Samlede Værker (1899, Collected Works), speaks to one of the motifs in the play:

They sat there, those two, in so snug a house

through autumns and chill Decembers.

Then fire destroyed it. Mere rubble to douse.

The pair have to rake the embers.


For under it all lies a hidden gem,

a gem that's impervious to burning.

And if they keep looking, either of them

might find it by raking and turning.


But even if the blaze-ravaged pair should find

that priceless, fire-proof jewel,

she'llnot recover her peace of mind,

norhefind bright joy's renewal [translated by John Northam].

The poem, which describes the situation between Halvald and Aline Solness in the play, probably had relevance for the Ibsen marriage. (The Ibsens, however, did have reason for celebration that year, as Sigurd married Bjørnson's daughter, Bergljot. In July 1893 she gave birth to the Ibsens' grandson, Tancred. The young family was happy, and their parents were--at least on the surface--reconciled.)


In Bygmester Solness Halvald Solness, a self-made man and respected architect in contemporary Christiania, is locked in a damaged marriage and mired in business concerns when he is unexpectedly visited by Hilde Wangel, an attractive young woman who is the catalyst in the play. Ibsen told a friend that he based the character on Emilie Bardach, describing her as a "little bird of prey" who delighted in stealing away the husbands of other women. In the play Wangel reminds Solness that ten years before, when she was a girl attending a ceremony celebrating the completion of a church tower in her town, he had kissed her and promised to return to offer her a "kingdom." Laying claim to her kingdom, Wangel is able to work her will upon her "Master Builder." In the climax she encourages Solness, who fears heights, to climb to the top of a high tower he has designed. The memory of Solness atop the tower--even though the triumph is momentary and he then falls to his death--gives her a sense of ecstasy. No less than in Hedda Gabler, Bygmester Solness deals with the nature of power, particularly the power to influence and impose oneself on other people; but while Hedda Gabler is a study in the demonic, Bygmester Solness is a study in the erotic. The mysterious capacity to exert power is the theme connecting these two plays.

Bygmester Solness puzzled many critics, though its reception was far more positive than that for Hedda Gabler. In a statement he made at the time, Ibsen insisted that he drew real, living people and did not write symbolically. Such a patently false repudiation of any suggestion of symbolism may have been owing to his desire to court the Norwegian playgoing public, even as he was still economically dependent on German audiences.

Ibsen's next play, Lille Eyolf (1894; translated as Little Eyolf, 1895), was first performed in Berlin on 12 January 1895. Set in contemporary Norway, the play describes the marriage of Rita and Alfred Allmers, a wealthy couple whose nine-year-old son is crippled, the result of an accidental fall when he was a baby. The estranged mother and father react in different ways to their guilt over the boy's condition, as Alfred loses himself in work and Rita gives in to bouts of jealousy. When their son drowns in a fjord, however, the couple is able to achieve a kind of reconciliation, as they then decide to devote themselves to the needy children in their village. This "happy ending" has been discussed and argued over since the play was first performed. While many critics cite Lille Eyolf as one of Ibsen's greatest plays, it is rarely staged successfully.

In 1895 the Ibsens moved to Arbinsgate, a few blocks away from Viktoria Terrasse, where he wrote John Gabriel Borkman. The title character--an industrious, creative son of a miner--betrays the love of his life, Ella Rentheim, by forsaking her to marry her twin sister, Gunhild, and attain a position as a bank manager. Borkman loses his banking position when he is convicted of fraud and is imprisoned for several years. Borkman is a lover of poetry and music, but his heart has hardened and his spirit is drying out. Borkman helplessly witnesses his own gradual change into a "living corpse." He dies of a stroke, and the estranged twins, whom he betrayed in different ways, reunite over his corpse. The play was Ibsen's most popular since Et Dukkehjem.

Ibsen's seventieth birthday in March 1898 was celebrated in Norway and around the world. He received gifts and flowers from all over and personal greetings from the king, and theaters in Norway and many other countries staged his plays. At the official banquet on 23 March 1898, Ibsen spoke of his plans to write a prose work, a book that would bring his life and his writing together in an explanatory whole. He added that such a task would seem almost like a holiday--and that he had hardly had a holiday since he left Norway in 1864. This year of celebrations did not allow Ibsen time for writing a new play. He started collecting notes, however, and in spring 1899 began writing the play he called an "Epilogue." Ibsen explained what he meant by this term in the 12 December 1899 issue of the newspaper Verdens Gang, the month his new play was published, after it had mistakenly been reported that he thought of the play as his last:

No, that is an over-hasty conclusion. The term "epilogue" does not refer to any such thought on my part. Whether I come to write something more is another matter. What I meant by the term epilogue in this connection is simply that the play forms an epilogue to a number of my dramas, beginning with "A Doll`s House," and ending now with "When We Dead Awaken." The latter work comes under the experiences I have wanted to describe in these plays. They form a unity, a whole, and thus I have finished. If I come to write something more hereafter, it will all be in quite a different connection, and perhaps in a different form as well.


In Når vi døde vågner (1899; translated as When We Dead Awaken, 1900)--which did turn out to be Ibsen's last play--an aging sculptor, Professor Arnold Rubek, returns to his home country after a lifetime spent abroad. Rich and famous, he is married to a young, beautiful woman, Maja, who has become bored by her life of wealth and dependence on her husband. The Rubek marriage is unhappy, as marriages usually are in Ibsen's writings.

During the Rubeks' stay at a sanatorium, Rubek meets his former model, Irene, who has become mentally unbalanced. He had once used Irene as the model for a masterpiece sculpture and then had summarily discarded her. The artist's separation from his former model, once the object of his sexual desire, proved traumatic for Irene. Overwhelmed by their encounter and also by Irene's accusations that he betrayed artistic ideals he cherished as a young man, Rubek starts on a symbolic ascent of the nearby mountain with Irene. The play ends in a catastrophe similar to the avalanche that killed Brand. In Når vi døde vågner, however, there is no voice of a Deus Caritatis (God of Love) at the conclusion, as there had been in Brand. The universe that Rubek leaves is a God-abandoned one. Ibsen had joined Friedrich Nietzsche in claiming that God is dead. The Christian "Pax vobiscum" (Peace be with you) the Catholic nurse utters blends with Maja's song of liberation. Maja survives the avalanche and ends up screaming repeatedly: "I am free!" But there is no paradise ahead for Maja or anyone else. This play was "The Epilogue" of Ibsen's writings.

Ibsen's authorship thus ended in 1899, the year that the Norwegian National Theater was rehoused in a grand new building. Outside, statues to Ibsen and Bjørnson were erected. Ibsen suffered his first stroke in 1900. He never fully recovered, and several smaller strokes forced him to give up his writing and his daily walks. He died on 23 May 1906. Suzannah died in 1914.

Henrik Ibsen is both a pathbreaking dramatist of supreme significance and his country's greatest literary artist. In addition to such poetic masterpieces as Brand and Peer Gynt, he authored the cycle of twelve plays, including Et Dukkehjem, Vildanden, and Hedda Gabler, that form the basis for his reputation in the English-speaking world, and, even more so, the foundation of modern European drama. Studied and performed on every continent and with far-flung artistic and social significance, Ibsen is a towering presence both in world literature and in the world of the theater.


From: Sæther, Astrid. "Henrik Ibsen." Norwegian Writers, 1500 to 1900, edited by Lanae H. Isaacson, Gale, 2010.


  • Further Reading


    • Henrik Jæger, Henrik Ibsen 1828-1888: A Critical Biography, translated by William Morton Payne (Chicago: McClurg, 1890).
    • Georg Brandes, Henrik Ibsen (Copenhagen: Det Ny Aarhundrede, 1906).
    • Gerhard Gran, Henrik Ibsen (Christiania: Aschehoug, 1918).
    • Halvdan Koht, The Life of Ibsen (New York: Norton, 1931; London: Allen & Unwin, 1931).
    • Hans Heiberg, Ibsen:--født til kunstner (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1967).
    • Michael Meyer, Ibsen (New York: Doubleday, 1971).
    • Edvard Beyer, Henrik Ibsen (Oslo: Cappelen, 1978).
    • Robert Ferguson, Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography (London: Richard Cohen, 1996).
    • Ivo de Figueiredo, Henrik Ibsen: Mennesket (Oslo: Aschehoug, 2006).



    • Asbjørn Aarseth, Ibsens samtidsskuespill: En studie i glasskapets dramaturgi (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1999).
    • Louise von Bergen, Nordisk teater i Montevideo: Kontextrelatered reception av Henrik Ibsen och August Strindberg, Stockholm Studies in History of Literature, no. 51 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2006).
    • Birte Bernau, Fontanes Ibsen-Rezeption: ein Beitrag zur poetologischen Standortbestimmung Fontanes (Berlin: Pro Business, 2006).
    • Paul Binding, With Wine-Leaves in His Hair: The Role of the Artist in Ibsen's Plays (Norwich, U.K.: Norvik Press, 2006).
    • Pål Bjørby, Alvhild Dvergsdal, and Idar Stegane, eds., Ibsen on the Cusp of the 21st Century: Critical Perspectives (Laksevåg: Alvheim & Eide Akademisk Forlag, 2005).
    • Bjarne Buset, Said about Ibsen--by Norwegian Writers (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2006).
    • Martina Chmelarz-Moswitzer, Mimesis und Auflösung der Form. Bildende Künstler und bildende Kunst in den Werden der skandinavischen Autoren Herman Bang, Henrik Ibsen und August Strindberg (Vienna: Praesens, 2005).
    • Harold Clurman, Ibsen (New York: Macmillan, 1977).
    • Jacques De Decker, Ibsen (Paris: Gallimard, 2006).
    • Brian W. Downs, Ibsen: The Intellectual Background (New York: Octagon, 1969).
    • Jorge Dubatti, ed., Henrik Ibsen y las estructuras del drama moderno (Buenos Aires: Colihae, 2006).
    • Errol Durbach, "Ibsen the Romantic": Analogues of Paradise in the Later Plays (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982).
    • Hans Eitrem, Ibsen og Grimstad (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1940).
    • Jørgen Fafner, Henrik Ibsens versdramatik (Oslo: Aschehoug, 2007).
    • Armin Gebhardt, Henrik Ibsen: Der grosse Gesellschaftsdramatiker (Marburg: Tectum, 2005).
    • Michael Goldman, Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
    • Hans Herlof Grelland, Tausheten og øyeblikket: Kierkegaard, Ibsen (Kristiansand: Høyskoleforlaget, Norwegian Academic Press, 2007).
    • Stefano Bajma Griga, Gianna De Martino, and Ruth Anne Henderson, eds., Ibsen--The Dark Side (Turin: Carocci editore Universitá degli studi di Torino, 2005).
    • Einar Haugen, Ibsen's Drama: Author to Audience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979).
    • Frode Helland, Melankoliens spill: En studie i Henrik Ibsens siste dramaer (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2000).
    • Jørgen Dines Johansen, Ind i natten: Seks kapitler om Ibsens sidste skuespil (Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2004).
    • Aldo Keel, Ibsen für Eilige (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006).
    • Atle Kittang, Ibsens heroisme (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2002).
    • Naomi Lebowitz, Ibsen and the Great World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990).
    • Charles R. Lyons, Henrik Ibsen: The Divided Consciousness (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972).
    • Lyons, ed., Critical Essays on Henrik Ibsen (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987).
    • James McFarlane, Ibsen & Meaning: Studies, Essays & Prefaces 1953-87 (Norwich, U.K.: Norvik Press, 1989).
    • McFarlane, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
    • Toril Moe, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (London: Oxford, 2006).
    • John Northam, Ibsen: A Critical Study (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
    • Northam, Ibsen's Dramatic Method: A Study of the Prose Dramas (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1971).
    • Franco Perrelli, Henrik Ibsen: Un profilo (Bari: Edizioni di pagina, 2006).
    • Anne Marie Rekdal, Frihetens dilemma: Ibsen lest med Lacan (Oslo: Aschehoug, 2000).
    • Tore Rem, Henry Gibsen/Henrik Ibsen: den provinsielle verdensdikteren: mottakelsen i Stor-britannia 1872-1906 (Oslo: Cappelen, 2006).
    • Michael Robinson, ed., Turning the Century: Centennial Essays on Ibsen (Norwich, U.K.: Norvik Press, 2006).
    • Helge Rønning, Den umulige friheten: Henrik Ibsen og moderniteten (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2006).
    • Astrid Sæther, Suzannah: Fru Ibsen (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2008).
    • Steven F. Sage, Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006).
    • Joan Templeton, Ibsen's Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
    • Templeton, Munch's Ibsen: A Painter's Visions of a Playwright (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).
    • Theoharis Constantine Theoharis, Ibsen's Drama: Right Action and Tragic Joy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996).
    • Egil Törnqvist, Ibsen-Byggmästaren, Amsterdam Contributions to Scandinavian Studies, volume 2 (Amsterdam: Scandinavian Institute, University of Amsterdam, 2006).
    • Robin Young, Time's Disinherited Children: Childhood, Regression and Sacrifice in the Plays of Henrik Ibsen (Norwich, U.K.: Norvik Press, 1989).
    • Vigdis Ystad, "--livets endeløse gåde": Ibsens dikt og drama (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1996).
    • Farindokht Zahedi, Henrik Ibsen and Iranian Modern Drama: Reception and Influence (Oslo: University of Oslo, 2005).