Biography of Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian Playwright

Portrait of Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Artist: Anonymous
Portrait of Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Artist: Anonymous.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

Henrik Ibsen (March 20, 1828–May 23, 1906) was a Norwegian playwright. Known as “the father of realism,” he is most notable for plays questioning the social mores of the time and featuring complex, yet assertive female characters.

Fast Facts: Henrik Ibsen

  • Full Name: Henrik Johan Ibsen 
  • Known For: Norwegian playwright and director whose plays exposed the tensions of the rising middle class regarding morality, and featured complex female characters
  • Born: March 20, 1828 in Skien, Norway
  • Parents: Marichen and Knud Ibsen
  • Died: May 23, 1906 in Kristiania, Norway
  • Selected Works: Peer Gynt (1867), A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), Hedda Gabler (1890).
  • Spouse: Suzannah Thoresen
  • Children: Sigurd Ibsen, prime minister of Norway. Hans Jacob Hendrichsen Birkedalen (out of wedlock).

Early Life 

Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828 to Marichen and Knud Ibsen in Skien, Norway. His family was part of the local merchant bourgeoisie and they lived in wealth until Knud Ibsen declared bankruptcy in 1835. His family’s fleeting financial fortunes had a lasting impression on his work, as several of his plays feature middle-class families dealing with financial hardship in a society that values morality and decorum. 

In 1843, upon being forced to leave school, Ibsen traveled to the town of Grimstad, where he started apprenticing in an apothecary’s shop. He had an affair with the apothecary’s maid and he fathered her child, Hans Jacob Hendrichsen Birkedalen, in 1846. Ibsen accepted patrimony and paid maintenance for him for the next 14 years, though he never met the boy. 

Portrait Of Henrik Ibsen 1828-1906
Portrait of Henrik Ibsen, ca 1863. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Early Work (1850–1863)

  • Catilina (1850)
  • Kjempehøien, the Burial Mound (1850)
  • Sancthansnatten (1852)
  • Fru Inger til Osteraad (1854) 
  • Gildet Pa Solhoug (1855)
  • Olaf Liljekrans (1857)
  • The Vikings at Helgeland (1858)
  • Love’s Comedy (1862)
  • The Pretenders (1863)

In 1850, under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme, Ibsen published his first play Catilina, based on Cicero’s speeches against the elected questor, who was conspiring to overthrow the government. Catiline to him was a troubled hero, and he felt drawn to him because, as he wrote in the prologue for the second edition of the play, “there are given few examples of historical persons, whose memory has been more entirely in the possession of their conquerors, than Catiline." Ibsen was inspired by the uprisings that Europe witnessed in the late 1840s, especially the Magyar uprising against the Habsburg empire.

Also in 1850, Ibsen travelled to the capital Christiania (also known as Christiania, now Oslo) to sit for the national high school exams, but failed in Greek and arithmetic. That same year, his first play to be performed, The Burial Mound, was staged at the Christiania Theater.

National Theatre in Oslo.
Photo of the National Theatre in Oslo, Norway. Statue of the Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen in front. The theater traces its origins to the Christiana Theatre. Ekely / Getty Images

In 1851, violinist Ole Bull hired Ibsen for the Det Norske Theater in Bergen, where he began as an apprentice, eventually becoming director and resident playwright. While there, wrote and produced one play for the venue per year. He first gained recognition for Gildet paa Solhoug (1855), which was subsequently restaged in Christiania and published as a book and, in 1857, it received its first performance outside of Norway at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Sweden. That same year he was appointed artistic director at the Christiania Norske Theater. In 1858 he married Suzannah Thoresen, and a year later, his son Sigurd, future prime minister of Norway, was born. The family experienced a difficult financial situation.

Ibsen published The Pretenders in 1863 with an initial run of 1.250 copies; the play was staged in 1864 at the Kristiania Theater, to great acclaim.

Also in 1863, Ibsen applied for a state stipend, but was instead awarded a travel grant of 400 speciedaler (to make a comparison, in 1870 a male teacher would earn around 250 speciedaler a year) for a journey abroad. Ibsen left Norway in 1864, initially settling in Rome and exploring the south of Italy.

Self-Imposed Exile and Success (1864–1882)

  • Brand (1866)
  • Peer Gynt (1867)
  • Emperor and Galilean (1873)
  • The League of Youth (1869)
  • Digte, poems (1871)
  • Pillars of Society (1877)
  • A Doll’s House (1879)
  • Ghosts (1881)
  • An Enemy of the People (1882)

Ibsen's luck turned when he left Norway. Published in 1866, his verse drama Brand, published by Gyldendal in Copenhagen, had three more print runs by the end of the year. Brand centers on a conflicted and idealist priest who has an “all or nothing” mentality and is obsessed with “doing the right thing”; its main themes are free will and consequence of choices. It premiered in Stockholm in 1867 and was the first play that established his reputation and secured him financial stability.

That same year, he started working on his verse play Peer Gynt, which, through the trials and adventures of the eponymous Norwegian folk hero, expands on the themes laid out in Brand. Blending realism, folkloric fantasy and displaying then-unprecedented freedom in moving between time and space in a play, it chronicles the character’s travels from Norway all the way to Africa. The play was divisive among Scandinavian intellectuals: some criticized the lack of lyricism in his poetic language, while others praised it as a satire of Norwegian stereotypes. Peer Gynt premiered in Kristiania in 1876.

In 1868, Ibsen moved to Dresden, where he remained for the next seven years. In 1873, he published Emperor and Galilean, which was his first work to be translated into English. Focusing on the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, who was the last non-christian ruler of the Roman empire, Emperor and Galilean was, to Ibsen, his major work, even though critics and audiences didn't see it that way.

Nora (A Doll's House) by Henrik Ibsen, c1900.
Nora (A Doll's House) by Henrik Ibsen, c1900. Act 3: Nora tells Helmer she wants to leave him. He leaps up and asks: What? What are you saying? From a series of Famous Tragedies. French advertisement. Print Collector / Getty Images

After Dresden, Ibsen moved to Rome in 1878. The following year, while traveling to Amalfi, he wrote the majority of his new play A Doll’s House, published in 8,000 copies and premiering on December 21 at Det Kongelige Theater in Copenhagen. In this play, protagonist Nora walked out on her husband and children, which exposed the void of middle-class morality. In 1881, he travelled to Sorrento, where he wrote the majority of Ghosts, which, despite being published in December of that year in 10,000 copies, was met with harsh criticism as it openly featured venereal diseases and incest in a respectable middle-class family. It premiered in Chicago in 1882.

Also in 1882, Ibsen published An Enemy of the People, which was staged at the Christiania Theater in 1883. In the play, an enemy attacked the entrenched belief in middle-class society, and the target was both the protagonist, an idealist doctor, and the small town government, which ostracized him instead of heeding his truth.

Introspective Plays (1884–1906)

  • The Wild Duck (1884)
  • Rosmersholm (1886)
  • The Lady from the Sea (1888)
  • Hedda Gabler (1890)
  • The Master Builder (1892)
  • Little Eyolf (1894)
  • John Gabriel Borkman (1896)
  • When the Dead Awaken (1899)

In his later works, the psychological conflicts Ibsen subjected his characters to went beyond the challenge of the mores of the time, having a more universal and interpersonal dimension. 

In 1884, he published The Wild Duck, which had its stage premiere in 1894. This is perhaps his most complex work, dealing with the reunion of two friends, Gregers, an idealist, and Hjalmar, a man hiding behind a façade of middle class happiness, including an illegitimate child and a sham marriage, which promptly crumbles. 

Hedda Gabler was published in 1890 and premiered the following year in Munich; German, English, and French translations became readily available. Its titular character is more complex than his other famous heroine, Nora Helmer (A Doll’s House). The aristocratic Hedda is newly married to the aspiring academic George Tesman; prior to the events of the play, they lived a life of luxury. The reappearance of George’s rival Eilert, a stereotypical intellectual who is brilliant but an alcoholic, throws their equilibrium into disarray, as he is a former lover of Hedda and a direct academic competitor of George. For this reason, Hedda tries to influence human fate and sabotage him. Critics such as Joseph Wood Krutch, who in 1953 wrote the article "Modernism in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate," see Hedda as the first neurotic female character in literature, as her actions fall neither into a logical nor an insane pattern.

Ibsen finally returned to Norway in 1891. In Kristiania, he befriended pianist Hildur Andersen, 36 years his junior, who is considered the model for Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder, published in December 1892. His last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), was published on December 22, 1899, with 12,000 copies. 

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen in his home at Christiania, Norway', circa 1905. From "The Underwood Travel Library - Norway". Print Collector / Getty Images

Death 

After he turned 70 in March 1898, Ibsen’s health deteriorated. He suffered his first stroke in 1900, and he died in 1906 in his home in Kristiania. In his last years, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature three times, in 1902, 1903, and 1904. 

Literary Style and Themes 

Ibsen was born in a wealthy family that experienced a significant upheaval of fortunes when he was seven, and this turn of events was a major influence in his work. The characters in his plays hide shameful financial difficulties, and secrecy also causes them to experience moral conflicts. 

His plays often challenged bourgeois morality. In A Doll’s House, Helmer’s primary concern is to maintain decorum and be in good standing among his peers, which is the main criticism he has for his wife Nora when she announces her intention to leave the family. In Ghosts, he portrays a respectable family’s vices, which are at their most apparent in the fact that the son, Oswald, inherited syphilis from his philandering father, and that he fell for the housemaid Regina, who is actually his illegitimate half-sister. In An Enemy of the People, we see truth clashing against convenient beliefs: Dr. Stockmann discovers that the water of the small town spa he works for is tainted, and wants to make the fact known, but the community and the local government shun him. 

Ibsen also sought to expose the hypocrisy of morality in his portrayal of suffering women, which was inspired by what his mother endured during the period of financial duress in the family.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, especially his works Either/Or and Fear and Trembling, was a major influence, too, even though he only started taking his works seriously after the publication of Brand, the first play that brought him critical acclaim and financial success. Peer Gynt, about a Norwegian folk hero, was informed by Kierkegaard’s work. 

Ibsen was Norwegian, yet he wrote his plays in Danish as that was the common language shared by Denmark and Norway during his lifetime. 

Legacy

Ibsen rewrote the rules of playwriting, opening the doors for plays to address or question morality, social issues, and universal conundrums, becoming works of art instead of sheer entertainment.

Thanks to translators William Archer and Edmund Gosse, who championed Ibsen’s work for English-speaking audiences, plays like Ghosts delighted Tennessee Williams, and his realism influenced Chekhov and several English-speaking playwrights and writers, including James Joyce.

Sources

  • “In Our Time, Henrik Ibsen.” BBC Radio 4, BBC, 31 May 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b42q58.
  • McFarlane, James Walter. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Rem, Tore (ed.), A Doll’s House and Other Plays, Penguin Classics, 2016.