The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) developed realistic techniques that changed the entire course of Western drama. There is very little in modern drama that does not owe a debt to him.
Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in the town of Skien. His father, a businessman, went bankrupt when Ibsen was 8, a shattering blow to the family. Ibsen left home at 15, spending the next six, difficult years as a pharmacist's assistant in Grimstad, where he wrote his first play. In 1850 he moved to Christiania (Oslo) to study. In 1851 he became resident dramatist, later director, of a new theater in Bergen. Although he never became a good director and his plays were mostly unsuccessful, the years in Bergen gave him invaluable experience in practical stagecraft.
Ibsen returned to Christiania in 1857, where he spent the worst period of his life. His plays were either rejected or failures, he went into debt, and his talent was publicly questioned. He left Norway in 1864, spending the next 27 years in Italy and Germany. While bitter and humiliating personal memories explain, in part, his long exile, it seems also that only by distancing himself from everything he held dear could he devote himself completely to his art. When he left Norway, he looked like a rather dissolute bohemian. In the following years he changed his appearance, habits, and even his handwriting. He became the "Sphinx" he still is to many people—unapproachable, secretive, an avid collector of medals and honors which he wore to protect himself from the real and imagined hostility of others. Long before he returned home in 1891, he had become the world's most famous dramatist.
For all its youthful excesses, Catiline (1850), his first play, is remarkably Ibsenian. The theme, as Ibsen wrote later, is the discrepancy between ability and aspiration, which he called "mankind's and the individual's tragedy and comedy at the same time." Like the characters in many of Ibsen's later plays, Catiline is torn between two women who represent conflicting forces in himself: one of them embodies domestic virtues, the other his calling and, significantly, his death. Also, the play begins with words which could be uttered by many later Ibsen heroes and heroines: "I must, I must, a voice deep in my soul urges me on—and I will heed its call."
The six following plays (The Warrior's Barrow, 1850; St. John's Eve, 1853; Lady Inger of Østraat, 1855; The Feast at Solhaug, 1856; Olaf Liljekrans, 1857; and The Vikings in Helgeland, 1858) are all in the spirit of romanticism and show Ibsen struggling to find a form and techniques which would embody his personal vision. The two plays he wrote during his second stay in Christiania deserve to be better known, both for their merits and for the light they shed on Ibsen's authorship: Love's Comedy (1862), a satire on bourgeois versus romantic love, and The Pretenders (1864), a magnificent historical and psychological tragedy.
In the first 10 years of his "exile" Ibsen wrote four plays. The immensely successful Brand (1866) is a towering drama of a man who strives to realize himself in terms of SØren Kierkegaard's "either/or" and of the consequences of such an effort. His next play, Peer Gynt (1867), made Ibsen Scandinavia's most discussed dramatist. Peer Gynt is Brand's opposite, a man who evades his problems until he loses everything, including himself. Peer is Ibsen's most universally human character.
The League of Youth (1869), a political satire, shows Ibsen moving toward the later "realistic" plays. Ibsen called Emperor and Galilean (1873), a 10-act play about Julian the Apostate, "a world-historical drama." In Julian's rejection of Christianity, his futile attempt to restore the pagan cult of man, and his doomed quest to found "the third kingdom," a Hegelian synthesis of the two ways of life, Ibsen dramatized what he saw as Western man's, and his own, dilemma. The play is a failure, but one can glimpse Julian's quest beneath the polished, modern surfaces of many of Ibsen's later plays.
Inspired by the demand of the critic Georg Brandes that literature begin to take up contemporary problems for discussion, and influenced by changing public taste, Ibsen now set out to develop a dramatic form in which serious matters could be dealt with in the "trivial" guise of everyday life. Since there were models for such a drama, Ibsen cannot be said to have invented the realistic, or social reform, play. However, he brought it to perfection and, in doing so, made himself the most famous, reviled and praised dramatist of the 19th century. It should be stressed, however, that Ibsen had no intention of becoming merely a dramatist whose plays reflected contemporary manners and attacked social evils. He remained what he had always been, essentially antisociety, concerned with the individual and his problems.
Ibsen solved the technical difficulties involved in translating his tragic vision from the romantic forms to a realistic form in two central ways. First, he developed a retrospective technique whereby, as the play progresses, the past events leading to the climax are gradually brought to light through the words and acts of the characters. In Ibsen's hands (but not always in those of his followers), the past is not just dead matter: it grips the present and changes its significance. Ibsen's characters live in a continual, exciting "now," moving toward the truth about themselves and their condition.
Second, and equally important, was Ibsen's exploitation of visual imagery, whereby he gave his plays, through set, costume, and stage direction, much of the poetry denied the dramatist who deals with modern people speaking in everyday prose.
The term "Ibsenite," as used by G. B. Shaw, Ibsen's disciple and champion in England, describes a play which exposes individual and social hypocrisy. It can be used, in the narrowest sense, only about Pillars of Society (1877) and A Doll's House (1879), which do seem to stress the aspects of society and personal dishonesty that hinder personal development. But even Nora, in the latter play, is a sufficiently complex character to suggest other interpretations. Already in Ghosts (1881), however, the heroine, Mrs. Alving, discovers that the forces working against human development are not just dead social conventions: there are forces in the individual that are more elusive and destructive than the "doll house" of marriage and society. The last of the "Ibsenite" plays, An Enemy of the People (1882), takes the consequences of Mrs. Alving's discovery and laughs at the social reformer. The laughter, however, is compassionate—the hero has a certain resemblance to Ibsen himself—and the play is one of Ibsen's finest comedies.
After 1882 Ibsen concentrated more and more on the individual and his dilemma, as he had done prior to 1877, and on those timeless forces, reflected in individual psychology and working through social institutions, that hinder individual growth. The Wild Duck (1884) might be said to introduce Ibsen's last period by showing how the average man needs illusions to survive and what happens to a family when something that may be truth is introduced into it. Here Ibsen also moved toward a new symbolism, rising from and intimately bound up with his realistic surfaces.
In Rosmersholm (1886), a man raised in a tradition of Christian duty and sacrifice tries, under the influence of a free, "pagan" woman, to break with his past. The Lady from the Sea (1888) is considered a remarkable anticipation of psychotherapy, but the heroine's "cure" makes unconvincing theater. Hedda Gabler (1890) is a savage portrait of a frustrated woman, spiritually, sexually, and socially. There is, however, much of Ibsen, as he saw himself at the time, in Hedda Gabler.
With the exception of Little Eyolf (1894), the weakest of the later plays, the last plays are, to a great extent, confessional. The Master Builder (1892) is one of Ibsen's most beautiful dramas, essentially a dialogue between a guilt-burdened artist and the youth he betrayed, played against the wife and children he has "murdered" for his ambition. John Gabriel Borkman (1896), Ibsen's bleakest play, is a study of a man (he could be today's industrialist) who has sacrificed everything to his vision, until he is killed by the forces in nature he has sought to control. Glimpsed in the background, in scenes alternately comic and pathetic, is the alternative to Borkman's way of life, the life of sensual pleasure. But no synthesis seems possible of the spirit and the flesh: the "third kingdom" of which Ibsen had dreamed so long is farther away than ever.
Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), more symbolic than even those which immediately precede it, is an artist's confession of his failure as a man and of his doubts about his achievement. The play is not, however, just about the cost of great achievement: it is also about that achievement and about the man who, as Ibsen expressed it in his first words as a dramatist, hears a voice urging him on and heeds that voice. Soon after this play, Ibsen suffered a stroke that ended his career. He died on May 23, 1906.
Ibsen's collected works, together with all draft material, lists of English translations and criticism, and introductions by the editor, were translated in Ibsen, edited by James W. McFarlane (7 vols., 1960-70). The standard biography is by Halvdan Koht, The Life of Ibsen (2 vols., trans. 1931). Ibsen's daughter-in-law, Bergljot Ibsen, in The Three Ibsens (trans. 1951), gives valuable information on his life. More specialized is Brian W. Downs, The Intellectual Background (1946).
On Ibsen's plays generally, George Bernard Shaw's classic The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913) stresses the social reform aspects, and Herman J. Weigand, The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration (1925), emphasizes Ibsen the psychologist. John Northam, Ibsen's Dramatic Method (1953), is invaluable for the light it sheds on Ibsen's visual imagery. See also Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (1964), and Maurice Valency, The Flower and the Castle (1964), on Ibsen and August Strindberg and their contribution to modern drama. The prefaces to Rolf Fjelde's excellent translations of some of Ibsen's plays (Signet paperbacks) are well worth reading.
Bull, Francis, Ibsen, the man and the dramatist, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Duve, Arne, The real drama of Henrik Ibsen?, Oslo: Lanser forl., 1977.
Gosse, Edmund, Henrik Ibsen, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978 c1907.
Jorgenson, Theodore, Henrik Ibsen: a study in art and personality, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1945.
Macfall, Haldane, Ibsen: the man, his art & his significance, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978; Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.
Shafer, Yvonne, Henrik Ibsen: life, work, and criticism, Fredericton, N.B., Canada: York Press, 1985. □
Learn more about Henrik Ibsen