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Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen

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.

Early Plays

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.

Plays of Contemporary Life

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.

Plays after 1882

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.

Further Reading

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.

Additional Sources

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. □

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Ibsen, Henrik

Henrik Ibsen

Born: March 20, 1828
Skien, Norway
Died: May 23, 1906
Christiania, Norway

Norwegian playwright

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen made a tremendous impact on the course of Western drama. The best of his plays portray the real-life problems of individuals, with a skillful use of dialogue (conversation between individuals in a play) and symbols.

Early life

Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway. His father was a successful merchant. When Ibsen was eight, his father's business failed, which was a shattering blow to the family. Ibsen left home at age fifteen and spent six years as a pharmacist's (one who prepares and sells drugs that are ordered by doctors) assistant in Grimstad, Norway, where he wrote his first play. In 1850 he moved to Christiania (Oslo), Norway, to study. In 1851 he became assistant stage manager of a new theater in Bergen, Norway, where part of his job was to write one new play a year. Although these plays were mostly unsuccessful, Ibsen gained valuable theater experience.

Ibsen returned to Christiania in 1857, where he spent the worst period of his life. His plays either failed or were rejected, and he went into debt. He left Norway in 1864, spending the next twenty-seven years in Italy and Germany. He changed his appearance, his habits, and even his handwriting. He became distant, secretive, and desperate to protect himself from the real and imagined hostility of others.

Early plays

The main character in Catiline (1850), Ibsen's first play, is torn between two women who represent conflicting forces in himself. Ibsen's other early plays show him struggling to find his voice. The two plays he wrote during his second stay in Christiania were more successful: Love's Comedy (1862), which pokes fun at romantic love, and The Pretenders (1864), a historical and psychological (relating to the mind) tragedy (a serious drama that usually ends with the hero's death).

In the first ten years after leaving Norway Ibsen wrote four plays, including the immensely successful Brand (1866), about a man's attempt to understand himself. His next play, Peer Gynt (1867), made Ibsen Scandinavia's most discussed dramatist. Peer Gynt is Brand's opposite, a man who ignores his problems until he loses everything, including himself. Ibsen called Emperor and Galilean (1873), a ten-act play, "a world-historical drama."

Plays about current issues

Inspired by the demands of critics that literature should address current problems of the day, Ibsen set out to develop a dramatic form in which serious matters could be dealt with using stories about everyday life. Ibsen did not invent the realistic (based on real life) or social reform play, but he perfected the form. In doing so he became the most famous dramatist of the nineteenth century. Still, Ibsen remained what he had always been, a man who disliked society and concerned himself only with the individual and his problems.

As used by George Bernard Shaw (18561950), a great supporter of Ibsen's work, the term "Ibsenite" describes a play that exposes individual and social hypocrisy (pretending to be what one is not). Examples are Pillars of Society (1877) and A Doll's House (1879), which point out how the conventions of society hinder personal development. In Ghosts (1881), however, the character of Mrs. Alving discovers that there are forces within the individual more destructive than the "dollhouse" of marriage and society. The last of the "Ibsenite" plays, An Enemy of the People (1882), is one of Ibsen's finest comedies.

Later works

After 1882 Ibsen concentrated more on the problems of the individual. The Wild Duck (1884) shows how the average man needs illusions (unreal and misleading thoughts or ideas) to survive and what happens to a family when it is forced to face the truth. In Rosmersholm (1886) a man raised in a tradition of Christian duty and sacrifice tries to break with his past. Hedda Gabler (1890) is the story of an unhappy woman who attempts to interfere with the lives of others. There is much of Ibsen, as he saw himself at the time, in Hedda Gabler.

Many of Ibsen's last plays represent confessions of his sins. The Master Builder (1892), one of Ibsen's most beautiful dramas, is the story of an artist consumed by guilt over the wife and children he has "murdered" to further his ambition. John Gabriel Borkman (1896) is a study of a man who sacrifices everything to his vision and is killed by the forces in nature he has sought to control. Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), is an artist's confession of his failure as a man and of his doubts about his achievement. Soon after this play Ibsen suffered a stroke that ended his career. He died on May 23, 1906, in Christiania.

For More Information

Ferguson, Robert. Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography. London: R. Cohen, 1996.

Gosse, Edmund. Henrik Ibsen. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911. Reprint, Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978.

Ibsen, Henrik. The Correspondence of Henrik Ibsen. Edited by Mary Morrison. New York: Haskell House, 1970.

Jorgenson, Theodore. Henrik Ibsen: A Study in Art and Personality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.

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Ibsen, Henrik

Henrik Ibsen (hĕn´rĬk Ĭb´sən), 1828–1906, Norwegian dramatist and poet. His early years were lonely and miserable. Distressed by the consequences of his family's financial ruin and on his own at sixteen, he first was apprenticed to an apothecary. Not long after this he began writing poetry, and in 1850 he published his first play, Catilina, a tragedy in verse. In 1851 he began an extended apprenticeship in the theater, first as stage manager and playwright with the National Stage in Bergen and in 1857 as theater director for the Norwegian Theater in Oslo. His early plays for the most part went unrecognized or were greeted with opposition and critical hostility. As a man far in advance of his times, Ibsen was condemned for unveiling truths which society preferred to keep hidden. In 1864, dissatisfied with the backwardness of Norway, he went to Italy. He wrote the bulk of his drama there and in Germany. His career can be divided into three periods. The first phase, that of poetic dramas, dealt primarily with historical themes, folklore, and romantic pageantry. His name was established with the publication of Love's Comedy (1862). However, it was in 1866 that he reached prominent stature as a dramatist, when he published the first of his major works, Brand, the tragedy of an idealist. Peer Gynt, another poetic drama and Ibsen's least understood work, appeared the following year. In this play Ibsen recounted the adventures of an egocentric but imaginative opportunist. With The League of Youth (1869) and Pillars of Society (1877), he began his second dramatic phase, that of the realistic social plays which are his best known. Ibsen rebelled against society's conventions through which the perpetuation of empty traditions restricts all intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth. He was perhaps most successful in depicting the 19th-century woman, whose inner nature was in strong conflict with the role she was called on to perform. These dramas include A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1886), and Hedda Gabler (1890). Other notable plays, An Enemy of the People (1882) and The Wild Duck (1884), examine the effects of true and false idealism. Although nearly all Ibsen's plays contain symbolic elements, it was in his final works that the emphasis on symbolism became very strong. The chief plays of this group are The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1900). All have a firmly knit structure beneath the symbols; all blend an introspective realism with folk poetry. No playwright has exerted greater influence on 20th-century drama. His plays—there are many good English translations—are continually revived in the United States and Europe.

See biographies by H. Koht (1928, new tr. 1971), H. Heiberg (tr. 1969), M. Meyer (1971), and R. Ferguson (1996); studies by G. M. C. Brandes (1899, repr. 1964), G. B. Shaw (1913, repr. 1957), J. R. Northam (1953 and 1973), and J. McFarlane (1970).

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Ibsen, Henrik Johan

Ibsen, Henrik Johan (1828–1906) Norwegian playwright and poet. His first play was Catilina (1850), but he became internationally known for the drama, Peer Gynt (1867). The naturalism of Ibsen's presentation of social issues in tragedies such as A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), and Hedda Gabler (1890) established his reputation. His later works, such as The Master Builder (1892) and John Gabriel Borkman (1896), are more symbolic.

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