Henrik Johan Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, theatre director and poet, is considered the “father” of realism, and counted among the founders of modernism in theatre. This realism marked him out as scandalous to a lot of the 19th century society whose lives he examined and revealed, though his writing is now considered some of the most poetic and his influence can be found in the writing of, among many others, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce.
Born to Knud Ibsen (1797-1877) and Marichen Altenburg (1799-1869) on 20th March 1828, he grew up in the small port town of Skien, in Telemark country, in a prosperous merchant family. Later he would write to critic and scholar Georg Brandes that “my parents were members on both sides of the most respected families in Skien”, and that this enabled him to be on close terms with “just about all the patrician families who then dominated the place and its surroundings”. Knud Ibsen’s father was a ship’s captain who died at sea, leaving Knud in the care of the ship-owner Ole Paus, whose success in the industry had afforded him the large estate on which Knud grew up in comfort. Other prominent members of Ibsen’s ancestry include Knud’s half-brothers who were variously lawyers, politicians and ship-owners, the three most affluent and influential positions in the town at the time.
Despite this heritage of ship captaincy Knud elected to become a merchant having enjoyed early commercial success with various contacts made thanks to his upbringing on the Paus estate. Indeed, his marriage to Marichen Altenburg, the daughter of a ship-owner was considered “an excellent family arrangement”. Moreover, “Marichen’s mother and Knud’s step-father were sister and brother, and the bride and groom, who had grown up together, were practically regarded as sister and brother themselves. Marichen Altenburg was a fine catch, the daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants in the prosperous lumber town of Skien.” The near-incestuous nature of his parents’ marriage fascinated the young Ibsen, and he later treated the subject in his plays, most notably Rosmersholm.
Around 1835, when Ibsen was seven, the winds changed and his father’s merchant business came into serious trouble. This forced the family to sell the major Altenburg building in central Skien, their most impressive property, and return to their smaller, cheaper summer house, Venstøp, outside the city. Having had no recourse but to declare bankruptcy, Knud became an embittered alcoholic, venting his “bitterness and resentment on his wife and children”, though Henrik’s sister Hedvig wrote of their mother “she was a quiet, lovable woman, the soul of the house, everything to her husband and children. She sacrificed herself time and again. There was no bitterness of reproach in her.” Eventually Knud’s half-brother, the wealthy banker and ship owner Christopher Blom Paus took pity on the family and moved them back into a town house in the city. His father’s ruin clearly had a profound effect on Ibsen, for the theme of financial difficulty appears frequently throughout his work alongside moral conflicts rooted in family secrets and concealment from society. Another example of his progressive writing can be found in his unerring portrayal of, and sympathy for, the trials of woman and her helplessness, a reality he saw often from an early age at home.
At the age of fifteen, Ibsen was forced to leave school, moving to the smaller town of Grimstad in order to take an apprenticeship as a pharmacist, at which point he began writing plays. He spent three years living here in financial security, if not excess, until nine months after a dalliance with a serving-girl he found himself financially responsible for an illegitimate boy. Ibsen would dutifully supported the boy until he was well into his teens, without ever actually seeing him. Meanwhile, he went to Christiania (now Oslo) with the intention of matriculation at the University, though he soon rejected this idea after earlier failure to pass various exams encouraged him to focus on his writing. He had his first success aged twenty when his first play, the tragedy Catilina, was published in 1850, though it was not performed at the time. He published under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarne, arguably to protect his dignity if the play was not well received. Later that year though he published his second play, The Burial Mound, which was performed, though it received precious little critical or public attention. Despite these apparent setbacks his determination to be a playwright prevailed and he continued to write only to be continually ignored by critics and readers alike. His early inspiration seems to have come from authors such as Henrik Wergeland, by far the most widely read Norwegian poet and playwright.
The next several years were spent in employment at Det norske Theater in Bergen, where he was involved in the production of around 150 plays in either a writing, directing or producing capacity. Five more plays were published at this time, though they too were considered unremarkable. However, despite this failure to achieve the critical success he sought, he left the theatre with a huge amount of practical experience upon which he could draw in his ensuing writing. Returning to Christiania in 1858 to become the director of the Christiania Theatre, he met Suzannah Thoresen and married her on 18th June 1858. She gave birth to Sigurd, their only child, on 23rd December 1859. He later became the Norwegian Prime Minister, playing a central role in the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden and in currying the favour of several key statesmen for a monarchy as opposed to their current republican government. The couple’s financial difficulty and the lack of state support left Ibsen disillusioned with Norway, and Ibsen resolved to leave in self-imposed exile for Sorrento in Italy in 1864. He only returned 27 years later, as the noted, controversial playwright he was to become.
The first play he wrote in Italy, Brand, in 1965, finally brought him the critical acclaim he had been waiting for, and with it came moderate financial success, affording the couple a measure of comfort which had previously been beyond their means. Ibsen followed up this success with Peer Gynt in 1867, to which the composer Edvard Grieg composed incidental music and songs, attracting a musically academic audience to the production which ultimately brought him more fame and respect as a writer. Early signs of reference to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard are apparent in Brand, yet despite Ibsen’s recent reading of him, it was only until Peer Gynt that he allowed Kierkegaard to consciously inform his work. Indeed, he was initially annoyed with his friend George Brandes for comparing ideas in Brand to those of Kierkegaard, though he proceeded to read Either/Or and Fear and Trembling, both of which would inspire Peer Gynt. The success he was beginning to enjoy encouraged him to write more confidently and introduce his own beliefs and judgements into his drama, coining the term “the drama of ideas”. The plays he wrote in the following years are considered his “Golden Age”, and indicate the height of his influence at the heart of dramatic controversy across Europe.
Moving from Sorrento to Dresden in Germany in 1868, he spent several years writing Emperor and Galilean (1873), which he considered his greatest work at the time. A dramatisation of the life of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, Ibsen considered it the cornerstone of his entire literary endeavours, though few shared this opinion. He now moved to Munich in 1875 and began writing The Pillars of Society, the first of his contemporary realist drama which was published and performed in 1877. This was followed by The Doll’s House in 1879, a harsh criticism of the gender-assigned marital roles which the men and women who characterised Ibsen’s society blindly assumed. The success of his scathing criticism in The Doll’s House encouraged him to proceed in this vein of writing, so in 1881 his next play, Ghosts, comments on the morality of Ibsen’s society in a similar manner. A plot involving a married couple, a pastor, sexual transgression and the passage of sexually transmitted diseases (syphilis) from deviant husband to naïve wife to son proved utterly scandalous. While mention of venereal disease was considered shocking enough, to illustrate the manner in which it could destroy a respectable family was utterly unacceptable. However, if Ibsen’s audience considered this so intolerable, little could prepare them for his next offering, An Enemy of the People (1882), a response to the prudish critics of Ghosts in which the alienated individual (Ibsen himself, after Ghosts) is proved right in their solitude, and the mass of people are comparatively portrayed as an ignorant herd. Until then the idea that society was a trustworthy community was almost gospel, but Ibsen chose to challenge it.
Not stopping with this chastisement of the conservatism of society, he proceeded to attack the concurrent and opposing liberalism, ultimately illustrating how each of these poles were often equally self-serving. Its plot cleverly mirrors the circumstances of Ghosts’s reception; a physician in a spa town discovers that the bath waters are contaminated by a local tannery and, expecting to be thanked and rewarded by the community for saving their lives and that of the town’s visitors, presents his findings to the community. However, this is misconstrued as an act of sabotage on the town’s tourism trade and the community declares him ‘an enemy of the people’, breaking his windows and forcing him out of the town. However, it is implied that the town’s refusal to acknowledge this uncomfortable truth will soon herald disaster, mirroring Ibsen’s disappointment at his community’s rejection of his own, similar, warning. It was now to be expected that Ibsen would go after some other deeply entrenched societal construct and he did not disappoint, though his next play, The Wild Duck (1884), deals with idealistic reformers and the dangers of their eager, evangelical attitudes. His willing iconoclasm rendered him willing to examine and deconstruct any such ideological construct, even when they were as close to his own as this.
However, as his career progressed his writing became gradually more introspective, less to do with the denunciation of society’s collective moral frailty and more to do with the psychological conflict of rejecting convention. His later plays, particularly Hedda Gabler (1890), and The Master Builder (1892), are clear examples of this transition, with Hedda Gabler being considered one of the most challenging and rewarding roles for actresses today, its uncompromising examination of interpersonal confrontation the main interest of the play and the driving force behind its drama. Ibsen finally returned to Norway in 1891, to find it largely different to the country he had left 27 years previously. In fact, many of the changes which Norway had undergone were due to the social evolution Ibsen encouraged through his writing; the Victorian era was faltering and modernism was beginning to invade the stage and society as a whole, thanks to Ibsen’s unrelenting criticism and visionary writing. Ibsen continued to write for a few years after his return, publishing Little Eyolf in 1894, to see it performed in the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin on 12th January, 1895. Then, in 1896, he published John Gabriel Borkman, based on the attempted suicide of an army officer wrongly accused of embezzlement which Ibsen had recorded earlier in his life. Finally, in 1899 he published When We Dead Awaken, which was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London a few days before its publication.
His later years were plagued by ill-health and a series of paralysing strokes in March 1900 rendered him bed-ridden until his peaceful death on 23rd May, 1906, in hi home at Arbins Gade 1 in Christiania. On the 22nd May, his nurse assured a visitor that he was a little better, upon which Ibsen spluttered his famous last words: “On the contrary!” (“Tvertimod!”). He was buried in The Graveyard of Our Savior in central Christiania, and his gravestone remains there (now Oslo) today. In total he wrote 27 plays. The dramatic alteration to theatrical convention which Ibsen heralded was adopted by, most notably, Anton Chekhov, and others still writing today, and he is responsible for a dramatically altered perception of women, both theatrically and socially, along with the rise of modernism.