Biography Henrik Johan Ibsen

Henrik Johan Ibsen

photo of Henrik Johan Ibsen
  • Time Period1828 - 1906
  • Place
  • CountryNorway

Poet Biography

Norwegian playwright and luminary of the 19th-century Norwegian literature. Ibsen is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern prose drama. He moved away from the Romantic style, unmasking the romantic hero, and brought the problems and ideas of the day onto his stage.

Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien, a tiny coastal town. His father was a prosperous merchant, whose financial failure changed the family's social position. Poverty interrupted Ibsen's education and it gave Ibsen a strong distrust of society. At the age of 16 he was for a time apprenticed to a pharmacist in Grimstad. In 1846 he was compelled to support an illegitimate child born to a servant girl. In 1848 a revolution swept Europe and Ibsen adopted the new ideas of personal freedom.

In 1850 Ibsen moved to Christiania (now Oslo). He attended Heltberg's 'student factory' for university candidates, and occasionally earned from his journalistic writings. In the same year he wrote two plays, 'Catilina', a tragedy, which reflected the atmosphere of the revolutionary year of 1848, and 'The Burial Mound'. Ibsen hoped to become a physician but after failing university entrance examinations, he was appointed in 1851 as 'stage poet' of Den Nationale Scene, a small theater in Bergen. He wrote there four plays based on Norwegian folklore and history, notably 'Lady Inger of Ostrat' (1855), dealing with the liberation of medieval Norway. In 1852 his theater sent him on a study tour to Denmark and Germany.

Ibsen returned in 1857 to Christiania to become artistic director of the new Norwegian (Norske) Theatre. In 1858 he married Suzannah Thoresen, the stepchild of the novelist Magdalene Thoresen. Their only child, Sigurd, was born next year. After many productions, the theater went bankrupt, and Ibsen was appointed to the Christiania Theatre. To this period belong 'The Vikings of Helgoland' (1858) and 'The Pretenders' (1864), both historical sagas, and 'Love's Comedy' (1862), a satire. Several of Ibsen's plays failed to attract audience and these public humiliations became a burden for him.

In 1864 Ibsen received an award for foreign travel from the government, and also had financial help from Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. He left Norway for Italy in April, and traveled abroad for the next 27 years, returning to Norway only for brief visits. During this time, when he lived in Rome, Munich and Dresden, Ibsen wrote most of his best-known works, among others 'Brand' (1866), a symbolic tragedy about a priest, who follows his high principles. Its theme, an individual with his God-given mission pitted against society, reflected deeply the feelings of young liberals. Brand's firm belief is "No compromise!" and at the end he dies, in an avalache. 'Peer Gynt' (1867) was a satiric fantasy about a boastful egoist, irresponsible Peer, a figure from Norwegian folklore. Peer is saved by the love of a woman, Solveig. In both of these works the romantic hero is destroyed and their 'ideal demands' are crushed. No doubt the themes also rose from Ibsen's disillusionment with his countrymen. In 1865 he wrote to Björnson: "If I were to tell at this moment what has been the chief result of my stay abroad, I should say that it consisted in my having driven out of myself the aestheticism which had a great power over me - an isolated aestheticism with a claim to independent existence. Aestheticism of this kind seem to me now as a great curse to poetry as theology is to religion."

Ibsen himself considered 'The Emperor and the Galilean' (1873) his most important play. However, this heavy drama about Christianity and paganism in generally not included among his most important achievements. Pillars of Society (1877) dealt with a wealthy and hypocritical businessman, whose perilous course almost results in the death of his son. 'A Doll´s House' (1879) was a social drama on marriage, in which a woman refuses to obey her husband and walks out from her apparently perfect marriage. The work caused a sensation and toured Europe and America. In 'An Enemy of the People' (1882) Ibsen attacked "the compact liberal majority" and the conformity of mass opinion. 'Ghosts' (1881) touched the forbidden subject of hereditary venereal disease and attacked social conventions as destroyers of life and happiness. The London Daily Telegraph called the play "an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; a lazar house wit all its doors and windows open."

Hedda Gabler (1890) was a study of a neurotic woman. Oscar Wilde, after attending the play, wrote: "I felt pity and terror, as though the play had been Greek." Hedda, twenty-nine years old, has married down, is pregnant with an unwanted child, and bored by her husband. Before marriage she has flirted with the drunken poet Loevborg, a portrait of the playwright Strindberg, who hated Ibsen. She plots to the ruin of Loevborg by burning his manuscript on the future of civilization. Judge Brack, who lusts after Hedda, discovers that Hedda has instigated Loevborg's accidental suicide - he has died in a bordello. Hedda cries: "Oh, why does everything I touch become mean and ludicrous? It's like a curse!" Brack gives her the choice either of public exposure or of becoming his mistress. But Hedda chooses suicide when she falls into his power.

In 1866 Ibsen received poet's annual stipend. He also had royalties from his dramatic poem Brand. This secured his financial position. With the receipt of a new grant, he visited Stockholm, dined with the King, and later represented Norway at the opening of the Suez Canal. In the 1870s he worked with composer Edward Grieg on the premiere of Peer Gynt. When he spent a couple months in Norway during the summer of 1874, Norwegian students marched in procession to Ibsen's home to greet the writer. In reply Ibsen said: "For a student has essentially the same task as the poet: to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and in the community to which he belongs." (from Speches and New Letters)

Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 and continued to write until a stroke in 1900. His marriage was joyless, but a few episodes of friendship with young women broke the austerity of his life. In 1898 Ibsen received the world's homage on the occasion of his 70th birthday. George Bernard Shaw called him the greatest living dramatist in a lecture entitled 'The Quintessence of Ibsenism'. Ibsen's son married Bjørnson's daughter Bergliot. The marriage builded a bridge of friendship between the two writer, who had a break in relationship after Ibsen's play 'The League of Youth' (1869), where the central character resembled Bjørnson. Ibsen died in Christiania on May 23, 1906. The last years of his life were clouded by mental illness.

"A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view." (from Ibsen's Workshop, 1912)
In his plays Ibsen focused on character rather situations and created realistic dramas of psychological conflict. His central theme was the duty of the individual towards himself. In the task of self-realization his characters faced the out-of-date conventions of bourgeois society. "I have really never had a strong feeling for solidarity," Ibsen wrote to Brandes in 1871. Ibsen's anarchistic individualism made a deep impression on the younger generation outside Norway, where he was considered a progressive writer. In his home country, however, Ibsen was seen as a moral preacher and more conservative than Björnson. Ibsen's only real discipline or successor, George Bernard Shaw, shared his intellectualism and method of teaching - dramatizing generally accepted ideas into uncompromising plays.