20, 1828. When he was eight, his father went bankrupt. This event made a deep impression upon him. After they went bankrupt, his family moved to a small farm north of the town where they lived in poverty. Henrik was forced to attend a small local school. He received a substandard education. In 1843, the family returned to town. Unfortunately they were still poor. Ibsen came from a very dysfunctional family. His domineering father was an alcoholic who found solace in alcohol. His quiet mother found comfort in religion. He used them as a model for his plays. The blend of an overbearing husband and a submissive wife made appearances in his plays Brand, A Doll’s House, and Ghosts. The bitter character of Hjalmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck was based on Ibsen’s father. When he was sixteen, he moved to Grimstad to work for a druggist. He had wanted to become a doctor, but game up on the idea after he failed Greek and Math on his University entrance exams. Medicine was not his only ambition. He also wanted to be a painter.
In 1850, Ibsen entered the first of his three writing periods. His romantic period went from 1850 to 1873. The greatest works from this period are the Brandand Peer Gynt Most of the plays that he wrote during these years are romantic historical dramas. Lady Inger of Ostraat was a romantic drama with intrigue. The Vikings of Helgeland was a simple and sad tragedy. The last play of the Romantic period was Emperor and Galilean. It is similar to Ibsen’s other play Catiline because it showed his impatience with traditional attitudes and values. In both plays he showed sympathy for historical characters who were famous for being rebellious.
Ibsen became the stage manager and playwright of the National Stage in Bergen in 1851. He worked there for six years. In 1857, he moved to Christiania (Oslo), where he became director of the Norwegian Theatre. He neglected both writing and the theatre. He plunged into social life with his literary friends and drank heavily. In 1858, Ibsen married Suzannah Thoresen, with whom he had one child, Sigurd Ibsen. This was a marriage that was often as misunderstood as the marriages of Ibsen’s dramas. At the age of thirty, Ibsen saw his first performances of Shakespeare in Copenhagen and Dresden. Shakespeare’s work convinced Ibsen that serious drama must strive toward a psychological truth and form its basis on the characters and conflicts of mankind. Ibsen and his friend Bjrnstjerne Bjrnson founded “The Norwegian Company” in 1859. After the Norwegian Theatre went bankrupt in 1862, Ibsen was depressed and broke. As a result, he was sometimes seen drunk on the streets of Christiania. His success with The Pretenders in 1863 inspired him to write several poems. Ibsen became bitterly disappointed with current political events, especially Norway’s failure to help the Danes in their war against Prussia. In 1864 he left Norway. After he left, he spent most of his time in Rome, Dresden and Munich. He was supported by a pension from the Norwegian state and income from his books. In 1866, he had a significant breakthrough with his play Brand. In his speech to Christiania students in 1874, Ibsen said,
“All I have written, I have mentally lived through. Partly I have written on that which only by glimpses, and at my best moments, I have felt stirring vividly within me as something great and beautiful. I have written on that which, so to speak, has stood higher than my daily self. But I have also written on the opposite, on that which to introspective contemplation appears as the dregs and sediments of one’s own nature. Yes, gentlemen, nobody can poetically present that to which he has not to a certain degree and at least at times the model within himself.”
In 1877, Ibsen entered his second period of writing with his play Pillars of Society. Ibsen wrote a series of plays dealing with social problems, such as A Doll’s House and Ghosts. He also wrote a series of plays dealing with psychological problems, such as The Lady from the Seas and Hedda Gabler. He wrote eight plays during of this period and both originated and perfected the problem play. The term “problem play” refers specifically to the type of drama which Ibsen wrote beginning with Pillars of Society in 1877. In these plays, the emphasis is on the presentation of a social or psychological problem. These plays deal with contemporary life in realistic settings. The symbolism that existed in Brand and Peer Gynt is almost gone. Ibsen presents his themes or “problems” to the audience with realistic characters and straightforward plots. In his plays, Ibsen deals with the theme of individuals trying to find themselves in the face of established conventions. Two examples of this are Nora in A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. Ibsen also used a “retrospective” approach in A Doll’s House and. The major events occur before the curtain goes up. The plays concern the way the characters dealt with these past events. The themes in A Doll’s House made Ibsen the enemy of conservatives everywhere. The idea of a play that questioned a woman’s place in society and suggesting that a woman’s self was more important than her role as wife and mother, was unprecedented. The play caused outrage in many government and church officials. Some people felt that Ibsen was responsible for the rising divorce rate. Some theaters in Germany refused to perform the play the way Ibsen had written it. He was forced to write an alternate “happy” ending in which Nora sees the error of her ways and doesn’t leave. The play became popular in Europe despite its harsh criticism. It was translated into many languages and performed worldwide. The controversy surrounding his play made Ibsen famous. Hedda Gabler was another experiment for Ibsen. Instead of presenting a social problem, he presented a psychological portrait of a fascinating and self-destructive woman.
After a twenty-seven-year self-imposed exile, Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891. In October 1893, Ibsen’s wife Suzannah, returned to Italy due to a recurring problem with gout. While she was gone, Ibsen found a young lady companion. She was a pianist named Hildur Andersen. Hildur became a constant companion on visits to theatres, lectures, and galleries. He later gave her a diamond ring as a symbol of their union. He wrote to her after his wife returned home from Italy. Ibsen and his wife had marital problems after she returned. He discussed his marriage with an old friend Elise Auber. According to Halvdan Koht,
“Ibsen was clearly disturbed about his own marriage and spoke to Mrs. Auber about it. He had many conflicts with his wife at this time, and on occasion his anger was so extreme that he threatened to leave her. These outbursts were only momentary, and he knew that they would never separate.”
Ibsen’s third period of work started after he returned to Norway. It was referred to as the Symbolist Period. The plays in this period contain elements of defeat. The Master Builder deals with an aging architect who succumbs to defeat. John Gabriel Borkman is about a man who sacrifices his love to become rich. Ironically, the title of Ibsen’s last play was When We Dead Awaken.
In 1900, Ibsen suffered a stroke. He never completely recovered from his stroke and was an invalid for the rest of his life. Despite his medical setback, he was a fighter until the end. When he was coming out of a coma in 1906, the nurse commented that he appeared slightly better. Ibsen replied “On the contrary!” Sadly, he died a few days later.
Ibsen, Henrik. Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen. New York: The Modern
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Jacobs, Lee. The Bedford Introduction to Drama Third Edition.
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Meyer, Michael Henrik Ibsen: A Biography. 3 volumes. Garden City: Doubleday,
Thomas, David. Henrik Ibsen. New York: Grove, 1984