Authors: Henrik Ibsen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Norwegian playwright and poet

March 20, 1828

Skien, Norway

May 23, 1906

Christiania (now Oslo), Norway


The mature plays of Henrik Johan Ibsen (IHB-suhn), which are characterized by profound psychological insight, incisive exposure of social hypocrisy, and dramatic realism, have earned for him wide recognition as the founder of modern drama. His best plays fill the stage with life; moreover, they set the tone for the modern era of drama.

Henrik Ibsen

(Library of Congress)

Born to upper-middle-class parents in Skien, Norway, in 1828, Ibsen lived an early life of poverty after his father suffered bankruptcy in 1836. His lot did not change even after he was apprenticed to an apothecary in Grimstad when he was barely sixteen. There loneliness drove him into the arms of a housemaid, who bore him an illegitimate son.

Vowing he would succeed, and still seeking escape from hopelessness, Ibsen took up extreme religious and political ideas and turned to literary creation. In the small conservative community of Grimstad, he became known as an atheist and political radical, but his early attempt at drama, Catiline, brought him friends who helped him to escape Grimstad for Christiania (Oslo), where the play was published.

Ostensibly in Christiania to attend the university, Ibsen failed to matriculate, but there he met three persons who would exert a profound influence on his life: Ole Bull, the violin virtuoso and founder of the Bergen National Theater who hired Ibsen as a writer; Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, a rival with whom he maintained a difficult friendship for more than half a century; and Susanna Thoresen, whom he married in 1858. Ibsen became artistic director of the Norwegian Theater in Christiania in 1857, but the pressures and frustrations of running a national theater took their toll on him. Close to a physical breakdown, he resigned his position in 1862.

To write, Ibsen needed a measure of financial independence, which came in the form of government support, permitting him to travel and study. From 1862 on, he steadily matured as a dramatist. Up to that time, he had written nine plays, all interesting as milestones in his development but none theatrically important. The first fruit of his new leisure was The Pretenders, a lengthy but moving historical tragedy set in the period of the Norwegian civil wars. Consistently underrated, it is a powerfully constructed and psychologically motivated drama, marking at once both the peak and the termination of Ibsen’s historical-romantic period.

A more mature mind and dramatic technique can be seen in Brand, now seldom produced. This play is an attack on the complacency and spiritual poverty of the average citizen of the time. Brand, a great success, won financial independence and fame for its author, who equaled or surpassed it with Peer Gynt in 1867. Peer, the antithesis of Brand, is the incarnation of humankind’s vacillation, instability, and opportunism. His story, told as a poetic fantasy, is long and diffuse, but it has magnificent characters in Peer and Ase and some highly memorable scenes. It stands as a distinguished and unique tour de force, and it remains a beloved Norwegian classic.

While living mostly in Dresden during the next decade, Ibsen developed a new style which resulted in his famous realistic dramas. A minor work, The League of Youth (also called The Young Men’s Union), an attack on the liberal politicians of the day, is an early example of his new genre and, along with The Pillars of Society, is important largely because Ibsen’s developing prose style and dramatic technique are visible.

Between these two attempts at realism, Ibsen spent too much time on the cumbersome Emperor and Galilean. Unintegrated and unevenly characterized, it was consciously conceived and written to be a masterpiece. Critical judgment, however, denies the claim.

His new realism made its full impact felt in A Doll’s House and Ghosts. Taken together, they are an unprecedented indictment of conventions which had long denied individual freedom. In the former play, Ibsen made his contribution to the feminist movement. When Ibsen emancipated Nora from her toy house, outraged protests were heard around the world. Ghosts deals with heredity and venereal disease. As drama, the play created a new standard of excellence. It is tautly human and natural yet permeated with the conviction that humankind is controlled by the “dead hand of the past.” Its suggestion of fate and retribution remind one of Greek tragedy.

These plays were received by the public with unveiled abuse. Vilified and scorned, Ibsen hastily wrote a rebuttal, the ironic comedy An Enemy of the People. The story concerns the embattled Dr. Stockmann, striving to clean up the infected municipal baths of a small Norwegian town. Thwarted at every turn, Stockmann attacks the “compact majority” who are always wrong. Stockmann is Ibsen in disguise.

By 1882, Henrik Ibsen, now fifty-four years old, had been residing in Munich and Rome for some years. He was poised, confident, and successful. At this point, two new elements enter his work: compassion and symbolism. The Wild Duck is a contemplative, poetic play which analyzes illusions and ideals and concludes, with Hedvig’s death, that truth-telling idealism is destructive to the thin veil of human happiness. The analysis of idealism is carried even further in Rosmersholm. When idealism results in human destruction, it is no match for awakened conscience which in the end drives the Reverend Rosmer and Rebecca West to their deaths. Rosmersholm, remarkable for its dramatic projection of the complexities of the unconscious, is static and seldom produced.

Two years later came a minor play, The Lady from the Sea. Confusing and elusive, its potential is unrealized. Ibsen’s delvings into the complexities of human motivation found integration in Hedda Gabler, generally held to be the finest character study Ibsen created. Hedda is an aristocratic femme fatale whose frustration and inadequacy drive her to suicide. After Hedda Gabler was published, Ibsen went home to Norway. He had spent most of his mature life abroad and perhaps this self-imposed exile plus a natural poetic nature turned his thoughts inward. Henceforth, his plays were concerned with weariness, failure, and wasted lives.

The best product of Ibsen’s declining years, The Master Builder, is a powerful study in pessimism. Solness, the architect, cannot live down his sick conscience. Fearing the younger generation, he tries to outdo youth and dies in the attempt. After the failure of Little Eyolf, a confused play of remorse lacking dramatic action, came John Gabriel Borkman, which, provocative but static, is more successful. A study of the betrayal of love for material gain, it is the story of a financial tycoon who, bankrupted, was imprisoned. Years later, he finds freedom and courage only when it is too late.

The dramatist’s final work, When We Dead Awaken, is a protest against everything that deprives people of happiness. “When we dead awaken, what do we really see then?” Ibsen asks, only to answer, “We see that we have never lived.”

A year later, Ibsen suffered a paralytic stroke and never wrote again. Rich in honor and reward but with paralysis almost total and his mind unsettled, Ibsen died at Christiania in 1906. All of his life, Ibsen opposed every convention or tendency that denied the fulfillment of the individual. He was the friend and counselor to modern man and woman; further, his pioneering of psychological motivation in drama has had incalculable effect on all subsequent dramatic writing. Every modern playwright has gone to school on Henrik Ibsen.

Author Works Drama: Catalina, pb. 1850, revised pb. 1875 (verse drama; Catiline, 1921) Kjæmpehøien, pr. 1850, revised pb. 1854 (dramatic poem; The Burial Mound, 1912) Norma: Eller, En politikers kjærlighed, pr., pb. 1851 (verse satire) Sancthansnatten, pr. 1853 (St. John’s Eve, 1921) Fru Inger til Østraat, pr. 1855 (Lady Inger of Østraat, 1906) Gildet paa Solhaug, pr., pb. 1856, revised pb. 1883 (verse and prose drama; The Feast at Solhaugh, 1906) Olaf Liljekrans, pr. 1857 (verse and prose drama; English translation, 1911) Hærmænde paa Helgeland, pr., pb. 1858 (The Vikings at Helgeland, 1890) Kjærlighedens komedie, pb. 1862 (verse comedy; Love’s Comedy, 1900) Kongsemnerne, pb. 1863 (The Pretenders, 1890) Brand, pb. 1866 (dramatic poem; English translation, 1891) Peer Gynt, pb. 1867 (dramatic poem; English translation, 1892) De unges forbund, pr., pb. 1869 (The League of Youth, 1890) Kejser og Galilæer, pb. 1873 (2 parts: Cæsars frafald and Kejser Julian; Emperor and Galilean, 1876, 2 parts: Caesar’s Apostasy and The Emperor Julian) Samfundets støtter, pr., pb. 1877 (The Pillars of Society, 1880) Et dukkehjem, pr., pb. 1879 (A Doll’s House, 1880; also known as A Doll House) Gengangere, pb. 1881 (Ghosts, 1885) En folkefiende, pb. 1882 (An Enemy of the People, 1890) Vildanden, pb. 1884 (The Wild Duck, 1891) Rosmersholm, pb. 1886 (English translation, 1889) Fruen fra havet, pb. 1888 (The Lady from the Sea, 1890) Hedda Gabler, pb. 1890 (English translation, 1891) Bygmester Solness, pb. 1892 (The Master Builder, 1893) Lille Eyolf, pb. 1894 (Little Eyolf, 1894) John Gabriel Borkman, pb. 1896 (English translation, 1897) Naar vi døde vaagner, pb. 1899 (When We Dead Awaken, 1900) Samlede verker, hundreaarsutgave, pb. 1928–1957 (21 volumes) The Oxford Ibsen, pb. 1960–1977 (8 volumes) The Complete Major Prose Plays, pb. 1978 Poetry: Digte, 1871 Poems, 1993 Nonfiction: Ibsen: Letters and Speeches, 1964 Miscellaneous: The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, 1906-1912, 1928 (13 volumes) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Henrik Ibsen. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. A collection of criticism regarding Ibsen’s plays. Bibliography and index. Ferguson, Robert. Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography. London: R. Cohen, 1996. A basic biography that covers the life and works of Ibsen. Bibliography and index. Garland, Oliver. A Freudian Poetics for Ibsen’s Theatre: Repetition, Recollection, and Paradox. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1998. A Freudian approach to examining the psychology that pervades Ibsen’s plays. Bibliography and index. Goldman, Michael. Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. An analysis of Ibsen’s plays with respect to his portrayal of fear. Bibliography and index. Johnston, Brian. The Ibsen Cycle: The Design of the Plays from “Pillars of Society” to “When We Dead Awaken.” Rev. ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. An examination of some of Ibsen’s social plays. Bibliography and index. Ledger, Sally. Henrik Ibsen. Plymouth, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 1999. A biographical study of the dramatist Ibsen. Bibliography and index. McFarlane, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A comprehensive reference work devoted to Ibsen. Bibliography and index. Moi, Toril. Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Moi traces Henrik Ibsen’s life and literary career to illustrate his shift from idealism to modernism. He demonstrates how Ibsen strayed from his view that the purpose of art is to demonstrate an ideal and adopted his literary ideology on skepticism, love, and sexuality. The book is divided into three parts; the first two discuss how Ibsen became a modernist, while the last part offers analysis of Ibsen’s own unique brand of modernism. Moi provides appendixes, endnotes, and a complete bibliography which are extremely helpful. Shepherd-Barr, Kirsten. Ibsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997. An examination of Symbolism, modernism and Ibsen, focusing on his reception in England and France. Bibliography and index. Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. 1997. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A study of Ibsen’s drama that examines his portrayal of women. Bibliography and index. Theoharis, Theoharis Constantine. Ibsen’s Drama: Right Action and Tragic Joy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A critical examination of Ibsen’s plays, with special emphasis on the themes of joy and dutiful action. Bibliography and index.

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