Henrik Ibsen


Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien in 1828 and grew up as the oldest of five siblings. His parents were the merchant Knud Ibsen and Marichen Ibsen (maiden name Altenburg).

His upbringing was heavily influenced by the fact that his father in the mid-1830s was the victim of unfortunate financial transactions and a grave economic setback. In the course of just one year, Knud Ibsen was obliged to close down his businesses, his properties were auctioned off and the family´s prosperity was abruptly reversed to poverty.

15-years old, Henrik Ibsen left his hometown and went to Grimstad to begin apothecary studies. In the course of his time in Grimstad he made his first modest attempts as a poet and in September 1849 had a poem published for the first time, “In the Autumn”. The next year his debut drama, Catiline, was published in Kristiania under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme.

In 1850 he travelled to Kristiania to take his A-levels, presumably with the idea of beginning studies in medicine at the university in the capital. Nothing ever came of this ambition. Instead, he tried his hand as a journalist and together with Paul Botten-Hansen and A. O. Vinje started the satirical periodical Andhrimner, while he continued to write plays for the theatre. In September 1850 his first play was performed by a theatre when Christiania Theater staged his one act play The Warrior´s Barrow

In 1851 he moved to Bergen and was taken on by Det norske Theater to “assist the theatre as a dramatic author”. In the course of Ibsen´s six years in Bergen he wrote and had staged six of his plays. He also worked as a stage director and in this manner acquired insight into all facets of the theatre profession. In Bergen he met Suzannah Daae Thoresen whom he later married and with whom he fathered his son Sigurd.

In 1857 Ibsen was offered the position of Artistic Director at Kristiania Norske Theater and moved back to the capital city. Some turbulent and difficult years followed there, ending with the Kristiania Norske Theater going bankrupt in 1862. He was then taken on by Christiania Theater as a literary consultant. In 1864 he staged his own play The Pretenders at this theatre.

In the summer of 1864 Ibsen left his native country and settled in Rome. This was the beginning of a period of 27 years abroad. In the course of this time he lived in Rome (1864-1868), Dresden (1868-1875), Munich (1875-1878), Rome (1878-1885) and Munich (1885-1891). During the first period in Rome he wrote the great philosophical dramas Brand and Peer GyntBrand was to be his first success on the Nordic book market. From then on he published his plays in Copenhagen – and not in Kristiania – with Frederik Hegel (later his son Jacob), with the publisher Gyldendalske Boghandels Forlag. With Brand and Peer Gynt Ibsen definitively wrote himself out of the National Romantic tradition to which his plays of the 1850s and The Pretenders belonged and made his mark through his use of biting satire and criticism of his native country.

In 1871 Ibsen published his first and only book of poetry, Poems, which contained in all 55 poems, among them the popularly beloved “Terje Vigen”. “A Verse”, Ibsen´s most trenchant short poem, was included in a later edition of the collection:

To live -­ is to war with demons 

in the vaults of the heart and mind.

To write poetry – is to hold the 

Day of Judgement on oneself.

In 1873 came Emperor and Galilean, which Ibsen himself characterised as his most important work, a ten-act mammoth of a drama with a plot from the Roman Empire of 300 AD. This was Ibsen´s last historical play. In 1877 he launched the series of his famous and groundbreaking contemporary plays with The Pillars of Society. It was with these works that he put himself at the forefront of the modern breakthrough in European intellectual and cultural life, and laid the foundation for the modern theatre. He addressed central and somewhat inflammatory themes of modern society, women´s position in marriage and society, hypocrisy, dissimulation and abuse of power among leading men in industry, politics, the church and media, the relationship between truth and justice, freedom and duty, minority and majority, environmental considerations versus economic interests, incest, euthanasia, etc. 

With the realistic contemporary dramas The Pillars of Society (1877), A Doll´s House (1879), Ghosts(1881) and An Enemy of the People (1882) Ibsen by far satisfied the influential Danish critic Georg Brandes´ requirement for creating a debate about issues. With A Doll´s House Ibsen later achieved his international breakthrough. This play has had an enormous significance in the struggle for equal rights for women worldwide and is believably the most performed play in the world in modern times.

Before Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 he wrote The Wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888) and Hedda Gabler (1890). These plays represent a gradual transition from the plays of realistic issues and social criticism to psychological and symbolic drama. Ibsen became the unfathomable sphinx. The critics were more and more at a loss with regard to what kind of opinion they should have about his works. About Hedda Gabler, which along with A Doll´s House is Ibsen´s most performed and read play, a critic of the time said: “All in all, Hedda Gabler can hardly be described as anything other than a disagreeable figment of the imagination, a monster created by the poet himself in the form of a woman lacking any corresponding counterpart in the real world.” 

In 1891 Ibsen settled down in Kristiania and lived there until his death in 1906. His four last dramatic works, The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and When We Dead Awaken (1899), are frequently characterised as dramatic self-portraits, as artistic confessions in the name of self-scrutiny and self-awareness. The main characters of these plays are male and aging, like Ibsen himself, with creative professions. They look back and take stock of the lives they have lived thus far.

In 1900 Ibsen suffered his first stroke. His “dramatic epilogue” When We Dead Awaken was thus and appropriately the last dramatic work that he wrote. In 1906, after several years of poor health, he died in his home in Arbinsgate in Kristiania. Ibsen wrote in all 26 dramatic works and some 300 poems. His plays have retained a strong contemporary relevance and continue to be staged at innumerable theatres in all parts of the world. After Shakespeare, Ibsen is the most performed dramatist in the world.