Henrik Ibsen: Life and Career

“Twenty years have passed since Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, thereby almost marking an epoch in the history of drama. During those years his name has gone abroad through the length and breadth of two continents, and has provoked more discussion and criticism than that of any other living man.

He has been upheld as a religious reformer, a social reformer, a Semitic lover of righteousness, and as a great dramatist. He has been rigorously denounced as a meddlesome intruder, a defective artist, an incomprehensible mystic, and, in the eloquent words of a certain English critic, a ‘muck-ferreting dog.’ Through the perplexities of such diverse criticism, the great genius of the man is day by day coming out as a hero comes out amid the earthly trials.” With these words, the eighteen-year-old James Joyce began a long article about the Norwegian playwright whose work had altered the nineteenth-century perception of what drama could accomplish and had inspired in the fledging Irish writer a recognition of literature’s power to describe honestly and to comment meaningfully on the problems of human nature and modern society.

Early Years
Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, to Knud and Marichen (Altenburg) Ibsen, in Skien, Norway. Skien was a coastal town of some three thousand inhabitants whose chief industry was the timber trade. Except for his father, who was the proprietor of a general store and a distiller of schnapps, Ibsen’s male paternal ancestors had all been sailors and sea captains. His older brother died within a month of Henrik’s birth, but his parents went on to have four other children, three sons and a daughter, all of whom would live to adulthood. Thus, Henrik was effectively the eldest of five children. Norway had been under Danish rule from 1387 to 1814, and then, after only a few weeks of independence, it had come under the subjugation of Sweden. At the time of Ibsen’s birth, it was a largely rural and primitive land, culturally subject to Denmark, with virtually no artistic life of its own.
At the time of Henrik’s birth, his home life was a happy one: his mother sang and played piano and his father was a prosperous merchant. But in 1834 the authorities ordered the closing of his distillery, which led to the selling off of land and livestock, and soon thereafter the family home and furnishings. Ibsen’s father, who never regained his prosperity and who became embittered and litigious over these events, moved his family, now socially diminished if not outcast, to a run-down country house. Ibsen’s upbringing was lonely and unhappy; his chief amusements were reading (especially the Bible, although he was never a member of any church), drawing and painting (in which he took lessons), and magic tricks. From the ages of thirteen to fifteen, he was enrolled in a small private school, where his favorite subjects were religion and classical history. On December 27, 1843, after a friend of his father’s had found him a position as an apothecary’s assistant, Ibsen sailed to Grimstad, a town of eight hundred inhabitants one hundred miles to the south. He returned to Skien only once, for a brief visit in 1850, and kept only occasional contact with his family for the rest of his life.
During the six years that Ibsen spent in Grimstad, he worked hard at the apothecary shop, and spent what little free time he had in reading, painting, and writing poetry. Here, as in Skien, plays were often staged by visiting theater companies, and Ibsen no doubt attended some of their performances. In 1846, at the age of eighteen, he fathered a child by a twenty-eight-year-old housemaid in his employer’s home. While he was required to contribute financially to his son’s schooling until the boy was eighteen, he had no contact with his child, at that time or later. By the age of twenty, Ibsen had already become a freethinker in matters of religion and politics, and he was tremendously excited by the wave of popular revolutionary uprisings that flashed across Europe in 1848, threatening the established order. He wrote poems in which he extolled the Hungarian freedom fighters and urged his fellow Scandinavians to rise against their oppressors. At the beginning of 1849, he wrote Catiline, his first play, a blank-verse drama reminiscent of Shakespeare in style and structure, although Ibsen denied any direct influence. The historical Catiline is traditionally presented as a conspirator from whose plots Rome was saved by the actions of Cicero; in Ibsen’s treatment, he is a revolutionary and a hero.
Literary Career
In 1850, Ibsen moved to Christiania (now Oslo), Norway‘s capital, where he prepared for his university matriculation examinations, and began for the first time in his life to associate regularly with fellow writers and intellectuals. In that year, his friend Ole Schulerud paid for the publication of Catiline. The book received an enthusiastic review from a contemporary of Ibsen’s, along with two less favorable but not unencouraging notices from more established critics. The following year, his second play, The Warrior’s Barrow, was produced, but it attracted no more notice than Catiline had done. In the meantime, having failed his matriculation exams, and thus unable to fulfill his intention of pursuing medical studies, he wrote dramatic reviews and political comment while taking classes in literature. In October 1851, at which time Ibsen still had not qualified for matriculation, the course of his life was changed when he was offered a job by the classical violinist and theatrical manager Ole Bull.
For the next six years, Ibsen divided his time between Copenhagen, Denmark, the theatrical center of Scandinavia at that time, and the theater in Bergen, Norway, where he was involved in every aspect of play production except acting. It was an invaluable apprenticeship, an opportunity for Ibsen to ground himself in all aspects of his craft, but it was also a frustrating one: the standards of acting and production were provincial; the plays produced were for the most part creaky melodramas imported from France, which emphasized intricate plots over character; and the company was not commercially successful. Early in 1856, Ibsen met a young woman named Suzannah Thoresen at the literary salon conducted by her stepmother. He and Suzannah were married on June 18, 1858. Although in Ibsen’s dramas women are often presented as domineering and there are virtually no happy marriages, both his wife and their son Sigurd (born on December 23, 1859) would devote themselves totally to his personal and professional well-being. Ibsen left the Bergen Theater in 1857 to head the Norwegian Theater in Christiana. This enterprise failed in 1862, and for the next two years he scraped by as best he could, subsisting in part on a small government grant to collect folklore materials (some of which would find their way into Peer Gynt, published in 1867). In 1864, he moved his family to Rome, where he would live until 1891, except for a ten-year period in Germany beginning in 1868.
Ibsen’s career as a playwright falls into several distinct periods. For its first two decades, his predominant mode was verse drama, with plots often derived from classical or Scandinavian history (Love’s Comedy [1862], a satirical treatment of modern marriage, was a significant exception). His last epic drama drawn from historical subjects was Emperor and Galilean (1873), which marked a significant turning point in that it was written in prose. Most of these works had been failures when they were produced. Ibsen’s greatest achievements of this period were two long verse dramas that were published rather than produced for the stage. Brand (1865), which explored the character of an idealistic but unyielding and ultimately fanatical Lutheran minister, brought Ibsen not only fame but prosperity as well, in the form of a government grant. Peer Gynt, which takes its antihero over the earth and through a series of adventures, some of them supernatural, is not unlike Goethe’s Faust in its poetry, its succession of vivid scenes, and its moral and philosophical investigations. Although very different in style and nature from the plays usually associated with his name, it remains one of Ibsen’s greatest works.
The Pillars of Society (1877) was the first of eight realistic dramas, set in modern times and written in naturalistic prose, that would revolutionize European theater and bring Ibsen an international reputation. A Doll’s House (1879), the second of these plays, caused a sensation with its psychological insight, its persuasive depiction of the complexities of a marriage relationship, and its clear sympathy for the wife’s frustrations and for her shocking resolution of her situation. Ghosts (1881) caused a scandal with its frank acknowledgment of inherited venereal disease, and was as much as anything responsible for Ibsen’s reputation as an author of “problem plays,” dramas whose principal concern was to illuminate social issues. Thus, in this reductive view, A Doll’s House is about the subjugation of women, Ghosts is about syphilis, An Enemy of the People (1882) is about idealism vs. municipal corruption, and so on. In fact, what these plays are really concerned with is the subtle analysis of human character and motivation, and the often tortuous nature of relationships; their social dimension acts more as an underpinning, a partial explanation of human behavior and of the problems people create for themselves and others through a rigid and often hypocritical adherence to outworn traditions and corrupt social norms. For all that Ibsen crusaded against institutionalized hypocrisy and its attendant cruelties, it is a mark of the complexity of his moral and psychological vision that in The Wild Duck (1884) he shows how, in unstable and misguided hands, “truth” can be as destructive as hypocrisy and lies–as can the search for personal freedom in a stifling society, as demonstrated in Hedda Gabler (1890), the last and one of the greatest of these plays.
Last Years and Legacy
After his return to Norway at the height of his fame in 1891, Ibsen turned, in his last four plays, to a series of moody, symbolic dramas, whose protagonists look back unhappily over their lives and the choices they have made. Critics have professed to find submerged autobiographical themes in these works, especially When We Dead Awaken (1899), Ibsen’s last play, in which the sculptor Rubek comes to feel that his single-minded artistic dedication has exacted too great a price in human terms. In 1900, Ibsen suffered the first of a series of apoplectic strokes that would affect him both mentally and physically until his death on May 23, 1906, at the age of seventy-eight. The Norwegian government granted him a state funeral.
It was as a dramatic innovator that Ibsen established his reputation, at a time when drama largely meant shallow romances, crude farces, and plays of intrigue with complicated and ludicrous plots. It was as a fierce critic of social norms and stifling hypocrisies that he was celebrated by his early admirers. But it is as the author of powerful dramas that portray universal human concerns, as the creator of complex characters who suffer and endure in their attempts to make sense of their lives, that he transcends merely historical importance and remains a writer whose best works can move and provoke us as much as they did their original audiences.