Henrik Ibsen

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Henrik Ibsen
Ibsen by Olrik.jpg
Portrait by Henrik Olrik, 1879
BornHenrik Johan Ibsen
(1828-03-20)20 March 1828
Skien, Telemark, Norway
Died23 May 1906(1906-05-23) (aged 78)
Kristiania, Norway
(modern Oslo)
OccupationWriter, theatre director
Genres Drama
Literary movement Naturalism, realism
Notable works Brand (1865)
Peer Gynt (1867)
A Doll's House (1879)
Ghosts (1881)
An Enemy of the People (1882)
The Wild Duck (1884)
Rosmersholm (1886)
Hedda Gabler (1890)
Spouse Suzannah Thoresen (m. 1858)
Children Sigurd Ibsen
Relatives Knud Ibsen (father)
Marichen Altenburg (mother)
Henrik Ibsen's signature.png

Henrik Johan Ibsen ( /ˈɪbsən/ ; [1] Norwegian: [ˈhɛ̀nrɪkˈɪ̀psn̩] ; 20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) was a Norwegian playwright and theatre director. As one of the founders of modernism in theatre, Ibsen is often referred to as "the father of realism" and one of the most influential playwrights of his time. [2] His major works include Brand , Peer Gynt , An Enemy of the People , Emperor and Galilean , A Doll's House , Hedda Gabler , Ghosts , The Wild Duck , When We Dead Awaken , Rosmersholm , and The Master Builder . Ibsen is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare, [3] [4] and A Doll's House was the world's most performed play in 2006. [5]


Ibsen's early poetic and cinematic play Peer Gynt has strong surreal elements. [6] After Peer Gynt Ibsen abandoned verse and wrote in realistic prose. Several of his later dramas were considered scandalous to many of his era, when European theatre was expected to model strict morals of family life and propriety. Ibsen's later work examined the realities that lay behind the façades, revealing much that was disquieting to a number of his contemporaries. He had a critical eye and conducted a free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of morality. In many critics' estimates The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm are "vying with each other as rivals for the top place among Ibsen's works"; [7] Ibsen himself regarded Emperor and Galilean as his masterpiece. [8]

Ibsen is often ranked as one of the most distinguished playwrights in the European tradition, [9] and is widely regarded as the foremost playwright of the nineteenth century. [9] [10] He influenced other playwrights and novelists such as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Harley Granville Barker, Arthur Miller, Marguerite Yourcenar, James Joyce, Eugene O'Neill, and Jon Fosse. Ibsen was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, 1903, and 1904. [11]

Ibsen was born into the merchant elite of the port town of Skien and grew up as a member of the IbsenPaus extended family. Although most of his plays are set in Norway—often in places reminiscent of Skien—Ibsen lived for 27 years in Italy and Germany and rarely visited Norway during his most productive years. Ibsen's dramas were informed by his background, and he often modelled or named characters after family members. Ibsen wrote his plays in Dano-Norwegian, [lower-alpha 1] and they were published by the Danish publisher Gyldendal. He was the father of Prime Minister Sigurd Ibsen.

Early life and background

Family and childhood

Charitas, the ship captained by Henrik's grandfather of the same name when he died at sea outside Grimstad in 1797. The Dannebrog was the common flag of Denmark-Norway. Charitas, Norwegian ship, 1763.jpg
Charitas, the ship captained by Henrik's grandfather of the same name when he died at sea outside Grimstad in 1797. The Dannebrog was the common flag of Denmark–Norway.

Henrik Johan Ibsen was born on 20 March 1828 in Stockmanngården into an affluent merchant family in the prosperous port town of Skien in Bratsberg (Telemark). He was the son of the merchant Knud Plesner Ibsen (1797–1877) and Marichen Cornelia Martine Altenburg (1799–1869), and he grew up as a member of the IbsenAltenburgPaus extended family, which consisted of the siblings Ole and Hedevig Paus and their tightly knit families. Ibsen's ancestors were primarily merchants and shipowners in cities such as Skien and Bergen, or members of the "aristocracy of officials" of Upper Telemark, the region's civil servant elite. Henrik Ibsen later wrote that "my parents were members on both sides of the most respected families in Skien", and that he was closely related to "just about all the patrician families who then dominated the place and its surroundings." [12] [13] He was baptised at home in the Lutheran state church—membership of which was mandatory—on 28 March and the baptism was confirmed in Christian's Church  [ no ] on 19 June. [14] When Ibsen was born, Skien had for centuries been one of Norway's most important and internationally oriented cities, and a centre of seafaring, timber exports and early industrialization that had made Norway the developed and prosperous part of Denmark–Norway. [14]

A silhouette (ca. 1820) of the Altenburg/Paus family in Altenburggarden, with Ibsen's mother (far right), maternal grandparents (centre) and other relatives. It is the only existing portrait of either of Ibsen's parents. Altenburg2.png
A silhouette (ca. 1820) of the Altenburg/Paus family in Altenburggården, with Ibsen's mother (far right), maternal grandparents (centre) and other relatives. It is the only existing portrait of either of Ibsen's parents.

His parents, though not closely related by blood, had been reared as social first cousins, sometimes described as near-siblings in a social sense. [15] Knud Ibsen's father, ship's captain and merchant Henrich Johan Ibsen (1765–1797), died at sea when his son was newborn in 1797, and his mother Johanne Plesner (1770–1847) married captain Ole Paus (1766–1855) the following year; Knud grew up as a member of the Paus family. His stepfather Ole Paus was a descendant of the "aristocracy of officials" in Upper Telemark; as a child Paus had been taken in by a relative, Skien merchant Christopher Blom, and he had become a ship's captain and shipowner in Skien, acquiring the burghership in 1788. Like Henrich Johan Ibsen before him, Paus became the brother-in-law of one of Norway's wealthiest men, Diderik von Cappelen, whose first wife Maria Plesner was Johanne's sister. In 1799, Ole Paus sold the Ibsen House in Skien's Løvestrædet (Lion's Street), which he had inherited from his wife's first husband, and bought the estate Rising outside Skien from a sister of his brother-in-law von Cappelen. Knud grew up at Rising with most of his many half-siblings, among them the later governor Christian Cornelius Paus and the shipowner Christopher Blom Paus. In the 1801 census the Paus family of Rising had seven servants. [14]

The roof and one of the windows of Altenburggarden can be seen in the middle of the picture. Altenburggarden was Marichen Altenburg's childhood home, and Henrik Ibsen lived there aged 3-8. Altenburggarden i Skien.jpg
The roof and one of the windows of Altenburggården can be seen in the middle of the picture. Altenburggården was Marichen Altenburg's childhood home, and Henrik Ibsen lived there aged 3–8.
Venstop outside Skien, originally the Ibsen family's summer house, where they lived permanently 1836-1843. It was a reasonably large farm with large, representative buildings. Venstoep Skien.jpg
Venstøp outside Skien, originally the Ibsen family's summer house, where they lived permanently 1836–1843. It was a reasonably large farm with large, representative buildings.

Marichen grew up in the large, stately Altenburggården building in central Skien as the daughter of the wealthy merchant Johan Andreas Altenburg (1763–1824) and Hedevig Christine Paus  [ no ] (1763–1848), who was the sister of Knud's stepfather. Altenburg was a shipowner and timber merchant, and owned a liquor distillery at Lundetangen and a farm outside of town; after his death in 1824 the widow Hedevig, Henrik's grandmother, took over the businesses. During Henrik's childhood the families of Ole and Hedevig Paus were very close: Ole's oldest son, Knud's half-brother Henrik Johan Paus, was raised in Hedevig's home, and the children of the Paus siblings, including Knud and Marichen, spent much of their childhood together. Older Ibsen scholars have claimed that Henrik Ibsen was fascinated by his parents' "strange, almost incestuous marriage", and he would treat the subject of incestuous relationships in several plays, notably in his masterpiece Rosmersholm . [16] On the other hand, Jørgen Haave points out that his parents' close relationship wasn't that unusual among the Skien elite. [14]

In 1825, Henrik's father Knud acquired the burghership of Skien and established an independent business as a timber and luxury goods merchant there, with his younger brother, Christopher Blom Paus, then aged 15, as his apprentice. The two brothers moved into the Stockmanngården building, where they rented a part of the building and lived with a maid. On the first floor the brothers sold foreign wines and a variety of luxury items, while also engaging in wholesale export of timber in cooperation with their first cousin Diderik von Cappelen (1795–1866). On 1 December 1825, Knud married his stepfather's niece Marichen, who then moved in with them. Henrik was born there in 1828. In 1830, Marichen's mother Hedevig left Altenburggården and her properties and business ventures to her son-in-law Knud, and the Ibsen family moved to Marichen's childhood home in 1831. During the 1820s and 1830s, Knud was a wealthy young merchant in Skien, and he was the city's 16th largest taxpayer in 1833. [14]

In his unfinished biography From Skien to Rome, Henrik Ibsen wrote about the Skien of his childhood:

In my childhood, Skien was an extremely joyful and festive town, quite the opposite of what it would later become. Many highly cultured, prosperous families at that time lived partly in the city itself, partly on large farms in the area. Close or more remote kinship connected most of these families amongst themselves, and balls, dinner parties, and musical soirées came one after another in rapid succession both during winters and summers. [...] Visits from strangers were almost a constant occurrence at our spacious farmhouse and especially around Christmastime and the market days, our townhouse was full and the table was set from morning to nightfall.

Henrik Ibsen [17]

Haave writes that the sources who knew Henrik in childhood described him as "a boy who was pampered by his father, who enjoyed being creative in solitude, and who provoked peers with his superiority and arrogance." [14] Henrik engaged in model theater, which was particularly popular among boys from bourgeois homes in Europe in the early 1800s. [14] In contrast to his sociable and playful father, Henrik was described as a more introverted personality; Johan Kielland Bergwitz claimed that "it is with the Paus family that Henrik Ibsen has the most pronounced temperament traits in common." [18] One of the Cudrio sisters from the neighboring farm, who knew him in childhood, said, "he was immensely cunning and malicious, and he even beat us. But when he grew up, he became incredibly handsome, yet no one liked him because he was so malicious. No one wanted to be with him." [14]

When Henrik Ibsen was around seven years old, his father's fortunes took a turn for the worse, and in 1835 the family was forced to sell Altenburggården. The following year they moved to their stately summer house, Venstøp  [ no ], outside of the city. [19] They were still relatively affluent, had servants, and socialised with other members of the Skien elite, e.g. through lavish parties; their closest neighbours on Southern Venstøp were former shipowner and mayor of Skien Ulrich Frederik Cudrio and his family, who also had been forced to sell their townhouse. [14] In 1843, after Henrik left home, the Ibsen family moved to a townhouse at Snipetorp, owned by Knud Ibsen's half-brother and former apprentice Christopher Blom Paus, who had established himself as an independent merchant in Skien in 1836 and who eventually became one of the city's leading shipowners. [20] Knud continued to struggle to maintain his business and had some success in the 1840s, but in the 1850s his business ventures and professional activities came to an end, and he became reliant on support from his successful younger half-brothers. [14]

Myths and reassessment

Ibsen scholar Ellen Rees notes that historical and biographical research into Ibsen’s life in the 21st century has been marked by a "revolution" that has debunked numerous myths previously taken for granted. [21] Older Ibsen historiography has often claimed that Knud Ibsen experienced financial ruin and became an alcoholic tyrant, that the family lost contact with the elite it had belonged to, and that this had a strong influence on Henrik Ibsen's biography and work. Newer Ibsen scholarship, in particular Jørgen Haave's book Familien Ibsen [The Ibsen Family], has refuted such claims, and Haave has pointed out that older biographical works have uncritically repeated numerous unfounded myths about both of Ibsen's parents, and about the playwright's childhood and background in general. [14]

Haave points out that Knud Ibsen's economic problems in the 1830s were mainly the result of the difficult times and something the Ibsen family had in common with most members of the bourgeoisie; Haave further argues that Henrik Ibsen had a happy and comfortable childhood as a member of the upper class, even after the family moved to Venstøp, and that they were able to maintain their lifestyle and patrician identity with the help of their extended family and accumulated cultural capital. [14] Contrary to the incorrect claims that Ibsen had been born in a small or remote town, Haave points out that Skien had been Eastern Norway's leading commercial city for centuries, and a centre of seafaring, timber exports, and early industrialization that had made Norway the developed and prosperous part of Denmark–Norway. [14]

Rees characterizes Ibsen's family as upper class rather than middle class, and part of "the closest thing Norway had to an aristocracy, albeit one that lost most of its power during his lifetime." [21] Haave points out that virtually all of Ibsen's ancestors had been wealthy burghers and higher government officials, and members of the local and regional elites in the areas they lived, often of continental European ancestry. He argues that "the Ibsen family belonged to an elite that distanced itself strongly from the common farmer population, and considered itself part of an educated European culture" and that "it was this patrician class that formed his cultural identity and upbringing." [22] Haave points to many examples of both Henrik Ibsen and other members of his family having a condescending attitude towards common Norwegian farmers, viewing them as "some sort of primitive indigenous population," [14] and being very conscious of their own identity as members of the sophisticated upper class. [14] Haave points out that Ibsen's most immediate family—Knud, Marichen and Henrik's siblings—disintegrated financially and socially in the 1850s, but that it happened after Henrik had left home, at a time when he was establishing himself as a successful man of theatre, while his extended family, such as his uncles Henrik Johan Paus, Christian Cornelius Paus and Christopher Blom Paus, were firmly established in Skien's elite as lawyers, government officials and wealthy shipowners. [14] Haave argues that the story of the Ibsen family is the story of the slow collapse of a patrician merchant family amid the emergence of a new democratic society in the 19th century, and that Henrik Ibsen, like others of his class, had to find new opportunities to maintain his social position. [14]

Literary influence of his childhood

Many Ibsen scholars have compared characters and themes in his plays to his family and upbringing; his themes often deal with issues of financial difficulty as well as moral conflicts stemming from dark secrets hidden from society. Ibsen himself confirmed that he both modeled and named characters in his plays after his own family. [20] [23] Works such as Peer Gynt , The Wild Duck , Rosmersholm , Hedda Gabler , An Enemy of the People, and Ghosts include numerous references to Ibsen's relatives, family history, and childhood memories. However, despite Ibsen's use of his family as an inspiration for his plays, Haave criticizes the uncritical use of Ibsen's dramas as biographical sources and the "naive" readings of them as literal representations of his family members, in particular his father. [14]

Early career

Grimstad years

At fifteen, Ibsen left school. He moved to the small town of Grimstad to become an apprentice pharmacist. At that time he began writing plays. In 1846, when Ibsen was 18, he had a liaison with Else Sophie Jensdatter Birkedalen which produced a son, Hans Jacob Hendrichsen Birkdalen, whose upbringing Ibsen paid for until the boy was fourteen, though Ibsen never saw the child. Ibsen went to Christiania (later spelled Kristiania and then renamed Oslo) intending to matriculate at the university. He soon rejected the idea (his earlier attempts at entering university were blocked as he did not pass all his entrance exams), preferring to commit himself to writing. His first play, the tragedy Catilina (1850), was published under the pseudonym "Brynjolf Bjarme", when he was only 22, but it was not performed. His first play to be staged, The Burial Mound (1850), received little attention. Still, Ibsen was determined to be a playwright, although the numerous plays he wrote in the following years remained unsuccessful. [24] Ibsen's main inspiration in the early period, right up to Peer Gynt , was apparently the Norwegian author Henrik Wergeland and the Norwegian folk tales as collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. In Ibsen's youth, Wergeland was the most acclaimed, and by far the most read, Norwegian poet and playwright.

Ibsen as a theatre director

Ibsen spent the next several years employed at Det norske Theater (Bergen), where he was involved in the production of more than 145 plays as a writer, director, and producer. During this period, he published five new—though largely unremarkable—plays. Despite Ibsen's failure to achieve success as a playwright, he gained a great deal of practical experience at the Norwegian Theater, experience that was to prove valuable when he continued writing.

Ibsen returned to Christiania in 1858 to become the creative director of the Christiania Theatre. He married Suzannah Thoresen on 18 June 1858 and she gave birth to their only child Sigurd on 23 December 1859. The couple lived in difficult financial circumstances and Ibsen became very disenchanted with life in Norway.

Years in exile

One of the oldest photographs of Ibsen from ca. 1863/64, around the time he began writing Brand Portrait of Henrik Ibsen, 1863-64 (cropped).jpg
One of the oldest photographs of Ibsen from ca. 1863/64, around the time he began writing Brand
Ibsen (far left) with friends in Rome, ca. 1867 Henrik Ibsen with friends in Rome.jpg
Ibsen (far left) with friends in Rome, ca. 1867

In 1864, [25] he left Christiania and went to Sorrento in Italy in self-imposed exile. He spent the next 27 years in Italy and Germany and only visited Norway a few times during those years.

His next play, Brand (1865), brought him the critical acclaim he sought, along with a measure of financial success, as did the following play, Peer Gynt (1867), to which Edvard Grieg composed incidental music and songs. Although Ibsen read excerpts of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and traces of the latter's influence are evident in Brand, it was not until after Brand that Ibsen came to take Kierkegaard seriously. Initially annoyed with his friend Georg Brandes for comparing Brand to Kierkegaard, Ibsen nevertheless read Either/Or and Fear and Trembling . Ibsen's next play Peer Gynt was consciously informed by Kierkegaard. [26] [27]

With success, Ibsen became more confident and began to introduce more and more of his own beliefs and judgements into the drama, exploring what he termed the "drama of ideas". His next series of plays are often considered his Golden Age, when he entered the height of his power and influence, becoming the center of dramatic controversy across Europe.[ citation needed ]

Ibsen moved from Italy to Dresden, Germany, in 1868, where he spent years writing the play he regarded as his main work, Emperor and Galilean (1873), dramatizing the life and times of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate. Although Ibsen himself always looked back on this play as the cornerstone of his entire works, very few shared his opinion, and his next works would be much more acclaimed. Ibsen moved to Munich in 1875 and began work on his first contemporary realist drama The Pillars of Society , first published and performed in 1877. [28] A Doll's House followed in 1879. This play is a scathing criticism of the marital roles accepted by men and women which characterized Ibsen's society.

Ibsen was already in his fifties when A Doll's House was published. He himself saw his latter plays as a series. At the end of his career, he described them as "that series of dramas which began with A Doll's House and which is now completed with When We Dead Awaken ". [29] Furthermore, it was the reception of A Doll's House which brought Ibsen international acclaim.

Ghosts followed in 1881, another scathing commentary on the morality of Ibsen's society, in which a widow reveals to her pastor that she had hidden the evils of her marriage for its duration. The pastor had advised her to marry her fiancé despite his philandering, and she did so in the belief that her love would reform him. But his philandering continued right up until his death, and his vices are passed on to their son in the form of syphilis. The mention of venereal disease alone was scandalous, but to show how it could poison a respectable family was considered intolerable. [30]

In An Enemy of the People (1882), Ibsen went even further. In earlier plays, controversial elements were important and even pivotal components of the action, but they were on the small scale of individual households. In An Enemy, controversy became the primary focus, and the antagonist was the entire community. One primary message of the play is that the individual, who stands alone, is more often "right" than the mass of people, who are portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. Contemporary society's belief was that the community was a noble institution that could be trusted, a notion Ibsen challenged. In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen chastised not only the conservatism of society, but also the liberalism of the time. He illustrated how people on both sides of the social spectrum could be equally self-serving. An Enemy of the People was written as a response to the people who had rejected his previous work, Ghosts. The plot of the play is a veiled look at the way people reacted to the plot of Ghosts. The protagonist is a physician in a vacation spot whose primary draw is a public bath. The doctor discovers that the water is contaminated by the local tannery. He expects to be acclaimed for saving the town from the nightmare of infecting visitors with disease, but instead he is declared an 'enemy of the people' by the locals, who band against him and even throw stones through his windows. The play ends with his complete ostracism. It is obvious to the reader that disaster is in store for the town as well as for the doctor.

As audiences by now expected, Ibsen's next play again attacked entrenched beliefs and assumptions; but this time, his attack was not against society's mores, but against overeager reformers and their idealism. Always an iconoclast, Ibsen saw himself as an objective observer of society, "like a lone franc tireur in the outposts", playing a lone hand, as he put it. [31] Ibsen, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, relied upon immediate sources such as newspapers and second-hand report for his contact with intellectual thought. He claimed to be ignorant of books, leaving them to his wife and son, but, as Georg Brandes described, "he seemed to stand in some mysterious correspondence with the fermenting, germinating ideas of the day." [32]

The Wild Duck (1884) is by many considered Ibsen's finest work, and it is certainly one of the most complex, alongside Rosmersholm . It tells the story of Gregers Werle, a young man who returns to his hometown after an extended exile, and is reunited with his boyhood friend Hjalmar Ekdal. Over the course of the play, the many secrets that lie behind the Ekdals' apparently happy home are revealed to Gregers, who insists on pursuing the absolute truth, or the "Summons of the Ideal". Among these truths: Gregers' father impregnated his servant Gina, then married her off to Hjalmar to legitimize the child. Another man has been disgraced and imprisoned for a crime the elder Werle committed. Furthermore, while Hjalmar spends his days working on a wholly imaginary "invention", his wife is earning the household income.[ citation needed ]

Ibsen displays masterly use of irony: despite his dogmatic insistence on truth, Gregers never says what he thinks but only insinuates, and is never understood until the play reaches its climax. Gregers hammers away at Hjalmar through innuendo and coded phrases until he realizes the truth: that Gina's daughter, Hedvig, is not his child. Blinded by Gregers' insistence on absolute truth, Hjalmar disavows the child. Seeing the damage he has wrought, Gregers determines to repair things, and suggests to Hedvig that she sacrifice the wild duck, her wounded pet, to prove her love for Hjalmar. Hedvig, alone among the characters, recognizes that Gregers always speaks in code, and looking for the deeper meaning in the first important statement Gregers makes which does not contain one, kills herself rather than the duck in order to prove her love for him in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. Only too late do Hjalmar and Gregers realize that the absolute truth of the "ideal" is sometimes too much for the human heart to bear.[ citation needed ]

Letter from Ibsen to his English reviewer and translator Edmund Gosse: "30.8.[18]99. Dear Mr. Edmund Gosse! It was to me a hearty joy to receive your letter. So I will finally personally meet you and your wife. I am at home every day in the morning until 1 o'clock. I am happy and surprised at your excellent Norwegian! Your amicably obliged Henrik Ibsen." Handwriting2.jpg
Letter from Ibsen to his English reviewer and translator Edmund Gosse: "30.8.[18]99. Dear Mr. Edmund Gosse! It was to me a hearty joy to receive your letter. So I will finally personally meet you and your wife. I am at home every day in the morning until 1 o'clock. I am happy and surprised at your excellent Norwegian! Your amicably obliged Henrik Ibsen."

Late in his career, Ibsen turned to a more introspective drama that had much less to do with denunciations of society's moral values and more to do with the problems of individuals. In such later plays as Hedda Gabler (1890) and The Master Builder (1892), Ibsen explored psychological conflicts that transcended a simple rejection of current conventions. Many modern readers, who might regard anti-Victorian didacticism as dated, simplistic or hackneyed, have found these later works to be of absorbing interest for their hard-edged, objective consideration of interpersonal confrontation. Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House are regularly cited as Ibsen's most popular and influential plays, [33] with the title role of Hedda regarded as one of the most challenging and rewarding for an actress even in the present day.

Ibsen had completely rewritten the rules of drama with a realism which was to be adopted by Chekhov and others, and which we see in the theatre to this day. From Ibsen forward, challenging assumptions and directly speaking about issues has been considered one of the factors that makes a play art rather than entertainment[ citation needed ]. His works were brought to an English-speaking audience, largely thanks to the efforts of William Archer and Edmund Gosse. These in turn had a profound influence on the young James Joyce who venerates Ibsen in his early autobiographical novel Stephen Hero . Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891, but it was in many ways not the Norway he had left. Indeed, he had played a major role in the changes that had happened across society. Modernism was on the rise, not only in the theatre, but across public life.[ citation needed ].

Ibsen intentionally obscured his influences. However, asked later what he had read when he wrote Catiline , Ibsen replied that he had read only the Danish Norse saga-inspired Romantic tragedian Adam Oehlenschläger and Ludvig Holberg, "the Scandinavian Molière". [34]

Critical reception

Ibsen caricatured by SNAPP for Vanity Fair, 1901 Henrik Ibsen Vanity Fair 1901-12-12.jpg
Ibsen caricatured by SNAPP for Vanity Fair , 1901

At the time when Ibsen was writing, literature was emerging as a formidable force in 19th century society. [35] With the vast increase in literacy towards the end of the century, the possibilities of literature being used for subversion struck horror into the heart of the Establishment. Ibsen's plays, from A Doll's House onwards, caused an uproar—not just in Norway, but throughout Europe, and even across the Atlantic in America. No other artist, apart from Richard Wagner, had such an effect internationally, inspiring almost blasphemous adoration and hysterical abuse. [36]

After the publication of Ghosts, he wrote: "while the storm lasted, I have made many studies and observations and I shall not hesitate to exploit them in my future writings." [37] Indeed, his next play, An Enemy of the People, was initially regarded by the critics to be simply his response to the violent criticism which had greeted Ghosts. Ibsen expected criticism; as he wrote to his publisher: "Ghosts will probably cause alarm in some circles, but it can't be helped. If it did not, there would have been no necessity for me to have written it." [38]

Ibsen didn't just read the critical reaction to his plays, he actively corresponded with critics, publishers, theatre directors, and newspaper editors on the subject. The interpretation of his work, both by critics and directors, concerned him greatly. He often advised directors on which actor or actress would be suitable for a particular role. (An example of this is a letter he wrote to Hans Schroder in November 1884, with detailed instructions for the production of The Wild Duck. [39] )

Ibsen's plays initially reached a far wider audience as read plays rather than in performance. It was 20 years, for instance, before the authorities would allow Ghosts to be performed in Norway. Each new play that Ibsen wrote, from 1879 onwards, had an explosive effect on intellectual circles. This was greatest for A Doll's House and Ghosts, and it did lessen with the later plays, but the translation of Ibsen's works into German, French, and English during the decade following the initial publication of each play—as well as frequent new productions as and when permission was granted—meant that Ibsen remained a topic of lively conversation throughout the latter decades of the 19th century. When A Doll's House was published, it had an explosive effect: it was the centre of every conversation at every social gathering in Christiania. One hostess even wrote on the invitations to her soirée, "You are politely requested not to mention Mr Ibsen's new play". [40]


Ibsen, late in his career Henrik Ibsen, 1898 (4706077084).jpg
Ibsen, late in his career

On 23 May 1906, Ibsen died in his home at Arbins gade 1 in Kristiania (now Oslo) [41] after a series of strokes in March 1900. When, on 22 May, his nurse assured a visitor that he was a little better, Ibsen spluttered his last words "On the contrary" ("Tvertimod!"). He died the following day at 2:30 pm. [42]

Ibsen was buried in Vår Frelsers gravlund ("The Graveyard of Our Savior") in central Oslo.


The 100th anniversary of Ibsen's death in 2006 was commemorated with an "Ibsen year" in Norway and other countries. [43] [44] [45] In 2006, the homebuilding company Selvaag also opened Peer Gynt Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway, in Henrik Ibsen's honour, making it possible to follow the dramatic play Peer Gynt scene by scene. Will Eno's adaptation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, titled Gnit, had its world premiere at the 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays in March 2013. [46]

On 23 May 2006, The Ibsen Museum in Oslo re-opened to the public, with the house, where Ibsen had spent his last eleven years, completely restored with the original interior, colours, and decor. [47]

Political views

In a letter to George Brandes shortly before the Paris Commune, Ibsen expressed anarchist views that Brandes later positively related to the Paris Commune. Ibsen wrote that the state "is the curse of the individual.… The state must be abolished." [48] [49] Brandes related that Ibsen "presented to me as political ideals, conditions and ideas whose nature did not seem to me quite clear, but which were unquestionably akin to those that were proclaimed precisely one month later, in an extremely distorted form, by the Parisian commune." [48] And in another letter shortly before the Commune came to an end, Ibsen expressed a disappointment with the Commune, insofar as it did not go far enough in its anarchism in its rejection of the state and private property. Ibsen wrote, "Is it not impudent of the commune in Paris to go and destroy my admirable state theory, or rather no state theory? The idea is now ruined for a long time to come, and I cannot even set it forth in verse with any propriety." However, Ibsen nevertheless expressed an optimism, asserting that his "no state theory" bears "within itself a healthy core" and that some day "it will be practised without any caricature." [48]


Plaque to Ibsen, Oslo marking his home from 1828-1906 Plaque to Ibsen, Oslo.jpg
Plaque to Ibsen, Oslo marking his home from 1828-1906

Ivo de Figueiredo argues that "today, Ibsen belongs to the world. But it is impossible to understand [Ibsen's] path out there without knowing the Danish cultural sphere from which he sprang, from which he liberated himself and which he ended up shaping. Ibsen developed as a person and artist in a dialogue with Danish theater and literature that was anything but smooth." [50]

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ibsen's death in 2006, the Norwegian government organised the Ibsen Year, which included celebrations around the world. The NRK produced a miniseries on Ibsen's childhood and youth in 2006, An Immortal Man . Several prizes are awarded in the name of Henrik Ibsen, among them the International Ibsen Award, the Norwegian Ibsen Award, and the Ibsen Centennial Commemoration Award.

Every year, since 2008, the annual "Delhi Ibsen Festival", is held in Delhi, India, organized by the Dramatic Art and Design Academy (DADA) in collaboration with The Royal Norwegian Embassy in India. It features plays by Ibsen, performed by artists from various parts of the world in varied languages and styles. [51] [52]

The Ibsen Society of America (ISA) was founded in 1978 at the close of the Ibsen Sesquicentennial Symposium held in New York City to mark the 150th anniversary of Henrik Ibsen's birth. Distinguished Ibsen translator and critic Rolf Fjelde, Professor of Literature at Pratt Institute and the chief organizer of the Symposium, was elected Founding President. In December 1979, the ISA was certified as a non-profit corporation under the laws of the State of New York. Its purpose is to foster through lectures, readings, performances, conferences, and publications an understanding of Ibsen's works as they are interpreted as texts and produced on stage and in film and other media. An annual newsletter, Ibsen News and Comment, is distributed to all members. [53]

On 20 March 2013, Google celebrated Henrik Ibsen's 185th Birthday with a doodle. [54] [55]


Monogram of Henrik Ibsen Ibsen monogram.svg
Monogram of Henrik Ibsen

Ibsen's ancestry has been a much studied subject, due to both his perceived foreignness [18] and the influence of his biography and family on his plays. Ibsen often made references to his family in his plays, sometimes by name, or by modelling characters after them.

The oldest documented member of the Ibsen family was ship's captain Rasmus Ibsen (1632–1703) from Stege, Denmark. His son, ship's captain Peder Ibsen, became a burgher of Bergen in Norway in 1726. [56] Henrik Ibsen had Danish, German, Norwegian, and some distant Scottish ancestry. Most of his ancestors belonged to the merchant class of original Danish and German extraction, and many of his ancestors were ship's captains.

Ibsen's biographer Henrik Jæger famously wrote in 1888 that Ibsen did not have a drop of Norwegian blood in his veins, stating that "the ancestral Ibsen was a Dane". This, however, is not completely accurate; notably through his grandmother Hedevig Paus, Ibsen was descended from one of the very few families of the patrician class of original Norwegian extraction, known since the 15th century. Ibsen's ancestors had mostly lived in Norway for several generations, even though many had foreign ancestry. [57] [58]

The name Ibsen is originally a patronymic, meaning "son of Ib" (Ib is a Danish variant of Jacob). The patronymic became "frozen", i.e. it became a permanent family name, in the 17th century. The phenomenon of patronymics becoming frozen started in the 17th century in bourgeois families in Denmark, and the practice was only widely adopted in Norway from around 1900.


From his marriage with Suzannah Thoresen, Ibsen had one son, lawyer, government minister, and Norwegian Prime Minister Sigurd Ibsen. Sigurd Ibsen married Bergljot Bjørnson, the daughter of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Their son was Tancred Ibsen, who became a film director and was married to Lillebil Ibsen; their only child was diplomat Tancred Ibsen, Jr. Sigurd Ibsen's daughter, Irene Ibsen, married Josias Bille, a member of the Danish ancient noble Bille family; their son was Danish actor Joen Bille.


Ibsen was decorated Knight in 1873, Commander in 1892, and with the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav in 1893. He received the Grand Cross of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog, and the Grand Cross of the Swedish Order of the Polar Star, and was Knight, First Class of the Order of Vasa. [59]

Well known stage directors in Austria and Germany such as Theodor Lobe (1833–1905), Paul Barnay (1884–1960), Max Burckhard (1854–1912), Otto Brahm (1856–1912), Carl Heine (1861–1927), Paul Albert Glaeser-Wilken (1874–1942), Victor Barnowsky (1875–1952), Eugen Robert (1877–1944), Leopold Jessner (1878–1945), Ludwig Barnay (1884–1960), Alfred Rotter (1886–1933), Fritz Rotter (1888–1939), Paul Rose  [ de ] (1900–1973) and Peter Zadek (1926–2009), all directed productions of Ibsen’s work.

In 1995, the asteroid 5696 Ibsen was named in his memory.

In 2011 Håkon Anton Fagerås made two busts in bronze of Ibsen—one for Parco Ibsen in Sorrento, Italy, and one in Skien kommune. [60] In 2012, Håkon Anton Fagerås sculpted a statue in marble of Ibsen for the Ibsen Museum in Oslo. [61]



Plays entirely or partly in verse are marked v.

Other works

English translations

Major translation projects include: [65]

See also


  1. At the time, Norway shared one of its written languages with Denmark, and this written language was referred to as Danish in Denmark and as Norwegian in Norway. There were nevertheless certain differences between the form used in Denmark and the form used in Norway. Compare Haugen, Einar (1979). "The Nuances of Norwegian" . Ibsen's Drama: Author to Audience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. p.  99. ISBN   978-0-8166-0896-6.
  2. Only the prologue is in verse, the rest is in prose.
  3. In a combination of prose and verse.
  4. In a combination of prose and verse.
  5. Mainly in prose, with a few speeches in verse.
  6. Though sometimes identified as a play, Norma was never intended for performance. This "juvenile polemical work" was an attack on the Norwegian parliament or Storting , identifying several legislators by name as "fortune hunters". It first appeared anonymously in the satirical magazine Andhrimner . [62] Using play-like dialog and the names of characters from Bellini's opera Norma , Ibsen's hero chooses the "passive" female who represents the government over the heroic title character representing the opposition. [63] [64]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paus family</span> Norwegian family from Oslo

The Paus family is a Norwegian family that first appeared as members of the elite of 16th-century Oslo and that for centuries belonged to Norway's "aristocracy of officials" as priests of the state church, judges and other higher government officials, especially in Upper Telemark. Family members later became involved in shipping, steel and banking. The family is particularly known for its close association with Henrik Ibsen.

<i>Peer Gynt</i> Five-act play in verse by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen

Peer Gynt is a five-act play in verse by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. It is one of the most widely performed Norwegian plays.

<i>The Wild Duck</i> 1884 play by Henrik Ibsen

The Wild Duck is an 1884 play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It is considered the first modern masterpiece in the genre of tragicomedy. The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm are "often to be observed in the critics' estimates vying with each other as rivals for the top place among Ibsen's works".

<i>Rosmersholm</i> Play by Henrik Ibsen

Rosmersholm is a play written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in Danish—the common written language of Denmark and Norway at the time—and originally published in 1886 in Copenhagen by the Danish publisher Gyldendal. Rosmersholm has been described as one of Ibsen's darkest, most complex, subtle, beautiful, mystical, multilayered and ambiguous plays. The play explores the tension between old and new, and between liberation and servitude. Rosmersholm and The Wild Duck are "often to be observed in the critics' estimates vying with each other as rivals for the top place among Ibsen's works."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christian Cornelius Paus</span> Norwegian jurist and politician

Christian Cornelius Paus was a Norwegian lawyer, civil servant and politician. He was Governor of Bratsberg and a Member of the Norwegian Parliament.

James Walter McFarlane was a scholar of European literature, author of The Oxford Ibsen, and founding Dean of the School of European Studies at University of East Anglia which included Scandinavian studies.

<i>The Oxford Ibsen</i>

The Oxford Ibsen is a book series containing the most comprehensive English translations of the noted playwright Henrik Ibsen's collected works, edited by James Walter McFarlane (1920–1999) and published between 1960 and 1977. It is an important edition as the releases of Ibsen's plays are often translated into third languages through The Oxford Ibsen, rather than from the original Norwegian or Danish source texts. It also contains some drafts and preparations, and each play has a foreword that informs about first performances on stage, interpretation and reception. The Oxford series is still missing some of Ibsen's articles, reviews, speeches, correspondence, and poetry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Knud Ibsen</span>

Knud Plesner Ibsen was a Norwegian merchant from the city of Skien and the father of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. He is widely considered the model for many central characters in his son's plays, including Jon Gynt in Peer Gynt and Old Ekdahl in The Wild Duck.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marichen Altenburg</span>

Marichen Cornelia Martine Altenburg was the mother of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and is known as the model for several characters in some of Ibsen's most famous plays, including Åse in Peer Gynt.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ole Paus (shipowner)</span> Norwegian ships captain, ship owner and land owner (1766–1855)

Ole Paus was a Norwegian ship's captain, shipowner and land owner, who belonged to the patriciate of the port town of Skien from the late 18th century. He is noted as the stepfather of Knud Ibsen (1797–1877) as well as being the uncle of Marichen Altenburg (1799–1869) the parents of noted playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christopher Blom Paus</span> Norwegian businessman

Christopher Blom Paus was a Norwegian shipowner, merchant and banker.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Johan Andreas Altenburg</span> Norwegian merchant and shipowner (1763–1824)

Johan Andreas Altenburg (1763–1824) was a Norwegian merchant and shipowner. He belonged to the patriciate of the port town of Skien and was the maternal grandfather of playwright and theatre director Henrik Ibsen.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hedvig Ibsen</span>

Hedvig Cathrine Ibsen was the sister of playwright Henrik Ibsen. She was the sister with whom Ibsen was particularly close during their childhood. She was the daughter of Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg, in a wealthy family whose fortunes were eventually ruined by Ibsen's bankruptcy.

An Immortal Man is a miniseries on Henrik Ibsen's childhood and youth in three episodes, produced by the NRK in 2006 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ibsen's death. It was directed by Berit Nesheim and written by Siri Senje, and first broadcast on NRK1 on 26, 27 and 28 December 2006.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ibsen (family)</span>

Ibsen is a Norwegian family of Danish extraction. Its most famous members are playwright Henrik Ibsen, his son, statesman Sigurd Ibsen, and grandson, pioneer film director Tancred Ibsen. Several other family members have been noted artists.

Plesner is a Norwegian family of Danish extraction, noted for its association with playwright Henrik Ibsen. Many descendants of the family have occupied prominent positions in Norwegian society.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Altenburggården</span>

Altenburggården was a large town house in central Skien, Norway, known as the childhood home of the playwright Henrik Ibsen and his mother Marichen Altenburg. It burned down during the great fire of 1886. It was located at the address Skistredet 20.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henrik Johan Paus</span> Norwegian jurist and civil servant

Henrik Johan Paus was a Norwegian lawyer, government official and the uncle of playwright Henrik Ibsen. He was acting bailiff of Lower Telemark and Bamble in 1818, a civil servant with the Ministry of Finance 1819–1823, deputy governor of Hedemarken 1823–1826, sheriff of Hof 1826–1830, attorney-at-law and acting judge in Hedemarken 1830–1843, bailiff of Østerdalen 1843–1858 and bailiff of Øvre Romerike 1858–1860.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stockmanngården</span> Former house in Skien

Stockmanngården was a large building in central Skien, known as the birthplace of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. It burned down during the great fire of 1886. It was located at the corner of Telemarksgaden and Prindsens Gade. It was the city's most central townhouse, and had ten full rooms as well as loft, stables, barn and other outbuildings. It was named for the merchant Christian Stockmann.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rising, Norway</span> Old estate, area and geographical entity in Gjerpen, Norway

Rising is an old estate, area and geographical entity in Gjerpen, Norway, known for its association with Henrik Ibsen. It is located just outside of the city of Skien, and became part of Skien municipality in 1964.


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