Henrik Ibsen, 1900, by Gustav Borgen
|Born||Henrik Johan Ibsen|
20 March 1828
Skien, Telemark, Norway
|Died||23 May 1906 (aged 78)|
|Notable works||Peer Gynt (1867)|
A Doll's House (1879)
An Enemy of the People (1882)
The Wild Duck (1884)
Hedda Gabler (1890)
|Spouse||Suzannah Thoresen (m. 1858)|
|Relatives||Knud Ibsen (father)|
Marichen Altenburg (mother)
Henrik Johan Ibsen (;Norwegian: ['hnr?k 'psn?]; 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. 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. He is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare, and A Doll's House was the world's most performed play in 2006.
Ibsen's early poetic and cinematic play Peer Gynt has strong surreal elements. 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 facades, 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;" Ibsen himself regarded Emperor and Galilean as his masterpiece.
Ibsen is often ranked as one of the most distinguished playwrights in the European tradition. He is widely regarded as the foremost playwright of the nineteenth century. He influenced other playwrights and novelists such as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, James Joyce, Eugene O'Neill, and Miroslav Krle?a. Ibsen was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, 1903, and 1904.
Ibsen wrote his plays in Danish (the common written language of Denmark and Norway during his lifetime) and they were published by the Danish publisher Gyldendal. Although most of his plays are set in Norway--often in places reminiscent of Skien, the port town where he grew up--Ibsen lived for 27 years in Italy and Germany, and rarely visited Norway during his most productive years. Born into a patrician merchant family, the intertwined Ibsen and Paus family, Ibsen shaped his dramas according to his family background and often modelled characters after family members. He was the father of Prime Minister Sigurd Ibsen. Ibsen's dramas had a strong influence upon contemporary culture.
Ibsen was born into an affluent merchant family in the wealthy port town of Skien in Bratsberg (Telemark). His parents were Knud Ibsen (1797-1877) and Marichen Altenburg (1799-1869). Henrik Ibsen wrote that "my parents were members on both sides of the most respected families in Skien," explaining that he was closely related with "just about all the patrician families who then dominated the place and its surroundings."
His parents, though not related by blood, had been raised as something that resembled social siblings. Knud Ibsen's biological father, ship's captain Henrich Ibsen, died at sea when he was newborn in 1797 and his mother married captain Ole Paus the following year; Ole Paus was the brother of Marichen's mother Hedevig Paus, and their families were very close; for example Ole's oldest biological son and Knud's half-brother Henrik Johan Paus was raised in Hedevig's home together with his cousin Marichen, and the biological and social children of the Paus siblings, including Knud and Marichen, spent much of their childhood together. Some Ibsen scholars have claimed that Henrik Ibsen was fascinated by his parents' "strange, almost incestuous marriage;" he would treat the subject of incestuous relationships in several plays, notably his masterpiece Rosmersholm.
When Henrik Ibsen was around seven years old, his father's fortunes took a significant turn for the worse, and the family was eventually forced to sell the major Altenburg building in central Skien and move permanently to their large summer house, Venstøp, outside of the city. Henrik's sister Hedvig would write about their mother: "She was a quiet, lovable woman, the soul of the house, everything to her husband and children. She sacrificed herself time and time again. There was no bitterness or reproach in her." The Ibsen family eventually moved to a city house, Snipetorp, owned by Knud Ibsen's half-brother, wealthy banker and ship-owner Christopher Blom Paus.
His father's financial ruin would have a strong influence on Ibsen's later work; the characters in his plays often mirror his parents, and his themes often deal with issues of financial difficulty as well as moral conflicts stemming from dark secrets hidden from society. Ibsen would both model and name characters in his plays after his own family. A central theme in Ibsen's plays is the portrayal of suffering women, echoing his mother Marichen Altenburg; Ibsen's sympathy with women would eventually find significant expression with their portrayal in dramas such as A Doll's House and Rosmersholm.
At fifteen, Ibsen was forced to leave school. He moved to the small town of Grimstad to become an apprentice pharmacist and 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 Hans Jacob. Ibsen went to Christiania (later renamed Kristiania and then 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. 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.
He 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 very poor financial circumstances and Ibsen became very disenchanted with life in Norway. In 1864, he left Christiania and went to Sorrento in Italy in self-imposed exile. He didn't return to his native land for the next 27 years, and when he returned to it he was a noted, but controversial, playwright.
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 famously 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.
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.
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.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". 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.
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. 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.
The Wild Duck (1884) is by many considered Ibsen's finest work, and it is certainly the most complex. 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.
Ibsen displays masterful 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; Gina's daughter, Hedvig, is not his child. Blinded by Gregers' insistence on absolute truth, he 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.
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, 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. 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 him 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.. Michael Meyer's translations in the 1950s were welcomed by actors and directors as playable, rather than academic. As The Times newspaper put it, 'This, one may think, is how Ibsen might have expressed himself in English'.
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".
At the time when Ibsen was writing, literature was emerging as a formidable force in 19th century society. It was still a relatively new form of popular discussion and entertainment. 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.
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." Indeed, his next play An Enemy of the People was initially regard 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."
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.]
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 and 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 Christiana. One hostess even wrote on the invitations to her soirée, "You are politely requested not to mention Mr Ibsen's new play".
On 23 May 1906, Ibsen died in his home at Arbins gade 1 in Kristiania (now Oslo) 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.
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. 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.
The social questions which concerned Ibsen belonged unequivocally to the 19th century. From a modern perspective, the aspects of his writing that appeal most are the psychological issues which he explored. The social issues, taken up so prominently in his own day, have become dated, as has the late-Victorian middle-class setting of his plays. The fact that, whether read and staged, they still possess a compelling power is testament to his enduring quality as a thinker and a dramatist.
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.
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.
Ibsen's ancestry has been a much studied subject, due to his perceived foreignness and due to 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. 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.
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.
|Ancestors of Henrik Ibsen|
From his marriage with Suzannah Thoresen, Ibsen had one son, lawyer and government 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.
Well known stage directors in Austria and Germany as Theodor Lobe (1833-1905), Paul Barnay (1884-1960), Max Burckhard (1854-1912), Otto Brahm (1956-1912), 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 (1900-1973) and Peter Zadek (1926-2009) performed the work of Ibsen.
In 1995, the asteroid 5696 Ibsen was named in his memory.
Plays entirely or partly in verse are marked v.
The authoritative translation in the English language for Ibsen remains the 1928 ten-volume version of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen from Oxford University Press. Many other translations of individual plays by Ibsen have appeared since 1928 though none have purported to be a new version of the complete works of Ibsen.