Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen by Gustav Borgen NFB-19775.jpg
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, playwright
Notable worksPeer Gynt (1867)
A Doll's House (1879)
Ghosts (1881)
An Enemy of the People (1882)
The Wild Duck (1884)
Hedda Gabler (1890)
SpouseSuzannah Thoresen (m. 1858)
ChildrenSigurd Ibsen
RelativesKnud Ibsen (father)
Marichen Altenburg (mother)

Ibsen caricatured by SNAPP for Vanity Fair, 1901

Henrik Johan Ibsen (ən/;[1] Norwegian: [ˈhɛnrɪk ˈɪpsn̩]; 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. He is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare,[3][4] and by the early 20th century A Doll's House became the world's most performed play.[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 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;"[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] Richard Hornby describes him as "a profound poetic dramatist—the best since Shakespeare".[10] He is widely regarded as the foremost playwright of the nineteenth century.[9][11] He influenced other playwrights and novelists such as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, James Joyce, Eugene O'Neill, and Miroslav Krleža. Ibsen was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, 1903, and 1904.[12]

Ibsen wrote his plays in Danish (the common written language of Denmark and Norway during his lifetime)[13] 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 have a strong influence upon contemporary culture.

Early life and family

A silhouette (ca. 1815–1820) of Ibsen's mother (far right), grandparents and other relatives

Ibsen was born into an affluent merchant family in the wealthy port town of Skien in Bratsberg (Telemark), the closely intertwined Ibsen and Paus family. 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."[14][15]

His parents, though not related by blood, had been raised as something that resembled social siblings.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] 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."[19][20] 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.[19]

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.[19]

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.[21] 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.