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All About Henrik Ibsen
by Elyse Sommer
Check out our Playwright's Album for more famous playwright profiles
Chronology of Ibsen's Work
The Trademarks Of Ibsen's Plays
Links to Reviews and Books
Henrik Johan Ibsen b. March 20 1828, d. May 23, 1906). The 19th-century Norwegian playwright widely referred to as the "father of modern drama" was born to well-to-do merchant family in the port town of Skien, Norway. The decline of the Ibsen family fortunes made them social outcasts. Ibsen, never a particularly happy or sociable youngster, felt more intensely isolated and developed a deep mistrust of society which was eventually incorporated into his writing. The elder Ibsen's bankruptcy also led to his son's moving to another town (Grimstad) at fifteen for an apprenticeship to a pharmacist. During his apprenticeship he impregnated the pharmacist's servant and began writing satire and poetry.
At twenty-one, Ibsen left Grimstad for Christiania (now Oslo). He did not pursue his initial goal of going to university to study medicine even though he passed his entrance exams, but instead decided to concentrate on playwriting and journalism. It was in Christiania that he penned his first two plays (Catiline and The Burial Mound), both in 1950. A year later he accepted a job with the new National Theater in Bergen. In 1858 he returned to Christiania to become the creative director of Christiania's National Theater. He married Suzannah Thoresen the same year and she gave birth to their only child, Sigurd (he never acknowledged the son he had with the pharmacist's servant).
Unable to rise above an impoverished lifestyle, prompted Ibsen to abandon Norway first for Sorrento in Italy, and in 1868 to Dresden, Germany. With Brand (1865) he finally achieved a measure of financial security and recognition for his realistic style. Audiences soon counted on him to use the drama to attack not just the old romantic style of theater but the entrenched social and political ideologies.
Ibsen did eventually return to Norway where he continued to work until a series of strokes prevented him from writing during his final five years and legend has it that when the nurse attending him told a visitor that he was a little better, Ibsen contradicted her with "On the contrary" and died.
Chronology Of Ibsen's Work
Henrik Ibsen's plays are available in more than 100 languages and are still performed on hundreds of stages all over the world. Except for William Shakespeare, he is perhaps the most performed playwright ever. Dealing as he did with fundamental values, his themes remain universal: freedom of speech, repression of women, the institution of marriage, abuse of children, business ethics, hypocrisy, moral double standards, religion.
Catiline (1850) written under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme was about the conspiracy against ancient Rome in the time of Cicero. It was published but sold less than 100 copies and never found a theater producer willing to stage it.
The Burial Mound (1850), staged but receiving little attention; also known as The Warrior's Barrow
Norma (1851 )
St. John's Eve (1852)
1854 Lady Inger of Oestraat (1854)
The Feast at Solhaug (1855)
Olaf Liljekrans (1856)
The Vikings at Helgeland (1857 )
Digte, a collection of poetry ( 1862)
Love's Comedy (1862)
The Pretenders (1863)
Early Hits and Misses
Brand (1865), finally brought a measure of critical and financial success to the 38-year-old Ibsen. Its emphasis on the individual pitted against society struck a cord with young liberals and marked the beginning of a series of plays dealing with real-life issues.
Peer Gynt (1867), Ibsen's second critical success for which Edvard Grieg famously composed the incidental music.
The League of Youth (1869). Notable mainly because it is Ibsen's first and rare attempt at a realistic comedy. True to his social exposes it was a sharp a attack on political hypocrisy. Ibsen denied that it was a satire of the actual leader of Norway's Liberals.
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 were much more acclaimed and produced.
The Problem Plays
A Doll's House (1879) was a scathing criticism of the blind acceptance of traditional roles of men and women in Victorian marriages. It broke the convention of the well-made play with its de rigueur happy ending. This has long ranked at the top of Ibsen's most frequently performed plays. Cutting-ñedge adaptations include one by the Mabou Mimes. It was also made into an opera, Claudia Legare, by Robert Ward.
Ghosts (1881), Intended as a sort of postcript to A Doll's House, this is another biting commentary on Victorian morality. As Nora refused to submit to the social conventions of her day, the widowed Mrs. Alving does submit until she reveals to her pastor the evil of her marriage that she kept hidden during its duration. It's a case of the sins of a father being borne by his son.
An Enemy of the People (1882), was a response to those who rejected Ghosts. The play unveiled the personal and political corruption underlying a close-knit coastal town, with both the Victorian and liberal attitudes coming off as equally self-serving.
The Wild Duck (1884) is considered by many to be Ibsen's finest and most complex play. It's 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 and learning many secrets behind his seemingly happy home.
The Father of Modern Drama Becomes the Freud of the Theater
Rosmersholm (1896). This marked an end as well as a beginning in Ibsen's career. It was his last dramatic exploration of social themes and the first of the psychologically driven plays that had some tag him "The Freud of the theatre."
The Lady from the Sea (1888). With hints of folklore and mythical significance, Ibsen tells the story of a woman's struggle for freedom and love, constrained by fear of an unreconciled past and by the loneliness of an off-kilter marriage.
Hedda Gabler (1890). Hedda is probably the heroine-- or, I should say, anti-heroine-- who has come close to being a household word. For contemporary audiences she is Ibsen's most memorable character, a case study of a woman who wants to have it all but lacks the courage to leave her boundaries. Some of the play's many interpretations would no doubt make her creator scratch his head.
The Master Builder (1892). Another work that focuses on human motivations and the soul.
Little Eyolf (1894) is a lesser known play about a toxic marriage, in this case the Allmers for whom the lid is blown off years of bottled-up feelings
John Gabriel Borkman (1896). Though often seen as an indictment of a certain destructive type of capitalism, the emphasis is on the emotional fallout from the pursuit of colossal profit.
When We Dead Awaken (1899) the last, least produced and probably most abstract of Ibsen's plays.
The Trademarks Of Ibsen's Plays
Ibsen gave drama a whole new rule book that fit right into the modernism that was beginning to replace the Victorian Age. He conceived and structured his plays so that they would transcend mere entertainment. His chief aim was to create characters and events with which audiences could identify. That meant, the characters had to speak and behave naturally and that the situations they found themselves in had the quality of real, everyday life. It also meant abandoning his own early methods of having characters speak in verse, and monologues.
Given the contemporary settings and dialogue, the playwright was able to confront his characters with problems that similar to those his audience might face--problems that he might want them to examine from a personal perspective . The real strength of Ibsen's approach to the so-called problem play was that it combined realistic, in-depth characterization with important social issues. To illustrate some of the problems he famously addressed, there's A Doll's House (problem: the restriction of women's lives), Ghosts (problem: sexually transmitted disease), an Enemy of the People (provincial greed). When you consider how these dramas influenced the likes of Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller, it's no wonder he is called the Father of Modern Drama. Links to Reviews at Curtainup
The Ibsen productions we've been able to cover over the course of 11 years represent just a sampling of what's staged each year all over the world. Thanks to a brave undertaking by the now defunct Century Arts Center which committed itself to mounting a dozen Ibsen plays over the course of two years, we were able to enjoy quite a few in a wonderfully intimate setting. We've also caught some especially intriguing extreme makeovers like Heddatron and Speed Hedda, director Ivan VanHove's modernized overhaul, as well as Claudia Legare, the Hedda Gabler inspired opera,.
Brand (London 2003)
Claudia Legare (Robert Ward opera based on Hedda Gabler, Dicapo Opera 2005)
A Doll's House (St. Anne's Warehouse 2008)
Dollhouse (The Mabou Mimes production reprised, newly reviewed with an essay on Ibsen overall - 2009)
Dollhouse with snippets from The Vikings at Helgaland adapted by Lee Breuer
A Doll's House — Broadway revival 1997
An Enemy of the People— London 3008
An Enemy of the People— Williamstown Theatre Festival 2003
Ghosts— Off-Broadway 2008
Ghosts — London & BAM 2003
Ghosts —Classic Stage 2002
Ghosts — Century Center Ibsen Series 1999
Ghosts —London 2001
Heddatron —2006, the inventive Les Freres Corbusier Company's take on Hedda
Hedda Gabler —London 2008
Hedda Gabler—Christopher Hampton adaptation 2004
Hedda Gabler/Ibsen — Robin-Baitz adaptation, Berkshires and Broadway 2001
Hedda Gabler —Century Center Ibsen series, 2001
Hedda Gabler—London 2005)
Hedda Gabler— Andrew Upton adaptation, New York-BAM 2006
John Gabriel Borkman— Donmar, London 2007
John Gabriel Borkman — Century Center Ibsen series 2002
John Gabriel Borkman—(Pearl Theatre 1999
The Lady From the Sea—London-Arcola 2008
The Lady From the Sea—Philadelphia 2005
The Lady From the Sea/—London 2003
Little Eyolf —Century Center Ibsen series 2002
Little Eyolf — Epic Theater production 2003
The Master Builder—London 2010
The Master Builder—Irish Rep 2008
The Master Builder—London 2003
The Master Builder —Century Center Ibsen Series 2002
Peer Gynt —DC 1998
Peer Gynt — Frank McGuiness adaptation, London 2000
Pillars of society (London)
Rosmersholm— Century Center Ibsen Series, 2001
Rosmesholm (Pearl Theatre 2010)
Speed Hedda — Robert A. Prior's very downtown take on Hedda 2002
When We Dead Awaken—Century Center Ibsen Series 2002
There must be no more sides . . .I believe that once free of all these endless vicious party rivalries, free of personal slanders, jealousies, backbiting — the good in man will flourish— JohjannesRosmer, Rosmerholm, in response to Dr. Kroll's asking him to endorse his newspaper's ultra conservative view. But though the men are old friends, when Kroll learns that Rosmer's new beliefs are part of his having abandoned his faith turns antagonistic and greets Rosmer's plea to at least keep their differences civil with "who is not with me is against me"
Here at Rosmerholm they don't easily let go of the dead—Rebecca West, Rosmerholm
It's the other way around if you ask me. It's the dead that won't let go of the ones they leave behind.. It's what folks call. . .the White Horse of Rosmerholm.—Mrs. Helsveth, as the women are observing Johannes Rosmer return from his walk, wondering if he'll finally bring himself to walk across the footbridge with its memories of his wife's suicide there over a year ago.
Men do not understand what a mountain of guilt arises from that small word life. --- the title character of Brand
I've made a great discovery. . . and I'll tell you what it is: the strongest person in the world is the one who stands alone---Dr. Tomas Stockmann, An Enemy of the People
Don't use that foreign word 'ideals.' We have that excellent native word 'lies.'— Reilling in The Wild Duck.
Take the life-lie away from the average man and straight away you take away his happiness.— Reilling, in The Wild Duck.
A marriage based on full confidence, based on complete and unqualified frankness on both sides; they are not keeping anything back; there's no deception underneath it all. If I might so put it, it's an agreement for the mutual forgiveness of sin.— Hjalmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck.
In that second it dawned on me that I had been living here for eight years with a strange man and had borne him three children.— Nora Helmer in A Doll's House.
Our home has been nothing but a play-room. I've been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa's doll-child. And the children have been my dolls in their turn. I liked it when you came and played with me, just as they liked it when I came and played with them. That's what our marriage has been, Torvald.— Nora Helmer in A Doll's House.
. . .we are all of us ghosts. . .it is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that 'walks' in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas and lifeless old beliefs. . . — Mrs. Alving in Ghosts.
Grief makes ugly and vile.— Alfred Allmers, in Little Eyeolf.
Why does everything I touch just curdle? Like a curse. I want things to be beautiful and brave and every time they turn out ridiculous. Ridiculous and low and ugly.— Hedda in Hedda Gabler.
You'll see what we've lost only when we dead awake. Irene
What will we see?—-Rubek
Only that we've never lived! —- Irene
—When We Dead Awake.
Life is not tragic. Life is ridiculous. And that cannot be borne.—Henrik Ibsen, unknown source.