Henrik Ibsen

by Pericles Lewis

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) created modern realistic drama out of elements of the popular nineteenth-century forms of the melodrama and the “well-made play.” Although his first European successes occurred with his romantic verse dramas of the 1860s, Ibsen’s great influence on the English stage began with A Doll’s House. The play’s emphasis on the social problem of women’s status in marriage gave Ibsen a reputation, especially in England, as a playwright of ideas and a feminist. Near the end of his life, however, Ibsen said that he had “been more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than people have generally been inclined to believe.”[1] In fact, Ibsen’s career is marked by a tension between the poet and the social philosopher.

At the beginning of his career, Ibsen, who was a patriot and partisan of the 1848 revolutions, wrote verse dramas on themes from Norwegian history. He also gained much experience as stage manager, in-house playwright, and artistic director of two Norwegian theaters. Ibsen left Norway for Rome in 1864, at the age of 36; there, he wrote Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), which made him famous throughout Europe. Both plays are in verse and follow in the tradition of European romantic drama, typified by Goethe’s Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832). Brand concerns a pastor who preaches duty over love and whose wife and son die because of his hard-heartedness; the play ends with Pastor Brand killed in an avalanche, as a booming voice off-stage cries out “God is Love” (a Biblical quotation, from 1 John 4:8). Peer Gynt draws on Scandinavian myths and folk tales; the protagonist, Peer, wanders around the world, indulges his whims, seduces women, consorts with the Troll King, and hopes to become Emperor of the World. From the Troll King, he learns the motto “To thy own self be—enough.” Both plays turn on the conflicts between duty and pleasure, or duty and love, or duty to others and duty to oneself, which would also underlie Ibsen’s later plays.

These major poetic dramas, filled with larger-than-life characters, mythical elements, and supernatural intervention, inspired later symbolist and avant-garde playwrights, but Ibsen himself turned quite suddenly to writing essentially realist prose dramas about modern life, of which A Doll’s House (1879) and Ghosts (1881) were the first major successes. They coincided with the height of the naturalist movement, and shared some of the qualities advocated by Emile Zola and August Strindberg, although Ibsen did not share the naturalists’ scientific worldview. His turn to prose coincided with his departure from Italy for Germany, where he lived for twenty years. Elements of melodrama and the well-made play remain even as late as Hedda Gabler (1890), the last of Ibsen’s realist plays, published at the height of his fame and performed all across Europe in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891. His next play, The Master Builder (1892), initiated Ibsen’s turn from psychological realism to a renewed exploration of symbolism and the unconscious mind. Ibsen’s mysticism displayed itself still more openly in his final work, When We Dead Awaken (1899. His late works inspired the new interest in dreams, ghosts, and symbols that shaped avant-garde theater in the twentieth century, from Strindberg to the expressionists and absurdists. Thus, while best known in England for his realist works, Ibsen also served as an inspiration to the anti-naturalist modern theater of Europe, through his early romantic and late symbolist plays. The realism of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler is only one aspect of his accomplishment, one that shows modern theater as the attempt to represent the tragedy of modern life.[2]

  1. ↑ Quoted in Richard Gilman, The Making of Modern Drama (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974), p. 49.
  2. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp.180-181, 183.