A biographical essay by
Thomas Van Laan
Rutgers University, Emeritus
Childhood and Youth
Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway, a small town about seventy miles south-west of Oslo on the west coast of the Oslo Fjord. His mother, Marichen Altenburg Ibsen, a painter and devotee of the theater, encouraged her son in his early artistic endeavors. His father, Knud Ibsen, was a prosperous merchant, but his risky speculations brought about his financial ruin when Ibsen was seven. He had to sell most of the property that his wife had brought into the marriage and move his family to the only place they still owned, a neglected farmhouse near Skien called Venstøp, whose attic would become the inspiration for the attic of The Wild Duck. The Ibsens’ life had become one of grim poverty and the bad family dynamics that often accompany it. Ibsen’s schooling probably suffered since the Ibsens could not afford the school attended by the children of the town’s successful families, and his formal schooling ended altogether shortly after his fifteenth birthday in 1843 when, having no other recourse, he had to go to work to support himself. On December 27 of that year he left Skien for Grimstad, another small town about seventy miles further down the coast, where he was to live for more than six years, first as apprentice to a pharmacist and then, from 1846 on, as an assistant pharmacist. The first three or so years were characterized by extreme poverty, long grueling hours on the job, lack of sleep, and great loneliness. On October 9, 1846, a house servant, Else Jensdatter, gave birth to his illegitimate son, whom she named Hans Jacob Henriksen. Ibsen had to support the son until he was fourteen, but apparently never made an attempt to see him. Legend has it that he did see him once—more than four decades later, when Hans Jacob paid him a visit in Oslo (then Christiania).
The Emerging Artist
Other than Sundays and the hours in which he should have been sleeping, Ibsen had little time for his own pursuits in his early years in Grimstad. He stole time from sleep for reading, and by 1847, if not sooner, he was studying to pass the matriculation exam for the University of Christiania with the hope of eventually becoming a physician. He also stole time for artistic pursuits. While still at Venstøp, he had entertained his siblings, including a sister named Hedvig, as well as the neighbor children and others with magic tricks, puppet shows, caricatures, and satirical poems. He continued producing caricatures and satires in Grimstad but also advanced to more mature paintings, mainly landscapes—for a while he seriously considered becoming a professional painter—and to more serious poems, more than thirty of which survive, the earliest from 1847. Ibsen’s loneliness lessened considerably about this time as he made close friendships with two young men of his own age, Christopher Due and Ole Schulerud, and, through them, began to interact with a larger group of acquaintances of both sexes. Ibsen read his poems to Due and Schulerud, discussed Kierkegaard and other writers with them, and, inspired by the revolutions of 1848, developed jointly with them a loathing for monarchs (whom they called “tyrants”) and for nations that deny freedom to other countries and/or their own suppressed minorities.
At this time, in preparation for his Latin exam, he was reading Sallust’s account of the conspiracy of Catiline and Cicero’s orations against Catiline, and during the winter of 1848-49 this reading and his radical attitudes prompted him to write the first version of his first play, Catiline. It is very uneven, especially in this version, but many of its characteristics—such as siding with the rebel against society, associating him with the conventions of tragedy, and flanking him with two symbolic women, one fair, ostensibly good, and weak, the other dark, ostensibly threatening, and strong—anticipate Ibsen’s mature work. Fittingly, the play is heavily echoed in Ibsen’s final drama, When We Dead Awaken. Schulerud took the manuscript of Catiline to Christiania, tried unsuccessfully to get it accepted by the theater or a publisher, and finally paid to have it published out of his own pocket (April 12, 1850). The play received some good reviews, but few copies were bought, and Ibsen and Schulerud eventually sold many of the remaining copies for scrap paper in order to have money for food. Ibsen had arrived in Christiania a couple of weeks after the publication of Catiline, perhaps to cash in on the success he anticipated but also to finish preparation for his matriculation exam at a cram school. In May he completed his second play, The Burial Mound, a pleasant but shallow one-act verse melodrama on the confrontation between the Vikings and Christianity. It was accepted by the Christiania Theater and given one performance there in September, but Ibsen realized little compensation for it. Also in September he did poorly on his matriculation exam, failing in Greek and math and doing little better than average in the other parts, and so, though he audited some classes and could refer to himself as “Student Ibsen,” he never became formally enrolled in the university.
Politics and Informal Education
He spent the next thirteen months in a variety of activities, none of them providing him with much in the way of income, and for the most part he lived off Schulerud’s allowance. He greatly expanded his education through his associations with the many new friends he acquired after moving to Christiania. Most of them were politically radical, like himself, and he began to take part in radical activities, including demonstrations and co-editing and contributing to a radical publication, in connection with which he came very close to being arrested and incarcerated. He wrote articles of various kinds, satires, and reviews. He also wrote poems and began but did not finish a new play. Many of the poems were written for special occasions and through them Ibsen began to develop a reputation as a writer of promise. In October 1851 the internationally famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull came to Christiania seeking financial support for a theater he had founded in Bergen, the first theater in Norway to use Norwegian rather than Danish and Norwegian actors rather than Danish ones. He met Ibsen and was impressed by him, both for his writing and for his enthusiasm for the new theater, and hired him to join the theater company as its “dramatic author.”
Ibsen assumed his new post in late October and remained in it for nearly six years. He earned a steady salary but it scarcely freed him from poverty, and in general his stay in Bergen gave him more disappointments than satisfactions. As dramatic author, he was required to provide, beginning in 1853, one new play a year. Most of his time was taken up with other work for the theater, including designing sets and transferring the theater’s productions to the stage after they had been rehearsed elsewhere by the artistic director. The plays he had to work with were uniformly mediocre, being bad adaptations of Scribe and other popular French writers of melodrama or examples of various unserious genres then in favor in provincial Europe. Ibsen probably had previously not had the opportunity to see a good play well staged, but he must have been aware of the nature of what he had to work with, especially after the theater sent him on an extended study tour of major theaters in Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Dresden in the spring and summer of 1852. On this trip he was able to see genuinely professional theater, including a number of plays by Shakespeare, who was to have a profound influence on his work. He also came across a new book, Das moderne Drama, by Hermann Hettner, a German literary and art historian, which had more to teach him about drama—especially dramatic structure and form, complex characterization in the Shakespearean mode, and the nature of tragedy—than anything he had yet had the opportunity to read.
First Successes with Historical Dramas
These influences were not strong enough to help him suddenly emerge from the mediocrity surrounding him, nor would the Bergen company have been able to rise to the occasion if Ibsen had written better plays. His apprenticeship in writing drama had to continue for a much longer time than would have been the case under better circumstances, certainly throughout his time in Bergen. St. John’s Night, the play he wrote for January 2, 1853, is an example of a popular dramatic type at that time in Scandinavia, fairy-tale comedy. The play’s exposition, an early use of the retrospective method that Ibsen would eventually make his basic dramatic form, is rather clumsy, but otherwise the play is as good as many others of the same type, and the strong element of satire makes it more interesting than most. However, it failed and Ibsen subsequently disowned it. For January 2, 1854 he presented a much improved version of The Burial Mound, with a more effective action and fuller and richer characterizations; it also failed. For January 2, 1855 he presented the most serious effort of his time in Bergen, Lady Inger of Østråt, a work in which a very promising tragedy is ultimately swamped by the often confusing Scribean intrigue. Because of his earlier failures, he claimed it was written by someone else; the ruse did not work, for it too failed. His next play, The Feast at Solhaug (1856) was his first success, and the play he wrote for the following year, Olaf Liljekrans, was also a success, though a lesser one. Both of them belong to another dramatic type then popular in Scandinavia, the ballad drama. The Feast at Solhaug, which to some extent continues Ibsen’s experimenting with tragedy, is the more interesting of the two.
Suzannah Ibsen and Christiania
Even if the work Ibsen produced in Bergen had been much better, it would still be true to say that his most important accomplishment in Bergen was meeting, wooing, and winning Suzannah Daae Thoresen, whom he married on June 18, 1858 and who remained his lifelong companion, his staunchest supporter, and a principal source of the energy that fueled his work. By the time of his marriage Ibsen was back in Christiania, where he had gone in 1857 to become artistic director of the new Norwegian Theater. His connection with the theater began well, with the probable high point being his production in November of a new play he had just finished, The Vikings at Helgeland, which, with its magnificent structure and superb protagonist (Hjørdis, a first version of Hedda Gabler), was the most important artistic success of Ibsen’s early career. Things soon soured, however. Because of the unenlightened taste of the audience and the common practice of European provincial theaters to emphasize light entertainment, for the most part all Ibsen could offer in terms of theatrical repertoire in Christiania was the usual mediocre fare—and for the most part without success. By 1860 he was under constant attack by the theater’s board and by the press, which called for his being replaced for incompetence. In June 1862 the theater went bankrupt, leaving Ibsen for the next two years without a regular income to support himself, his wife, and their son Sigurd, who was born December 23, 1859, the only issue of their marriage. The period from 1860 to 1864 was probably the worst of Ibsen’s life. He drank heavily, he considered suicide, and he had difficulty writing. His next play was not completed until 1862, five years after The Vikings at Helgeland. This was Love’s Comedy, a witty satire on marriage set in contemporary times and written in rhymed verse of a Byronic brilliance. When it was published the reviewers vociferously attacked it as inartistic and immoral, and in consequence the Christiania Theater declined to present it. Ibsen’s next play, The Pretenders, a tragedy based on Norwegian history and featuring three great acting roles, is, in form and scope, his most Shakespearean play. It is also his first unequivocal masterpiece and easily his best play not widely known outside of Norway. It was published in 1863 and performed at the Christiania Theater in January 1864, but this belated success was not enough to keep him in a place that he had come to passionately loathe.
The Italian Breakthrough
On April 5, 1864, using a governmental travel grant that he had applied for in 1863 so that he could spend a year abroad immersing himself in European culture, Ibsen left Christiania and Norway for Rome. He arrived there in the middle of June and was joined by Suzannah and Sigurd in September. He may have intended to return after the year abroad, but he had no real prospects in Norway, and it is more likely that his application was spurred by a desire simply to get away because of the way he had been treated since 1860. By the time he left, moreover, he had another good reason for fleeing, the failure of the Swedes and Norwegians (Sweden and Norway were then joined under the Swedish king) to go to the aid of their Danish brothers as they tried to defend themselves against Prussia. At any rate, except for a two-month visit in the summer of 1874 and a three-month visit in the summer of 1885, he was not to return to Norway for twenty-seven years. During his self-chosen exile Ibsen lived in Italy, mostly in Rome, and in Germany, first in Dresden, then in Munich (in Italy from 1864 to 1868 and from 1878 to 1885; in Germany from 1868 to 1878 and from 1885 to 1891). Ibsen made a third visit to Norway in July 1891, decided to take up residence in Christiania in August, and spent the remaining fifteen years of his life there.
Ibsen was scarcely better off financially in Italy in 1864 than he had been in Norway, for the travel grant was small (less than half of what he had requested) and his only other income consisted of whatever hand-outs his friends in Norway could scrape together, but he was in a much better mood and eager to write. After considering several projects, he began a long narrative poem set in contemporary times about a Norwegian clergyman, but it did not come easily until, as he wrote to a Norwegian friend, he happened to go into St. Peter’s sometime in the summer of 1865 and “suddenly there dawned on me a strong and clear form for what I had to say.” He abandoned the poem and, using some of its material, within a few months he had completed Brand, his great five-act epic tragedy in rhymed verse about an idealist whose “all-or-nothing” extremism causes him to destroy everything he holds most dear. Brand is Ibsen’s most Kierkegaardian work. It was also his breakthrough effort. When it was published the following year, it made him famous throughout Scandinavia, and it changed his life in more ways than one. His previous writings, published by whatever means he could manage, earned neither him nor those publishing them much compensation. Brand, in contrast, was published by the prestigious Copenhagen publishing house of Gyldendal, to the financial benefit of both author and firm, and Gyldendal remained Ibsen’s publisher for the rest of his life, even issuing second editions of many of the plays written before Brand. The success of Brand also brought Ibsen an annual author’s pension from the Norwegian government, something he had previously sought in vain. Ibsen was not rich but he had become financially secure for the first time since his father’s ruin, and he even had enough money to deck himself out as an obviously proper citizen deserving of respect and honor. All of this helped to make his life more stable, more orderly—and less interesting as a subject for biography.
Little needs to be said about matters not related to his work for the last forty years of his life. He was fond of receiving medals and other honors, and crowned heads of state were frequently pleased to indulge him. In October through December, 1869, he was Sweden-Norway’s representative at the opening of the Suez Canal. In 1898 he attended numerous celebrations of his seventieth birthday, and his collected works were published both in Denmark and, translated into German, in Germany. In the 1890s he was one of Christiania’s major tourist attractions. Beginning in 1889 he developed several relationships with young women. The most notorious of these, made so by the woman’s efforts to publicize their relationship, was with Emilie Bardach, a young Austrian woman he met while on vacation in Gossensass, Austria, in 1889 and corresponded with for some time. By far the most important of them, in terms of what the woman meant to him and to his work, was with Hildur Andersen, a well-known concert pianist and one of Norway’s first female professional musicians, with whom he spent a good deal of time after his return to Christiania.
Most of Ibsen’s life after the success of Brand was spent in two activities. One was his daily interaction with Suzannah and, much of the time, Sigurd, about which Sigurd’s wife Bergliot provided some useful information in her book The Three Ibsens. (Ibsen scholar Astrid Sæther’s biography Suzannah: Fru Ibsen has developed this perspective more thoroughly still.) The other activity was a much lonelier one: his writing, through which he held Judgment Day over himself almost daily in his study. In the brief poem paraphrased in the preceding sentence, Ibsen also writes “To live – is to war with trolls / In the holds of the heart and mind.” But through his writing Ibsen courageously waged war not just with his inner trolls. He also took on the philistines who resented his commitment to tell the truth about what he learned from holding Judgment Day over himself.
Peer Gynt (1867), the next product of his “wars” after Brand, is an obvious companion-piece to its predecessor. It too is a verse drama, the last Ibsen was to write, cast in epic proportions and exploring the grand themes of life, death, and salvation. But it is much looser in structure than Brand, more varied in versification, and, in embracing Norwegian folklore, various kinds of satire, the morality play, and symbolic meditation, less rigidly anchored in a single dramatic genre. Its protagonist, moreover, in his total inability to make a commitment, his constantly going roundabout rather than confronting experience head on, is Brand‘s polar opposite. Both plays are masterpieces, but Peer Gynt, ultimately much richer, is generally regarded as one of Ibsen’s greatest achievements. Both were written as closet dramas, but while Brand has seldom been put on the stage Peer Gynt is one of Ibsen’s most frequently performed plays. Ibsen’s later realistic dramas of contemporary life won him the epithet “the father of modern drama”; because of Peer Gynt he should also be called “the father of avant-garde and post-modern drama.”
The League of Youth
In The League of Youth, which came out two years after Peer Gynt, Ibsen set aside the epic scale of his three previous works to create a prose comedy dramatizing the intrigues of a not very scrupulous young lawyer who seeks to get himself elected to Parliament. In its detailed portrayal of contemporary Norwegian life, its effort to create realistic speech, and its occasional concern with social issues (the play includes a forerunner of Nora of A Doll House), The League of Youth anticipates the later dramas of contemporary life, but ultimately it is set apart from them by its greater adherence to traditional comedy.
Emperor and Galilean
Ibsen wrote The League of Youth in Germany and felt that it was “reminiscent of Knackwurst and beer,” and he also stated that his next play, Emperor and Galilean, was written “under the influence of German culture.” It dramatizes the career of Julian the Apostate, and in it Ibsen returned to the epic scale, taking it even further by creating a two-part, ten-act “world historical drama.” He planned and first worked on this drama in Rome in the early 1860s, but by the time he finished it in Germany in 1873 it had become imbued with German philosophical thought—primarily, but not exclusively, Hegel’s dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—and with the struggle between Christianity and a more secular view of life then raging in much of Europe. Ibsen told his publisher that it would provide an exposition of his philosophical views and that it would be his masterpiece. It is reported that he may have continued to think of it as his masterpiece, but it would be difficult to find many Ibsen scholars who would concur with that view. On the whole, the play is crippled by verbosity and by Ibsen’s padding the second part in order to make it parallel in structure with the first part. It is nonetheless worth reading for its several scenes of effective drama, especially in part one, for its anticipations of the themes of Ibsen’s subsequent plays, and for its providing the most detailed rendering of his conception of tragic action.
The Contemporary Turn
Emperor and Galilean was the last of Ibsen’s plays to feature an epic scale, historical material, and the mode of traditional drama. By the time his next play appeared, four years later in 1877, Ibsen had re-tooled as a dramatist, going back to the form of The League of Youth and developing it into something newer and more of the moment, thereby creating the basic form for his twelve dramas of contemporary life. This form derives from the social problem comedies written in France in the 1850s and 60s by Dumas fils and Augier. In 1871 Georg Brandes, the great Danish critic and chief spokesman for literary modernism, urged Scandinavian writers to catch up with the modern world by emulating Dumas fils and Augier—that is, to “put [social] problems under debate”—and Ibsen’s Norwegian contemporary Bjørnson, who had already written a weak imitation of the new French drama, quickly responded to Brandes’ call, publishing two examples of the social problem comedy in 1875. Ibsen was not, thus, the first dramatist to take up this form, but it was he that turned it into genuine art and made it the basis for much subsequent modern drama by adding to the detailed portrayal of contemporary life and the deliberate imitation of actual speech, features already evident in The League of Youth, the working out of a well structured, suspenseful action governed not by the dictates of traditional dramatic patterns but by the logic of the interaction of characters and events. Central to this action was the gradual revelation of the past, so that his protagonists learn the true nature of their present circumstances and react to it by initiating actions that they believe their discoveries demand.
The Social Play and Tragedy
All the elements of this form are already present in Pillars of Society (1877), the first drama of contemporary life, but the form is not fully worked out until the next play, A Doll House (1879). Of the first four dramas of contemporary life, Pillars of Society, A Doll House and An Enemy of the People (1882), while being richer and more complex than the plays of Dumas fils, Augier, and Bjørnson, adhere to the conventions of the social problem comedy to the extent that in all three the protagonists learn that they must break with past practices in order to live a more worthy life, and the audience, presumably, is learning the same lesson through their actions and their overt articulations of what they have learned. Tragedy enters into Pillars of Society in the form of tragedy averted. The earliest extant preparatory material for A Doll House is entitled “Notes for the Contemporary Tragedy,” and the play has the form of tragedy to the extent that Nora’s world and her hopes suddenly collapse as a result of the course of events. But even though Nora is exiting at the end into a very uncertain future, the overwhelming effect of the play is that her striking out on her own is both necessary and salutary. The third play of this first quartet, Ghosts (1881), has considerable discussion of social issues and Mrs. Alving learns that she should not have returned to her husband when Pastor Manders urged her to. Ultimately, however, the play is a tragedy, arguably the first modern one, and what Mrs. Alving learns from the tragic action that culminates with her son’s breakdown in the final episode is the premise of tragedy—that human experience is ultimately horrible, nothing can be done about it, and trying to make it better may very likely make it worse.
By the time of The Wild Duck (1884), the conventions of the social problem comedy have completely disappeared, and all subsequent seeming instances of them in Ibsen’s plays are misleading starting points that soon give way to the play’s real focus. In the later part of Ghosts and in all the plays from The Wild Duck on, the subject matter is human psychology and particular experiences created by it, all of them involving the longing of the protagonists for a world more in harmony with their desires than the one in which they find themselves.
An Enemy of the People is the only drama of contemporary life that came out after an interval of one year rather than two (or three in the case of When We Dead Awaken)—probably because the reception of Ghosts stirred Ibsen into providing a quick response. It is a return to the mode of Pillars of Society and A Doll House, as I have indicated, but as would seem likely after Ghosts, it is much darker than its predecessors, being made so by Dr. Stockmann’s heated outbursts in the public meeting of Act Four. It is almost certain that Ibsen found the title for his play in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and Stockmann’s outbursts may have been inspired by the similar outbursts of Shakespeare’s protagonist when he is compelled to face the people and their tribunes in the market place. Ibsen had already done something similar when he partly modeled The Pretenders on Richard II, and several other dramas of contemporary life besides An Enemy of the People have strong parallels with plays by Shakespeare and by other dramatists as well.
When A Doll House came out, it created a sensation. It was discussed everywhere in Scandinavia, both in public meetings and at private dinners—until hostesses began outlawing it as a topic for conversation. It outraged the conservatives and brought cheer to those seeking a more enlightened outlook. Before long it became a rallying cry for the new feminist movement, not only in Scandinavia but throughout the west and eventually part of the east, much as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had become the Bible of the anti-slavery forces. When Ghosts came out, it outraged just about everyone because of its introduction of taboo topics like incest and venereal disease, its caricaturing of the church, and its undermining the authority of the father in the home. The outrage was so intense that the play could not be staged in Europe’s leading theaters for several years. Some subsequent plays also provoked milder outrage, but, generally speaking, the most usual negative reaction to the later dramas of contemporary life was that they kept getting more and more obscure. Norwegians waited on the docks for the boats from Copenhagen bringing in copies of each new play as it came out, but they were soon shaking their heads bemusedly, marveling at what the Sphinx—as they liked to call him, not without affection—had come up with this time.
International Theater Breakthroughs
In 1876 The Pretenders and The Vikings at Helgeland were staged in Germany, the first in Meiningen and Berlin, the second in Munich, Dresden, and Leipzig. But Ibsen’s real breakthrough into theaters outside of Scandinavia was achieved by the first quartet of the dramas of contemporary life. In 1878 Pillars of Society played in five different theaters in Berlin at the same time and then went on during the next twelve months to twenty-six further productions elsewhere in Germany. A Doll House was even more successful in Germany, being produced just about everywhere there shortly after its world premiere in Copenhagen in 1879. A Doll House was also Ibsen’s breakthrough play into the English-speaking world, through the now famous London production on June 7, 1889, with Janet Achurch as Nora, and into Italy as well, through Eleonora Duse’s performance of it in 1891. Even Ghosts finally had its revenge, becoming the darling of the alternative theaters, opening both Otto Brahm’s Freie Bühne in Berlin (1890) and Jacob Grein’s Independent Theatre Society in London (1891) and giving André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris one of its first major productions (1890). When Ibsen wrote Pillars of Society he was still mainly known only in parts of Scandinavia. Little more than a decade later he had become the most respected dramatist in the world.
The Wild Duck
The Wild Duck (1884), the next play after An Enemy of the People, initiated a new tendency in Ibsen, the undermining of basic features of drama usually thought to be sacrosanct. Relling, for example, seems to be a dramatist’s spokesperson, but Ibsen’s characterization of him deprives him of authority. The role of protagonist is taken not by a single character but by three characters in succession: Gregers, Hjalmar, and Hedvig. Certain details that would seem to be of considerable importance—such as who was actually Hedvig’s father and whether her death resulted from suicide or an accident—are left undefined. Probably the most important instance of this play’s undermining a constant has to do with its genre, for The Wild Duck mingles the traditional genres of tragedy and comedy to create a new genre, modern tragicomedy, which became the standard genre of modern drama. The play is also important for its focus on the dangers of idealism and forcing theories and principles on the lives of others—so that at first glance Ibsen seems to be contradicting his preceding plays—and for the death of Hedvig, probably the most poignant moment in Ibsen’s work. All in all, the play is one of his greatest achievements.
In Rosmersholm (1886), Ibsen returned to tragedy, but he continued his experimenting with leaving certain basic facts of the play undefined and developed it to such an extreme that most of the defining phenomena of the play’s world are not given precise definition. Michael Meyer, Ibsen’s English biographer, rightly notes that Rosmersholm is Ibsen’s “most inexhaustible” play, and Freud found it sufficiently worthy of his attention to include a discussion of the play’s female protagonist, Rebecca West, in an essay on “character-types.” As many have noted, Rosmersholm is also Ibsen’s most beautifully designed play. And it introduces—in Ulrik Brendel, at least in Act Four—the first instance in the dramas of contemporary life of a character who has such a powerful symbolic dimension that it virtually blots out his psychological identity. (The other characters of this sort are the Stranger in The Lady from the Sea and the Rat Wife in Little Eyolf. In one way of looking at Hilde in The Master Builder and Irene in When We Dead Awaken, much the same can be said about them.)
The Lady from the Sea
The Lady from the Sea (1888) evokes tragedy in the horror Ellida feels when the Stranger comes to take her away with him and the even greater horror brought to her by the thought of being drawn into the dark unknown, but her story ultimately has a “happy ending” that has not satisfied all the critics. Unusually for Ibsen, this play has two subplots that reflect on the main plot in the Shakespearean manner, and one of them, which concerns Bolette Wangel, concludes with a tragic impact. The other subplot introduces Hilde Wangel, who reappears in The Master Builder, and provides considerable amusement. The play also has many fine passages as well, but some feel that it is one of the two weakest plays of Ibsen’s final eight, the other being Little Eyolf.
Three of Ibsen’s last five protagonists are cast in a more heroic mode than is typical for the dramas of contemporary life and endowed with powerful wills: Hedda Gabler, Solness the master builder, and John Gabriel Borkman. One possible reason for this is that Ibsen most likely became familiar with the philosophy of Nietzsche when Georg Brandes brought it to the attention of Scandinavia and subsequently the rest of Europe through a series of lectures on Nietzsche in 1888 and a long essay drawn from the lectures in 1889. The plays in question show a familiarity with Nietzschean ideas in other ways as well. Whether Ibsen read anything by Nietzsche or merely learned about him from Brandes’ work and the interest in Nietzsche that soon became widespread in Scandinavia is not known. In any case, Ibsen would have discovered that he and Nietzsche thought alike in many respects, and he might well have been inspired to create once again the kind of characters, like Hjørdis, Brand, and Julian, that were common in the first half of his career.
Hedda Gabler (1890) is the tragedy of a woman who despises the world that her class and gender have forced her into and who reacts to it in such extreme ways that she is the most difficult of Ibsen’s protagonists since Brand to accept on her own terms, and some readers and spectators are unable to do so. Initially, only the most perspicacious readers, like Henry James, understood what Ibsen was doing; for most, Hedda was simply a “monster.” In contrast to the other dramas of contemporary life, the world of middle-class values and pastimes (such as Brack’s fashioning of sexual triangles) is so entrenched that the other world Hedda longs for is completely unglimpsed by most of the characters and articulated by her only in such abstractions as “beauty,” “courage,” “daring,” and “having power” and in the image of vine leaves in the hair. Hedda Gabler is the zenith of Ibsen’s realism, the work in which he most avoids explanatory devices and gives us the action only in its concrete details. In Hedda and in Nora of A Doll House, Ibsen has given the theater two of its greatest roles, with Hedda being the more difficult one because of what the actress has to bring to it in order to make sure audiences at least understand her on her own terms.
Late Musings on the Artistic Vocation
Ibsen’s last four protagonists are a master builder, a writer, a venture capitalist with grand, even poetic ambitions, and a sculptor, and all of them feel deep regret for the turns their lives have taken. In consequence, these plays have often been interpreted as Ibsen’s autobiographical reflections. But the themes of artistic vocation and regret for the past are not new, for all of Ibsen’s protagonists, from Catiline on, are artists of life, seeking to remold the life they are living into the one they long for. Solness is a master builder but, more important, he is also a heroic figure, made so by his two clashes with the almighty, the one he reports from the past—many aspects of this report link it to the uncertainly defined elements frequent in the late plays—and the one at the end of the play that causes him to end tragically. He is also, in partnership with Hilde, part of a team that provides the best articulation in Ibsen of the longed-for other world, since it is so clearly a product of the imagination alone. Indeed, one of the signature aspects of The Master Builder is the sight of these two sitting calmly in overstuffed chairs while they verbally construct elaborate mythological versions of themselves.
Little Eyolf (1894) is noteworthy for the eerie Rat Wife and her dog Mopsemand, who rid peoples’ lives of vermin, its extensive use of Scandinavian folk lore, its frank treatment of female sexual desire, its psychologically odd brother-sister relationship, and its insights concerning mourning. It is post-tragic in a way, since its main focus is loss—not just the death of the title character but other kinds of loss as well—and the process of trying to get beyond grief. The ostensible solution is recovery from loss through commitment to useful charitable work, but mainly because the protagonist Almers always seems to be posturing, the prominence of his rhetoric at the end makes some critics even less satisfied with the ending than they are with the ending of The Lady from the Sea.
John Gabriel Borkman
Ibsen returned to tragedy in his last two plays. John Gabriel Borkman (1896) pits age against youth, with the three main older people—the title character (Ibsen’s version of the late nineteenth-century capitalist), his wife Gunhild, and her twin sister Ella—looming grandly in the intensity of their wills, while the young people seem frivolous and trivial. The play is noteworthy for taking place in the same amount of time as it takes to stage it, for its frequent black comedy, and for moving out of the realistic theater setting in the final act into a symbolic, cinematographic landscape. Borkman’s declaration of love for the buried riches he wanted to liberate from the earth—one of the most passionate speeches in nineteenth-century drama—reminds us that Ibsen was formed as a writer at the height of the Romantic period. When, a few moments later, the two sisters reach out their hands to each other over his dead body, their speeches, though written in prose, constitute a minimalist poetry of a quite modern sort.
When We Dead Awaken
Much of When We Dead Awaken is written in a similar kind of minimalist prose poetry, which at times anticipates Samuel Beckett. This play also repeats the use of landscape that becomes more symbolic than real, and, in fact, many aspects of the play—the characterizations, the movements upward and downward, the contrasting of the two couples, one moving upward to death, the other downward to life—give the play an unusually noticeable symbolic cast. This effect is heightened by the numerous allusions. Many of Ibsen’s plays contain frequent echoes of the Bible, but none of the other dramas of contemporary life, with the possible exception of Little Eyolf, rivals When We Dead Awaken in the density of their use. And in When We Dead Awaken Ibsen also frequently echoes words, phrases, and motifs from his own earlier work. The play is tragic because the efforts of Rubek and Irene to regain what they have lost—he the artistic aspirations that left him after he drove Irene away, she her youthful spirits and will to live—result in their burial in the avalanche. But the nature and intensity of their Biblical allusions as they ascend to the topmost peak of the mountains as well as the presence of the Liebestod motif here suggest that in his final work Ibsen may have been attempting to reach beyond tragedy, just as he did in his first play when he had Catiline’s dying wife save him from the “powers of darkness” and take his soul with her into “the realm of light.”
Over the years a performance canon of Ibsen’s plays has developed, with A Doll House, Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, An Enemy of the People, and Ghosts joining Peer Gynt as Ibsen’s most frequently performed plays. A canon of another kind, that of his most frequently written-about plays, has developed as well; this removes An Enemy of the People from the preceding list and adds Brand, The Lady from the Sea, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken.
Ibsen explained his generic label for When We Dead Awaken—”a dramatic epilogue”—by saying that it concluded the series of plays begun with A Doll House and that if he wrote anything else “it would be in a completely different connection, perhaps in a different form also.” But he was not to write anything else. A few months after the publication of When We Dead Awaken, he suffered the first of a series of strokes that made him an invalid and he lingered on until May 23, 1906. According to his doctor’s journal, his last utterance was “Tvertimod”!—”On the contrary”!
Ibsen’s work had made him the most accomplished and most important dramatist since Shakespeare, and because it is so difficult now to genuinely experience Greek drama, Ibsen is for most of us the second greatest dramatist of all time.