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Henrik Ibsen

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An Overview of Henrik Ibsen:

Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) created twenty-six plays and a volume of poetry. He is noted for his nationalistic spirit and for exploring Europe’s social problems during the 1800s. Critics both past and present have praised his realistic approach to drama and his well-developed characters. He is best known for creating strong female characters in dramas such as A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler.

Ibsen's Birth and Childhood:

Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20th, 1828 in Skein, Norway. His wealthy father, Knud Ibsen, owned several shops including a grocery store. However, after a series of poor financial decisions, the family was severely in debt by the time Henrik was seven.

The family was forced to move to a small farm house, and then shared a residence in the crowded home of a family friend. To make matters worse, Knud’s wife grew distant and dissatisfied with the marriage.

It is therefore no coincidence that the themes of debt, marriage, society, and independence play a prominent role in many of Henrik's plays.

Creative Perseverance:

In 1853, a small Norwegian theater gave a hopeful young playwright (and part-time pharmacy assistant) a wonderful opportunity. The Bergen Theatre produced St. John’s Night, Henrik Ibsen’s first publicly performed play.

It was a whimsical combination of Scandinavian folk tales filled with trolls and fairy creatures. It was also a miserable disappointment that closed after only one performance. Yet, Ibsen never let failure deter him. Despite all of his obstacles in his personal and literary life, he rose to become one of the greatest dramatists of the 19th century.

Early Career:

In 1850, Ibsen failed his entrance exam, dashing hopes of becoming a doctor. His friends admired his sense of humor and encouraged him to pursue writing as a career.

That same year his first play, Catiline, was rejected by editors, but a generous friend printed a few hundred copies. Only 40 were sold; the rest of the copies were used as gift wrapping. Still, he earned the respect of the Bergen Theatre, the company that produced his first works.

Audiences rejected his first three plays, but in 1856 he finally found success with his lyrical saga, The Feast of Solhaug.

Decorated Playwright:

Prompted by his first success, Ibsen wrote constantly. Many of his earlier plays dealt with a pride for his homeland, and a desire to maintain Norway’s virtues. Some failed both critically and financially; others succeeded remarkably.

His artistic endeavors generated several government grants, allowing him enough funds to raise a family and travel abroad.

In 1869, the King of Norway and Sweden knighted Ibsen. From then on, Ibsen’s career soared, and his plays became even more serious. Eventually, his writing shifted from poetic folktales to realistic examinations of controversial social issues.

Ibsen’s Social Commentary:

In 1877, his play, Pillars of Society, extolled the virtues of freedom and truth. Next, his 1879 classic A Doll’s House questioned the suppressed role of women in society. Thirteen years later, feminist issues were again explored in another hard-hitting drama, Hedda Gabler.

Toward the end of his life, his later plays, The Master Builder (1892) and When We Dead Awaken (1899), became more self-reflective. Ibsen began contemplating what it meant to dedicate one's life to art.

What Writer’s Have Said About Henrik Ibsen:

“All of Ibsen is visionary drama… His mastery of inwardness is second only to Shakespeare’s.” -- Harold Bloom

“Had the gospel of Ibsen been understood and heeded, these fifteen millions might have been alive now.” -- George Bernard Shaw (Discussing the loss of life during World War I)

“His characters may hate one another or be happy together, but they will generate nobility or charm.” -- E. M. Forster

Henrik Ibsen’s Death:

From 1900 to 1903 Ibsen suffered several strokes that left him unable to write creatively or speak clearly. Although his final years were quiet and bedridden, the playwright was not lonely. In 1906 his family and friends were at his bedside when he died in his sleep. He was seventy-eight years old. His last written words were, “Thanks.”

Quotes from Henrik Ibsen’s Plays:

“The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population—the intelligent ones or the fools? I think we can agree it’s the fools.”

-- from Enemy of the People

“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.”

-- from A Doll’s House

“The spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom—these are the pillars of society.”

-- from Pillars of Society

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