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||Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)|
Norwegian playwright, one of "the four great ones" with Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson of the 19th-century Norwegian literature. Ibsen is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern prose drama. He moved away from the Romantic style, and brought the problems and ideas of the day onto the stage of his time. Ibsen's famous plays, Brand (1866 ) and Peer Gynt (1867), were originally not intended for the stage; they were "reading dramas".
"... And what does it mean, then to be a poet? It was a long time before I realized that to be a poet means essentially to see, but mark well, to see in such a way that whatever is seen is perceived by the audience just as the poet saw it. But only what has been lived through can be seen in that way and accepted in that way. And the secret of modern literature lies precisely in this matter of experiences that are lived through. All that I have written these last ten years, I have lived through spiritually." ('Speech to the Norwegian Students, September 10, 1874, from Speeches and New Letters, 1910)
Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien, a tiny coastal town in the south of Norway. His father, Knud Ibsen, was a prosperous merchant, whose financial failure changed the family's social position. Later Ibsen bitterly recalled how his father's friends broke all connections with him and the "Altenburg Manor", earlier known for its dinners and festivities. In disgrace the family moved to Venstøp farmhouse, provided to them by the creditors.
As a child Ibsen dreamed of becoming an artist. His mother, Marichen Cornelia Martine Altenburg, was an avid painter, and she loved theatre. Ibsen's education was interrupted by poverty and at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Grimstad. In 1846 he was compelled to support an illegitimate child born to a servant girl. Ibsen moved in 1850 to Christiania (now Oslo), where he attended Heltberg's "student factory", an irregular school for university candidates, and occasionally earned from his journalistic writings. In the same year he wrote two plays, Catiline, a tragedy, which reflected the atmosphere of the revolutionary year of 1848, and The Burial Mound, written under the pseudonym of Brynjolf Bjarme. Ibsen hoped to become a physician, but failed university entrance examinations.
Cataline sold only a few copies but The Burial Mound was performed three times in 1850. The first performance of Cataline did not take place until 1881. After successfully performing a poem glorifying Norway's past, Ibsen was appointed in 1851 by Ole Bull as "stage poet" of Den Nationale Scene, a small theater in Bergen. During this period Ibsen staged more than 150 plays, becoming thoroughly acquainted with the techniques of professional theatrical performances. In addition to his managerial work he also wrote four plays based on Norwegian folklore and history, notably Lady Inger of Ostrat (1855), dealing with the liberation of medieval Norway. In 1852 his theater sent him on a study tour to Denmark and Germany.
Ibsen returned in 1857 to Christiania to continue as artistic director of the new Norwegian (Norske) Theatre. In 1858 he married Suzannah Thoresen, the stepchild of the novelist Magdalene Thoresen. Their only child, Sigurd, was born next year. After many productions, the theater went bankrupt, and Ibsen was appointed to the Christiania Theatre. To this period belong The Vikings of Helgoland (1858) and The Pretenders (1864), both historical sagas, and Love's Comedy (1862), a satire. Several of Ibsen's plays failed to attract audience. These drawbacks contributed to his decision to move abroad.
In 1864 Ibsen received an award for foreign travel from the government, and also had financial help from Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. He left Norway for Italy in April, and traveled abroad for the next 27 years, returning to Norway only for brief visits. During this time, when he lived in Rome, Munich and Dresden, Ibsen wrote most of his best-known works, among others Brand, inspired by Kierkegaard's idea of subjectivity as truth. The symbolic tragedy tells about a priest, who follows his high principles at the cost of the lives of his child and his wife. Its theme, an individual with his God-given mission pitted against society, reflected Ibsen's disappointment in weak and spineless politicians.
Brand's firm belief is "No compromise!" At the end Brand admits his own weakness and is buried by an avalanche. Peer Gynt (1867), written mostly in Southern Italy, in Ischia and in Sorrento, was a satiric fantasy about a boastful egoist, irresponsible young man, an Ulyssean figure from Norwegian folklore. In both of these works the romantic hero is destroyed and their "ideal demands" are crushed. No doubt the themes also rose from Ibsen's disillusionment with his countrymen. In 1865 he wrote to Björnson: "If I were to tell at this moment what has been the chief result of my stay abroad, I should say that it consisted in my having driven out of myself the aestheticism which had a great power over me – an isolated aestheticism with a claim to independent existence. Aestheticism of this kind seems to me now as a great curse to poetry as theology is to religion."
Ibsen himself considered The Emperor and the Galilean (1873) his most important play. However, this heavy drama about Christianity and paganism in generally not included among his most important achievements. Pillars of Society (1877) dealt with a wealthy and hypocritical businessman, whose perilous course almost results in the death of his son. A Doll´s House (1879) was a social drama, which caused a sensation and toured Europe and America. In the play a woman refuses to obey her husband and walks out from her apparently perfect marriage, her life in the "doll's house". At the turn-of-the-century physicians used Nora, whose mood changes from joy to depression in short cycles of time, as an example of "female hysteria". Later Havelock Ellis, inspired by Nora's character, saw in her "the promise of a new social order."
In An Enemy of the People (1882) Ibsen attacked "the compact liberal majority" and the mass opinion. Arthur Miller's adaptation from 1950 was a clear statement of resistance to conformity. "The majority," says the honest and brave Dr. Stockmann, "is never right until it does right." Ghosts (1881) touched the forbidden subject of hereditary venereal disease. The London Daily Telegraph called the play "an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; a lazar house with all its doors and windows open." Again a bourgeois façade hides moral decay and guilt. Mrs. Alving, the widow of the respected Captain Alving, has to reveal to her son Oswald the ugly truth about his disease. Eventually she has to decide whether or not to euthanize his son, whose mind has disintegrated.
Hedda Gabler (1890) was a study of a neurotic woman. Oscar Wilde, after attending the play, wrote: "I felt pity and terror, as though the play had been Greek." Hedda, twenty-nine years old, has married down, is pregnant with an unwanted child, and bored by her husband. Before marriage she has flirted with the drunken poet Loevborg, a portrait of the playwright Strindberg, who hated Ibsen. She plots to the ruin of Loevborg by burning his manuscript on the future of civilization. Judge Brack, who lusts after Hedda, discovers that Hedda has instigated Loevborg's accidental suicide – he has died in a bordello. Hedda cries: "Oh, why does everything I touch become mean and ludicrous? It's like a curse!" Brack gives her the choice either of public exposure or of becoming his mistress. But Hedda chooses suicide when she falls into his power.
In 1866 Ibsen received poet's annual stipend. He also had
royalties from his dramatic poem Brand,
his first financially successful drama. With the receipt of a new
grant, he visited Stockholm, dined with the King, and later represented
Norway at the opening of the Suez Canal. In the 1870s he worked with
the composer Edward Grieg on the premiere of Peer Gynt. Grieg
had met Ibsen in Rome in 1866; the play was written a year after their
They never became close but Ibsen felt that the busy conductor and
virtuoso pianist had a real understanding of his work. In January 1874
he commissioned Grieg to provide incidental music for the play, which
he never intended to be staged. The assignment was completed in
September of the following year and was premiered in Oslo, together
with a revised stage version of the drama, on February 24, 1876. Both
the author and the composer were surprised by its success.
When Ibsen spent a couple months in Norway during the summer of 1874, Norwegian students marched in procession to his home to greet him. In reply Ibsen said: "For a student has essentially the same task as the poet: to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and in the community to which he belongs." (from Speeches and New Letters)
Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 and continued to write until a stroke in 1900. His marriage was joyless, but he had a few episodes of friendship with young women. In 1898 Ibsen received the world's homage on the occasion of his 70th birthday. George Bernard Shaw called him the greatest living dramatist in a lecture entitled 'The Quintessence of Ibsenism'. Ibsen's son married Bjørnson's daughter Bergliot. The marriage built a bridge of friendship between the two writers. Their relationship had broken after Ibsen's play The League of Youth (1869), where the central character resembled Bjørnson. Ibsen died in Christiania on May 23, 1906. His last years he spent in bed. Upon receiving a visitor, Ibsen overheard his nurse remarking that he was feeling better. "On the contrary," Ibsen said; they were hiss final words.
Ibsen's final years were clouded by mental illness. When We Dead Awaken (1899), his last dramatic effort, showed the influence of Strindberg. James Joyce, who was from his student days a great admirer of Ibsen's work, published a laudatory essay on the play in the 1 April 1900 issue of the Fortnightly Review. It was Joyce's first published piece. A supposedly unknown Ibsen play, entitled The Sun God, surfaced in 2006 and an antiquarian bookshop in Oslo was offered a chance to buy it. After police investigation, a Norwegian scriptwriter and actor was charged in 2011 for forging writings and documents that allegedly originated from Ibsen and Knut Hamsun.
"A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view." (from Ibsen's Workshop, 1912)
Ibsen wrote for and about the middle class and life in the suburbs and small towns. He focused on characters and psychological conflicts rather than dramatic situations. His central theme was the duty of the individual towards himself, not the out-of-date conventions of bourgeois society. "I have really never had a strong feeling for solidarity," Ibsen said to Brandes in 1871. Most likely he was aware of Darwin's work; there are many references to evolution in his writings. Ibsen's anarchistic individualism made a deep impression on the younger generation outside Norway, where he was considered a progressive writer. In his home country, however, Ibsen was seen as a moral preacher and more conservative than Björnson. Ibsen's discipline or successor was George Bernard Shaw, who dramatized with flair and wit generally accepted ideas into uncompromising plays.
Peer Gynt (1867), a verse drama. The hero is the legendary Peer Gynt of Norwegian Folklore. Peer is a young peasant farmer, a liar and opportunist, the antithesis of Brand¾he has no calling. He attends the country wedding feast, where he meets Solveig, a girl who is deeply attracted to him. Peer kidnaps the bride and later abandons her in the wilderness. A fugitive now, Peer experiences, like Sinbad the sailor, amazing adventures in many lands. He courts and then abandons the daughter of the Troll King. Before fleeing the country, he visits Aase, his aged mother, whose death he softens by a fantasy of a sleigh ride into an imaginary heaven. In his middle life Peer ships missionaries and idols to China, and becomes a slave trader. "To be creator of the universe, / So I need gold if I'm to play / The emperor's part with any force." He makes and loses money, and saves his own life in a shipwreck by letting another drown. Eventually Peer returns to Norway, old and embittered by his fruitless odyssey. He comes up before the Button Molder, who tells that "Friend, it's melting time," and tries to melt him in his ladle. Peer asks what is "to be yourself" and the Button Molder answers: "To be yourself is to slay yourself." Peer is horrified at the idea of losing his precious identity. However, he is saved from oblivion by the redeeming love Solveig, who has waited for him faithfully and in whose mind he has existed as a real personality. Peer discovers his reason for being in her forgiving arms. Incidental music accompany the play was composed by Edward Grieg. - "Whatever his critics think, Ibsen does not regard Peer as a failure or a hollow man. Faust, Part Two is an even greater dramatic poem than Peer Gynt, but unlike Faust, Peer is the triumphant representation of a personality. What Ibsen values in Peer is what we should value: the idiosyncratic that refuses to be melted down into the reductive or the commonplace..." (Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, 1994)
For further reading: The Quintessence of Ibsenism by Georg Bernard Shaw (1891); Henrik Ibsen: A Critical Study by G. Brandes (1899); Henrik Ibsen by R. Woerner (1923, 2 vols.); Life of Ibsen by H. Koht (1931); Henrik Ibsen: A Study in Art and Personality by T. Jorgenson (1945); Ibsen's Dramatic Technique by P.F. Tennant (1948); Ibsen's Dramatic Method by J. Northam (1953); Henrik Ibsen by Lauri Viljanen (1962), Henrik Ibsen by G.W. Knight (1963); Contrenporary Approaches to Ibsen, vol. 1-3 by D. Haakonsen et al (1966, 1971, 1977); Ibsen: A Biography by M. Meyer (1971); Henrik Ibsen: a Critical Biography by Henrik Jaeger (1972); Ibsen's Drama by E. Haugen (1979); To the Third Empire: Ibsen's Early Plays by B. Johnston (1980) Patterns of Ibsen's Middle Plays by R. Hornby (1981); An Ibsen Companion by George B. Bryan (1984); Approaches to Teaching Ibsen's a Doll House, ed. by Yvonne Shafer (1985); Henrik Ibsen: Life, Work, and Criticism by Yvonne Shafer (1985); Prophet of the New Drama by Thomas Postlewait (1986); Critical Essays on Henrik Ibsen by Charles R. Lyons ( 1987); Ibsen in America: A Century of Change by Robert A. Schanke (1988); Ibsen's Drama: Right Action and Tragic Joy by Theoharis Constantine Theoharis (1996); Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography by Robert Ferguson (1996); Ibsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900 by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (1997); Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage, ed. by Michael Egan (1997); Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear by Michael Goldman (1999); Ibsen's Women by Joan Templeton (2001); Henrik Ibsen: The Man and His Plays by Torstein Velsand (2011); Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (2015) - Museums: Ibsen's Apartment, Arbiens gate 1, Oslo; Ibsen's Childhood Home, Venstøp, 3700 Skien (also Skien Ibsen Annual Festival); Ibsen's House, 4890 Grimstad - See also: James Joyce, Georg Brandes, Knut Hamsun, Mao Zedong's wife Chiang Ch'ing