Ibsen, Henrik Johan

   A Norwegian playwright and poet, Ibsen is recognized as one of the world's greatest dramatists but was also, especially during his lifetime and in his native Norway, considered a notable poet. Born into a middle-class family in the town of Skien in the county of Telemark, he lost the social and economic advantages of that birth through his father's bankruptcy while Henrik was yet a small boy. Education beyond elementary school was out of the question, and at the age of 16 he had to leave home to earn a living as a druggist's apprentice in the nearby town of Grimstad.
   While in Grimstad, Ibsen fathered an illegitimate child by one of his employer's maids, a woman 10 years his senior, which brought him both social and pecuniary embarrassment. Perhaps through his work for the druggist, he also hit on the idea of pursuing a career in medicine. This necessitated passing his university matriculation examinations, for which he prepared by self-study. He also wrote poetry. While studying his Latin curriculum, he came across the account of the Roman rebel Catiline; he became so taken with this story that he shaped it into a play, Catilina (1850; tr. Catiline, 1900). After moving to Christiania (now Oslo) in order to further his education, he completed his second drama, Kjæmpehøjen (performed 1850, published 1902; The Warrior's Barrow, 1922), a Viking history play after the manner of national romanticism.
   In 1851 Ibsen was given an appointment at the recently founded Norwegian theater in Bergen. One of his duties was to provide an original play each year, and Ibsen's time in Bergen became an opportunity for him to thoroughly learn his craft. He was assisted by a travel grant that allowed him to study theater in Germany and Denmark. Most of the plays written in Bergen are of minor significance, however. An exception is the historical tragedy Fru Inger til Østeraad (1855; tr. Lady Inger of 0strat, 1890), written in prose and with lifelike characters.
   After returning to Christiania in 1857, where he was associated with the Norwegian Theater, he completed a second significant historical play, Hærmændene paa Helgeland (1858; tr. The Vikings at Helgeland, 1890), which was inspired by several Icelandic family sagas. But financially this was a difficult period for Ibsen, who had recently married and as of 1859, with the birth ofhis son Sigurd, had a family to support. Kjærlighedens komedie (1862; tr. Love's Comedy, 1890) was a witty commentary on love and marriage, full of funnysituations.ButIbsenwasalsoplaguedwithdepressionand doubt about his artistic gifts, which he expressed in another historical tragedy, Kongsemnerne (1863; tr. The Pretenders, 1890).
   After receiving two small grants to enable him to collect folklore, Ibsen was given funds designed to support a year's residence abroad and left Norway for Italy in 1864. His outlook on life changed dramatically, and he soon published two of his major works, the verse dramas Brand (1866; tr. 1891) and Peer Gynt (1867; tr. 1892). The character Brand is an extreme idealist in the spirit of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, while Peer Gynt is his unprincipled and hedonistic counterpart.
   Ibsen remained abroad, chiefly in Italy and Germany, until 1891, when he again settled in Christiania. These were highly productive years for him, even though it took 10 additional years before he began writing the 12 modern plays for which he is best known in the English-speaking world. After publishing De unges forbund (1869; tr. The League of Youth, 1890), he finished his longest play— consisting of10 acts divided into two evenings ofperformance— which has the title Kejser og Galilæer (1873; tr. Emperor and Galilean, 1876). The protagonist is the emperor Julian the Apostate, who tried to reestablish paganism as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Ibsen considered it his best play, but today that opinion is rarely shared.
   Ibsen's 12 modern prose dramas can be divided into three groups of four plays each. The first group consists of dramas that are critical of social conditions. Samfundets støtter (1877; tr. The Pillars ofSoci-ety, 1888) excoriates deception and hypocrisy in business and concludes that the spirit of truth and freedom are the real pillars of society. Et dukkehjem (1879; tr. A Doll's House, 1880) explores the role of women in the home and in society, concluding that a woman has not only the right but the duty to leave her husband and family if she is prevented by her marriage from realizing her full potential as a human being. Gengangere (1881; Ghosts, 1885) also offers a portrait of a marriage; its main focus, however, is on such ghosts from the past as the received ideas that people may have jettisoned intellectually but that still exert an emotional influence over them. Additionally, Ibsen discussed in the play such a delicate matter as syphilis that is passed on from a father to his unborn child (this used to be considered medically possible) and euthanasia, and for this he was censured. En folkefiende (1882; tr. An Enemy of the People, 1888) dramatizes the conflict between an exceptional intellect and the community in which he lives. Dr. Stockmann has discovered that the water at the local baths is polluted, but he is silenced when he tries to make people aware of his discovery. He is then branded an enemy of the people for suggesting that the actual pollution is but a symbol for the spiritual and political pollution in his town. Ibsen does not view Stockmann without irony, however, for at the end of the play he appears to have developed a strong Messiah complex.
   The second group of plays have in common that Ibsen relies heavily on symbolism as he probes middle-class family life. In Vildanden (1884; tr. The Wild Duck, 1890), a teenage girl commits suicide because she does not believe her father loves her anymore, while her father uses his illusions as a crutch to cope with life's difficulties. Both of these characters, and several others, are illuminated by the symbol of the wild duck, which, wounded by a hunter, lives as a pet in an attic in the company of chickens and rabbits. Although the duck is never actually seen on stage, it figures prominantly in the dramatic economy, as it becomes a figure for characters that have been wounded by life in various ways. The conflict inRosmersholm (1886; tr. 1891) concerns a widower, Rosmer, and Rebekka West, the woman who drove his former wife to jump into a millrace, killing herself. In the end, the white horses of Rosmersholm, which signify that someone is going to die, come back one more time, after which the millrace claims Rebekka and Rosmer as well. Fruen fra havet (1888; tr. The Lady from the Sea, 1890) probes the relationship between a widower, Dr. Wangel, and his second wife, Ellida, who, as a mermaid ofsorts, has myserious ties to the sea, as well as to a seaman she had at one time promised to marry. The eponymous Hedda in the play Hedda Gabler (1890; tr. 1891) leads an utterly boring life as a new bride, amused only by a pair of pistols—a symbol of her dissatisfaction with her gender roles—that she has inherited from her father. In the end each pistol claims a life, as Hedda gives one of them to a former love interest so that he can use it to commit suicide, and then, when his death is not as beautiful as she wishes it were, she uses the other pistol to take her own life.
   The final group consists of plays that in one way or another comment on the situation of the artist at the end of his career. Bygmester Solness (1892; The Master Builder, 1893) shows us the artist in the guise of an aging architect who has taken advantage of those around him and who now fears life's retribution. Lille Eyolf (1894; tr. Little Eyolf, 1895) presents a man who has used his work as an excuse for neglecting his wife. John Gabriel Borkman (1896; tr. 1897) adds crime to simply taking advantage; the protagonist has compromised his fiduciary duties in order to raise the funds needed for him to follow his calling as an industrialist. Når vi døde vagner (1899; tr. When We De d Aw ken, 1900) has as its protagonist a sculptor who has betrayed the love of his life for the sake of art.
   It is a testimony to the power and enduring value ofIbsen's dramas that they continue to be performed all over the world.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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