"Henrik Ibsen: The Father of Modern Drama"

Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian playwright from the 19th Century, has been called the “Father of Modern Drama.”  This title, exclusively given to him is arguably not an understatement; the playwright’s personal and public life significantly influenced his dramatic plays containing various political, religious, and historical messages.  Like Shakespeare, Ibsen tried to incorporate as much prose writing into his plays as possible without losing the story’s focal point.  Shakespeare's work convinced Ibsen that serious drama must strive towards a psychological truth and form its foundation on the characters and conflicts of mankind (Henrik Ibsen Essay).  Ibsen tried to incorporate social and psychological problems in realistic contemporary settings in his plays; each play dealing with these tribulations was called a “problem play.”(Henrik Ibsen Essay) While living in Norway for much of his youth, Ibsen experienced the horrors of poverty, loneliness, and disgrace of himself, his family, and his country.  Aside from the negative aspects of his childhood, he was fortunate to experience the joys of literature, transition from boy to man, and the importance of friendship. Every main detail surrounding Ibsen’s life is somehow intertwined within his literary works.  During his life, he went through three separate writing periods: Romantic, Social, and Symbolist (Henrik Ibsen Essay). Post Ibsen’s era, much support and criticism has been directed towards his plays.  His [Ibsen’s] radical views compressed in his plays give an insight into the life and times of the Father of Modern Drama.
In order to truly comprehend him, one must first understand where Ibsen’s inspiration for writing originated.  Every artist is like a flower, it starts as a seed growing roots beneath the earth.  Ibsen’s roots were in Skien, Norway.  Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828 to Knud and Marichen Ibsen (Meyer, 1-3) in this small sea and timber trading town with only three thousand inhabitants located seventy miles south-west of Oslo, the Capital of Norway. (Ibsen: A Brief Life)  Later in Ibsen’s life, he would describe Skien as,
“...the town of the storming, soughing, seething waters.  Over the town there is, a song in the air from all the weirs.”-July 29, 1895 (Meyer, 5-6)
In 1833, Knud Ibsen moved his family to a nicer home in the country.  The first seven years of Ibsen’s life were probably the best years he ever had with his family.  Towards the end of 1834, the Ibsen’s began to experience severe financial problems.  By 1836, the family lost most of their wealth and possessions.  This gradual monetary transition would forever change the Ibsen household: they were forced to sell their home in the country, and move back to Skien; Knud Ibsen became an alcoholic and lost all of his friends, and Marichen Ibsen experienced a prolonged depression that left her, for the most part, socially inactive and quiet for the remainder of her life.  She sought comfort in religion.(Meyer, 13-14)  Ibsen used his overbearing father and a subservient mother as inspirations for many characters in such plays as Brand (1866), A Doll's House (1879), and Ghosts (1881).(Henrik Ibsen Essay) Henrik completely lost any respect for his father after his downfall.  Further humiliation continued to catch up with the family.  Henrik’s mother, Marichen was having a love affair with another man just before her and Knud met.  Rumors in the community spread leading people to believe that Henrik was not the biological son of Knud Ibsen.  These tribulations, as experienced within the Ibsen household, were the type of situations that were used in several of Ibsen’s plays. (Meyer, 15-16) 
In A Doll’s House (1879), a family experiences severe financial problems after Norah Helmer, a young wife, secretly borrows an inordinate amount of money to send her husband to a warmer climate, and improve his health after becoming seriously ill.  She keeps this expenditure a secret from her husband knowing he would be furious.  To pay back the person she borrowed the money from, she saves as much money as possible by purchasing the poorest quality items for herself. (Ibsen, 1-96) 
Not only did Ibsen write about various families’ financial problems, he also wrote about illegitimate children.  An example of this can be found in one of Ibsen’s most successful and well-known plays, The Wild Duck (1884).  In this play, Gregers Werle, a young man returns to the house of his wealthy and cynical father, Hakon Werle.  The two have not seen or spoken to each other in seventeen years.  The reason Gregers visits his father is because Hakon is getting married, and Gregers rightfully opposes the marriage.  While on his visit, Gregers meets up with an old friend, Hialmar Ekdal.  He [Gregers] learns his father arranged for his former mistress, Gina, to marry Hialmar.  Hilamer does not know that his wife was the former mistress of Hakon Werle.  Hialmar and Gina have a daughter together, Hedvig, and later in the play, Hilamer discovers the truth behind the former love affair between Gina and Hakon.  He questions if Hedvig is his legitimate daughter.  Hialmer shuts himself up from his family, and distraught Hedvig shoots herself with an old hunting pistol. (Ibsen, 1-384) 
Despite the Ibsen’s’ economic difficulties, Henrik received a superior education which impacted his ability to write (plays and poems).  Ibsen’s mother was extremely religious.  Her dogmatic religious beliefs influenced the future playwright to read the bible at an early age. (Henrik Ibsen Essay)  Before the age of seven, Ibsen was very knowledgeable with the holy book, and till the day he died professed that the bible was his favorite book.  Besides reading the bible, Ibsen’s education came from other sources.  In 1841, he attended a newly established private school in Skien.  Ibsen attended the school for two years, and during that time was interested in history, religion, German, and Latin.  One of his headmasters commented, “Ibsen would be a great man.”(Meyer, 18-19)  Teachers and distinguished authors throughout the years were Ibsen’s strongest role models. Ibsen’s interest in writing primarily stemmed from his fascination with other great writers of his time.  During those years, Ibsen was beginning to discover an interest in verse (not play) writing, and painting.  For a short period, Ibsen took painting lessons, but due to his family’s inability to pay for the lessons, the lessons ceased. (Meyer, 20)  Many historians have inferred that if Ibsen were to have continued the lessons, he would have become a professional painter, and not a playwright.
Early in his youth, Ibsen was described as a scrawny and quiet kid who was withdrawn from the rest of the world.  The sounds of laughter and horseplay could often be heard from Henrik’s siblings.  While they were playing, Ibsen would lock himself in a room, and his siblings would tease him just to get him to chase them.  Ibsen would eventually get annoyed by their frolicking, chase them, and return to the room. The only family member Ibsen ever maintained a constant communication with was his sister Hedvig (Meyer, 20)upon whom he based the character of the same name who killed herself in The Wild Duck.
Ibsen’s attitude with others did not change outside of his home. Despite his cloudy disposition, he was well respected, especially by girls.  One woman who grew up with Ibsen was interviewed years later.  She described the playwright, “...we girls liked him.  He was nice looking and well set up.  When he came and asked us to dance, we regarded it as a great honour.”(Meyer, 20-21) 
Ibsen’s attitudes towards the upper class were less than appealing.  Because of his own financial status, he thought of the upper class as “rich snobs.”  He would often pay them not to hang out with him.  They viewed this as an insult, and taunted the young Norwegian until the day he left for Grimstad in 1843. (Meyer, 23)  His time in Skien emotionally scarred him for the rest of his life.  In his later years, Ibsen reportedly would shake his head slowly, and say, “It’s not easy to go to Skien.”(Meyer, 24)
On December 27, 1843, Ibsen went to Grimstad to work as a pharmacist’s apprentice.(Ibsen: A Brief Life) In his play The Pillars of Society (1877), he describes the townspeople as being small-minded, hypocritical, and morally corrupt.(Ibsen, 1-128)  Ibsen’s radical republican views were despised by many.  Despite the negative aspects of the people located in this town just seventy miles south of Oslo, Ibsen spent some of the best years of his life in Grimstad. (Ibsen: A Brief Life) During the first three years Ibsen worked in Grimstad, he experienced extreme poverty, long arduous hours on the job, lack of sleep, and great loneliness (much like his life in Skien). When Ibsen did have leisure time to rest, he spent it reading, writing, and painting.  Ibsen used his artistic talents to earn money and a positive reputation in the community.  He would draw lampoon caricatures, paint canvases, and write poetry for the people in Grimstad.(Meyer, 25-30)   Some of Ibsen’s favorite authors at this time included Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), and among others, his favorite author, Voltaire (1694 - 1778).(Meyer, 27)  Ibsen incorporated many of the thoughts and ideals of Voltaire into his dramas:  Irony, vicious satire and exaggerated elements of desire to get the audience to question their own prejudices.(Swann, 1-3)  While in Grimstad, Ibsen started to reevaluate his own beliefs and prejudices.  He questioned such matters as love, religion, and morality.  His beliefs lead him to turn his back on the Christian teachings of his childhood, and he gradually became more of an atheist. (Ibsen: A Brief Life)
In 1846, when Ibsen was eighteen years old, a huge burden came over his life.  For several months, Ibsen had a romantic affair with a house servant who worked for the same apothecary as he did.  Those who knew her referred to her as “the kitchen slut.”  She not only attended to Ibsen’s personal needs, but his sexual needs as well.  On October 9, 1846 this female servant gave birth to Ibsen’s illegitimate son, whom she named Hans Jacob Henriksen.  Ibsen supported the son for fourteen years, but never made an attempt to see him.  Hans became an alcoholic, and was known later in life as the town drunk.  According to history, Ibsen only saw the child once after it was born within a period of forty years.(Meyer, 31-32)  This was the second time an illegitimate birth occurred in Ibsen’s life, the first was possibly his own.
Shortly after the birth of Ibsen’s son, Ibsen’s employer went out of business, and a new employer hired the young writer/painter. (Timeline)  During that period, Ibsen experienced a spark of energy for writing verse.  Many of his poems were written in the same manner: eagerness and suicidal melancholy.  This pattern was very similar to the writing style of Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845) whom Ibsen admired the most as far as poets were concerned.  Ibsen’s extraordinary facility for composing rhythmic verse seeped into his playwriting.  In his first ten plays, Ibsen constantly tried to get almost every single line to rhyme, like William Shakespeare did.  Unlike Shakespeare, this form of playwriting was not to Ibsen’s advantage.  To strengthen the quality of his plays, Ibsen made stricter rules so as not to mix his poems with his plays.  Meyer, 35-38) In Grimstad, Ibsen only wrote one play, Catiline (1848).  This play would not be published until 1850 when Ibsen was living in Christiania.  The play itself was a work of art, but it did not sell very well, and Ibsen would be forced to sell the remaining copies of the play for scrap paper in order to have money for food.(Ibsen: A Brief Life)          
When Ibsen was not working, writing, or painting, he would be studying for his matriculation exam to become a physician at the University of Christiania (now Oslo).  In 1850, Ibsen entered his first writing period, his romantic period.  The plays written at this time mostly dealt with romantic historical events.  One of Ibsen’s most famous plays during his romantic period was Peer Gynt (1867). (Henrik Ibsen Essay) This play is about a farm boy, Peer Gynt who runs away from his home to live with a group of trolls.  After declining to marry the Princess troll, the other trolls turn against Peer and want to kill him.  He manages to escape, and makes a hut for himself in the mountains.  While there, a girl named Solveig finds him.  Peer had been attracted to Solveig before running away.  The two live in the mountains happily together until the troll Princess confronts Peer.  The troll Princess introduces Peer to his illegitimate son.  Ashamed and abused by the townspeople, Peer leaves the country, and experiences an enormous amount of misfortune for many years.  When he returns as an old man, he sees Solveig, and clings onto her having missed her love. (Ibsen, 1-224)  This play teaches the values of moral and social acceptance of others.  Peer Gynt is in a lot of ways similar to The Crucible by Arthur Miller.  Miller’s play is about the Salem witch hunt, but also corresponds with the time period of the McCarthy Era in which Joseph McCarthy charged the State Department for containing 200 communists. Society as a whole became suspicious and afraid.  In his play, society becomes afraid of those suspected of being witches; like Ibsen was afraid of those with more money than him.  Peer Gynt is a great fantasy play with an incredible message, to accept others different than you.
On April 15, 1850, Henrik went to Skien to visit his family.  While there, he spent a lot of time with his sister Hedvig.  Hedvig, years later, recalled a conversation she had with her brother during his visit.  She asked him what his dreams were, and he said, “To achieve nothing less than complete fulfillment in greatness and in love.”  Hedvig then asked, “Then?”  He replied, “I want to die.”  Ibsen never visited his family again. (Meyer, 50-51) On April 27, 1850, Ibsen left Skien for the University of Christiania to study medicine.
Ibsen’s goals to become a physician did not last for a long time.  Ibsen’s grades at the university reflected his lack of interest in his studies.  For Ibsen, playwriting was his main ambition; nothing more, nothing less. (Meyer, 63-64) Prior to college, Ibsen experienced a sense of loneliness and desperation which had stuck with him since his early days in Skien.  This sense of despair diminished in college.  Ibsen met other people who like him had a fervent appetite for literature and politics.  Many of Ibsen’s new friends shared similar radical beliefs with the young playwright, and even convinced Ibsen to participate in political demonstrations.   These demonstrations sparked Henrik’s political views, and on a few occasions nearly got him arrested and incarcerated.  Aside from the demonstrations, Ibsen also co-edited and contributed to a radical publication. (Meyer, 58-59)
Most college students spend their first years at a University wanting to become successful, and make a difference; few succeed early on.  Shortly after Ibsen’s twenty-second birthday, he already had his first play, Catiline published, and his second play, The Warrior’s Barrow accepted for production.  On top of all of his major accomplishments, Ibsen still found time to form a Literary Club at the University.  Unfortunately for Ibsen, the only setback to his first year of college was his grades.  After failing all of his classes except for one, German, Ibsen failed his matriculation exam. (Meyer, 63-64)
On September 26, 1850, The Warrior’s Barrow premiered at the Christiania Theatre.  During the performance, Ibsen, was extremely nervous and reportedly hid himself in the darkest section of the theatre.  To Ibsen’s joy, the play was well received and was performed twice that autumn.  For some unknown reason, The Warrior’s Barrow was not published until 1902, shortly before Ibsen’s death. (Meyer, 68)
By 1851, Ibsen, having failed as a doctor and a painter embarked on yet another career: Ibsen became a Journalist.  For nine months, he contributed dramatic and political criticisms to Samfundsbladet, a student run magazine.  But just as he failed in painting and medicine, he failed in journalism as well.  Ibsen came to the realization that he was destined to write literature.  On October 15, 1851, the young playwright made a life changing decision.  After meeting famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, Ibsen was offered a job by the musician to join his new theater company, The National Stage in Bergen as a "dramatic author."(Ibsen: A Brief Life)
In Bergen, Ibsen became the stage manager and playwright for The National Stage.  Ibsen stayed in Bergen for six years, and during that time was paid a modest salary which was just enough to avoid the horrors of poverty which he had endured in his youth.  Ibsen’s commitment to the theatre extended farther than his obligations to his job.  For the theatre, Ibsen would design sets and move the sets to the stage after being used in a different location for rehearsals.  As a dramatic author, Ibsen was assigned a theme by his superiors, and told to write a play about that certain theme.  Having never seen a well-staged, professional show, Ibsen found this procedure difficult to work with.  To improve the quality of his plays, The National Stage sent him on a trip to study professional shows performed in major theaters in Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Dresden.  Ibsen’s playwriting skills took some time to improve, but by 1856 Ibsen wrote his first major success on the theme of Norwegian independence. The play was called The Feast at Solhaug, a five-act drama set in 16th-century Trondheim.  In 1857, Ibsen left Bergen for Christiania to become the artistic director at a new Norwegian Theater. (Ibsen: A Brief Life)
Ibsen’s progress in his playwriting was not his only prize.  In Bergen, he met Suzannah Daae Thoresen, and on June 18, 1858 (in Christiania), Henrik Ibsen wedded her, and remained married to for the rest of his days.  A year later, Ibsen’s second child (first legitimate child) Sigurd was born.  In 1859, Ibsen and a friend of his founded a theatre company called “The Norwegian Company.”  The plays Ibsen wrote for the theatre were criticized by his audiences for being too dark which was Ibsen’s style.  His audiences wanted plays with light-hearted entertainment, plays that were comical and had a happy ending; something Ibsen did not favor.  All of the criticism towards Ibsen and his plays eventually led to the closing and bankruptcy of the theatre which only had been open for a couple of years.  The theatre’s financial downfall left Ibsen jobless for a couple of years.  During 1860-1864, Ibsen went through a severe depression and resorted to alcohol and considered suicide.  This dark phase of Ibsen’s life thwarted his ability to write.  Ibsen’s next play was not completed until 1862, five years after his last play, The Vikings at Helgeland. (Henrik Ibsen Essay)
    In 1862, Ibsen wrote Love's Comedy, a witty satire on marriage set in contemporary times and written in rhymed verse. The play was considered a failure at the time, and was called immoral, but was the first full length play by Ibsen to successfully deal with contemporary themes.  Ibsen’s next play, The Pretenders (1863) is considered by some to be his first major success dealing with national unity. (Henrik Ibsen Essay)  
In 1864, Ibsen was deeply troubled by current political events in Norway, more specifically Norway's failure to help Denmark in their war against Prussia, and felt he could no longer live there.  The playwright left for Rome with his family. Ibsen often wrote about patriotic acts, but he remained an expatriate for the rest of his life. (Ibsen: A Brief Life)
Over the next decade, Ibsen traveled throughout Europe writing many successful plays and poems.  In 1874, Ibsen reflected on all his writings in front of a large group of Christiania students.  He said,
   All I have written, I have mentally lived                     
        through. Partly I have written on... my best
        moments, I have felt stirring vividly within    
        me as something great and beautiful. I have
        written on that which, so to speak, has stood
        higher than my daily self. But I have also
        written on the opposite, on that which to  
        introspective contemplation appears as the          
        dregs and sediments of one's own nature...
(Henrik Ibsen Essay)
By 1877, Henrik Ibsen entered his second period of writing.  He wrote a series of plays dealing with social and psychological problems.  Some of Ibsen’s most controversial plays were written during this period.  Ibsen wrote a total of eight plays during this time.  Of these eight, some of the plays written include A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Hedda Gabler (1890), The Wild Duck (1884), and An Enemy of the People (1882).  What made these plays so controversial were the radical positions Ibsen held on certain issues like women’s rights, war, and the upper class.  Famous playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) commented on the play Hedda Gabler, “I felt pity and terror as though the play had been Greek.”  Ibsen’s themes were similar to early Greek plays called “morality plays” which focused on a certain issue, and questioned the ethical morality of a situation. (Henrik Ibsen Essay)
In 1891, Ibsen returned to Norway for the first time in seventeen years. Right after returning to Norway, Ibsen entered his third and final writing period, his Symbolist period.  Many of his plays at this time contained elements of defeat.  One play in particular is called The Master Builder (1892).  The play revolves around the career and personal relationships of a very ambitious man who discovers what it is like to be defeated, and not have full control and power. (Henrik Ibsen Essay)
In October 1893, Ibsen's wife began to experience gout, and returned to Italy for treatment.  While she was gone, Ibsen developed a romantic relationship with a female pianist.  Ibsen would take his mistress to theatres, lectures, and galleries, and he later gave her a diamond ring as a symbol of their union. (Templeton, 394)  After his wife returned from Italy, Ibsen ceased from any personal relationship with his mistress.  His own marital affairs worsened, but Ibsen never left his wife even though he frequently threatened to. (Henrik Ibsen Essay) 
Ibsen’s last play surprisingly called When We Dead Awaken was written in 1899.  A few months after When We Dead Awaken was published, the acclaimed playwright had the first in a series of strokes, and from then on his health only worsened.  Ibsen spoke his last word on May 23, 1906, "Tvertimod"!—"On the contrary"! (Ibsen: A Brief Life)
Ibsen’s superior plays have distinguished him as one of the greatest playwrights of all time next to other notable playwrights like Aristophanes, Voltaire, and even Shakespeare.  Ibsen’s “problem plays” have helped people reexamine the world around them, and fix the problems that menace society.


1.Craig, Pat “House' needs a remodel” CONTRA COSTA TIMES 1/17/04 (Article)

2.Ibsen, Henrik “A Doll’s House” Dover Pubns 2000 pgs. 96

3.Ibsen, Henrik “Four Major Plays: A Doll House, the Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, the Master Builder” Signet 1989 pgs. 384

4.Ibsen, Henrik “Peer Gynt” Viking Press 1966 pgs. 224

5.Ibsen, Henrik “Pillars of Society” Indypublish.Com 2002 pgs. 128

6.Meyer, Michael “Ibsen” DOUBLEDAY & COMPANY, INC. 1971 pgs. 809

7.Swann, Greg “Why I Read Ibsen” pgs. 3 (Journal Essay)

8.Templeton, Joan  “Ibsen's Women” Cambridge University Press , 2001) pgs. 408

9. (Ibsen: A Brief Life)

10. (Henrik Ibsen Essay)

11. (Timeline)

12.Ten Great Writers: Vol.2 Video (1988) Home Vision Entertainment