Henrik Ibsen Life, Work and Criticism

Henrik Ibsen - Life, Work and Criticism

By Yvonne Shafer


The man who changed the course of modern drama was born in the seaside town of Skien, Norway. He was far from cultural influences, and was raised in an environment unlikely to produce one of the major literary figures of all time.

Henrik Johan Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828 to Knud Ibsen, a merchant, and his wife Marichen Cornelia Martine Altenburg Ibsen, the daughter of a shipmaster and merchant. Henrik grew up in considerable comfort until he was six years old. At that time his father went bankrupt, and his family life was totally disrupted; his father became a drunkard, his mother became melancholy and withdrawn, and the Ibsens were no longer a part of respectable society. Interspersed with this unhappy picture of Ibsen`s childhood are some pleasing sketches of a lively, artistically inclined boy interested in magic and very clever at drawing caricatures. An interest in art continued throughout his life, and contemporary critics often note the importance of thevisual aspects in hisplays.

Ibsen left his family at the age of sixteen to become an apprentice to a pharmacist in Grimstad. Six years of loneliness, disappointment, and poverty followed. In this period his difficulties were increased when he fathered an illegitimate son by a servant in the household where he lived. The importance of this scandal and the rumors of his own illegitimacy are reflected in the plays which frequently involve illegitimate children.

His earliest writing waspoetry, and his first plays were written inverse. When he wroteCATILINE at the age of twenty it was something of a landmark: no new Norwegian play had been published in six years. In 1850, Ibsen was finally able to move toChristiania (now Oslo) to attend the University. He continued writing and reviewed plays, and in 1851 he went

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to Bergen to become stage manager and playwright for the Bergen Theater.

During the time he lived in Bergen, Ibsen wrote several plays, but most of them were failures, and he found this a period of disappointment. On the positive side, it was a period in which he had the opportunity to learn the craft of playwriting, for in the five years he was there, numerous plays were presented, and he personally directed Shakespeare`sAs you like it.

The future looked more promising when Ibsen was hired in 1857 to be the artistic director ofThe Christiania Norwegian Theater. He would now be in a bigger city with more cultural opportunities and would have a larger salary. He married Suzannah Thoreson in 1858, moved back to Christiania, and in 1859 became the father of a son, Sigurd.

In 1862 he wroteLOVE`S COMEDY and followed it withTHE PRETENDERS which was a great success. Following the international success of his playPEER GYNT in 1867, Ibsen moved his family to Dresden in Germany. Two years later he enjoyed the pleasure of public attention and the first of many grand occasions.

In 1870 Ibsen met a young woman named Laura Kieler, and she asked for his assistance in publishing her writing. He met her again shortly before she found herself enmeshed in tragic circumstances which parallel the circumstances ofA DOLL HOUSE. Many people, including Laura Kieler herself, felt that she was the model for Nora.

THE PILLARS OF SOCIETY was the first of his plays to be performed in England; other famous plays wereGHOSTS andTHE LADY FROM THE SEA.

When Ibsen died on May 23, 1906, there were tributes to his work from the world at large. Ibsen was honored by his country with a state funeral to which an estimated crowd of 12,000

mourners came. In some ways his life was unhappy, yet before his death, Ibsen had the satisfaction of knowing that his plays were translated into many languages and read

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throughout the world, and that they were presented on stages in many countries. Although he never became a rich man, he avoided the financial ruin which his father suffered: he achieved financial success and provided for his family. His greatest satisfaction in life came from the work itself, and fortunately he was able to work throughout most of his life.

Henrik Ibsen was one of the great modern playwrights whose technique continues to influence playwrights throughout the world. His plays astonished and outraged many nineteenth-century critics, but audiences and readers found them exciting and challenging.


7B MAI 1999

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