Born: 20 March 1828
Died: 23 May 1906
Notable Works: A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890)
Henrik Johan Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright and theatre director known as “The Father of Realism.” In his plays, he tried to present characters’ interactions objectively, representing the world as it is and not in an idealized fashion.
During his time, his plays were controversial as they challenged the audience’s conventional morality. A Doll’s House (1879) and Ghosts (1881) in particular received scathing reviews from critics but have since become recognized as classics of drama.
Ibsen wrote his plays in Dano-Norwegian, a mix of Danish and Norwegian that was then the common written language of Denmark and Norway. His plays were published by the Danish publisher Gyldendal in Copenhagen.
Ibsen’s famous works include A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1886), and Hedda Gabler (1890). In 2006, the 100th anniversary of Ibsen’s death, A Doll’s House was the most performed play in the world.
1. Henrik Ibsen’s Biography
1.1. Early Life
Henrik Ibsen was born in the port city of Skien in Bratsberg, Norway, on 20 March 1828. His birthplace, the Stockmanngarden, was a large townhouse. On the ground floor of this building, his father ran a retail business with his younger half-brother and apprentice, Christopher Blom Paus.
His parents, Knud Plesner Ibsen and Marichen Cornelia Martine Altenburg, came from wealthy merchant families that were among the city’s elite. Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg were raised together almost like siblings, though not related by blood. Marichen Altenburg was the niece of Knud Ibsen’s stepfather, Ole Paus. Paus’s sister, Hedevig Christine Paus, was married to Marichen’s father, the successful merchant Johan Andreas Altenburg. The children of Ole and Hedevig Paus grew up together. Some critics believe that Henrik Ibsen was intrigued by his parent’s “strange, almost incestuous marriage” such that he included incestuous relationships in several of his plays.
In 1825, Knud Ibsen married Marichen Altenburg and she moved into the Stockmanngarden to live with him. Their first son, Johan Altenburg, died prematurely. Their second son, Henrik Ibsen, was born three years later, and Henrik grew up as the eldest. Henrik had three younger brothers, Johan Andreas, Nicolai Alexander, and Ole Paus, and a younger sister, Hedvig. Henrik and Hedvig were incredibly close, and it is believed that she inspired the character of Hedvig in The Wild Duck (1884).
In 1831, the Ibsen family moved into Marichen’s childhood home, the Altenburggarden, which had been left to Knud Ibsen by his mother-in-law Hedevig Paus the previous year. In 1835, Knud Ibsen faced financial difficulties and was forced to sell the Altenburggarden. The family then moved outside the city to their summer house, Venstop.
1.2. Young adulthood and early career
At the age of 15, Henrik Ibsen left school and became the apprentice of a pharmacist in the town of Grimstad. He also started writing plays during this time. At 18, Ibsen had a liaison with a servant, Else Sophie Jensdatter Birkedalen, that resulted in an illegitimate son, Hans Jacob Henrikson Birkedalen. Henrik Ibsen supported Hans Jacob financially until the boy was 14, even though he never saw him.
In 1850, he moved to the capital Christiania (later renamed Kristiania in 1877 and Oslo in 1925) to enter the university. However, he eventually chose not to attend university so that he could focus on writing plays. That same year, he published his first play, Catiline, under the pen name Brynjolf Bjarme. He also wrote and published another play, The Burial Mound, which was his first play to be performed.
At 23, Ibsen was hired as an apprentice at a new theatre in Bergen, the Det Norske Theatre, where he rose to become the resident director and playwright. For this theatre, he wrote and produced one play every year.
His first success was the play The Feast at Solhoug (1855), which was restaged in Christiania and published as a book. It was also performed outside of Norway at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Sweden.
In 1857, he was appointed the creative director of the Christiania Theatre, prompting his return to the city. In 1858, he married Suzannah Thoreson. They had their only child a year later, Sigurd Ibsen, who would grow up to become the Prime Minister of Norway in Stockholm.
1.3. Exile years
In 1864, Henrik Ibsen took a government grant and left his homeland for Italy. He would spend the next 27 years abroad in Italy and Germany, visiting Norway only a few times.
His subsequent plays Brand (1865) and Peer Gynt (1867) brought him some fame and financial success. Both plays are written in verse, which he would later abandon for prose drama.
In 1868, he moved to Dresden, Germany. There, he wrote the play Emperor and Galilean (1873), which he regarded as his masterpiece. Emperor and Galilean was his first work to be translated into English and revolved around the life of Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman Emperor. He is called ‘the Apostate’ for his rejection of Christianity.
Ibsen moved to Munich in 1875, where he wrote his first realist drama, The Pillars of Society (1877). In 1878, he moved to Rome. The following year, he published his most famous play, A Doll’s House (1879). The protagonist of A Doll’s House is Nora Helmer, a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who leaves her husband and children to find fulfillment. The play explores the plight of married women, who at the time had few rights and limited opportunities to find fulfillment outside of their roles as wives and mothers.
A Doll’s House was controversial for its portrayal of a married woman leaving her husband and children, an act that was widely seen as immoral.
After A Doll’s House, Ibsen wrote more plays that explored social issues. Ghosts (1881) depicts the effects of adultery and venereal disease in a respectable family, while An Enemy of the People (1882) portrays the conflict that arises when an individual goes against a convenient but false belief of the majority.
1.4. Late career and introspective plays
In the later stage of his career, Ibsen’s plays focused more on psychological conflict within individuals rather than the conflict between individuals and social norms. These plays have more philosophical and interpersonal themes.
The Wild Duck (1884) explores the conflict between the protagonist Gregers Werle, a man who believes in the importance of absolute truth, and his friend, Hjalmar Ekdal, who lives in blissful ignorance, unaware that his child is illegitimate and that his wife has deceived him.
Hedda Gabler (1890), like A Doll’s House, revolves around the life of a woman stuck in an unhappy marriage. Unlike the previous play, however, Hedda is a more complex character. She is still regarded as one of the great dramatic roles for an actress today.
In 1891, Ibsen returned at last to Norway. Back in Kristiania, he became a close friend of the pianist and music pedagogue Hildur Andersen, who may have inspired the character of Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder (1892). Ibsen published his last play, When We Dead Awaken, in 1899.
1.5. Final years and Death
In 1900, Henrik Ibsen suffered his first stroke, and his health soon declined. In his final years, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature three times, in 1902, 1903, and 1904. On 23 May 1906, he died in his home. Ibsen was buried in Vår Frelsers gravlund (“The Graveyard of Our Savior”) in central Kristiania.
Henrik Ibsen’s plays inspired many novelists and playwrights after him, including James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill. Ibsen ushered in a new era of realism and social commentary in theatre. No longer was the theatre for entertainment alone; Ibsen’s plays popularized the idea that drama could be used as a tool for helping audiences reflect on pressing social issues. Rather than escaping reality, his plays present scenarios relatable to the audience and woven into their daily lives.
His plays have been translated into many languages and adapted into film, television dramas, and radio serials.
In 2006, the Norwegian government celebrated Ibsen’s centennial with the Ibsen Year. That year, the NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) produced a television series about Ibsen’s life titled The Immortal Man.
The English translator Michael Meyer (1921-2000) wrote an influential biography of Ibsen titled Ibsen: A Biography. Published in 1967, it won the Whitbread Biography Award and has been praised in a New York Times review as “the most complete Ibsen biography to date.” Meyer also translated 16 of Ibsen’s plays and 18 plays by Ibsen’s rival, August Strindberg.
In 1991, the Centre for Ibsen Studies was established at the University of Oslo. The center is involved in teaching, documenting, and researching Henrik Ibsen and his works. It maintains the Virtual Ibsen Centre, which contains digital resources on Ibsen and offers courses on Ibsen Studies at both the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels.
Since 1986, the Norwegian Ibsen Award has been awarded by the Skien Municipality to Norweigian playwrights. The award is meant to promote Norwegian drama by recognizing those who have made outstanding contributions.
Henrik Ibsen’s Plays
Catiline (Catilina) – 1850
The Burial Mound (Kjæmpehøjen) – 1850
St. John’s Eve (Sancthansnatten) – 1852
The Feast at Solhaug (Gildet paa Solhaug) – 1854
Olaf Liljekrans (Olaf Liljekrans) – 1856
Love’s Comedy (Kjærlighedens Komedie) – 1862
The Pretenders (Kongs-Emnerne) – 1863
Brand (Brand) – 1865
Peer Gynt (Peer Gynt) – 1867
Lady Inger of Oestraat (Fru Inger til Østeraad) – 1854
The Vikings at Helgeland (Hærmændene paa Helgeland) – 1858
The League of Youth (De unges Forbund) – 1869
Emperor and Galilean (Kejser og Galilæer) – 1873
Pillars of Society (Samfundets Støtter) – 1877
A Doll’s House (Et Dukkehjem) – 1879
Ghosts (Gengangere) – 1881
An Enemy of the People (En Folkefiende) – 1882
The Wild Duck (Vildanden) – 1884
Rosmersholm (Rosmersholm) – 1886
The Lady from the Sea (Fruen fra Havet) – 1888
Hedda Gabler (Hedda Gabler) – 1890
The Master Builder (Bygmester Solness) – 1892
Little Eyolf (Lille Eyolf) – 1894
John Gabriel Borkman (John Gabriel Borkman) – 1896
When We Dead Awaken (Når vi døde vaagner) – 1899
Other Works by Henrik Ibsen
Norma or a Politician’s Love (Norma eller en Politikers Kjaerlighed) – 1851
Digte – a poetry collection – 1871
3. Quotes from Henrik Ibsen
“I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts…It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them.”from Ghosts
“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?”from Enemy of the People
“You should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.”from Enemy of the People
“Money may be the husk of many things but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintance, but not friends; servants, but not loyalty; days of joy, but not peace or happiness.”Henrik Ibsen
“People want only special revolutions, in externals, in politics, and so on. But that’s just tinkering. What is really is called for is a revolution of the human mind.”Henrik Ibsen
4. Frequently Asked Questions about Henrik Ibsen
Why did Henrik Ibsen leave Norway?
Before he left Norway, Ibsen was the creative director of the Christiania Theatre. In this role, he was accused of mismanaging the theatre as its finances went from bad to worse. In 1862, the theatre went bankrupt, and Ibsen was fired. For the next two years, he had no stable income.
Ibsen became disenchanted with life in Norway with his family living in poor economic circumstances and decided to leave. In 1864, he obtained a travel grant of 400 speciedaler from the Norwegian government for a study trip to Paris and Rome. With this money, he left Norway and would not return to settle in his homeland until 27 years later.
Did Henrik Ibsen have an illegitimate child?
When Ibsen was 15, he moved to the town of Grimstad, where he became the apprentice of a pharmacist. There, he had an affair with a servant who worked at his employer’s pharmacy, Else Sophie Jensdatter Birkedalen. Else gave birth to his son, Hans Jacob Henrikson Birkedalen on 9 October 1846. Ibsen paid child support for Hans Jacob until the boy was 14 but never made an attempt to see him. Hans Jacob grew up to be a blacksmith and fiddle maker.
What were Henrik Ibsen’s last words?
On 22 May 1906, Ibsen’s nurse assured a visitor that he was feeling better. He objected, saying his last words, “Tvertimod!” (On the contrary!). He died the next day at 2.30 pm.
5. Books about Henrik Ibsen for further reading
Jaeger, Henrik. Henrik Ibsen, A critical biography (1890).
Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).
Gosse, Edmund. Henrik Ibsen. (1907).
Meyer, Michael. Ibsen, a biography (1967). History Press Ltd., Stroud, reprinted 2004
Sprinchorn, Evert. Ibsen’s Kingdom: The Man and His Works, Yale University Press, 2021.