Stage Notes

Henrik Ibsen: About the Author

By Nina Saunders

Ibsen
Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906)

Henrik Johan Ibsen (March 20, 1828-May 23, 1906) was a 19th-century Norwegian playwright who is often referred to as “The Father of Realism” or “The Father of Modern Drama” and who some regard as the most important playwright since Shakespeare. The son of the merchant Knud Plesner Ibsen, he was born in Skien, Norway where most of his plays are set, although he lived in Italy and Germany for 27 years after he went into a self-imposed exile in 1864. 

When he was seven years old his father experienced a sudden shift in financial circumstances sending the family into poverty, which drastically affected the entire family. 

When Ibsen was only eighteen, he fathered a son, Hans Jacob. Although he paid child support for his son, he never met him. After failing his entrance exams for the University of Christiana, he went to work in production at a theater in Bergen. 

At the age of 30, Ibsen married Suzannah Thoreson and had one son, Sigurd, who later became a lawyer, author, statesman, and Prime Minister of Norway. In 1905, Sigurd played a key role in the separation of Norway and Sweden. 

Despite the creative energy unleashed by the early 19th-century Romantic Movement in literature, European theatre in the 1850s was at its lowest point in many years. It is often said that no other period in Western history has been so rich in literature yet so lacking in drama. However, Ibsen was determined not to follow the traditional rules or styles of the European theatre and to instead forge his own style, which was focused more on “serious” thinking about sociological issues. Breaking with the traditional norms proved successful as his realistic and timely scenarios were relatable to audiences and were championed by social reformers upon their publication.

Ibsen created complex psychological depictions of the discomfort and hypocrisy surrounding conventional moral values and showed the consequences of restrictive social norms. He often advocated for Darwinian ideas, which can be clearly seen with the character Dr. Stockman in An Enemy of the People. Similar to Darwin’s rejection of the divine father in creationism, Ibsen challenges the patriarchal authority within the family and society at large. This can be clearly seen in An Enemy of the People, in which the father figure is greatly revered at the beginning of the play, but as the play progresses the audience sees how the attachment of the father leads to his status weakening in the community as well as threatening the safety of his family. In his article "Darwin, Weak Men, Strong Women and Ibsen’s Pillars of Society" Ross Shideler states that Darwin’s rejection of the Divine Patriarchy can be seen in Ibsen’s depiction of “a weak or displaced father who lives in a world threatened by change, and... a woman who challenges the patriarchy.”  For An Enemy of the People, Petra is that female challenger. In addition, Darwinism is further investigated by Ibsen through the idea that the real authority figure of mankind is no longer mankind itself; it is nature interpreted through the lens of science. This is explored intensely in An Enemy of the People by Dr. Stockmann as he consistently declares that “the water is poisoned” every time someone tries to convince him to sway his stance.

Ibsen is known for creating three key innovations in playwriting: colloquial prose dialogue, objectivity in characterization, and tightness of plot. These innovations gave Ibsen a dramaturgical mechanism for speaking directly to important issues in his current society and collectively are what made his work transcend the label of “entertainment” to attain the status of “important art.”  This approach would go on to influence writers like Anton Chekov, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill. 

An Enemy of the People was published in 1882 and was widely considered to be Ibsen’s response to the public criticism of his previous play, Ghosts, in which he addressed moral corruption and venereal disease. Ibsen was turned into “an enemy of the people” because no one would produce Ghosts due to its unflinching treatment of controversial topics. It is thought that Ibsen wrote Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the protagonist of An Enemy of the People, as a version of himself. 

In addition to An Enemy of the People, Ibsen also penned Catiline, The Burial Mound, St. John’s Eve, Lady Inger of Oestraat, The Feast of Solhaug, Olaf Liljekrans, The Vikings of Helgeland, Love’s Comedy, The Pretenders, Brand, Peer Gynt, The League of Youth, Emperor and Galilean, Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Sea, Hedda GablerThe Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, 1903, and 1904. Henrik Ibsen died in what is now Oslo on May 23, 1906 after a series of strokes. The day prior to his death, Ibsen’s nurse assured a visitor that he was a little bit better. To this remark, it is said that Ibsen uttered his last words “on the contrary.”