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HENRIK IBSEN (1828-1906)

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 317-22.

IN the entire history of literature, there are few figures like Ibsen. Practically his whole life and energies were devoted to the theater; and his offerings, medicinal and bitter, have changed the history of the stage. The story of his life -- his birth March 20, 1828, in the little Norwegian village of Skien, the change in family circumstances from prosperity to poverty when the boy was eight years old, his studious and non-athletic boyhood, his apprenticeship to an apothecary in Grimstad, and his early attempts at dramatic composition -- all these items are well known. His spare hours were spent in preparation for entrance to Christiania University, where, at about the age of twenty, he formed a friendship with Björnson. About 1851 the violinist Ole Bull gave Ibsen the position of "theater poet" at the newly built National Theater in Bergen -- a post which he held for six years. In 1857 he became director of the Norwegian Theater in Christiania; and in 1862, with Love's Comedy, became known in his own country as a playwright of promise. Seven years later, discouraged with the reception given to his work and out of sympathy with the social and intellectual ideals of his country, he left Norway, not to return for a period of nearly thirty years. He established himself first at Rome, later in Munich. Late in life he returned to Christiania, where he died May 23, 1906.


The productive life of Ibsen is conveniently divided into three periods: the first ending in 1877 with the successful appearance of The Pillars of Society; the second covering the years in which he wrote most of the dramas of protest against social conditions, such as Ghosts; and the third marked by the symbolic plays, The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken. The first of the prose plays, Love's Comedy (1862) made an impression in Norway, and drew the eyes of thoughtful people to the new dramatist, though its satirical, mocking tone brought upon its author the charge of being a cynic and an athiest. The three historical plays, or dramatic poems, Brand, Emperor and Galilean, and Peer Gynt, written between 1866 and 1873, form a monumental epic. These compositions cannot be considered wholly or primarily for the stage; they are the poetic record of a long intellectual and spiritual struggle. In Brand there is the picture of the man who has not found the means of adjustment between the mechanical routine of daily living and the deeper claims of the soul; in Emperor and Galilean is a portrayal of the noblest type of pagan philosophy and manhood, illustrated in the Emperor Julian, set off against the ideals of the Jewish Christ; and in Peer Gynt is a picture of the war within the soul of a man in whom are no roots of loyalty, faith, or steadfastness.

When The Young Men's League was produced, the occasion, like the first appearance of Hernani, became locally historic. The play deals with political theories, ideas of liberty and social justice; and in its presentation likenesses to living people were discovered, and fierce resentments were aroused. The tumult of hissing and applauding during the performance was so great that the authorities interfered. The Pillars of Society, Ibsen's fifteenth play, was the first to have a hearing throughout Europe. It was written in Munich, where it was performed in the summer of 1877. In the autumn it was enacted in all the theaters of Scandinavia, whence within a few months it spread over the continent, appearing in London before the end of the year. The late James Huneker, one of the most acute critics of the Norwegian seer, said: "The Northern Aristophanes, who never smiles as he lays on the lash, exposes in The Pillars of Society a varied row of white sepulchres. . . . There is no mercy in Ibsen, and his breast has never harbored the milk of human kindness. This remote, objective art does not throw out tentacles of sympathy. It is too disdainful to make the slightest concession, hence the difficulty in convincing an audience that the poet is genuinely humain."

The Pillars of Society proved, once and for all, Ibsen's emancipation, first, from the thrall of romanticism, which he had pushed aside as of no more worth than a toy; and, secondly, from the domination of French technique, which he had mastered and surpassed. In the plays of the second period there are evident Ibsen's most mature gifts as a craftsman as well as that peculiar philosophy which made him the Jeremiah of the modern social world. In An Enemy of the People the struggle is between hypocrisy and greed on one side, and the ideal of personal honor on the other; in Ghosts there is an exposition of a fate-tragedy darker and more searching even than in Oedipus; and in each of the social dramas there is exposed, as under the pitiless lens of the microscope, some moral cancer. Ibsen forced his characters to scrutinize their past, the conditions of the society to which they belonged, and the methods by which they had gained their own petty ambitions, in order that they might pronounce judgment upon themselves. The action is still for the most part concerned with men's deeds and outward lives, in connection with society and the world; and his themes have largely to do with the moral and ethical relations of man with man.

In the third period the arena of conflict has changed to the realm of the spirit; and the action illustrates some effort at self-realization, self-conquest, or self-annihilation. The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken must explain themselves, if they are to be explained at all; for they are meaningless if they do not light, in the mind of the reader or spectator, a spark of some clairvoyant insight with which they were written. In them are characters which, like certain living men and women, challenge and mystify even their closest friends and admirers. Throughout all the plays there are symbols -- the wild duck, the mill race, the tower, or the open sea -- which are but the external tokens of something less familiar and more important; and the dialogue often has a secondary meaning, not with the witty double entendre of the French school, but with suggestions of a world in which the spirit, ill at ease in material surroundings, will find its home.

It is significant that Ibsen should arrive, by his own route, at the very principles adopted by Sophocles and commended by Aristotle -- namely, the unities of time, place and action, with only the culminating events of the tragedy placed before the spectator. After the first period he wrote in prose, abolishing all such ancient and serviceable contrivances as servants discussing their masters' affairs, comic relief, asides and soliloquies. The characters in his later dramas are few, and there are no "veils of poetic imagery."


The principles of Ibsen's teaching, his moral ethic, was that honesty in facing facts is the first requisite of a decent life. Human nature has dark recesses which must be explored and illuminated; life has pitfalls which must be recognized to be avoided; and society has humbugs, hypocrisies, and obscure diseases which must be revealed before they can be cured. To recognize these facts is not pessimism; it is the moral obligation laid upon intelligent people. To face the problems thus exposed, however, requires courage, honesty, and faith in the ultimate worth of the human soul. Man must be educated until he is not only intelligent enough, but courageous enough to work out his salvation through patient endurance and nobler ideals. Democracy, as a cure-all, is just as much a failure as any other form of government; since the majority in politics, society, or religion is always torpid and content with easy measures. It is the intelligent and morally heroic minority which has always led, and always will lead, the human family on its upward march. Nevertheless, we alone can help ourselves; no help can come from without. Furthermore -- and this is a vital point in understanding Ibsen -- experience and life are a happiness in themselves, not merely a means to happiness; and in the end good must prevail. Such are some of the ideas that can be distilled from the substance of Ibsen's plays.

On the plane of practical methods Ibsen preached the emancipation of the individual, especially of woman. He laid great stress upon the principle of heredity. He made many studies of disordered minds, and analyzed relentlessly the common relationships -- sister and brother, husband and wife, father and son. There is much in these relationships, he seems to say, that is based on sentimentalism, on a desire to dominate, on hypocrisy and lies. He pictured the unscrupulous financier, the artist who gives up love for the fancied demands of his art, the unmarried woman who has been the drudge and the unthanked burden-bearer -- all with a cool detachment which cloaks, but does not conceal, the passionate moralist.

From the seventh decade of the last century to his last play in 1899, the storm of criticism, resentment, and denunciation scarcely ceased. On the other hand, the prophet and artist which were united in Ibsen's nature found many champions and friends. In Germany he was hailed as the leader of the new era; in England his champion, William Archer, fought many a battle for him; but in the end no one could escape his example. Young playwrights learned from him, reformers adopted his ideas, and moralists quoted from him as from a sacred book. His plays scorched, but they fascinated the rising generation, and they stuck to the boards. Psychologists discovered a depth of meaning and of human understanding in his delineation of character. He did not found a school, for every school became his debtor. He did not have followers, for every succeeding playwright was forced in a measure to learn from him.