Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828–1906), Norway’s most famous and influential playwright, is generally regarded as one of the greatest dramatists of all time, and certainly his central themes have powerful modern resonances. In essence, these concern the alienation of the individual from an ethically bankrupt society, loss of religious faith and the yearning of women to transcend the confines of their roles as wives and mothers. Ibsen’s central characters often speak evasively, mirroring the repression of their society and their own sense of confusion and guilt, with venomous exchanges – a major characteristic of the playwright’s dialogue – appearing whenever the underlying tensions break through. Ibsen’s protagonists do things that are less than heroic, often incompetent, even malicious. Nevertheless, they aspire to dåd – acting with heroism – arguably a throwback to the old Norse sagas. These themes run right through Ibsen’s plays, the first of which, Catalina (1850), was written while he was employed as an apothecary’s assistant at Grimstad on the south coast.
The alienation the plays reveal was undoubtedly spawned by Ibsen’s troubled childhood: his father had gone bankrupt in 1836, and the disgrace – and poverty – weighed heavily on the whole family. More humiliation followed at Grimstad, where the shy, young Ibsen worked for a pittance and was obliged to share a bed with his boss and two maids, which resulted in one of them bearing him a child in 1846. Ibsen escaped small-town Norway in 1850, settling first in Oslo and then Bergen. But he remained deeply dissatisfied with Norwegian society, which he repeatedly decried as illiberal and small-minded. In 1864, he left the country and spent the next 27 years living in Germany and Italy. It was during his exile that Ibsen established his literary reputation – at first with the rhyming couplets of Peer Gynt, featuring the antics of the eponymous hero, a shambolic opportunist in the mould of Don Quixote, and then by a vicious attack on provincial values in Pillars of Society. It was, however, A Doll’s House (1879) that really put him on the map, its controversial protagonist, Nora, making unwise financial decisions before walking out not only on her patronizing husband, Torvald, but also on her loving children – all in her desire to control her own destiny. Ghosts followed two years later, and its exploration of moral contamination through the metaphor of syphilis created an even greater furore, which Ibsen rebutted in his next work, An Enemy of the People (1882). Afterwards, Ibsen changed tack (if not theme), firstly with The Wild Duck (1884), a mournful tale of the effects of compulsive truth-telling, and then Hedda Gabler (1890), where the heroine is denied the ability to make or influence decisions, and so becomes perverse, manipulative and ultimately self-destructive.
Ibsen returned to Oslo in 1891. He was treated as a hero, and ironically – considering the length of his exile and his comments on his compatriots – as a symbol of Norwegian virtuosity. Indeed, the daily stroll he took from his apartment to the Grand Hotel on Karl Johans gate became something of a tourist attraction in its own right – not that Ibsen, who was notoriously grumpy, often wanted to talk to anyone. Ibsen was incapacitated by a heart attack in 1901 and died from the effects of another five years later.