Henrik Johan Ibsen (b. 1828, Skien, Norway, d. 1906, Oslo) was an extremely influential Norwegian playwright who was largely responsible for the decline of the Victorian drama and the rise of the Modern. His plays were considered scandalous in much of society at the time, when Victorian values of family life and propriety were still very much the norm, and any challenge to them considered immoral and outrageous. Ibsen's work examined the realities that lay behind many a facade, which the society of the time did not want to see.
In a very real way, Ibsen created the modern stage, by introducing a critical eye and free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of morality. Prior to him, plays were expected to be moral dramas with noble protagonists pitted against darker forces. Every drama was expected to result in a "proper" conclusion, meaning that goodness was to bring happiness, and immorality only pain. Ibsen was to turn that concept on its head, challenging the beliefs of the times and shattering the illusions of his audiences.
He was born into a relatively well-to-do family in the small port town of Skien, which was primarily noted for shipping timber. Shortly after his birth, however, his family's fortunes took a significant turn for the worse. His mother turned to religion for solace, while his father declined into a severe depression. The characters in his plays often mirror his parents, and his themes often deal with issues of financial difficulty.
Ibsen left home and became an apprentice druggist at fifteen, and began writing plays. His first play, Catalina (1848), was published when he was only 20, but was not performed. His first play to see production was The Burial Mound (1850), but it did not receive much attention. Still, Ibsen was determined to be a playwright, although he was not to write again for some years.
He spent the next several years employed at the Norwegian Theater, where he was involved in the production of more than 145 plays as a writer, director, and producer. During this period he did not publish any new plays of his own. Despite Ibsen's failure to achieve success as a playwright, at the Norwegian Theater he gained a great deal of practical experience, experience that was to prove valuable when next he wrote.
He returned to Oslo in 1857, where he lived in very poor financial circumstances. Still, he managed to marry in 1859. He became very disenchanted with life in Norway, and left for Italy in 1864. He was not to return to his native land for the next 27 years, and when he returned it was to be as a noted playwright, however controversial.
With success, he became more confident and began to introduce more and more his own beliefs and judgments into the drama, exploring what he termed the "drama of ideas". His next series of plays are often considered his Golden Age, when he entered the height of his power and influence, becoming the center of dramatic controversy across Europe.
A Doll's House (1879) was a scathing criticism of the traditional roles of men and women in Victorian marriage. He has his protagonist, Nora, leaves her husband in search of the wider world, after realizing he was not the noble creature she had supposed him to be. Her role in the marriage was that of a doll, her house a "Doll's House", and indeed her husband Torvald refers to her incessantly as his little "starling" and his "squirrel". She is not even permitted a key to the mailbox. When she is blackmailed due to an impropriety she committed in order to save her husband's life, forging her father's name on a note, her husband declares that he will put her away. His only concern is his own reputation, despite the love for him which prompted her to it.
When the blackmailer recants, it could all be over, and in a traditional Victorian drama all would then be resolved. For Ibsen, however, and for Nora, it is too late to go back to the way things were. Her illusions destroyed, she decides she must leave him and their children, and leave her Doll's House to discover what was truly real and what was not. To the Victorian, this was scandalous. Nothing was considered more sacrosanct than the covenant of marriage, and to portray it in such a way was completely unacceptable. Some theatre houses refused to stage the play, so Ibsen was pressured to write an alternate ending that was far less black. This distressed him considerably, and he actually on occasion at the last minute submitted a "correction" to the actors on opening night.
Ibsen followed A Doll's House with Ghosts, another scathing commentary on Victorian morality. In it, a widow reveals to her priest that she has hidden the evils of her marriage for its duration. The priest had advised her to marry her then fiancee despite his philandering, and she did so in the belief her love would reform him. But she was not to receive the result she was promised. Her husband's philandering continued right up until his death, and the result is a syphalitic son. Even the mention of venereal disease was scandalous, but to show that even a person who followed society's ideals of morality had no protection against it, that was beyond scandalous. Hers was not the noble life which Victorians believed would result from fulfilling one's duty rather than following one's desires. Those idealized beliefs were only the Ghosts of the past, haunting the present.
Society's criticism of Ibsen was raised to a fever pitch at this point, but Society itself was losing its control over the mass of people, most of whom didn't live in the rarified air of the Victorian Gentleman. They wanted to see Ibsen's plays because he showed what so many of them already knew to the the reality. The tide had turned.
In An Enemy of the People (1882), Ibsen went even further. Before, controversial elements were important and even pivotal components of the action, but they were on the small scale of individual households. In An Enemy controversy became the primary focus, and the antagonist was the entire community. One primary message of the play is that the individual, who stands alone, is more often "right" than the mass of people, who are portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. The Victorian belief was that the community was a noble institution that could be trusted, a fiction Ibsen challenged.
The protagonist is a doctor, a pillar of the community. The town is a vacation spot whose primary draw is a public bath. The doctor discovers that the water used by the bath is being contaminated when it seeps through the grounds of a local tannery. He expects to be acclaimed for saving the town from the nightmare of infecting visitors with disease, but instead he is declared An Enemy of the People by the locals, who band against him and even throw stones through his windows. The play ends with his complete ostracization. It is obvious to the reader that disaster is in store for the town as well as for the doctor, due to the community's unwillingness to face reality.
As audiences by now expected of him, his next play again attacked entrenched beliefs and assumptions -- but this time his attack was not against the Victorians but against overeager reformers and their idealism. Always the iconoclast, Ibsen was as willing to tear down the ideologies of any part of the political spectrum, including his own.
The Wild Duck (1884) is considered by many to be Ibsen's finest work, and it is certainly the most complex. It tells the story of Gregers Werle, a young man who returns to his hometown after an extended exile to be reunited with his boyhood friend Hjalmar Eckdal. Over the course of the play the many secrets that lie behind the Eckdal's apparently happy home are revealed to Gregers, who insists on pursuing the absolute truth, or the "Summons of the Ideal". Among these truths: Gregers' father impregnated his servant Gina, then married her off to Hjalmar to legitimize the child. Another man has been disgraced and imprisoned for a crime the elder Werle committed. And while Hjalmar spends his days working on a wholly invented "invention", his wife is earning the household income.
Ibsen displays masterful use of irony: despite his dogmatic insistence on truth, Gregers never says what he thinks but only insinuates, and is never understood until the play reaches its climax. Gregers hammers away at Hjalmar through innuendo and coded phrases until he realizes the truth; Gina's daughter, Hedvig, is not his child. Blinded by Gregers' insistence on absolute truth, he disavows the child. Seeing the damage he has wrought, Gregers determines to repair things, and suggests to Hedvig that she sacrifice the wild duck, her wounded pet, to prove her love for Hjalmar. Hedvig, alone among the characters, recognizes that Gregers always speaks in code, and looking for the deeper meaning in the first important statement Gregers makes which does not contain one, kills herself rather than the duck in order to prove her love for him in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. Only too late do Hjalmar and Gregers realize that the absolute truth of the "ideal" is sometimes too much for the human heart to bear.
Ibsen had completely rewritten the rules of drama with a realism which was to be adopted by Chekov and others, and which we see in the theater to this day. From Ibsen forward, challenging assumptions and directly speaking about issues has been considered one of the factors that makes a play Art rather than entertainment.
Finally, Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891, but it was in many ways not the Norway he had left. Indeed, he had played a major role in the changes that had happened across society. The Victorian Age was on its last legs, to be replaced by the rise of Modernism not only in the theater, but across public life.
With a stellar career behind him, the likes of which few authors or playwrights ever see, Ibsen died in Oslo in 1906.