Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is recognized today as the father of modern drama, having almost single-handedly revolutionized it into a vehicle for social comment as well as his own moral and spiritual insight. Born in Skien, Norway, and early accustomed to poverty and loneliness, young Ibsen was apprenticed to an apothecary and hated it. He turned to writing moderately successful poetry as a compensation, and eventually made his way to Christiana (Oslo) where his first play was published in 1850. There and in Bergen he studied dramaturgy, and in 1857 became director of the Norwegian Theatre in Oslo. Overworked and unhappy, he resigned in 1862 to have the time to write. Up to this time he had written nine unsuccessful plays, but now one masterpiece followed another. His first writing style was poetic drama, and two of his masterpieces, Brand and Peer Gynt, exemplify his best early efforts.
A few years later he apparently came to feel that the future of dramatic literature was not in poetic language, but in language that closely resembled everyday speech, and he turned to writing prose drama, exploring troublesome social situations with the hope of arousing audiences to do something about the problems. A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and The Pillars of Society presented such startlingly new realism that the public was outraged, although Ibsen restored his reputation with a comedy of sorts, An Enemy of the People.
Losing something of his crusading zeal in later years, his last group of plays, including The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm, become symbolist drama, containing exquisite poetry and deep explorations into the unconscious mind. Hedda Gabler. a profound character study, and The Master Builder, ironic and pessimistic, concluded his major creative work.
Ibsen spent much of his life in voluntary exile from Norway, admittedly seeking less hostile shores. When he returned in 1891, public opinion of his works had turned. No longer an abomination but a giant of modern drama, he enjoyed a decade of extravagant success in America and Europe.
The poor and lonely pharmacist’s apprentice became himself a respected “pillar of society,” complete with frock coat and gold-rimmed spectacles, who was proud to see the son of his marriage in 1858 to Susannah Thoresen enter the diplomatic service. Ibsen dressed meticulously and liked to display the orders of merit that governments and royalty bestowed upon him. When he died in 1906 following a paralytic stroke, he was given a ceremonial public funeral, attended by the King of Norway. Ibsen could sing like a thrush and croak like a raven–sometimes simultaneously.