Henrik Ibsen

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Ibsen, Henrik

Ibsen, Henrik (hĕnˈrĭk ĭbˈsən), 1828–1906, Norwegian dramatist and poet. His early years were lonely and miserable. Distressed by the consequences of his family's financial ruin and on his own at sixteen, he first was apprenticed to an apothecary. Not long after this he began writing poetry, and in 1850 he published his first play, Catilina, a tragedy in verse. In 1851 he began an extended apprenticeship in the theater, first as stage manager and playwright with the National Stage in Bergen and in 1857 as theater director for the Norwegian Theater in Oslo. His early plays for the most part went unrecognized or were greeted with opposition and critical hostility. As a man far in advance of his times, Ibsen was condemned for unveiling truths which society preferred to keep hidden. In 1864, dissatisfied with the backwardness of Norway, he went to Italy. He wrote the bulk of his drama there and in Germany. His career can be divided into three periods. The first phase, that of poetic dramas, dealt primarily with historical themes, folklore, and romantic pageantry. His name was established with the publication of Love's Comedy (1862). However, it was in 1866 that he reached prominent stature as a dramatist, when he published the first of his major works, Brand, the tragedy of an idealist. Peer Gynt, another poetic drama and Ibsen's least understood work, appeared the following year. In this play Ibsen recounted the adventures of an egocentric but imaginative opportunist. With The League of Youth (1869) and Pillars of Society (1877), he began his second dramatic phase, that of the realistic social plays which are his best known. Ibsen rebelled against society's conventions through which the perpetuation of empty traditions restricts all intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth. He was perhaps most successful in depicting the 19th-century woman, whose inner nature was in strong conflict with the role she was called on to perform. These dramas include A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1886), and Hedda Gabler (1890). Other notable plays, An Enemy of the People (1882) and The Wild Duck (1884), examine the effects of true and false idealism. Although nearly all Ibsen's plays contain symbolic elements, it was in his final works that the emphasis on symbolism became very strong. The chief plays of this group are The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1900). All have a firmly knit structure beneath the symbols; all blend an introspective realism with folk poetry. No playwright has exerted greater influence on 20th-century drama. His plays—there are many good English translations—are continually revived in the United States and Europe.


See biographies by H. Koht (1928, new tr. 1971), H. Heiberg (tr. 1969), M. Meyer (1971), and R. Ferguson (1996); studies by G. M. C. Brandes (1899, repr. 1964), G. B. Shaw (1913, repr. 1957), J. R. Northam (1953 and 1973), and J. McFarlane (1970).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Ibsen, Henrik


Born Mar. 20, 1828, in Skien; died May 23, 1906, in Christiania. Norwegian dramatist.

Ibsen was the son of a rich merchant who went bankrupt in 1836. In 1844 he began work as a druggist’s apprentice. During this time he wrote his first verses and the drama Catiline (1850), whose theme of struggle against tyranny was inspired by the revolutionary events of 1848 in Europe. In 1850 his play The Warrior’s Barrow was staged in Christiania. From 1852 to 1857, Ibsen directed in Bergen the first national Norwegian theater. From 1857 to 1862 he headed the Norwegian Theater in Christiania. Between 1864 and 1891 he lived in Rome, Dresden, and Munich.

In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, Ibsen turned to satire and the grotesque. Ibsen contrasted the heroic national past, the harmony of patriarchal peasant life, and the loftiness of human feelings to the contemporary bourgeois period. In Love’s Comedy (1862), in which a realistic tendency is apparent, he presents a sharply satirical picture of Norwegian petit bourgeois bureaucrats. In his historical drama The Pretenders (1864), Ibsen shows the victory of a hero fulfilling his progressive historical mission. The hero of the dramatic poem Brand (1866) is a man of integrity who will accept any sacrifice for the realization of his ideal. Despite the abstract nature of his goal (the attainment of inner perfection and full intellectual freedom), Brand is heroic and withstands the triviality of his environment. The broad scope of philosophical and symbolic drama is preserved in Peer Gynt (1867); the hero of this play, however, in contrast to Brand, is capable of compromise and timeserving.

In the late 1860’s and the early 1870’s, during the intensification of social and political contradictions, Ibsen expected a collapse of the old world and a “revolution of the human spirit.” In his drama on Julian the Apostate, Emperor and Galilean (1873), he affirms the imminent synthesis of the spiritual and physical aspects of man. The basic theme of the plays Pillars of Society (1877), A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and An Enemy of the People (1882) is the discrepancy between the ostentatious brilliance of bourgeois society and its hypocritical essence. The plays are constructed analytically: the dramatic tension is created not by external events but by a gradual disclosure of further information and a development of the implications of the plot. The basic element in the finale of the play is not the development of the story but rather the decision of the hero, which is dictated not only by his emotions but also by his intellect.

After the mid-1880’s, social criticism in Ibsen’s work becomes less pronounced (Wild Duck, 1884). In his later plays, indirect suggestion becomes more complex, the subtlety of the psychological characterization increases, and symbolic elements are intensified. The theme of the “strong man” comes to the fore. Ibsen, however, is merciless toward his heroes when they carry out their mission at the expense of the life and happiness of other people, as in Rosmersholm (m6),Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master Builder (1892), and John Gabriel Borkman (1896).

Since the 1880’s, Ibsen’s name has served throughout the world as a symbol of the struggle for realistic art, for the integrity and inner freedom of man, and for renewal of spiritual life. In Russia in the early 20th century, Ibsen exerted the dominant influence on the intelligentsia; his plays ran in many theaters. His most frequently presented plays on the Soviet stage are A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Peer Gynt (in a concert performance with E. Grieg’s music).


Samlede vaerker, vols. 1–21. Oslo, 1928–1957.
In Russian translation:
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–4. St. Petersburg, 1909. (With a critical and biographical sketch by A. Hansen and P. Hansen.)
Izbr. dramy. Leningrad, 1935. (With a preface by A. V. Lunacharskii.)
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–4. Edited and with an introductory article by V. G. Admoni. Moscow, 1956–58.


Engels, F. P. Ernstu ot 5 iiunia 1890 g. (Letter.) K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 37, pp. 350–53.
Plekhanov, G. V. “Genrik Ibsen.” In his bookLiteratura i estetika, vol. 2. Moscow, 1958.
Brandes, G. “Genrik Ibsen.” Sobr. soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1. St. Petersburg [1906].
Admoni, V. G. Genrik Ibsen. Moscow, 1956.
Gran, G. Henrik Ibsen: Liv og vaerker, vols. 1–2. Christiania, 1918.
Koht, H. Henrik Ibsen: Eit diktarliv, vols. 1–2. Oslo, 1954.
Heiberg, H. “Født til kunstler.” Et Ibsen-portrett. Oslo, 1967.
Daniel, A. Ibsen. Budapest, 1966. (With a bibliography.)
Meyen, F. Ibsen-Bibliographie. Braunschweig-Berlin-Hamburg, 1928.
Tedford, I . Ibsen Bibliography 1928–1957. Oslo-Bergen, 1961.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Hu Shi's use of the term "Ibsenism" may have been inspired by Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism, a long essay published in 1891 by way of addressing the reception of Ibsen in England, especially the stormy controversy between Ibsenites who celebrated him as a hero and champion of women's liberation, and anti-Ibsenites who denounced him as vulgar, nasty, obscene, hateful, loathsome, horrible.
In the essay "The Technical Novelty in Ibsen's Plays" Shaw underlined, that "in the new plays, the drama arises through a conflict of unsettled ideals" (The Quintessence of Ibsenism 221).
It is agreed that Shaw has done much to naturalize Ibsen by spreading his brand of Ibsenism in the theatre and making a stir there.
Reviewing Tina Howe's Painting Churhes, which expired on the West End after several weeks in February following the worst set of reviews in recent memory, Michael Billington in the Guardia wrote of a "crisis in American drama [that stems] from its maudlin domestic fixation." Discussing a concurrent production of All My Sons, Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard used the play as an excuse to take a brickbat to "the bungalows of postwar American theatre" over which Arthur Miller's 1947 imitation Ibsenism "towers high."
He also wrote the important prose works The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which he revised in 1913, and The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928).
(15) George Bernard Shaw, "The Master Builder (1892)," in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913; New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), 120.
The flourishing of Ibsenism was closely connected with the historical discourse during the May Fourth period, leading to ideological revolution and drama reconstruction.
(Turco's study, incidentally, should be of particular interest to readers of Nineteenth-Century Prose, in that it provides illuminating discussions of some of Shaw's major nineteenth-century prose, notably The Quintessence of Ibsenism and The Perfect Wagnerite.)
Because of the direct relationship of The Doctor's Dilemma to Ibsen's drama, Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) is particularly relevant in this context, for it provides the most extensive commentary on the nature of drama that Shaw wrote outside of his plays themselves.
The "Ibsenism" that Robins espoused represented both a challenge to moral convention and a repudiation of the idea of womanly duty, disturbing some of the most firmly rooted assumptions of late Victorian Britain and dividing literary and theatrical circles into impassioned detractors and defenders of his work.
This conviction provides much of the cogency but also much of the limitation of her approach, which is a sophisticated elaboration of George Bernard Shaw's anti-idealist argument in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).
(11) This view is famously expressed in Shaw's 1890 book The Quintessence of Ibsenism. See Christopher Innes, Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), for a brief discussion of Shaw's interpretation of Ibsen's emphasis on conversation: "In Shaw's view, Ibsen's major innovation was taking the exposition-complication-development-crisis-denouement structure of the Scribean Well-Made Play, and substituting discussion for the denouement....