Biography of Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Johan Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright and theater director born on March 20, 1828 in Skien, Norway. He was the eldest of five children after the early death of his older brother. His father, Knud Ibsen, one in a long line of sea captains and merchants, had been born in Skien in 1797 and married Marichen Cornelia Martine Altenburg, the daughter of a wealthy German merchant, in 1825. Interestingly, scholars like Joan Templeton have noted that Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg grew up together and had a pseudo-familial relationship, with Marichen's mother being the sister of Knud's step-father, Ole Paus. This semi-incestuous relationship of Henrik's parents would be a fascination for Ibsen throughout his life, and found embodiment and exploration in dramas like Ibsen's Rosmersholm (1886).

Though Henrik Ibsen later reported that Skien was a pleasant place to grow up, his childhood was not particularly happy. He was described as an unsociable child, and this sense of isolation only increased when Knud's business was repossessed by creditors in 1835 as a result of risky speculations. The creditors left the Ibsen family with only one place to go: a neglected farmhouse near Skien owned by the family, called Venstøp. One interesting note is that the attic of the Venstøp home is thought to be one of the inspirations for the garret in The Wild Duck (1884). After the move to Venstøp, the marriage of Knud and Marichen became almost hostile, with the Ibsen's children siding with and taking after their mother. Ibsen in particular took after his mother in his love for painting and theater, and also developed deep ties to his younger sister Hedvig.

Due to the Ibsen family's lack of financial stability, Henrik stopped his formal schooling just after the age of 15 and went to work with a pharmacist in the city of Grimstad. There, the young Henrik encountered a rumor that he was the illegitimate son of Tormond Knudsen, a man allegedly loved by his mother Marichen. Although this rumor was never proven to be true, it too became a source of fascination for Ibsen, manifesting itself in the theme of illegitimate offspring that runs throughout Ibsen's later works like Ghosts (1881). In 1846, when Ibsen had been promoted to assistant pharmacist in Grimstad, he himself became the father of an illegitimate child with Else Jensdatter, a house servant. Ibsen would go on to support this son until he turned 14 years old, but Ibsen made no attempts throughout his life to see this child. The child himself, however—named Hans Jacob Henriksen—is said to have paid his father a visit many decades later.

From as early as 1847 onward, Henrik Ibsen began to study for the matriculation exam at the University of Christiana (now Oslo), hoping to further his medical interests by studying to become a physician. At the same time, however, Ibsen was creative in Grimstad, working on a variety of paintings and poems that mark his emergence as a mature artist. He was also very inspired by the European Revolutions of 1848, discussing politics and philosophy with a circle of other creatives he had befriended, including Ole Schulerud, who would go on to bankroll Ibsen in publishing his first play, Catiline, in 1850. The play, written in blank verse, was about the failure of Catiline’s conspiracy against ancient Rome in the time of Cicero and presaged many of the themes of Ibsen's mature work. Even so, it sold few copies and was rejected by every theater to which Ibsen submitted it for performance, and Ibsen and Schulerud wound up selling their spare copies for scrap paper in order to get by financially. Shortly after the publication of Catiline, Ibsen moved to Christiana to finish his matriculation exams. He did poorly in the exams, however, and was never formally enrolled in university as he had planned. Ibsen wrote his second play, The Burial Mound, in May of 1850, and though it was accepted for one performance at the Christiana Theater, he did not see much financial gain from the play. Living essentially off the charity of Schulerud, Ibsen then continued to network in Christiana, associating with a variety of political radicals for whom he wrote poems, plays, and satires.

Later in 1851, the famed violinist Ole Bull arrived in Christiana, looking to garner financial support for a Norwegian theater he had started in Bergen (n.b., this was unusual, since most theaters of the time used Danish actors rather than Norwegian actors). Still poor, Ibsen had a fateful encounter with Bull and gladly accepted a contract to write for and help manage the newly constituted Bergen National Theater. Beginning his work untrained and largely uneducated, Ibsen produced largely mediocre works for the Bergen theater that were based in folksongs, folklore, and history, such as St. John's Night (1852) and Lady Inger of Østråt (1854). The mediocrity of these plays was especially apparent to Ibsen himself, who was embarrassed by his early failures and who was exposed to greater theater while traveling around Northern Europe for the National Theater.

After 6 years, Ibsen moved back to Christiania to become the creative director of the city's new Norwegian Theater. In 1858, he married Suzannah Thoresen, with whom he fathered a child named Sigurd Ibsen. Though his plays suggest otherwise, Ibsen revered the state of marriage, believing that it was possible for two people to travel through life as perfect, happy equals. During this period, Ibsen also developed a daily routine from which he would not deviate until his first stroke in 1901: he would rise, consume a small breakfast, take a long walk, write for five hours, eat dinner, and finish the night with entertainment or early retirement to bed. Despite this routine, Ibsen found life difficult due to the unrefined tastes of Christiana's audiences, and the theater went bankrupt in 1862. Still, Ibsen wrote widely during this time, producing plays like Love's Comedy (1862) and The Pretenders (1863).

In 1864, Ibsen capitalized on a government travel grant and moved to Rome. Though Ibsen initially did no better financially in Italy than in Norway, he would spend the next 27 years living in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway only twice for brief visits. After starting and abandoning a long narrative poem he had planned, Ibsen started writing Brand (1866), an epic tragedy in rhymed verse about the faults of idealism. This play was published by the prestigious Gyldendal publishing house, and it was the first play to bring Ibsen serious renown and financial security. Peer Gynt (1867), the companion piece to Brand, was also a huge success and was, like Brand, a closet drama (i.e., written to be read rather than performed on a stage).

Ibsen moved to Dresden in 1868, and then to Munich in 1875. In 1879, Ibsen wrote his groundbreaking play, A Doll's House, a social play in which the main character Nora struggles with the traditional roles of wife and mother. His interest in realistic, social-issue drama was solidified over the next several years with plays such as Ghosts and An Enemy of the People (1882). During this time, Ibsen experienced a breakthrough in his international acclaim, and many of his works were published in translation and performed throughout Europe. By 1884, however, Ibsen had abandoned his tendency to write about social issues and turned towards deeper questions of human psychology, also abandoning his interest in realism in favor of more symbolic dramas. His chief achievements of this later period are The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, and The Lady from the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890).

After being away from Norway for decades, Ibsen and Suzannah returned in 1891 as literary celebrities. Shortly afterward, he finished writing The Master Builder (1892), after which he took a short break. Still, Ibsen's four final plays—The Master Builder, Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899)—all share the common theme of retrospective, with protagonists looking back on their earlier lives with regret and sorrow. This is taken by many critics as a move by Ibsen towards more autobiographical theater. Additionally, these later plays of Ibsen tended to meet with controversy upon their initial publications; Hedda Gabler, for example, was reviled by critics of the published script and of the first production in 1890, though it later went on to great critical acclaim. Around this time as well, Ibsen's work—largely due to the attention of Edmund Gosse and the publication of of George Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891)—became extremely popular in England.

In late 1893, seemingly in need of moist air to help cure her recurring rheumatism and gout, Suzannah left for southern Italy. While his wife was away, Ibsen found a companion in a young female pianist, Hildur Andersen, with whom he spent a great deal of time. He continued to correspond with her even after Suzannah's return. Ibsen's relationship with Andersen was characteristic of his larger interest in the younger generation; he was known for seeking out their ideas and encouraging their writing.

After suffering a series of strokes beginning in 1900, Ibsen died in 1906 at the age of 78. He was unable to write for the last 5 years of his life, following a stroke which also left him unable to walk. Reportedly, his last words, after his nurse suggested he was doing better, were, “To the contrary!”

Study Guides on Works by Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People is one of Henrik Ibsen's most popular and well-known plays among audiences and producers –but it is also one of Arthur Miller's best-known staged works. This situation results from the fact that Miller translated and...

Horror fans will be disappointed to learn that there are no spectral figures commonly identified as ghosts in Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking stage drama Ghosts. The “ghosts” of the title are metaphorical, referring to outdated traditions and the...

Hedda Gabler was published in 1890 before opening in Munich, Germany in 1891 to terrible reviews. Indeed, Ibsen was not happy with the premiere, citing the overly declamatory inflections of the lead actress. The play seemed destined to fail. Hedda...

The Wild Duck (Vildanden in Norwegian) is a play by the Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen. Written in 1884 while he was living abroad in Italy, the process of writing the play initially did not go smoothly for Ibsen, largely due to the political...