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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
On a chilly April day in 1864, Henrik Ibsen arrived at the docks in the Norwegian capital of Oslo (then called Christiania). The young man was a failure. The theater he'd run had closed, and none of his own plays were successful. He had a wife and a young son to support, but all his possessions had been auctioned off two years before to pay his debts. He'd applied for a grant from his native country, Norway, but was turned down.
Disillusioned by his country and society, Ibsen, together with his wife and son, boarded a ship and left Norway, figuratively slamming the door behind him.
Fifteen years later, a similarly disillusioned Nora Helmer would slam the door on stage at the end of A Doll's House, helping to change the course of modern drama.
Ibsen had become disillusioned very early. In 1836, when he was eight years old, his wealthy parents went bankrupt. They were forced to move from town to a small farm. All of their old friends deserted them, and they lived for years in social disgrace. Although young Henrik appeared quiet and withdrawn, his deep, bitter anger at society would occasionally escape in the scathing caricatures he would draw or in tirades against young playmates. His sole happiness seemed to come from reading books and putting on puppet plays.
Ibsen didn't like his own family any more than he liked the "proper" society that shunned them. His domineering father was an alcoholic, while his quiet mother found comfort in religion. This blend of overbearing husband and submissive wife makes repeated appearances in his plays, most notably in Brand, in A Doll's House, and in Ghosts, After he left his parents' home at sixteen in 1844, he never went back, even years later when he got word that his mother was dying.
Hoping eventually to study medicine, Ibsen became a druggist's apprentice in Grimstad, a small Norwegian village. But he still felt like an outsider, a feeling that would dog him all his life and find expression in many of his plays. (It didn't help his social standing when he fathered an illegitimate son by a servant girl ten years older than he. Some feel that it was this unwanted child that reappears in many of his plays as a lost or murdered child. In A Doll's House, the nursemaid gives away her illegitimate child.) But Ibsen found he wasn't alone in his contempt for those who controlled society. He became friends with a boisterous group of young artists who specialized in political satire.
By 1848, a spirit of political unrest was sweeping Europe. Rebellions against monarchy flared in many countries. This spirit of revolution was intoxicating for Ibsen and his friends. Royalty and aristocracy seemed on their way out; the people were coming into their own.
Two years later, Ibsen moved to Oslo to attend the university but failed to complete the entrance examinations. He was so caught up in politics and writing, however, that he really didn't care. After all, modern society seemed to be at a crossroads, and the world offered infinite possibilities.
But things began to go wrong. The revolutions of 1848 faltered and finally were crushed. Artists and politicians alike lost their idealism. The world of infinite possibilities didn't really exist. Years later, Ibsen would use the experiences of this period in his plays. Certain of his characters (like Nora in A Doll's House and Lovborg and Hedda in Hedda Gabler) reflect the possibility of a society where people can reach their individual potential. But these are lonely characters who must struggle against society as well as their own human failings.
Although he avoided any further active involvement in politics, Ibsen remained a nationalist. For the first time in centuries, Norway had its own government and was trying to escape the political and artistic influence of Denmark and Sweden. Authors wrote Norwegian sagas, and the Norwegian Theater was opened in Bergen. Young Ibsen became active in Norway's artistic rebirth. His first plays were filled with sweeping poetry about Vikings and political heroes. In fact, the fourteen plays Ibsen wrote between 1850 and 1873 are said to make up his Romantic Period.
Ibsen quickly forgot about being a doctor. On the merit of two plays, he became the director of the theater at Bergen, with the assignment to write one original play each year. But things did not go well for him there. Not only were his own plays failures, but he was forced to produce plays he considered mindless and unimportant-such as drawing room comedies by the contemporary French playwright Augustin Eugene Scribe. Although Ibsen ridiculed Scribe's plays, he absorbed much about their structure, known as the piece bien faite (well-made play). These were tightly woven melodramas, designed primarily to entertain, to keep theatergoers on the edge of their seats. Such plays usually included a young hero and heroine, bumbling parents, and a dastardly villain. The action hinged on coincidences, misplaced letters, misunderstandings, and some kind of time limit before which everything had to work out.
There is a real art to writing a piece bien faite, because there can be no unnecessary scenes or dialogue; every word and action sets up a later action. Ibsen would use this tight structure in A Doll's House, but he would add elements that turned an entertainment into modern drama.
In 1858, while in Bergen, Ibsen married Susannah Thoresen. Hardly a subservient wife, she helped manage his career, run his house, and screen his guests. All through his life, however, Ibsen continued to have flirtations with pretty young women (including Laura Kieler, who was the model for Nora, and Emilie Bardach, who may have had some of Hedda Gabler's traits).
Ibsen left Bergen to become the artistic director of the Norwegian theater in Oslo. The hardship of these next few years took their toll. The theater went bankrupt in 1862, and Ibsen, destitute, reportedly became involved with moneylenders, who may have provided the model for Krogstad in A Doll's House. Despairing, Ibsen turned to drink, and, like Eilert Lovborg in Hedda Gabler, he almost lost his genius to alcohol. Finally, in April 1864, he left Norway with Susannah and their son Sigurd. Over the next twenty-seven years they lived in Rome, Dresden, and Munich.
Curiously, the first play that Ibsen wrote after leaving Norway became his first Norwegian hit. And it was this play, Brand (1865), that finally persuaded the Norwegian government to grant Ibsen a yearly salary to support his writing.
Success changed Ibsen's life. He no longer had to scrape for money, He was ready for his new role. He altered his wardrobe, his appearance, and even his handwriting. He consciously made himself over into the man he always thought he could be-successful, honored, sought-after.
Even though Ibsen had left Norway, he retained strong ties to the country and all but one of his plays are set there. He kept up with literary events and trends in Scandinavia. One of these events prepared him for another major change in his thinking.
In 1872 the Danish critic Georg Brandes attacked Scandinavian writers for dealing only with the past. It was time to start discussing modern problems, he said. Ibsen listened and agreed. The time was ripe for a change in world drama. In France, Alexandre Dumas, fils [the son], was dramatizing social ills in plays like La Dame aux Camelias (Camille); in Russia, Anton Chekhov was mourning the death of the aristocracy, and Count Leo Tolstoy was glorifying the peasants.
Even though the popular revolutions had been defeated, social change was in the air. An educated middle class was flexing its muscles. Women were beginning to question the submissive behavior they had been taught. They were now allowed to move in educated circles although seldom permitted anything beyond a rudimentary education. Often little more than decorative servants, women could not vote and had few property rights. They were expected to be passive, no matter what their true personality was. Ibsen sided with women who sought to change their traditional role.
He decided to write plays about modern people who would use contemporary, everyday language. Writing in prose instead of poetry, he turned from imaginary, romantic settings to "photographically" accurate everyday settings. His first realistic prose play was The Pillars of Society (1877). It was a success, but some readers feel it was only practice for his next play, A Doll's House (1879).
It's hard for us to realize just how revolutionary A Doll's House was. It took the form and structure of the "well-made play" but turned it from a piece of fluff into a modern tragedy. In addition, the "hero" isn't a prince or a king-or even a member of the aristocracy. Instead, it's a middle-class woman, who decisively rebels against her male-dominated surroundings.
A play that questioned a woman's place in society, and asserted that a woman's self was more important than her role as wife and mother, was unheard of. Government and church officials were outraged. Some people even blamed Ibsen for the rising divorce rate! When some theaters in Germany refused to perform the play the way it was written, Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending in which the heroine's rebellion collapses. Despite the harsh criticism of A Doll's House, the play became the talk of Europe. It was soon translated into many languages and performed all over the world. The furor over Ibsen's realistic plays helped him to become an international figure. Some writers like Tolstoy thought Ibsen's plays too common and talky; but the English author George Bernard Shaw considered Ibsen to be more important than Shakespeare.
No matter what individual viewers thought about its merits, in A Doll's House, Ibsen had developed a new kind of drama, called a "problem play" because it examines modern social and moral problems. The heroes and heroines of problem plays belonged to the middle or lower class, and the plays dealt with the controversial problems of modern society. This seems commonplace today, as popular entertainment has been dealing with controversial topics for years. Until Ibsen's day, however, it just wasn't done. Many of the most important plays written in our day, like Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, have their roots in the problem play.
Ibsen's Realistic Period (1877 to 1890) earned him a place as a theater giant. Not only did he introduce controversial subjects, everyday heroes, and modern language, he resurrected and modernized the "retrospective" plot, which had been popular with the ancient Greek playwrights. In a retrospective play, like A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, the major events have taken place before the curtain goes up. The play concerns the way the characters deal with these past events.
Hedda Gabler was another innovative experiment for Ibsen. Instead of presenting a merely social problem, he painted a psychological portrait of a fascinating and self-destructive woman.
Hedda Gabler has many striking resemblances to A Doll's House, even though it appeared eleven years later, in 1890. In both plays, the action takes place in the drawing room. The characters include a husband and, wife, the husband's friend (who completes a romantic triangle), an old school friend of the wife's, and this friend's love interest. Both wives are in a psychological crisis: Nora is not in touch with her aggressive or "male" side, while Hedda cannot bear her own femaleness. (It's interesting to note that Ibsen wrote these plays before Freud expressed his idea that everyone has both male and female components.) Nora, a member of the middle class, deals constructively with her search for self-knowledge. Her final closing of the door at the end of the play signifies that she is going out into the world, which is full of possibilities. On the other hand, Hedda Gabler, a member of the dying aristocracy, becomes destructive and predatory. Her final action is suicide.
Despite his success, Ibsen was never satisfied with his work. He felt his major characters had all failed to achieve something important, something dramatic-and he felt the same way about himself. He was in his sixties when he wrote Hedda Gabler and it signaled another change in his life and writing.
In 1891, after twenty-seven years of exile, Ibsen moved back to his native Norway and into his third phase of plays, called his Symbolist Period. The main characters in these plays aren't women, but spiritually defeated old men.
Ibsen had a stroke in 1900 from which he never completely recovered. But he remained an opposing force to the end. In 1906, as he was coming out of a coma, the nurse commented to his wife that he seemed a little better. "On the contrary!" Ibsen snapped. He died a few days later.