1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ibsen, Henrik
IBSEN, HENRIK (1828–1906), Norwegian dramatic and lyric poet, eldest son of Knud Henriksen Ibsen, a merchant, and of his wife Marichen Cornelia Altenburg, was born at Skien on the 20th of March 1828. For five generations the family had consisted on the father’s side of a blending of the Danish, German and Scottish races, with no intermixture of pure Norwegian. In 1836 Knud Ibsen became insolvent, and the family withdrew, in great poverty, to a cottage in the outskirts of the town. After brief schooling at Skien, Ibsen was, towards the close of 1843, apprenticed to an apothecary in Grimstad; here he remained through seven dreary years of drudgery, which set their mark upon his spirit. In 1847, in his nineteenth year, he began to write poetry. He made a gloomy and almost sinister impression upon persons who met him at this time, and one of his associates of those days has recorded that Ibsen “walked about Grimstad like a mystery sealed with seven seals.” He had continued, by assiduous reading, his self-education, and in 1850 he contrived to come up as a student to Christiania. In the same year he published his first work, the blank-verse tragedy of Catilina, under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme. A second drama, The Viking’s Barrow, was acted (but not printed) a few months later; Ibsen was at this time entirely under the influence of the Danish poet Oehlenschläger. During the next year or two he made a very precarious livelihood in Christiania as a journalist, but in November 1851 he had the good fortune to be appointed “stage-poet” at the little theatre of Bergen, with a small but regular salary. He was practically manager at this house, and he also received a travelling stipend. In 1852, therefore, he went for five months to study the stage, to Copenhagen and to Dresden. Among many dramatic experiments which Ibsen made in Bergen, the most considerable and most satisfactory is the saga-drama of Mistress Inger at Östraat, which was produced in 1855; and printed at Christiania in 1857; here are already perceptible some qualities of his mature character. Much less significant, although at the time more successful, is The Feast at Solhaug, a tragedy produced in Bergen in 1856; here for a moment Ibsen abandoned his own nascent manner for an imitation of the popular romantic dramatist of Denmark, Henrik Hertz. It is noticeable that Ibsen, by far the most original of modern writers for the stage, was remarkably slow in discovering the true bent of his genius. His next dramatic work was the romantic tragedy of Olaf Liljekrans, performed in 1857, but unprinted until 1898. This was the last play Ibsen wrote in Bergen. In the summer of the former year his five years’ appointment came to an end, and he returned to Christiania. Almost immediately he began the composition of a work which showed an extraordinary advance on all that he had written before, the beautiful saga-drama of The Warriors in Helgeland, in which he threw off completely the influence of the Danish romantic tragedians, and took his material directly from the ancient Icelandic sources. This play marks an epoch in the development of Norwegian literature. It was received by the managers, both in Christiania and Copenhagen, with contemptuous disapproval, and in the autumn of 1857 Ibsen could not contrive to produce it even at the new theatre of which he was now the manager. The Warriors was printed at Christiania in 1858, but was not acted anywhere until 1861. During these years Ibsen suffered many reverses and humiliations, but he persisted in his own line in art. Some of his finest short poems, among others the admirable seafaring romance, Terje Vigen, belong to the year 1860. The annoyances which Ibsen suffered, and the retrograde and ignorant conditions which he felt around him in Norway, developed the ironic qualities in his genius, and he became an acid satirist. The brilliant rhymed drama, Love’s Comedy, a masterpiece of lyric wit and incisive vivacity, was published in 1862. This was a protest against the conventionality which deadens the beauty of all the formal relations between men and women, and against the pettiness, the publicity, and the prosiness of betrothed and married life among the middle classes in Norway; it showed how society murders the poetry of love. For some time past Ibsen had been meditating another saga-drama in prose, and in 1864 this appeared, Kongsemnerne (The Pretenders). These works, however, now so universally admired, contained an element of strangeness which was not welcome when they were new. Ibsen’s position in Christiania grew more and more disagreeable, and he had positive misfortunes which added to his embarrassment. In 1862 his theatre became bankrupt, and he was glad to accept the poorly-paid post of “aesthetic adviser” at the other house. An attempt to obtain a poet’s pension (digtergage) was unsuccessful; the Storthing, which had just voted one to Björnson, refused to do the same for Ibsen. His cup was full of disillusion and bitterness, and in April 1864 he started, by Berlin and Trieste, ultimately to settle in Rome. His anger and scorn gave point to the satirical arrows which he shot back to his thankless fatherland from Italy in the splendid poem of Brand, published in Copenhagen in 1866, a fierce attack on the Laodicean state of religious and moral sentiment in the Norway of that day; the central figure, the stern priest Brand, who attempts to live like Christ and is snubbed and hounded away by his latitudinarian companions, is one of the finest conceptions of a modern poet. Ibsen had scarcely closed Brand before he started a third lyrico-dramatic satire. Peer Gynt (1867), which remains, in a technical sense, the most highly finished of all his metrical works. In Brand the hero had denounced certain weaknesses which Ibsen saw in the Norwegian character, but these and other faults are personified in the hero of Peer Gynt; or rather, in this figure the poet pictured, in a type, the Norwegian nation in all the egotism, vacillation, and lukewarmness which he believed to be characteristic of it. Ibsen, however, acted better than he preached, and he soon forgot his abstraction in the portrait of Peer Gynt as a human individual. In this magnificent work modern Norwegian literature first rises to a level with the finest European poetry of the century. In 1869 Ibsen wrote the earliest of his prose dramas, the political comedy, The Young Men’s League, in which for the first time he exercised his extraordinary gift for perfectly natural and yet pregnant dialogue. Ibsen was in Egypt, in October 1869, when his comedy was put on the stage in Christiania, amid violent expressions of hostility; on hearing the news, he wrote his brilliant little poem of defiance, called At Port Saïd. By this time, however, he had become a successful author; Brand sold largely, and has continued to be the most popular of Ibsen’s writings. In 1866, moreover, the Storthing had been persuaded to vote him a “poet’s pension,” and there was now an end of Ibsen’s long struggle with poverty. In 1868 he left Rome, and settled in Dresden until 1874, when he returned to Norway. But after a short visit he went back to Germany, and lived first at Dresden, afterwards at Munich, and did not finally settle in Christiania until 1891. His shorter lyrical poems were collected in 1871, and in that year his name and certain of his writings were for the first time mentioned to the English public. At this time he was revising his old works, which were out of print, and which he would not resign again to the reading world until he had subjected them to what in some instances (for example, Mistress Inger at Östraat) amounted to practical recomposition. In 1873 he published a double drama, each part of which was of unusual bulk, the whole forming the tragedy of Emperor and Galilean; this, Ibsen’s latest historical play, has for subject the unsuccessful struggle of Julian the Apostate to hold the world against the rising tide of Christianity. The work is of an experimental kind, and takes its place between the early poetry and the later prose of the author. Compared with the series of plays which Ibsen had already inaugurated with The Young Men’s League, Emperor and Galilean preserves a colour of idealism and even of mysticism which was for many years to be absent from Ibsen’s writings, but to reappear in his old age with The Master-builder. There is some foundation for the charge that Ibsen has made his romantic Greek emperor needlessly squalid, and that he has robbed him, at last, too roughly of all that made him a sympathetic exponent of Hellenism. Ibsen was now greatly occupied by the political spectacle of Germany at war first in Denmark, then in France, and he believed that all things were conspiring to start a new epoch of individualism. He was therefore deeply disgusted by the Paris commune, and disappointed by the conservative reaction which succeeded it. This disillusion in political matters had a very direct influence upon Ibsen’s literary work. It persuaded him that nothing could be expected in the way of reform from democracies, from large blind masses of men moved capriciously in any direction, but that the sole hope for the future must lie in the study of personality, in the development of individual character. He set himself to diagnose the conditions of society, which he had convinced himself lay sick unto death. Hitherto Ibsen had usually employed rhymed verse for his dramatic compositions, or, in the case of his saga-plays, a studied and artificial prose. Now, in spite of the surprising achievements of his poetry, he determined to abandon versification, and to write only in the language of everyday conversation. In the first drama of this his new period, The Pillars of Society (1877), he dealt with the problem of hypocrisy in a small commercial centre of industry, and he drew in the Bernick family a marvellous picture of social egotism in a prosperous seaport town. There was a certain similarity between this piece and A Doll’s House (1879), although the latter was much the more successful in awakening curiosity. Indeed, no production of Ibsen’s has been so widely discussed as this, which is nevertheless not the most coherently conceived of his plays. Here also, social hypocrisy, was the object of the playwright’s satire, but this time mainly in relation to marriage. In A Doll’s House Ibsen first developed his views with regard to the individualism of woman. In his previous writings he had depicted woman as a devoted and willing sacrifice to man; here he begins to explain that she has no less a duty to herself, and must keep alive her own conception of honour and of responsibility. The conclusion of A Doll’s House was violently and continuously discussed through the length and breadth of Europe, and to the situation of Nora Helmer is probably due more than to anything else the long tradition that Ibsen is “immoral.” He braved convention still more audaciously in Ghosts (1881), perhaps the most powerful of the series of plays in which Ibsen diagnoses the diseases of modern society. It was received in Norway with a tumult of ill-will, and the author was attacked no less venomously than he had been twenty years before. Ibsen was astonished and indignant at the reception given to Ghosts, and at the insolent indifferentism of the majority to all ideas of social reform. He wrote, more as a pamphlet than as a play, what is yet one of the most effective of his comedies, An Enemy of the People (1882). Dr Stockmann, the hero of that piece, discovers that the drainage system of the bathing-station on which the little town depends is faulty, and the water impure and dangerous. He supposes that the corporation will be grateful to have these deficiencies pointed out; on the contrary, they hound him out of their midst as an “enemy of the people.” In this play occurs Ibsen’s famous and typical saying, “a minority may be right—a majority is always wrong.” This polemical comedy seemed at first to be somewhat weakened by the personal indignation which runs through it, but it has held the stage. Ibsen’s next drama, The Wild Duck (1884), was written in singular contrast with the zest and fire which had inspired An Enemy of the People. Here he is squalid and pessimistic to a degree elsewhere unparalleled in his writings; it is not quite certain that he is not here guilty of a touch of parody of himself. The main figure of the play is an unhealthy, unlucky enthusiast, who goes about making hopeless mischief by exposing weak places in the sordid subterfuges of others. This drama contains a figure, Hjálmar Ekdal, who claims the bad pre-eminence of being the meanest scoundrel in all drama. The Wild Duck is the darkest, the least relieved, of Ibsen’s studies of social life, and his object in composing it is not obvious. With Rosmersholm (1886) he rose to the height of his genius again; this is a mournful, but neither a pessimistic nor a cynical play. The fates which hang round the contrasted lives of Rosmer and Rebecca, the weak-willed scrupulous man and the strong-willed unshrinking woman, the old culture and the new, the sickly conscience and the robust one, create a splendid dramatic antithesis. Ibsen then began to compose a series of dramas, of a more and more symbolical and poetic character; the earliest of these was the mystical The Lady from the Sea (1888). At Christmas 1890 he brought out Hedda Gabler; two years later The Master-builder (Bygmester Solnaes), in which many critics see the highest attainment of his genius; at the close of 1894 Little Eyolf; in 1896 John Gabriel Borkman; and in 1900 When We Dead Awaken. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday (1898) Ibsen was the recipient of the highest honours from his own country and of congratulations and gifts from all parts of the world. A colossal bronze statue of him was erected outside the new National Theatre, Christiania, in September 1899. In 1901 his health began to decline, and he was ordered by the physician to abandon every species of mental effort. The evil advanced, and he became unconscious of the passage of events. After lingering in this sad condition he died, without suffering, on the 23rd of May 1906, and was accorded a public funeral, with the highest national honours.
No recent writer belonging to the smaller countries of Europe has had so widely spread a fame as that of Ibsen, and although the value of his dramatic work is still contested, it has received the compliment of vivacious discussion in every part of the world. There would, perhaps, have been less violence in this discussion if it had been perceived that the author does not pose as a moral teacher, but as an imaginative investigator. He often and with much heat insisted that he was not called upon as a poet to suggest a remedy for the diseases of society, but to diagnose them. In this he was diametrically opposed to Tolstoi, who admitted that he wrote his books for the healing of the nations. If the subjects which Ibsen treats, or some of them, are open to controversy, we are at least on firm ground in doing homage to the splendour of his art as a playwright. He reintroduced into modern dramatic literature something of the velocity and inevitability of Greek tragic intrigue. It is very rarely that any technical fault can be found with the architecture of his plots, and his dialogue is the most lifelike that the modern stage has seen. His long apprenticeship to the theatre was of immense service to him in this respect. In every country, though least perhaps in England, the influence of Ibsen has been marked in the theatrical productions of the younger school. Even in England, on the rare occasions when his dramas are acted, they awaken great interest among intelligent playgoers.
The editions of Ibsen’s works are numerous, but the final text is included in the Samlede Vaerker, with a bibliography by J. B. Halvorsen, published in Copenhagen, in 10 vols. (1898–1902). They have been translated into the principal European languages, and into Japanese. The study of Ibsen in English was begun by Mr Gosse in 1872, and continued by Mr William Archer, whose version of Ibsen’s prose dramas appeared in 5 vols. (1890, 1891; new and revised edition, 1906). Other translators have been Mr C. Herford, Mr R. A. Streatfield, Miss Frances Lord and Mr Adie. His Correspondence was edited, in 2 vols., under the supervision of his son, Sigurd Ibsen, in 1904 (Eng. trans., 1905). Critical studies on the writings and position of Ibsen are innumerable, and only those which were influential in guiding opinion, during the early part of his career, in the various countries, can be mentioned here: Georg Brandes Ästhetiske Studier (Copenhagen, 1868); Les Quesnel, Poésie scandinave (Paris 1874); Valfrid Valsenius, Henrik Ibsen (Helsingfors, 1879); Edmund Gosse, Studies in Northern Literature (London, 1879); L. Passarge, Henrik Ibsen (Leipzig, 1883); G. Brandes, Björnson och Ibsen (Stockholm, 1882); Henrik Jaeger, Henrik Ibsen 1828–1888 (Copenhagen, 1888; Eng. trans., 1890); T. Terwey, Henrik Ibsen (Amsterdam, 1882); G. Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsen (London, 1892). In France Count Moritz Prozor carried on an ardent propaganda in favour of Ibsen from 1885, and Jules Lemaître’s articles in his Les Contemporains and Impressions de théâtre did much to encourage discussion. W. Archer forwarded the cause in England from 1878 onwards. In Germany Ibsen began to be known in 1866, when John Grieg, P. F. Siebold and Adolf Strodtmann successively drew attention to his early dramas; but his real popularity among the Germans dates from 1880. (E. G.)