Early Disappointment & Romanticism

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) experienced early humiliation, for in 1835 the whole family was forced to move out of town to a smaller house on account of his father's financial difficulties. From the age of 15 to 22, Ibsen worked as an apothecary's assistant in the nearby coastal town of Grimstad, and here he wrote his first play, Catiline, which already contained typically Ibsenian motifs: a man caught between two women, one gentle, one fiery. These two, Aurelia and Furia, are the forerunners of many women in Ibsen's play, from Agnes and Gerd in Brand (1866 - all dates are dates of writing), through Thea and Hedda in Hedda Gabler (1890) to Asta and Rita in Litte Eyolf (1894). Another typically Ibsenian motif is the fact that the protagonist is overtaken by a forgotten guilt from the past.

The Christiania to which Ibsen came in 1850 hoping to enter university was a small town with 30,000 inhabitants and only one professional theatre. Norway had gained independence from Denmark in 1814 and was now part of a union with Sweden. In this state of recently won independence, painters, poets and musicians were seeking out what they considered to be the true spirit of Norway in the history, folklore and landscape of the nation. This movement, known as National Romanticism, had a profound influence on the cultural life of the capital throughout the 1840s and 1850s.

It was in order to help foster this movement in the theatre that Ole Bull, the Norwegian virtuoso violinist, in 1851 invited Ibsen to come to Bergen as 'dramatic author' at the recently founded Bergen Norwegian Theatre. The aim of this theatre was to put on plays with Norwegian themes, written by Norwegian dramatists and performed by Norwegian actors. The six years in Bergen were crucial in Ibsen's development as a dramatist, for it was here that he learnt the practicalities of his craft. It was also here that he wrote his early National Romantic plays, Lady Inger of Ostrat (1855), The Feast at Solhaug (1856) and The Vikings at Helgeland (1858), and met his future wife, Suzannah Thoresen.

In 1857 the Christiania Norwegian Theatre invited Ibsen to return to Christiania to help revive its flagging fortunes. Because of the impossibility of pleasing both the public and the critics, Ibsen's years in Christiania between 1857 and 1864 were the most difficult of his life. During this time, he wrote only one play, Love's Comedy, which, though a comedy, gives some hint of the scathing critic of bourgeois marriage conventions which Ibsen was to become.

Bankruptcy & Brand

When the Christiania Norwegian Theatre finally went bankrupt in 1862, Ibsen was left without a job, and from then on had to survive on casual earnings and grants. In 1863 he attended a Student Choral Festival in Bergen and was received with such warmth and appreciation that he found the idea for his last, and most successful, National Romantic play, The Pretenders (1864). It was the last play Ibsen ever directed, for the following year he left Norway for Rome, and did not to return to visit his native country till 1874, nor to settle till 1891.

Norway's refusal to help Denmark in its war against Prussia over Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 had profoundly troubled Ibsen, and the anger he felt at his country's faint-heartedness was part of the inspiration for his first masterpiece, Brand. Another influence was, in all probability, the writings of the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard, though Ibsen himself denied this. There is no half-heartedness in Brand, a clergyman, who believes man was created in the image of God, but that this image has become botched. For the divine stamp to shine with its original brightness, Brand believes man has to make his eternal destiny a matter of absolute concern, 'all or nothing', and it is this that he asks of himself and others. In the course of so doing, he sacrifices his mother, his son, his wife and finally his own life. Brand is a monolithic play in which Ibsen gives full expression to some of his most abiding concerns: the struggle of the individual to be fully him - or herself - whatever the odds and the conflict between vocation and human relationships.

According to Ibsen, "after Brand, Peer Gynt (1867) followed as it were of its own accord," and it is in many ways the other side of the coin to Brand. Where Brand is taut and austere, Peer Gynt is rich and relaxed, covering a lifetime and half the globe, and moving back and forth between the worlds of fantasy, folklore and reality. Where Brand is himself, Peer is 'himself enough', a role-player who wonders whether he has a core, a self. Both plays have the subtitle 'dramatic poem', and in Scandinavia Peer Gynt was not performed until 1876, nor Brand until 1885. In Britain, where Ibsen first became known through his social plays, Peer Gynt was not performed until 1911 nor Brand until 1912.

Concentrating on the Contemporary

Ever since his arrival in Rome in 1864, Ibsen had been grappling with the material of his next play, Emperor and Galilean, a vast, two-part, ten-act work about Julian the Apostate (c. 331-60), which was not published until 1873. The play marked a watershed in Ibsen's career, for it was his last historical play and the last he conceived on the grand scale. After that, he chose to present his themes through the medium of the social reality of contemporary Norway, where the struggle between Christianity and the joy of life becomes the struggle between Pastor Manders and Osvald in Ghosts (1881), or between Rosmer and Rebekka in Rosmersholm (1886).

With 1877's The Pillars of Society (sometimes called The Pillars of the Community), Ibsen branches out into what was for him new territory: the realistic bourgeois drama, acted out within the four walls of the bourgeois home. That it's something of an apprenticeship piece may be seen by comparing it with his next play, A Doll's House (1879). The greatest development between the two plays is, however, that of concentration, and Ibsen achieves this by using all the resources of the theatre. Now it is not just the spoken word, but setting, dress, gestures and actions, like lighting a lamp, that become eloquent means of expression.

If this play caused a furore with its idea that a wife could walk out on her husband, it was nothing compared to the storm provoked by Ibsen's next play, Ghosts, with its discussion of inherited venereal disease, euthanasia and incestuous liaisons. However, these elements belong to the sensational surface of the play, and beneath this there is enacted the tragic drama of Mrs Alving's quest for a more honest way of life than that permitted by the morality of the day. With A Doll's House and Ghosts, Ibsen leapt into the position of leading European dramatist. How? One reason is that he was the first playwright to make the theatre the forum for the serious consideration of contemporary issues and to show that high drama, even tragedy, could take place within the confines of the domestic sitting room. Furthermore, his characters were not types, but ordinary yet complex individuals questioning the rules under which society made them live.

Social Ills & Unhappiness

An Enemy of the People (1882) was in many ways a response to the reception of Ghosts. As Dr Stockmann tries to warn the inhabitants of his hometown that the waters of the spa are infected, so Ibsen had tried to warn his countrymen of the corruption at the heart of their society. Neither community had wanted to listen, and as Stockmann is ostracised and rejected for his pains, so Ibsen was vilified when Ghosts was published.

In a letter to his publisher, Ibsen wrote that The Wild Duck (1884) "occupies a place of its own among my dramas; the method is in various respects a departure from my earlier ones". This difference is also evident in the three plays which follow: Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Sea (1888) and Hedda Gabler. In these plays, human unhappiness seems no longer attributable to social ills, but to lie deeper, either in the individual psyche or in the very fabric of human existence. In The Wild Duck the characters unable to face reality have sought refuge in a comfortable world of illusion and life-lies. This is shattered by the entry of Gregers Werle who, equally unable to face naked reality, has taken refuge in a sick idealism which he inflicts on the Ekdal household with tragic results.

Ellida Wangel in The Lady from the Sea believes that humankind might have been happier if it had learnt to live on, perhaps even in, the sea. But there's no turning back; civilisation may cause discontent, but that which is not tamed, such as the sea, is associated not only with freedom but with death and destruction. The Lady from the Sea was once described as the dramatisation of a psychoanalytical cure, and though this description ignores the suggestive poetry of the play as a whole, it's true that when Ellida, The Lady from the Sea, is allowed to express more and more of what preoccupies her, the knot of the past is unravelled and she can take responsibility for her life. No such possibility exists in Hedda Gabler, where the conflict between Hedda's psychological predisposition and social conditioning, her poetic vision and the reality in which she's caught, runs so deep that she can find no freedom save in death.

Ibsen's last four plays, The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1898) form a more homogeneous group than the previous four, for all focus on an ageing artist figure who, when he casts a retrospective glance over his life, feels that somewhere it took a wrong turn. The first, third and fourth plays of this group also contain a strong autobiographical and metadramatic element, being about the nature and cost of artistic talent, and in the first and fourth the stages of the respective 'artistic' projects have some correspondence to phases in Ibsen's career.

In all four cases, the protagonist is married to a woman he doesn't love, and in every play except Little Eyolf, this situation is radically changed when a woman whom the protagonist has known in the past suddenly appears on the scene. Unlike the self-sacrificing women of the early plays, the woman from the past in John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken challenges the male protagonist for having used her and then sacrificed her to his vocation. In these two plays and in The Master Builder, there's an attempt to retrieve what was lost, and regain sexual and creative potency; but the attempt, though heroic, is doomed.

A Legacy of Specifics

Despite the time that has passed since Ibsen's death, he's still very much alive and with us. Critics and scholars give very different reasons for why this is, but the fact that they do demonstrates the fruitfulness of Ibsen, the fact that, however much our interpretations of the world change, he still seems relevant. Some see him as a realist and as a critic engaged in unmasking our illusions and showing up our ideals and most elevated projects as fig-leaves that we use to cover up our fear of life and relationships. Others see beneath the realist a poet exploring the eternal questions which give humans their tragic dignity.

But the fact that Ibsen explores profound issues doesn't in itself make him a major European dramatist. What makes him one of the most performed dramatists after Shakespeare is surely the fact that he makes these issues concrete and specific in the human dramas which he unfolds before our eyes. His questions may be unanswerable and his characters inexhaustible, but as actors and directors take up the challenge and engage in the exploration and questioning we too become involved as readers and theatregoers.

The above has been extracted from The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, edited by Colin Chambers and published by Continuum Books. For further information or to order a copy, visit the Continuum website.

The Master Builder, starring Patrick Stewart, opens at the West End's Albery Theatre on 18 June 2003 (following previews from 12 June). The RSC production of Brand, with Ralph Fiennes, continues at the West End's Theatre Royal Haymarket until 30 August 2003. The Lady from the Sea, with Natasha Richardson, finishes its sell-out season at the Almeida Theatre on 28 June 2003. Other recent productions of Ibsen have included Ingmar Bergman's Ghosts at the Barbican and English Touring Theatre's John Gabriel Borkman.