Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien in 1828 and grew up as the oldest of five siblings. His parents were the merchant Knud Ibsen and Marichen Ibsen (maiden name Altenburg). His upbringing was heavily influenced by the fact that his father in the mid-1830s was the victim of unfortunate financial transactions and a grave economic setback. In the course of just one year, Knud Ibsen was obliged to close down his businesses, his properties were auctioned off and the family's prosperity was abruptly reversed to poverty.
15-years old, Henrik Ibsen left his hometown and went to Grimstad to begin apothecary studies. In the course of his time in Grimstad he made his first modest attempts as a poet and in September 1849 had a poem published for the first time, «In the Autumn» (I Høsten). The next year his debut drama, “Catilina”, was published in Kristiania under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme.
In 1850 he travelled to Kristiania to take his A-levels, presumably with the idea of beginning studies in medicine at the university in the capital. Nothing ever came of this ambition. Instead, he tried his hand as a journalist and together with Paul Botten-Hansen and A. O. Vinje started the satirical periodical Andhrimner, while he continued to write plays for the theatre. In September 1850 his first play was performed by a theatre when Christiania Theater staged his one act play «The Warrior's Barrow» (Kjæmpehøien).
In 1852 he moved to Bergen and was taken on by Det norske Theater to "assist the theatre as a dramatic author". In the course of Ibsen's six years in Bergen he wrote and had staged six of his plays. He also worked as a stage director and in this manner acquired insight into all facets of the theatre profession. In Bergen he met Suzannah Daae Thoresen whom he later married and with whom he fathered his son Sigurd.
In 1857 Ibsen was offered the position of Artistic Director at Kristiania Norske Theater and moved back to the capital city. Some turbulent and difficult years followed there, ending with the Kristiania Norske Theater going bankrupt in 1862. He was then taken on by Christiania Theater as a literary consultant. In 1864 he staged his own play “The Pretenders” (Kongs-emnerne) at this theatre.
In the summer of 1864 Ibsen left his native country and settled in Rome. This was the beginning of a period of 27 years abroad. In the course of this time he lived in Rome (1864-1868), Dresden (1868-1875), Munich (1875-1878), Rome (1878-1885) and Munich (1885-1891). During the first period in Rome he wrote the great philosophical dramas “Brand” and “Peer Gynt”. “Brand” was to be his first success on the Nordic book market. From then on he published his plays in Copenhagen – and not in Kristiania – with Frederik Hegel (later his son Jacob), with the publisher Gyldendalske Boghandels Forlag. With “Brand” and “Peer Gynt” Ibsen definitively wrote himself out of the National Romantic tradition to which his plays of the 1850s and “The Pretenders” belonged and made his mark through his use of biting satire and criticism of his native country.
In 1871 Ibsen published his first and only book of poetry, “Poems” (Digte) which contained in all 64 poems, among them the popularly beloved ”Terje Vigen” and “A Verse” (Et vers), Ibsen's most trenchant short poem:
At leve er – krig med trolde
i hjertets og hjernens hvælv.
At digte, – det er at holde
dommedag over sig selv.
To live is to war with demons
in the vaults of the heart and mind.
To write poetry – is to hold the
Day of Judgement on oneself.
In 1873 came «Emperor and Galilean» (Kejser og Galilæer), which Ibsen himself characterised as his most important work, a ten-act mammoth of a drama with a plot from the Roman Empire of 300 AD. This was Ibsen's last historical play. In 1877 he launched the series of his famous and groundbreaking contemporary plays with «The Pillars of Society» (Samfundets støtter). It was with these works that he put himself at the forefront of the modern breakthrough in European intellectual and cultural life, and laid the foundation for the modern theatre. He addressed central and somewhat inflammatory themes of modern society, women's position in marriage and society, hypocrisy, dissimulation and abuse of power among leading men in industry, politics, the church and media, the relationship between truth and justice, freedom and duty, minority and majority, environmental considerations versus economic interests, incest, euthanasia, etc.
With the realistic contemporary dramas «The Pillars of Society» (Samfundets støtter) (1877), “A Doll’s House” (Et dukkehjem) (1879), “Ghosts” (Gengangere) (1881) and “An Enemy of the People” (En folkefiende) (1882) Ibsen by far satisfied the influential Danish critic Georg Brande’s requirement for creating a debate about issues. With “A Doll’s House” Ibsen later achieved his international breakthrough. This play has had an enormous significance in the struggle for equal rights for women worldwide and is believably the most performed play in the world in modern times.
Before Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 he wrote “The Wild Duck” (Vildanden) (1884), “Rosmersholm”(1886), “The Lady from the Sea” (Fruen fra havet) (1888) and “Hedda Gabler” (1890). These plays represent a gradual transition from the plays of realistic issues and social criticism to psychological and symbolic theatre. Ibsen became the unfathomable sphinx. The critics were more and more at a loss with regard to what kind of opinion they should have about his works. About “Hedda Gabler”, which along with “A Doll’s House” is Ibsen's most performed and read play, a critic of the time said: ”All in all, Hedda Gabler can hardly be described as anything other than a disagreeable figment of the imagination, a monster created by the poet himself in the form of a woman lacking any corresponding counterpart in the real world.”
In 1891 Ibsen settled down in Kristiania and lived there until his death in 1906. His four last dramatic works,“Masterbuilder Solness” (Bygmester Solness) (1892), “Little Eyolf” (Lille Eyolf) (1894), “John Gabriel Borkman” (1896) and “When We Dead Awaken” (Når vi døde vågner) (1899), are frequently characterised as dramatic self-portraits, as artistic confessions in the name of self-scrutiny and self-awareness. The main characters of these plays are male and aging, like Ibsen himself, with creative professions. They look back and take stock of the lives they have lived thus far.
In 1900 Ibsen suffered his first stroke. His ”dramatic epilogue” “When We Dead Awaken” (Når vi døde vågner) was thus and appropriately the last dramatic work that he wrote. In 1906, after several years of poor health, he died in his home in Arbinsgate in Kristiania. Ibsen wrote in all 26 dramatic works and some 300 poems. His plays have retained a strong contemporary relevance and continue to be staged at innumerable theatres in all parts of the world. After Shakespeare, Ibsen is the most performed dramatist in the world.
Ibsen had altogether 26 plays and one collection of poetry published. His works are often divided into four parts:
Dramas of ideas
Love`s Comedy (1863), Brand (1866), Peer Gynt (1867) and Emperor and Galilean (1873)
Realistic contemporary dramas
Pillars of Society (1877), A Doll`s House (1879), Ghosts (1881) and An Enemy of the People (1882).
Psychological and symbolical dramas
The Wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888), Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and When We Dead Awaken (1899).
A. HENRIK IBSEN AND EGYPT
By Professor Vigdis Ystad
For the celebration of the Norwegian National holiday 17 May in 1855, Henrik Ibsen wrote a poem with freedom as the central theme. Here he states that it is not enough to pay tribute to freedom in words; action is also required. He illustrates this point through a description of the Memnon Statue:
Have you heard tell how Memnon's statue towered,
A stream of noise came from the stone, full-powered,
But he, like winter’s icy peak, just glowered
With soulless gaze towards the east’s bright band.
So year on year he stood there, dully dreaming,
For from his lips it was mere sound came streaming.
This image of dead passivity is intended as a warning to all those who only talk, without transforming the dreams of freedom into a reality. Four years later Ibsen wrote a satirical poem to one of his poet colleagues, who had had the audacity to praise a Danish actor and defend Danish as a language for the stage in Norway (”Letter to H.Ø. Blom”, 1859). Ibsen, who was an adherent of Norwegian actors on Norwegian stages, comments that Blom wants to base our theatre tradition on classical Greek and Danish,
while Ibsen for his part wants to modernise the theatre in his native country on the basis of the nation’s own culture. He portrays the ideas of his colleague as archaic and long since obsolete and implements Egyptian images to properly set the outdated position of his colleague into relief:
They raised once, from a pyramid’s recesses,
A balsamed corpse, and put it on display.
There proudly in its fossilled shroud it lay,
Had quite forgotten how the sun caresses;
“A bitter smile” played on its lips, emphatic
Scorn for the times because they were not static. Ibsen’s knowledge of Egyptian culture was at this point in time second-hand. Perhaps it was the philosopher Hegel who had provided him with the images. Hegel’s ideas had at any rate a strong position among Norwegian intellectuals in the 1850s and they also influenced the Danish author and critic Johan Ludvig Heiberg, who at this time was one of Ibsen’s idols.
Hegel availed himself copiously of the religious and artistic symbolism of ancient Egypt in his philosophy of art and history – including both the Memnon Statues and the Sphinx. The Memnon Statues, which according to the old legend emit sounds when they are warmed by the morning sun, Hegel perceives as symbols of an imprisoned spirit which needs light from the outside in order for it to find its expression, and the mysterious Sphinx, half animal and half human, became for him a symbol of the dormant human spirit’s attempts to liberate or tear itself away from nature. For Hegel the art theorist, the many Egyptian portrayals of combined animal and human figures were an expression of the faith in a spirit that rests in or is imprisoned in nature, which simultaneously attempts to liberate itself from and transcend it.
This may have had a strong influence on Ibsen so strong that he also used Hegelian ideas and images from Egypt when he later wrote his great fantasy play Peer Gynt.
The story of Peer is a great philosophical identity-play about the requirements man must meet in order to realise personal subject-hood or become an individual. Peer does not manage to liberate his spirit; he has no personal independence. Peer is instead the human being who always runs from every obligation and who thereby throws away the opportunities he has to exist as a unique individual. Ibsen gives him a series of chances:
In the second act he is first spellbound by the Mountain King, he subsequently meets the mythical creature the Boyg. These fantasy figures require that he abandon his own personality. He must cut his eye, so he can no longer see as a human being; he must ”go around” every single challenge and evade each and every significant choice. Both involve renouncing his humanity. Peer does indeed try to resist such dangerous temptations but he does not manage this on his own it is Mother Åse and Solvejg who save him for the moment, by calling for him with church bells.
Peer is still not saved because he has in reality taken to heart the Boyg’s motto: ”go around”! From this point on this becomes his personal maxim. When we meet him again in the fourth act on the coast of Morocco, he is a middle-aged capitalist who has travelled many a winding road to acquire his fortune. But money cannot save him to the contrary. Peer ends up in the insane asylum in Cairo a telling image of how man’s extreme egocentricity ends in the form of madness, sealed up inside the “walls of the self”.
Before Peer gets as far as the asylum he has however met both the Memnon Statue and the Sphinx. Both can be understood as an echo and emphasis of the trials he was faced with in Act II. The Memnon Statue sings a strange song about sleeping and reawakened birds and concludes by saying that Peer must die in the event he does not manage to guess the answer to the song’s riddle. And the riddle is: where do the birds sleep? Perhaps the birds are an image of Peer himself and the solution he must find is who he really is? Later Peer states that the Memnon Statue reminded him of the Mountain King, which indicates that the meeting with the statue employs the central identity issue of the play.
In the meeting with the Sphinx, ”this changeling, a lion and woman in one”, Peer thinks: “Now, where in the world have I met before something half forgotten that's like this hobgoblin?” He provides the answer to this question himself: The Sphinx corresponds with “The Boyg”, Peer’s most nefarious opponent and is synonymous with the quality in himself which has him fleeing from every single choice and every single obligation in life, so that he erases himself and becomes “nobody”.
It is no wonder that the encounters with the Memnon Statue and the Sphinx are anxiety inducing and lead Peer straight to the madhouse. In this manner Act IV repeats the issues of Act II and pushes the intensity of the requirements Peer faces up yet another level. The play’s fourth act becomes thereby a key to understanding the entire play. It is
only at this stage that Peer is finally revealed and it is now that the consequences of his lifestyle truly become clear to us.
Two years after Ibsen had written his combined fantasy- and philosophical identity-play, he for the first time became directly acquainted with Egypt and Egyptian culture. It was to be one of the greatest experiences of his life.
In the summer of 1869 Ibsen had visited the neighbouring country of Sweden where he was ostentatiously celebrated as one of the Nordic region’s greatest authors. Brand and Peer Gynt had just created a literary sensation and Ibsen became the focal point for great festivities in the Swedish capital. The greatest experience was perhaps making the acquaintance of the King himself – Carl XV – who not only invited Ibsen to a private dinner at the castle but also appointed him as the Norwegian-Swedish representative at the opening of the Suez Canal in the autumn of the same year.
The celebration of the opening of the canal was an outstanding month-long party. Thousands of foreign guests took part in free trips, excursions, dinners and balls. The hospitality in Egypt was extraordinary. Before the opening party itself, Ibsen also took part in a trip along the Nile all the way to the Nubian Desert and the experiences
inscribed deep traces upon his receptive poetic sensibility. His subsequent plans to publish a long travel narrative never came to pass, true enough, but he left behind a manuscript containing some of the most poetic descriptions known from Ibsen’s pen. He has otherwise not written many descriptions of nature, but here he abandons himself entirely to his feelings:
A kind of bewitched silent tranquillity reigns over the landscapes of the Nile Valley. There is something of the Sphinx’s muteness therein… [...] Never have I felt the peace of a sunset as here in Egypt [...] It was a wonderful night that followed; and it increased and increased in its beauty. The stars burst forth full and round in the transparent indigo-blue sky. An even fog unfolded across the Nile Valley and transformed the landscape into an enormous bay, which was bordered by vast rocky cliffs towards the south [...] In such an hour one wishes for reconciliation with all human beings and one asks oneself: how has it come to pass that you have deserved to witness all of this magnificence?
We can safely assume that the Egypt journey was a radically gripping experience; it was so powerful that for a period it paralysed Ibsen’s pen. For in the following year it appears as if he had great problems with continuing his writing. The development by which he had recently made his breakthrough as a playwright, with the realistic and satirical prose drama “The League of Youth” (De unges forbund) (1869), was perhaps not so easy to continue after the extraordinary experiences in Egypt? At any rate four years passed before Ibsen’s next play came out and then it did not take the form of a contemporary drama but rather a historical-philosophical double-tragedy “Emperor and Galilean” (Kejser og Galilæer) (1873), which takes its theme from the Roman Late Antiquity, ca. 360 AD.
That the playwright Ibsen now took hold of a historical theme in a serious fashion can well be imagined as having been inspired by his Egypt trip. For it also resulted in another major work not a play this time, but a historical-philosophy poem with the strange title ”Balloon Letter to a Swedish Lady” (Ballongbrev til en svensk dame) (1871). The poem, which was written in the middle of the French-German war, is actually a letter to Ibsen’s hostess in Stockholm in the summer of 1969, Frederika Limnell. He thanks her for her hospitality and does so in the form of a long travel narrative from Egypt – in verse! When he says that he is sending the letter by balloon, it is a reference to his feeling interned in the midst of the war’s state of siege and having to send the letter by airmail!
Ibsen is here interested in the large trends in the world’s cultural development, which he believes are characterised by a struggle between life and death, stasis and development. The struggle is portrayed by way of images from Egyptian, Greek and Norse mythology. And yet again the Egyptian images represent death and stasis, as they did in the poetry of Ibsen’s youth and as they also did in Peer Gynt.
The poet mentions a series of famous places and monuments: Luxor, Déndera, Sakkara, Efu, Assuan and Phile; the Cheops Pyramid, the Sphinx, Beni Hassan’s royal mummies and the Memnon Statue – and describes a series of depictions of Egyptian gods. Ibsen provides magnificent descriptions of a journey through the desert where he has seen knucklebones and skeletons of dead animals sticking up from the sand like old temple ruins:
Living nature domiciled
with mortality’s inaction,
turned, through time and petrifaction,
architecture that’s run wild.
Knuckle-bone, rib, spinal column
show like plinths of pillars solemn;
camel skulls profusely scattered
are the capitals now shattered;
yellow gaping teeth parading
make a sort of balustrading;
fingers twitching in the breezes
are like bits of broken friezes,
and, like tattered knightly pennants,
kaftans flap their ragged remnants.
This fantastic description is part of a depiction of the 4000 year-old Egyptian culture as dead and stagnant, characterised by numbers, columns and geometrical figures in contrast to the Greek and Nordic culture where life and passion continue to effervesce.
But there is a parallel to this dead stagnation also in Ibsen’s European contemporary age. He in fact compares the Egyptian culture with the German, headed by a leader (Bismarck) who also wants to be perceived as a kind of god, like the old Egyptian rulers. Also in Germany Ibsen finds a culture where everyone walks anonymously in step, where everyone takes part in their place in the regiment and where “one and all / bring a little stone to fall / into place in their erection”.
The poem incited rage in Germany and Ibsen was obliged to apologise. But there was no reaction from Egypt if we do not take into account that Ibsen was later honoured when the Egyptian viceroy in 1871 awarded him the Turkish order of the Mejedie, in thanks for his participation at the canal opening in 1869.
After the fact we can understand that it was well deserved. One will nonetheless have to search far and wide to find a greater generosity!
b. Chronological survey of Ibsen`s life and works
Henrik Johan Ibsen born on March 20th in Stockmannsgården in Skien. Parents: Marichen (née Altenburg) and Knud Ibsen, merchant.
Father has to give up his business. The properties are auctioned off.
The family moves to Venstøp, a farm in Gjerpen.
Family moves to Snipetorp in Skien.
Ibsen leaves home on December 27th.
Arrives in Grimstad on January 3rd to be apprenticed to Jens Aarup Reimann, chemist.
Has an illegitimate child by Else Sophie Jensdatter, one of Reimann`s servants.
Lars Nielsen takes over ownership of the chemist`s, moving to larger premises.
Ibsen writes Catiline.
Goes to Christiania to study for the university entrance examination.
Catiline is published under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme.
Edits the Students` Union paper Samfundsbladet and the satirical weekly Andhrimner.
First Ibsen staging in history: the one-act The Burial Mound is performed at Christiania Theater on September 26th.
Moves to Bergen to begin directing productions at Det norske Theater.
Study tour to Copenhagen and Dresden.
First performance of The Burial Mound in a revised version.
First performance of Lady Inger.
First performance of The Feast at Solhoug.
Becomes engaged to Suzannah Thoresen.
First performance of Olaf Liljekrans.
Is appointed artistic director of Kristiania Norske Theater.
Marries Suzannah Thoresen on June 18th.
First performance of The Vikings at Helgeland.
Writes the poem "Paa Vidderne" ("Life on the Upland") and the cycle of poems "I billedgalleriet" ("At the Art Gallery").
His son Sigurd is born on December 23rd.
Writes "Svanhild" – a draft for Love`s Comedy.
Writes the poem "Terje Vigen".
Kristiania Norske Theater goes bankrupt.
Ibsen goes on a study tour to the valley of Gudbrandsdalen and to the West Country to study folklore.
Love`s Comedy is published (first performance at Christiania Theater on November 24th 1873). Is appointed consultant to Christiania Theater.
The Pretenders is published.
Writes the poem "En broder i nød" ("A Brother in Need").
The Pretenders has its first performance at Christiania Theater.
Leaves for Italy and lives in Rome for four years.
Writes "The Epic Brand". Revises it with the title Brand.
Brand is published and is a success.
Ibsen is awarded one of the state stipends for artists.
Publishes Love’s Comedy in a revised version.
Writes and publishes Peer Gynt (first performance at Christiania Theater on February 24th 1876).
Moves to Dresden, where the family lives for seven years.
The League of Youth is published and given its first performance at Christiania Theater.
Ibsen takes part in a meeting on Scandinavian spelling in Stockholm.
Goes to Egypt and is present at the opening of the Suez Canal.
Writes the poem "Ballongbrev til en svensk dame" ("Balloon Letter to a Swedish Lady").
Publishes a collection of poems (Digte) for the first and last time.
A large part of Emperor and Galilean is written.
Completes and publishes Emperor and Galilean.
Is a member of an international art jury at the world exhibition in Vienna.
Visits Norway (Christiania). Goes on to Stockholm.
Publishes Lady Inger in a new version.
Publishes Catiline in a new version./ Moves to Munich, where he lives for three years.
Writes the poem "Et rimbrev" ("A Rhyme-letter").
Pillars of Society written and first staged at Odense Teater.
Awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Uppsala.
Moves to Rome again and stays there for seven years except for several breaks.
Writes and publishes A Doll`s House, which is first staged at Det Kongelige (Royal) Teater in Copenhagen.
An Enemy of the People written and published (first staging at Christiania Theater on January 13th 1883).
Publishes The Feast at Solhoug in a new edition.
Writes and publishes The Wild Duck (first staging at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen on January 9th 1885).
Visits Norway (Christiania, Trondhjem, Molde and Bergen)./ Moves to Munich and stays there for six years.
Writes and publishes Rosmersholm (first staging at Den Nationale Scene on January 17th 1887).
Spends the summer in Northern Jutland (at Sæby). Goes on to Gothenburg, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
Writes and publishes The Lady from the Sea (first performed at Hoftheater in Weimar and at Christiania Theater on the same day, February 12th 1889).
Last summer in Gossensass. Gets to know Emilie Bardach.
Writes and publishes Hedda Gabler (first performed at the Residenztheater in Munich on January 31st 1891).
Returns to Norway and settles in Christiania.
Meets Hildur Andersen.
Writes and publishes The Master Builder (first performance at the Lessingtheater in Berlin on January 19th 1893).
Sigurd Ibsen marries Bergliot Bjørnson.
Writes and publishes Little Eyolf (first staged at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin on January 12th 1895).
Moves into the apartment on the corner of Arbiensgate and Drammensveien in Christiania and stays there for the rest of his life.
Writes and publishes John Gabriel Borkman (first performed simultaneously at Det svenske (Swedish) and Det finske (Finnish) Teater in Helsingfors on January 10th 1897).
70th birthday – large-scale celebrations in Christiania, Copenhagen and Stockholm.
Writes and publ ishes When We Dead Awaken (first staged at the Hoftheater in Stuttgart on January 26th 1900).