Henrik Ibsen was born in 1828 in Skein, Norway to a family of wealthy merchants. Financial collapse during Ibsen's youth caused the interruption of his education, and Ibsen apprenticed himself to a pharmacist in hopes of eventually returning to school. During this time, he also fathered an illegitimate child with a servant girl. Ibsen then moved to Christiania, now Oslo, with the intention of beginning medical school. Failing grades on the entrance examinations helped push him into the theater. Earlier Ibsen had begun to write history and folk plays, such as Catilina, a tragedy on the revolutions of 1848, and The Burial Mound. In 1851 he became the stage poet of a small theater in Bergen named the Den Nationale Scene and produced further plays in this vein. Notable works from this phase of his career include Lady Inger of Ostrat (1855), a play on Norway's liberation in the medieval period, the historical epics The Vikings of Helgoland (1858) and The Pretenders (1864), and the satire Love's Comedy (1962). In 1852 Ibsen took a new post as artistic director for the Norwegian Theater and then moved, upon its bankruptcy, to the Christiana Theater soon thereafter.
In 1864 Ibsen received a government grant for foreign travel and lived in Rome, Munich, and Dresden for the next twenty-seven years. During this time he produced his most acclaimed works. Brand (1866), the story of a pitiless priest with a holy mission against society, and Peer Gynt (1867), a fantastic adaptation of the tale of Norway's famous braggart of folklore, both introduce themes that would recur in a number of Ibsen's subsequent works such as the destruction of the romantic hero and the "claims of the ideal." In 1873 Ibsen produced what he himself considered his most important play, The Emperor and the Galican, a rather heavy religious drama rarely revived today. Indeed, on the contemporary stage, Ibsen is undoubtedly most loved for his social rather than historical, tragic, or epic drams. Ibsen's social phase begins with Pillars of Society (1877), in which a wealthy and hypocritical businessman unwittingly almost causes the death of his son. Then came the proto-feminist A Doll's House (1879), the tale of a housewife walks out on an apparently perfect marriage when she realizes it is destroying her. Ghosts (1881) followed, taking up the extremely controversial issue of hereditary venereal disease. A classic among numerous pro-democracy movements over time, An Enemy of the People (1882) tells the story of an individual who rallies against mass opinion. The Wild Duck (1884), which many critics consider Ibsen's masterpiece, recounts the fatal effects of what Ibsen termed the "life lie," the delusions man requires to flee a reality too difficult to bear. Finally, Hedda Gabler (1890), tells of a married woman pregnant with an unwanted child who has caused the death of her lover. When found out by a new suitor, she chooses to kill herself rather than fall into his clutches.
Difficulties of translation notwithstanding, Western critics have canonized the late Ibsen as the founder of modern prose drama. They credit Ibsen with precipitating a shift away from romanticism and with the demystification of drama's Romantic hero. Ibsen's social plays also figure as the beginning of an explicitly psychological drama, one concerned above all with character conflicts and specifically the ways in which individual come up against the antiquated, oppressive, or nostalgic ideals of the bourgeoisie. Though known within Norway as a rather heavy-handed moralist, Ibsen came to stand for a new individualism in the rest of the world. In particular, George Bernard Shaw, one of Ibsen's most famous disciples, canonized him to this effect with a series of lectures delivered on the occasion of Ibsen's seventieth birthday, a series ultimately published as "The Quintessence of Ibsenism." Ibsen died on May 23, 1906.