Henrik Ibsen, considered by many to be the father of modern prose drama, was born in Skien, Norway, on March 20, 1828. He was the second of six children. Ibsen’s father was a prominent merchant, but he went bankrupt when Ibsen was eight years old, so Ibsen spent much of his early life living in poverty. From 1851 to 1864, he worked in theaters in Bergen and in what is now Oslo (then called Christiania). At age twenty-one, Ibsen wrote his first play, a five-act tragedy called Catiline. Like much of his early work, Catiline was written in verse.
In 1858, Ibsen married Suzannah Thoreson, and eventually had one son with her. Ibsen felt that, rather than merely live together, husband and wife should live as equals, free to become their own human beings. (This belief can be seen clearly in his play A Doll’s House.) Consequently, Ibsen’s critics attacked him for failing to respect the institution of marriage. Like his private life, Ibsen’s writing tended to stir up sensitive social issues, and some corners of Norwegian society frowned upon his work. Sensing criticism in Oslo about not only his work but also his private life, Ibsen moved to Italy in 1864 with the support of a traveling grant and a stipend from the Norwegian government. He spent the next twenty-seven years living abroad, mostly in Italy and Germany.
Ibsen’s early years as a playwright were not lucrative, but he did gain valuable experience during this time. In 1866, Ibsen published his first major theatrical success, a lyric drama called Brand. He followed it with another well-received verse play, Peer Gynt. These two works helped solidify Ibsen’s reputation as one of the premier Norwegian dramatists of his era. In 1879, while living in Italy, Ibsen published his masterpiece, A Doll’s House. Unlike Peer Gynt and Brand,A Doll’s House was written in prose. It is widely considered a landmark in the development of what soon became a highly prevalent genre of theater—realism, which strives to portray life accurately and shuns idealized visions of it. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen employs the themes and structures of classical tragedy while writing in prose about everyday, unexceptional people. A Doll’s House also manifests Ibsen’s concern for women’s rights, and for human rights in general.
Ibsen followed A Doll’s House with two additional plays written in an innovative, realistic mode: Ghosts, in 1881, and An Enemy of the People, in 1882. Both were successes. Ibsen began to gain international recognition, and his works were produced across Europe and translated into many different languages.
In his later work, Ibsen moved away from realistic drama to tackle questions of a psychological and subconscious nature. Accordingly, symbols began to gain prominence in his plays. Among the works he wrote in this symbolist period are The Wild Duck (1884) and HeddaGabler (1890). HeddaGabler was the last play Ibsen wrote while living abroad. In 1891, he returned to Oslo. His later dramas include The Master Builder (1892) and Little Eyolf (1896). Eventually, a crippling sickness afflicted Ibsen and prevented him from writing. He died on May 23, 1906.