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The Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen sitting down. Black and white photo.
The playwright who changed the theatre

Henrik Ibsen

The Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen.
Photo: Daniel Georg Nyblinn

As one of the founders of modernism in theatre, Henrik Ibsen is often referred to as “the father of realism” and the second most influential playwright of all times – after Shakespeare, that is.

In the late 19th century, the playwright Henrik Ibsen completely rewrote the rules of drama with a realism that we still see in theatres today. He turned the European stage away from what it had become – a plaything and distraction for the bored – and introduced a new order of moral analysis.

Without fairy tale figures and unlikely plots, Ibsen brought his audience into regular people’s homes, where the bourgeois kept their carefully guarded secrets. He then placed the conflicts that arose from challenging assumptions and direct confrontations against a very realistic middle-class background and developed them with piercing dialogue and meticulous attention to detail.

For this, he has earned his place in history. Next to William Shakespeare Ibsen is undoubtedly the greatest playwright in the universe. So naturally, The International Astronomical Union named a planet after him. Only a minor planet, but still!

“If you take away the average man’s life-lie you take away his happiness at the same time.”
– From The Wild Duck

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen.
Photo: Ibsenmuseet

Henrik Ibsen’s major works include “Brand”, “Peer Gynt”, “An Enemy of the People”, and “A Doll’s House”, as well as “Hedda Gabler”, “Ghosts”, “The Wild Duck”, “When We Dead Awaken”, and “The Master Builder”. All of these plays have strong and challenging characters that live on outside of their plays’ intrigues.

Most played throughout the world is probably “A Doll’s House” which culminates in the character of Nora leaving her husband Torvald and her three children – unheard of in 1879, when it was first performed, and still one of the most famous gender political moments in world literature. The role of Nora even holds an iconic status: Unesco’s Memory of the World register calls Nora “a symbol throughout the world, for women fighting for liberation and equality”.

Facts about Henrik Ibsen

Full name: Henrik Johan Ibsen.

Norwegian playwright, theatre director and poet, and considered the father of modern realistic drama.

Born in Skien in Telemark 20 March 1828, died in Kristiania (now Oslo) 23 May 1906.

Made his debut as a writer with “Catalina” in 1850.

Worked at theatres in Bergen and Kristiania from 1852 to 1862.

Married Suzanne Daae Thoresen in 1858 and had a son, Sigurd, one year later.

Moved abroad in 1864 and lived in Italy and Germany for 27 years.

Got his breakthrough with “Brand” and “Peer Gynt” in 1866 and 1867.

Other main works include “An Enemy of the People”, “A Doll’s house”, “Hedda Gabler”, “Ghosts”, “The Wild Duck”, “When We Dead Awaken”, and “The Master Builder”.

According to the famous Norwegian actor Dennis Storhøi, who has played the character of Peer Gynt numerous times, Ibsen is a genius in the way that he captures the man or the woman perfectly at all times.

“He must have had a significant insight in how peoples’ weaknesses and strengths worked”, he says in the video below.

Other playwrights and novelists such as James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Eugene O'Neill were greatly inspired by Ibsen. The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler thought so highly of Ibsen that he didn’t even dare to approach the writer when he by chance saw him sitting at a neighbouring table at the Grand Hotel in Oslo.

Today, there is always an Ibsen play showing on a stage in Norway. Some theatres, like the National Theatre in Oslo, surtitles some plays in English. Others, like the fantastic outdoor play at the Peer Gynt Festival at Gålå in Gudbrandsdalen, accommodate for their international audience with introductions, summary booklets, and audio guides. But if you really want to experience Ibsen’s plays like they were meant to, you need to do as James Joyce – learn Norwegian.

Facts about Henrik Ibsen

Full name: Henrik Johan Ibsen.

Norwegian playwright, theatre director and poet, and considered the father of modern realistic drama.

Born in Skien in Telemark 20 March 1828, died in Kristiania (now Oslo) 23 May 1906.

Made his debut as a writer with “Catalina” in 1850.

Worked at theatres in Bergen and Kristiania from 1852 to 1862.

Married Suzanne Daae Thoresen in 1858 and had a son, Sigurd, one year later.

Moved abroad in 1864 and lived in Italy and Germany for 27 years.

Got his breakthrough with “Brand” and “Peer Gynt” in 1866 and 1867.

Other main works include “An Enemy of the People”, “A Doll’s house”, “Hedda Gabler”, “Ghosts”, “The Wild Duck”, “When We Dead Awaken”, and “The Master Builder”.

Experience Ibsen

See Ibsen’s plays or walk in his footsteps.

Let literature guide you

True literature lovers can visit authors’ homes, writers’ centres, libraries, and literature houses in several places in Norway.

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