To live is a fight with trolls, in the vaults of the heart and mind.
To write poems, is to hold a judgement over yourself. (Epigram by Henrik Ibsen).
A famous Norwegian playwright, and celebrated as a national symbol by Norwegians. Many of Ibsen's plays were critiques of the morality of his time, residing very far to the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism
and often having No Ending
in a traditional storytelling sense. A noteworthy example is A Doll's House
, about a housewife and mother of three who has been taking deceptive means to support her family by herself. Her husband never suspects, but treats her as a child in a big toy house
(hence A Doll's House
). The play as Ibsen wrote it ended with Nora flat-out leaving her husband after he reveals how he thinks of her: the last sound of the play is described as "the most famous door slam in the history of theater." However, for his German audience, Ibsen was pressured into writing a new ending, where the now self-assured and defiant Nora slips back into her meek role as a housewife when she is reminded of her children. Both endings are usually included in translations of the script, albeit with the German ending in significantly smaller letters.
Ibsen had a notable rivalry with Swedish playwright August Strindberg
, who often accused Ibsen of stealing his ideas (claiming that Ibsen's Hedda Gabler
, for example, was a ripoff of his own Miss Julie
). Ibsen, delighted by the notion of having an archenemy, hung a huge portrait of a glowering Strindberg over his desk, and said that it helped him concentrate.
Ibsen's production went trough a number of phases. The early stage was marked by a knack for historical plays, often with a Happy Ending
, and from a later point of view, this part of his production is a long Early Installment Weirdness
. His early tendency is slightly more idealistic than what he became in later years, but he also had to swallow some harsh criticism in this early stage. Notably the years between 1850 and 1856, when he wrote four plays, three of whom never entered his collected works
. To be fair, all the young playwrights and poets in the 1850s were labeled "idealists". Come 1859, Ibsen had a serious Creator Breakdown
and didn't write anything significant, be it poems or plays, for four years
, after 1858. His "second phase" can thus be said to imply a lot of therapy.
Phase two overlaps roughly with the 1860s, beginning with a "revival" in 1862. This phase marks a transition from the early stage, and shows a more mature, but clearly seeking poet. At the same time, this is Ibsen's "angry years". Both Brand
and Peer Gynt
as well as a string of poems, show that Ibsen was more disappointed with his lot, and showed himself as a veritable Snark Knight
. His early sentiments were turned inside out, and Ibsen seems to have made a point of "sacrificing himself" in each and every play. If there is an Author Avatar
, be sure that he seldom survives the play in this period.
Come the 1870s and onwards, we find the Ibsen we know and love. The mature playwright with his realistic plays, occupied by his tendency to reveal all the corruption of the Norwegian bourgoisy. He also stands out as an elitist, with small regard for the commoners. The lower classes tend to be set as morons in some level or another, and the big cheeses, like Old Werle and Proprietor Brack, or Consul Bernick, all get off the hook scott free, while the people in the middle suffer. In this period, Ibsen clearly stated Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!
. Thus, we see a harsh deprecation of his youthful days.
His late phase, after 1885, shows a more introvert and symbolical playwright, searching for his roots, and he re-uses themes from early on, like the Medieval Ballads
, but it is moulded in a different way. As the years passed, Ibsen was more into dissecting himself, and deconstructing himself in the process. His last three plays is stock full of this. He wrote his last play, When We Dead Awaken
, in the fall of 1899. With a career launched in 1850, he set a solid mark on the entire second half of the nineteenth century.
Ibsen was punctual to the point of parody, and people in Christiania (Oslo) knew they could tune their clocks after him, at least after he moved back to Norway in 1891, and settled in a flat in the western parts of town. Every day at a certain time, he went down to his favorite café, entering the spot when the clock stroke twelve. He kept this habit up for thirteen years
Ibsen continued his strolls through town until he got too sick to move around. He suffered a stroke about 1904, which made him incapable of social life, and finally died in 1906, hailed as the greatest playwright in Norway, a country he had less than good to say about in his plays. In that respect, he seems an inversion of Henrik Wergeland
. Wergeland had a vision of what Norway could become. Ibsen presented a nightmare, or at least a bad dream that never left.
Notable tropes found in the collected work of Ibsen:
- Acceptable Target: Upper class Norwegians. Chamberlains are the most acceptable targets in the plays of Ibsen (Bratsberg, Alving, the greater lot of guests at Werle's).
- Author Avatar: Used a number of times. Brand, Gregers Werle/Relling...
- Cloud Cuckoolander: There is at least one per play, with very few exceptions.
- Deadpan Snarker: A whole lot of them spread over most of his production, starting in 1853 and continuing. Ibsen himself loved the trope in Real Life. Also abundant in a number of his poems.
- Downer Ending: Emperor And Galilean stands out. Also Lady Inger At Austraat.
- Happy Ending: Most of his pre 1860 plays.
- No Ending: Every play from 1866 and onwards.
- Only Sane Man: In many plays, this trait is played on a medical doctor. Ibsen seems to have put doctors in this position a number of times: The doctor in Brand, Fjeldboe in The League Of Youth, doctor Wangel in The Lady From The Sea, and more. If this trope is not subverted, how shall we interpret An Enemy of the People's Doctor Stockman?
- Parental Abandonment: More than one play uses this. Usually, an upper class man gets a child with a lower class woman, concealing it by marrying her off to another commoner. Used as a plot point in Ghosts and The Wild Duck. Other versions of the trope are also there to be found. (Ibsen did it himself with a housemaid in his youth. The child and the mother were put out of his life, although he paid his fees, and seemingly never got it out of his system completely.)
- Sanity Slippage: Lady Inger At Austraat's Lady Inger may have been the first to fall victim to the trope (1857). Since then, Ibsen used it frequiently, up to and including his very last work in 1899.
- Straw Nihilist: Oh, so many of them. Relling, Rubek, Brand, Borkman, Dr Rank, Solness. The older Ibsen got, the more he used them.
- Tsundere: A good lot of girls in Ibsen's plays show Tsundere qualities: Eline in Lady Inger, Hilde Wangel in The Lady from the Sea, Ingrid Hægstad in Peer Gynt, Svanhild in Love's Comedy. Usually, he made this type a foil to a truer ingenue type of heroine.
- Catilina (1850). A Roman Period Piece and the first in his collected works.
- St Johns Eve (1853) Not to be found in his collected works. A revived Old Shame.
- The Feast At Solhaug (1856): A short Chivalric Romance in three acts. Notably different from Ibsen's later works because of a Happy Ending. Period Piece set in the late 13th century.
- Lady Inger At Austraat (1857): Period Piece set in 1528. Concerning the last struggles for keeping Norway independent.
- The Warriors at Helgeland (1858): Ibsen's largest World of Ham, stock full of Horny Vikings, Large Hams, and over the top acting. He never tried that again. Ever.
- Comedy Of Love: A short Breather Episode and Unintentional Period Piece. Containing a virtual Snark Knight who seems to be the spiritual predecessor of Brand.
- The Pretenders (1864): Period Piece set in the Norwegian Civil Wars, early 13th century. Historical domain characters all around.
- Terje Vigen (1865): Ibsen's best known narrative poem, and another national icon - obligatory in Norwegian schools for years.
- Brand (1866): Ibsen's commercial and critical breakthrough. It affected him to the point that he changed his appearance, his handwriting and his beard...
- Peer Gynt (1867): Notable in that the incidental music was composed by Edvard Grieg, including "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and "Morgenstimmung".
- The League Of Youth (1869): A satirical play, and a strong Take That on Norwegian politics at the time. Made quite a stir - the first performance instigated riots between different political fractions. Some people were personally offended.
- Emperor And Galilean (1873): Considered to be Ibsen's magnum opus. Even so, it's criminally under-appreciated, even considering the whole Hitler thing.
- The Pillars Of Society (1877): Another "political" play, with a female character paving the way for Nora, and another critical stand on the upper classes.
- A Doll's House (1879): Featuring such tropes as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl taken to its logical conclusion, and The Disease That Shall Not Be Named (in this case, syphilis).
- Ghosts (1881)
- An Enemy of the People (1882): An inversion of The Complainer Is Always Wrong. Almost everywhere, and especially here, Ibsen's theme is The Complainer is Always Right.
- The Wild Duck (1884).
- Rosmersholm (1886). Another play featuring an idealistic priest, who ends up Driven to Suicide alongside The Ingenue. The play is halfway political, halfway symbolical.
- The Lady From The Sea (1888). A uniquely psychological play, with a Shadow Archetype coming in to screw up the lead character.
- Hedda Gabler (1890): Featuring another The Disease That Shall Not Be Named (in this case, pregnancy), and one Driven to Suicide.
- The Master Builder (1892): Heavily autobiographical or at least self-assessing play. This is both the last of his "realistic" plays and the first of his "symbolist" ones. Featuring an Anti-Hero, Femme Fatale, a bit of The Rashomon, and loads of Freud Was Right. Unsurprisingly, Freud himself quite liked this play.
- Little Eyolf (1894): A symbolistic play presenting a crippled little boy, Killed Off for Real before the end of the first act. The rest of the play conserns a lot of angsting from the remaining adults (the parents), and a comment on Cross Dressing.
- John Gabriel Borkman (1897). Ibsen's penultimate play, telling the story of a Grumpy Old Man, bitterly resenting the world and dying in the snow.
- When We Dead Awaken (1899): The "dramatic epilogue" of Ibsen, and the last play he ever wrote. Self-evaluating and kind of tired, as could be expected from a then 71 years old writer.