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 Dolls 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".
Phase two overlaps roughly with the 1860s. 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 to 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 pr 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.
- No Ending: Every play from 1866 and onwards.
- Downer Ending: Emperor And Galilean stands out. Also Lady Inger At Austraat.
- Happy Ending: Most of his pre 1860 plays.
- 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 was put out of his life, although he paid his fees, and seemingly never got it out of his system completely).
- Sanity Slippage: 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)
- Lady Inger at Austraat (1857)
- PeriodPiece set in 1528. Concerning the last struggles for keeping Norway independent.
- The Warriors at Helgeland (1858)
- Comedy Of Love
- The Pretenders (1864)
- 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)
- 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 Dolls House (1879)
- Ghosts (1881)
- An Enemy of the People (1882)
- The Wild Duck (1884)
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.