Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) is widely acknowledged as the father of modern drama, but his significance in literature and history overshadows the influence of his revolutionary stage techniques and his iconoclastic concept of the theater. James Joyce observed of Ibsen, his youthful idol, “It may be questioned whether any man has held so firm an empire over the thinking world in modern times.” Despite early disappointments, which led to twenty-seven years of self-imposed exile from Norway, Ibsen at last received the acclaim there that he had been accorded previously throughout Europe, and by the end of his long and immensely productive career, the Norwegian government granted him a state funeral as one of its most illustrious, if controversial, citizens. Ibsen’s plays continue to be revived throughout the world, and a steady stream of scholarly books and articles testifies to his popularity among critics and readers who appreciate the therapeutic northern blasts of Ibsen’s message.
The unvarying setting of Ibsen’s quest as a creative artist was the human mind. At first, he concentrated, with little success, on Norwegian nationalistic themes and historical subjects, in opposition to the Danish domination of Scandinavian theater. As he probed increasingly profound psychological themes involving the individual and society, his analytic dramas seemed threateningly radical, largely incomprehensible, or simply obscene to European audiences then content with frothy farce or Scribean melodrama.
Ibsen’s first plays written from exile in Italy won for him fame, but their critical reception was mixed. Later, his social problem plays found their greatest contemporary acceptance in England through William Archer’s devoted translations and George Bernard Shaw’s espousal of Ibsen’s work as support for his own Socialist theories. In his next stage, Ibsen concentrated on the individual’s psychological condition; his last plays, written after his return to Norway, which deal with the conflict between art and life, exhibited his shift to Symbolism and were greeted with enthusiasm by James Joyce and Thomas Mann, who both learned Norwegian solely to read Ibsen’s works. Another lonely thinker, Sigmund Freud, wrote a perceptive essay on the Oedipus complex as motivation in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Much of Europe, especially czarist Russia, saw Ibsen’s plays as potentially explosive, but by 1935, the prominent critic Johanna Kröner commented, “Through Ibsen’s influence, European drama has experienced a powerful renewal and progress.”
Ibsen’s technical innovations in the theater have become so widely accepted that it is difficult to grasp the intense novelty that they represented to their contemporary audiences. The strongly realistic and even naturalistic stage settings of his mature plays contain a wealth of closely observed detail that requires a corresponding intensity of attention by actors to the individualized behavior of his characters. His tense, crackling interchanges of dialogue, a dramatic shorthand, often seem to omit more words than they include, conveying highly complex states of mind and passions through implication and demanding a high degree of emotional stamina from his actors.
As Ibsen’s American translator Rolf Fjelde has observed, the language of Ibsen’s finest plays resembles poetry in its compaction and resonance. Above all, as Henry James noted, Ibsen has a “peculiar blessedness to actors . . . the inspiration of dealing with material so solid and so fresh,” an attraction that seems as valid for the careful reader as it is for Ibsen’s stage interpreter. Though Ibsen’s contributions to dramatic theory and form have been outmoded by many of the very dramatists his work inspired, his insight into the human condition has not dated. Ibsen insisted that he not only “described human beings” but also “described human fates.” Such fates, springing from deep conflicts in human personalities, provide both solid and fresh material for endless meditation. In scholar Einar Haugen’s words, “Ibsen’s plays . . . enable people to look beyond the little cares of the day and . . . give them some glimpses of eternity.”
“To be a poet is, most of all, to see,” Henrik Ibsen said, and early in his literary career, he had already recognized the hammer as at once the symbol of creation and of destruction, with mythical overtones of the Old Norse thunder god, Thor, who unflinchingly sacrificed his own hand to bind the wolf Fenris and save his world from the unleashed forces of the underworld. Ibsen’s early poem “The Miner” shows his gaze fixed firmly into the depths: “Downward I must break my way . . . break me the way, my heavy hammer, to the hidden mystery’s heart.” Throughout his literary canon, although he is best known for his prose dramas, the rich poetic vein is never far from the working face of Ibsen’s creativity.
The constructions and destructions necessary to the realization of Ibsen’s vision fall into two distinct categories on either side of the watershed year of 1875. Fjelde differentiates them in apt architectural metaphor, viewing the earlier romantic group of Ibsen’s plays as a diverse old quarter, ranging from Roman villa to Viking guildhalls and even a contemporary honeymoon hotel, while glimpsing immediately beyond a small arid space “what appears to be a model town of virtually identical row houses . . . dark and swarming with secret life.”
Whatever the outward style of their construction, at the core, all of Ibsen’s earlier plays share a basically romantic orientation. Romanticism had already reached its fiery height in most of Europe by the time Ibsen published his first verse drama in 1850, but like the northern summer sun, the German-derived glow of romanticism lingered longer in Norway, where the emerging Norwegian state, lately reestablished, was seeking its national identity in its Viking heritage.
While reviewing a folkloristic play in 1851, Ibsen presented his own characteristically individual theory on nationalism in literature: “A national author is one who finds the best way of embodying in his work that keynote which rings out to us from mountain and valley . . . but above all from within our own selves.” Following that precept at the risk of alienating superpatriots, Ibsen wrote three Viking plays, Lady Inger of Østraat, The Feast at Solhaugh, and The Vikings at Helgeland. In 1862, he made an extensive field trip to gather folklore, which he incorporated with Rousseauistic ideals of the simple natural life in The Pretenders, another medieval Viking drama; in the volcanic Brand, set in the harsh west fjord country; and in the lighthearted Peer Gynt.
An important part of Norway’s nationalistic fervor stemmed from its state Lutheranism, in which Ibsen had received a traditionally rigorous grounding as a child, although none of his plays portrays clergymen sympathetically. In Brand, Ibsen also seemed to embody Søren Kierkegaard’s famous “either-or” in Brand’s call for “all or nothing,” challenging the institutionalized religion of his day. Haugen has commented that paradoxically “the rascal Peer is saved, but the heroic Brand is sacrificed,” seeing therein a reflection of Ibsen’s early religious training, similar to his puritanical attitude toward sex and his emphasis on the necessity of confession and atonement for redemption.
The dominant philosophical trend of Ibsen’s time and place was the idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who died in 1831. Ibsen’s enormous double play, Emperor and Galilean, departs from the strictly romantic theories present in his earlier work to take the direction of a Hegelian dialectic conflict between “thesis” and “antithesis,” which is resolved by a “synthesis” that itself becomes the “thesis” of a new conflict. Ibsen pits the pagan happiness that he had celebrated in his Viking plays against the spiritual beauty represented by Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on the Cross. The failure of Julian the Apostate to bring about the required “third empire,” mingling the Christian and the pagan worlds, may be read as Ibsen’s rejection, like Kierkegaard’s, of the possibility of achieving a synthesis in this life. For Ibsen, duality was inescapable in the human condition, with humanity caught between what it is and what it should be, between the beastly nature and the divine.
In 1875, midway in his literary career, Ibsen struck an “arid place” where he reluctantly had to concede that the rhyme and meter suitable to romantic drama could no longer convey his explorations of “the hidden mystery’s heart.” The literary trend in Europe, leading toward the realistic and even naturalistic expression of contemporary social problems, came to Scandinavia principally through the critic Georg Brandes, who had become Ibsen’s close friend in 1871.
Ibsen’s last twelve plays divide neatly into three distinct subgroups of four dramas each, characterized by their dominant thematic elements—social, psychological, and philosophical. This sequence, which Ibsen clearly intended as an organic whole, leads inexorably from social agony to spiritual conflict and at last to an area hitherto unexplored in Ibsen’s time, described by Fjelde as an “extraordinary, pre-Freudian sensitivity to unconscious pressures behind the conscious mind—the relationships of motives and conflicts bred in the troll-dark cellar.”
In each category, Ibsen employed his personal experiences differently. From The Pillars of Society to An Enemy of the People, the social plays use contemporary settings that might have been encountered on the streets of Christiania and characters caught up in the new industrialized manifestation of the old conflict between what is and what ought to be. Between The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s hammer broke through to a deeper layer of consciousness beyond the social, forcing away the barriers which the individual erects between his self-image and his ideals.
Finally, from The Master Builder to When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen probed the clash between his artistic vocation and his responsibility to those who loved him, using in each play a flawed creative personality who at last realizes that the ultimate height of achievement is denied him because he has not been able to merge love with his art. With the twelve plays of his prose cycle, Ibsen adopted what Fjelde calls “a way of seeing, deceptively photographic on the surface, actually a complex fusion of perspectives, which then became his dramatic method,” as, even more significantly, he simultaneously reached the summit and the deepest heart of his own experience of life.
To the theater in particular and to literature in amazing generality, Ibsen bequeathed innovations almost as astonishing in retrospect as they must have been to his contemporaries. He was first to involve ordinary human beings in drama, abandoning the old artificial plots and instead creating scenes that might be encountered in any stuffy drawing room or aching human heart.He conveyed for the first time in centuries a depth and subtlety of understanding of human character and relationships, especially those of women, evocative of the height of human tragic experience seen previously among the Elizabethans and the Periclean Greeks. He dared to challenge social abuses, knowing their agonizing sting at first hand. He explored the unconscious mind to an extent unmatched until the promulgation of Freud’s theories decades later.
The Vikings at Helgeland
Before Ibsen gained the summit of his creative efforts he participated in the attempt to create a national Norwegian theater by writing plays based on Norwegian folktales. Ibsen gathered his material for The Vikings at Helgeland not from the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied but from a much older work, The Völsungasaga, itself a derivation of the Elder Edda containing the story of the Valkyrie Brynhild, who destroys her beloved hero Sigurd because he has betrayed her trust. Ibsen chose to base The Vikings at Helgeland on the Icelandic family saga, in which, he said, “the titanic conditions and occurrences of The Nibelungenlied and the Volsung-Saga have simply been reduced to human dimensions.” Yet he saw an insoluble incompatibility between the objective saga and the dramatic form: “If a writer is to create a dramatic work out of this epic material, he must introduce a foreign element. . . .”
Ibsen’s “foreign element” in The Vikings at Helgeland is realism, a rendition of the myth of Brynhild set in tenth century Norway, at the advent of Christianity. The Brynhild-figure is Hjørdis, a merciless visionary, married to Gunnar but in love with Gunnar’s close friend, the weak-willed warrior Sigurd, who had won her under the guise of Gunnar and with whom she has had her only satisfying sexual experience. When Hjørdis learns of the deception—Sigurd is married to another woman—she slays her lover, hoping to be united with him in death, but as he dies, Sigurd reveals that his meek wife Dagny has converted him to Christianity. In despair and rage, the pagan Hjørdis hurls herself into the sea. Ibsen’s preoccupation in The Vikings at Helgeland is not with the fall of mythic goddesses and heroes but with the human tragedy wrought by deliberate falsehood, a theme to which he would often return.
Ibsen called Brand “a dramatic poem.” Brand is a stern young pastor who defies both his church superiors and the self-serving local governmental officials, demanding “all or nothing” in the service of his God. Brand even applies his unbending doctrines to his mother, to whom he refuses to grant forgiveness unless she relinquishes all her property, and to his wife and his child, who die because Brand will not take them to a milder climate. Brand then leads his flock to an “ice church” high in the mountains, where he believes that they will all be closer to God, but, daunted by the painful journey, his people at last stone him and return to their valley far below. Brand is finally moved to tears by a vision of his dead wife shortly before he is buried by a mammoth avalanche, above whose roar he hears a voice proclaim, “He is a God of love.” In Brand, the story of a man whose tragedy is the negation of love, Ibsen not only used the figure of an acquaintance he had met in Rome, Christopher Bruun, a devout reformer who fought the established church as well as the spirit of compromise, but also drew on his own personality. He remarked in an 1870 letter, “Brand is myself in my best moments.”
Emperor and Galilean
Emperor and Galilean, the double play that stands between Ibsen’s two groups of dramas, ranges over much of the fourth century Roman Empire, interpreting successive phases in the life of Julian the Apostate, who tried to replace Constantine’s Christianity with a renewed paganism. In part 1, Caesar’s Apostasy, the young Julian is disillusioned by Christianity and is influenced by the pagan seer Maximos, who desires a “third empire” uniting classical beauty and Christian ethics. In part 2, The Emperor Julian, force proves ineffective in reinstating pagan religious observances; in battle, Agathon, a Christian, slays Julian, who mutters as he dies, “Thou hast conquered, Galilean.” Like Cain and Judas, Julian unknowingly changed history in a way he never intended. Ibsen told Edmund Gosse, “The illusion I wanted to produce is that of reality . . . what I desired to depict were human beings.” He also said later that Emperor and Galilean contained “more of my own personal experience than I would care to admit.” He saw Christianity as removing the joy from human life, his own included, encasing people in an emotional confinement from which only violent action could free them. This play marks Ibsen’s “farewell to epic drama” and his adoption of prose as his dramatic medium;Meyer calls it the “forerunner of those naturalistic plays which were shortly to explode . . . like a series of bombs.”
A Doll’s House
The famous slamming of the Helmer front door in A Doll House was the second realistic explosion in Ibsen’s bombardment of his society’s outmoded thought and repressive lifestyle. Significantly, new translations of the play point out the vital difference between the older title, A Doll’s House, a house belonging to the “doll” Nora, and A Doll House, a complex toy, as Fjelde suggests, that itself is “on trial . . . tested by the visitors that come and go, embodying aspects of the inescapable reality outside.” At the beginning, Nora is merely a pretty young wife preparing for Christmas, almost a child herself in her eagerness to please her banker-husband as his “squirrel” and “lark.”
As Hermann J. Weigand has demonstrated, Nora’s love of playacting, her readiness to lie, and her desire to show off make her all the more convincing as she reveals that she has secretly borrowed money needed to save her husband from a physical collapse. Worse, the conventions of the day denied women the right to take out loans in their own names, so Nora was forced by circumstances to forge her dying father’s signature to the loan. Her creditor, Nils Krogstad, blackmails her to keep his position at Helmer’s bank. When Helmer learns of Nora’s debt, he selfishly and brutally declares that she is unfit to rear their children. Nora recognizes the falsity of her position and leaves her husband and children, slamming the door on her life as the toy of Helmer, who is himself a toy of society.
In his “Notes for a Modern Tragedy” (1878), Ibsen wrote, “There are two kinds of moral laws . . . one for men and one, quite different, for women.” He knew that in his day, “woman is judged by masculine law,” and he used for specifics the contemporary real-life tragedy of Laura Kieler, a friend of Ibsen who had taken out a secret loan so that she could travel with her husband to Italy for his health. The loan went bad; she forged a check; and when the bank refused payment, her husband had her committed to a public asylum and demanded a separation, so that her children would not be contaminated by her presence. Kieler grudgingly took his wife back eventually, but Ibsen’s use of her sad story in his play placed additional stress on their already difficult relationship, and Laura Kieler resented A Doll House fiercely.
Many interpreters narrowly see A Doll House as a plea for female emancipation. Nothing seems further from Ibsen’s intention. In 1879, he did strongly support equal voting rights for female members of the Scandinavian Club in Rome, but nearly twenty years later, in 1898, when he spoke to the Norwegian League for Women’s Rights, he declared, “My task has been the description of humanity,” as Fjelde notes, putting the issue of women’s liberation squarely in the larger context of “the artist’s freedom and the evolution of the race in general.”
Ibsen wrote to Sophie Adlersparre in 1882, “After Nora, Mrs. Alving had to come,” and he often said that writing Ghosts was “an absolute necessity” for him. Mrs. Alving is not simply a Nora grown older, but a character evolved into a vastly more tragic figure. Nora leaves her home, but Mrs. Alving stays with her debauched husband, an irredeemable syphilitic sot. After his death, she builds an orphanage with his fortune and welcomes home their son Oswald, who has been living as an artist in Paris.
A villainous carpenter at the orphanage, Engstrand, tries to entice his daughter Regine, Mrs. Alving’s maid, into becoming a hostess (and more) in a seamen’s hangout he plans to build, and Engstrand persuades Mrs. Alving’s pastor, Manders, to speak to Mrs. Alving in that regard. Manders, once Mrs. Alving’s lover, though he counseled her to return to her husband, learns not only that Regine is Captain Alving’s illegitimate daughter but also that Mrs. Alving has begun to question her religion. As they talk, they overhear an innocent flirtation between Oswald and Regine in the next room, a “ghost” of a flirtation of years before, when Mrs. Alving overheard her husband and her maid, Regine’s mother. After fire destroys the uninsured orphanage, consuming the captain’s financial legacy, the ill and exhausted Oswald learns the horrifying truth about Regine’s birth and his own inherited venereal disease. Regine consequently leaves to join Engstrand, who blackmails Manders into supporting his new business venture, and Mrs. Alving is left alone with Oswald as he slips into paretic insanity, begging his mother to help him end his life at once.
Ibsen knew that such material could hardly help but inflame Victorian sensibilities. Early in 1882, he wrote, “The violent criticisms and insane attacks . . . don’t worry me in the least.” As always, Ibsen relished the thrill of the battle, but Ghosts aroused more negative sentiment than any of his other plays. Norwegian critics led Europe in dismissing it, Ludvig Josephson calling it “one of the filthiest things ever written in Scandinavia,” and Erik Bøgh rejecting it as “a repulsive pathological phenomenon.”
Nevertheless, Ghosts stimulated the young and the daring. By 1888, some observers noted that the play was comparable to classical Greek tragedy though written about modern people, an opinion still popular today. Whereas in the Greek drama, inexorable Fate brings heroes low, in Ibsen’s Ghosts, the power of the past devours the central figures. A choice once made must stand, regardless of the consequences, Ibsen is saying, and all the shocks that he delivers to his audience reinforce his basic message. The human choice must be made, in Fjelde’s words, “out of the integrity of one’s whole being.” The ghosts of the past rise to strangle Helene Alving, the hypocritical Pastor Manders, and even the innocent victims of their parents’ mistakes, Oswald and Regine. The most powerful of Ibsen’s tightly constructed social plays, Ghosts also marks an important milestone in dramatic history; according toMeyer, it was “the first great tragedy written about middle-class people in plain, everyday prose.”
Ghosts of a somber past also haunt the brooding manor house in Rosmersholm, the second of Ibsen’s psychological dramas and the one that, after Ghosts, had the worst contemporary reviews. Among the few who supported it, Strindberg, in a rare tribute to Ibsen, declared Rosmersholm “unintelligible to the theatre public, mystical to the semi-educated, but crystal-clear to anyone with a knowledge of modern psychology.”
The central problem of Rosmersholm is the redemption of a human spirit. A young, liberal-spirited woman, Rebecca West, came to the estate on a western fjord as companion to Rosmer’s wife, Beate, and after Beate’s suicide stayed on as manager of the household, influencing Rosmer, who feels drawn to her unconsciously. His brother-inlaw, the inflexible schoolmaster Kroll, attempts to turn Rosmer back to conservatism, but when he fails, he recalls his late sister’s intimations of “goings-on,” as does the leader of the radical element, the journalist Mortensgaard. Rosmer tries to quiet the talk by proposing to Rebecca, but she rejects him violently.
After Rosmer’s sense of guilt at his wife’s despair begins to eat at him, Rebecca openly admits her guilt in urging Beate to death, confessing that she had acted out of love for him. As she prepares to leave the estate, she tells Rosmer that her earlier “pagan” will has fallen under Rosmersholm’s traditional moralistic spell, which “ennobles . . . but kills happiness.” Rosmer and Rebecca pledge their mutual love, savoring one final moment of bliss before, in atonement, they follow Beate into the white foam of the millrace.
Meyer claims that “in this play Ibsen was, for the first time . . . in any play for over two centuries, overtly probing the uncharted waters of the unconscious mind.” Ibsen had given the play the working title “The White Horses,” after the ghost reputedly seen frequently on the estate, a white horse, the symbol of irresistible unconscious forces driving the individual to excessive behavior, based on a folktale about a water spirit in equine shape that lures its victims into dangerous depths.
Ibsen gradually reveals that Rebecca came to Rosmerholm as not only the former mistress of one Dr.West but also, as she learned too late, his daughter.HerOedipal guilt, as Freud observed in 1914, drove her to dispose of Beate, “getting rid of the wife and mother, so that she might take her place with the husband and father.” Beate’s death in the millrace was only the most recent guilt-inspired act of violence that Rebecca, under the refining, “ennobling” influence of Rosmer, found she must expiate. Ironically, Rosmer himself is weak, and his one act of heroism is performed for Rebecca: “There is no judge over us; and therefore we must do justice upon ourselves.”
In his advice to a young actress undertaking the role of Rebecca in Christiania, Ibsen wrote, “Observe the life that is going on around you, and present a real and living human being.” He also instructed the head of the Christiania Theater that Rebecca “does not force Rosmer forward. She lures him.” His characterization of RebeccaWest, who throughout the play crochets an indefinable white garment, calls up mythic overtones of the Norse Norns, spinning out human destiny in some white-fogged eternal night. Ibsen’s revelation of man’s destiny in Rosmersholm is once more in woman’s hands, here lightening the eternal dark with one perfect gesture of sacrificial atonement made ironically for an imperfect lover, an echo of the myth of Brynhild that he had treated earlier in The Vikings at Helgeland and to which he would return before long.
With Rosmersholm, Ibsen left off political themes as motivation in his drama. The men and women of the Ibsen plays that followed became increasingly aware of what Meyer calls “the trolls within, not the trolls without . . . strange sick passions which direct their lives.” Ibsen’s earlier plays had portrayed men such as Rosmer undone by their involvement with provincial politics, while his later works stress figures, mostly women such as Rebecca, who feel intense passion but who cannot express it and thus become “ennobled” without some salvific act of atonement requiring the emancipation of self-sacrifice.
In the powerful domestic tragedy Hedda Gabler, often considered his most popular play, Ibsen adapted the old myth of Brynhild to startling new uses. Around this time, he wrote, “Our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves,” and he began to see that the greatest human resource in that struggle, the will, tended to remain undeveloped in women of his day. As the daughter of General Gabler, Hedda had romantically dreamed of a perfect hero, but her dreams and her physical realization with a man not her equal were quite different. Eilert Løvborg, whose combination of profligacy and brilliant scholarship had originally fascinated her, proved unworthy, and she turned in anger and frustration to mediocre Jørgen Tesman, settling for the weaker man as Hjørdis had done in The Vikings at Helgeland. Like Hjørdis, too, Hedda is violently jealous of the gentle girl her first hero seems to prefer.
At the opening of the play, Hedda and Jørgen have returned to their bourgeois home and to Jørgen’s bourgeois aunts after a wretched six-month European honeymoon. Hedda is suffering from massive ennui already, compounded by a pregnancy she ferociously denies. When she learns that Eilert Løvborg has reformed under the tutelage of ordinary Thea Elvstad, whose lovely curling hair she has always envied, Hedda exacts a horrifying vengeance. She goads Løvborg to drink again; he loses the only manuscript of the monumental book he has composed with Thea’s help, and he later comes to his senses in the boudoir of the redheaded Mlle Diana, a notorious fille de joie. Jørgen finds Løvborg’s manuscript and gives it to Hedda, but when Løvborg, frantic at the loss of his “child,” comes to Hedda for help, she denies all knowledge of it.
Alone, Hedda burns his book, and after a final conversation, she sends him to a “beautiful” death by handing him one of her father’s dueling pistols. Hedda’s own moment of despair arrives when she learns that Løvborg has botched his suicide disgracefully. She now is trapped not only with Jørgen, and Thea Elvstad, now Jørgen’s scholarly inspiration, and his remaining aunt, but also with a blackmail threat from lascivious Judge Brack. Her only escape is to kill herself and Jørgen’s despised unborn child.
The portrayal of Hedda Gabler has challenged actresses throughout the play’s history, and critics have read her variously as a frustrated feminist, a remnant of the shattered aristocracy, a sadistic psychopath, and even, as Meyer does, as Ibsen’s “Portrait of the Dramatist as a Young Woman.” No one-sided interpretation seems adequate. Throughout this play, the most claustrophobic of Ibsen’s dramas, Hedda Gabler moves in a web of complex symbols, trapped at last, according to Haugen, “between a Christian-bourgeois domesticity and a pagan-saturnine liaison.” Her father’s pistols, symbols of his rank, his avocation, and his personality, represent both Hedda’s entrapment and her release, for the pistol found with the mortally wounded Eilert Løvborg at Mlle Diana’s establishment catches Hedda in an unthinkable scandal, while the remaining one allows her to make restitution to the only person who matters now to Hedda Gabler—herself.
Hedda Gabler is appropriately the last of Ibsen’s psychological dramas. Ibsen often claimed that “Self-realization is man’s highest task and greatest happiness,” yet, as he expressed it in Peer Gynt, “to be oneself is to slay oneself.” Hedda Gabler’s tragedy is not merely the selfish act of a spoiled, bored woman, but a heroic act to free herself from a domination she cannot accept. Incapable of selfless love for a fatal multitude of reasons, Hedda Gabler at last even ruefully abandons her youthful dream of “vine leaves in his hair,” the pagan ecstasy that had aroused her sensuous curiosity toward Eilert Løvborg. Her self-realization allows her one last moment of paradoxical human life, the moment she leaves it, a poetic truth of “hidden and mysterious power,” in Martin Esslin’s words, “which springs from the co-existence of the realistic surface with the deep subconscious fantasy and dream elements behind it.”
The Master Builder
Not long after the publication of The Master Builder, Ibsen stated, “It’s extraordinary what profundities and symbols they ascribe to me. . . . Can’t people just read what I write?” Ibsen insisted then, as always, that he only wrote about people’s inner lives as he knew them: “Any considerable person will naturally be . . . representative of the . . . thoughts and ideas of the age, so that the portrayal of such a person’s inner life may seem symbolic.” Having shared experiences, at least to some degree, with many of his characters, Ibsen’s last plays, the philosophical garnering of his life’s harvest, are in that sense rich in symbol.
The title “Master Builder” has been applied frequently to Ibsen himself in recognition of his mastery of his craft and art, and more perilously, as an identification of the dramatist with the hero of the first of his philosophical plays, Halvard Solness, a talented architect just realizing that he is passing his prime. At the peak of his chosen profession, Solness is gnawed by his wife’s unhappiness, a result of his absorption in his work, and obsessed by his strange ability to affect the lives of others, especially his bookeeper Kaja, by the extrasensory projection of his powerful will.
Solness had begun his career with churches erected to the glory of God, though for the last ten years he has defied God by choosing to build only human dwellings. Now Solness is attempting a synthesis, a “third world” of architecture, by building himself a home with a tall spire, like a church. At this difficult moment in his art and life, the passionate young Hilde Wangel enters both. She had become infatuated with Solness ten years earlier when he had daringly hung his last dedication wreath on the tower of her village church. She now urges him to repeat the feat, though he has begun to suffer from vertigo, and, inspired by her youthful ardor, he attempts “the impossible” again. As Hilde waves her white shawl—like Rebecca’s, but completed, quivering to unseen harps—Solness plunges to his death.
Critics following William Archer have often played heavily on overt resemblances between Ibsen and Solness. Their ages are similar, their marriages unhappily affected by their devotion to their work, their infatuations with much younger girls notorious. Other commentators stress the resemblance between Solness’s three types of building and Ibsen’s three types of prose drama. Still others stress the Hegelian thesis-antithesis- attempted synthesis structure of Solness’s work and Ibsen’s several dramatic versions of that theme.
Meyer cites Ibsen’s 1898 lecture to students in Christiania, in which he observed that Solness was “a man somewhat akin to me.” In an interview, Ibsen also declared that architecture was “my own trade.” His “May sun,” Emilie Bardach, was unspeakably grieved to have been identified publicly with the vicious Hilde of The Master Builder, and conjectures about Solness’s marriage injured Ibsen’s relations with his own wife. Haugen suggests that The Master Builder “involves the Christian-pagan conflict,” since Solness defies God, ceases building churches, and attempts to find his creative outlet solely among “happy human beings.” Fjelde convincingly warns against equating Solness’s “homes for happy human beings” with Ibsen’s Ghosts or Rosmersholm, and suggests an archetypal reading, in which Solness represents the sacred king who has reached the acme of his powers and must be sacrificed by his own consent to ensure the continued existence of his clan, an impression reinforced, Fjelde claims, when at the close of the play “the young king, Ragnar, brings to the old king, Solness, that ambiguous symbol of victory and death, the ribboned wreath.”
Thus, Solness’s death, which illuminates the entire play, may be seen on various levels of meaning, as biographically, realistically, symbolically, and mythically significant. The Master Builder perhaps more than any other of Ibsen’s plays illustrates the immense control that Ibsen could exert over his expressed theme through the limpid prose he used as his dramatic vehicle, which approaches poetry in its compression, imagery, and suggestiveness. Here, too, Ibsen examines not only the workings of the unconscious mind but also mysterious powers beyond ordinary sensory perception, without destroying his chosen naturalistic perspective. Fjelde aptly describes the dramatic method in Solness’s tragedy as “Truths beyond, within, outside the self . . . a lyric and seamless unity.”
Catalina, pb. 1850, revised pb. 1875, pr. 1881 (verse drama; Catiline, 1921); Kjæmpehøien, pr. 1850, revised pb. 1854 (dramatic poem; The Burial Mound, 1912); Norma: Eller, En politikers kjærlighed, pr., pb. 1851 (verse satire); Sancthansnatten, pr. 1853, pb. 1909 (St. John’s Night, 1921); Fru Inger til Østraat, pr. 1855, pb. 1857 (Lady Inger of Østraat, 1906); Gildet paa Solhaug, pr., pb. 1856, revised pb. 1883 (verse and prose drama; The Feast at Solhaugh, 1906); Olaf Liljekrans, pr. 1857, pb. 1902 (verse and prose drama; English translation, 1911); Hærmænde paa Helgeland, pr., pb. 1858 (The Vikings at Helgeland, 1890); Kjærlighedens komedie, pb. 1862, pr. 1873 (verse comedy; Love’s Comedy, 1900); Kongsemnerne, pb. 1863, pr. 1864 (The Pretenders, 1890); Brand, pb. 1866, pr. 1885 (dramatic poem; English translation, 1891); Peer Gynt, pb. 1867, pr. 1876 (dramatic poem; English translation, 1892); De unges forbund, pr., pb. 1869 (The League of Youth, 1890); Kejser og Galilæer, pb. 1873, pr. 1896 (2 parts: Cæsars frafald and Kejser Julian; Emperor and Galilean, 1876, 2 parts: Caesar’s Apostasy and The Emperor Julian); Samfundets støtter, pr., pb. 1877 (The Pillars of Society, 1880); Et dukkehjem, pr., pb. 1879 (A Doll’s House, 1880; also known as A Doll House); Gengangere, pb. 1881, pr. 1882 (Ghosts, 1885); En folkefiende, pb. 1882, pr. 1883 (An Enemy of the People, 1890); Vildanden, pb. 1884, pr. 1885 (The Wild Duck, 1891); Rosmersholm, pb. 1886, pr. 1887 (English translation, 1889); Fruen fra havet, pb. 1888, pr. 1889 (The Lady from the Sea, 1890); Hedda Gabler, pb. 1890, pr. 1891 (English translation, 1891); Bygmester Solness, pb. 1892, pr. 1893 (The Master Builder, 1893); Lille Eyolf, pb. 1894, pr. 1895 (Little Eyolf, 1894); John Gabriel Borkman, pb. 1896, pr. 1897 (English translation, 1897); Naar vi døde vaagner, pb. 1899, pr. 1900 (When We Dead Awaken, 1900); Samlede verker, hundreaarsutgave, pb. 1928- 1957 (21 volumes); The Oxford Ibsen, pb. 1960-1977 (8 volumes); The Complete Major Prose Plays, pb. 1978.
Other major works
Poetry: Digte, 1871; Poems, 1993. nonfiction: Ibsen: Letters and Speeches, 1964. miscellaneous: The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, 1906-1912, 1928 (13 volumes).
Bloom, Harold, ed. Henrik Ibsen. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
Ferguson, Robert. Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography. London: R. Cohen, 1996.
Garland, Oliver. A Freudian Poetics for Ibsen’s Theatre: Repetition, Recollection, and Paradox. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1998.
Goldman, Michael. Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Johnston, Brian. The Ibsen Cycle: The Design of the Plays from “Pillars of Society” to “When We Dead Awaken.” Rev. ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
Ledger, Sally. Henrik Ibsen. Plymouth, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 1999.
McFarlane, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Shepherd-Barr, Kirsten. Ibsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.
Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. 1997. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Theoharis, Theoharis Constantine. Ibsen’s Drama: Right Action and Tragic Joy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.