Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)
This often misunderstood Norwegian playwright once remarked, “With pleasure I will torpedo the ark.” As a young writer, he was discontent with everything. He found himself unable to identify with any existing forms of drama, so Henrik Ibsen set out to create his own.
Along the way, Ibsen experienced multiple shifts in dramatic form and philosophy as he gradually came to terms with the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual forces that were at war within his complex psyche. But throughout, his plays are characterized by their rebellious spirit and their unforgiving scrutiny of Ibsen’s own faults and virtues.
Ibsen’s early plays are wild and epic, utilizing an open form and concentrating on mystical, romantic, poetic visions of the rebel figure in search of an ultimate truth which is always just out of reach. In Brand, revolts against God, howling at the heavens, like Prometheus, only to be punished with a huge avalanche which buries him alive. In Peer Gynt, a young man rebels against society by choosing to live a life of waste, only to find himself, ultimately, living in a world of lost opportunities. Emperor and Galilean traces the life of the fourth-century Roman Emperor Julian, a disenchanted youth who seeks out a variety of religious experiences in a search for beauty and truth, but eventually, after failing to find contentment, devotes himself to overthrowing the stage religion of Christianity.
With The League of Youth, Ibsen begins his “modern” phase – an eleven year period during which he would consciously suppress his Romanticism along with his poetry and mysticism and focus instead on the problems of modern society. These plays are characterized by their “realism,” a self-imposed discipline which the playwright hoped would help audiences to more easily digest his radical views. This period produced several masterpieces, including Ghosts and Hedda Gabbler, but the aging playwright continued to suffer harsh attacks from his critics.
In his final period, Ibsen returned to the more mystical subjects of his youth, tempered now by the Classical restraint of his middle period. Embittered by the lack of public enthusiasm for some of his plays, the dramatist painted a moving portrait in The Master Builder of an aging architect who, having given up his dreams of building great monuments and churches with towers reaching up to the heavens, instead devotes his life to building regular houses for people to live in. When the architect finally realizes that society doesn’t even appreciate his sacrifice, he returns once again to the more mystical structures of his youth. Although Henrik Ibsen was never fully appreciated during his lifetime, he has since come to be recognized as one of the great dramatists of all time and the “Father of Modern Drama.”