Henrik Johan Ibsen is often called the father of modern drama, as most modern drama reflects the influence of his work.
Ibsen was born in 1828 in Norway at Skien, a hundred miles from the capital, Christiania (now Oslo). He was the second of five children of Knud Ibsen, a merchant, and his wife, Marichen, a painter who loved the theatre. In 1835, Knud went bankrupt and the family was forced to move to a small house at Vernstoep. Eight years later the family moved back to Skien, but Knud never regained his wealth and was finally categorized as a pauper.
In 1844, Ibsen was apprenticed to an apothecary in the town of Grimstad. Extremely poorly paid, he studied at night in the hope of going to university, but was rejected by Christiania University. He became involved in politics and in 1848, a year of revolutions throughout Europe, gave speeches advocating Republicanism. He later wrote for a radical newspaper, though when the editor was imprisoned, Ibsen kept quiet. Michael Meyer, the playwright and translator of Ibsen, commented, "Ibsen's courage throughout his life was limited to the written word." However, he maintained a strong interest in socialist movements and wrote in support of oppressed nations and minorities.
He published his first play, a historical verse drama called Catiline, in 1849, but it was rejected by all theatres. His second play, The Burial Mound, written under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme, became the first Ibsen play to be performed when it was given in 1850 at the Christiania Theatre. It was well received.
In 1850 Ibsen left his employment with the apothecary. He also ceased contact with his parents and brothers, "chiefly because I could not be of any assistance or support" to them. In 1851 Ibsen was appointed dramatic author at the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen, which had been founded to develop a national culture. During his tenure, Ibsen wrote verse plays based on Norse mythology. In 1857 he left to become artistic director at the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania. While there, he produced The Vikings at Helgeland, a historical prose tragedy. He married Suzannah Thoresen in 1858 and the couple's only child, Sigurd, was born the following year.
Ibsen sank into despair under an onslaught of criticism for his choice of plays at the Norwegian Theatre; audiences seemed to want light comedy with music. The theatre went bankrupt in 1862 and Ibsen lived in poverty until 1864, when he left Norway to travel in Europe with the help of government grants. He was to live abroad for the next twenty-seven years, mostly in Italy and Germany. This period was his most creative. He wrote a historical play, The Pretenders, in 1863; and two plays designed to be read, Brand (1866), and Peer Gynt (1867), all to critical acclaim.
The League of Youth (1869) was the first of Ibsen's plays to focus on relationships, and foreshadows A Doll's House in its challenge to the restraints of conventional marriage. This was followed by Emperor and Galilean (1873), his last historical play and his first to be translated into English, and Pillars of Society (1877). A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and An Enemy of the People (1882) are among the last plays he wrote in the realism genre. A Doll's House attracted great controversy and became a rallying cry for the feminist movement in Europe.
While the plays that followed had realistic themes, he introduced more metaphor and symbolism in The Wild Duck (1884) and Hedda Gabler (1890).
By 1891, when Ibsen returned to live in Norway, he had become a household name, evoking enthusiasm and outrage in equal measure. The next decade saw a shift in Ibsen's focus from social issues to the isolation of the individual. The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899) address conflicts between art and life, and between happiness and self-deception. They are widely thought to be autobiographical.
In 1900, Ibsen suffered the first of several strokes, which left him unable to write. He died in Christiania on May 23, 1906.