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Ibsen, Henrik

Ibsen’s realism and concern for society are part of what keeps his work so relevant today. From domestic abuse to sexually transmitted diseases, to parent–child relationships and death, his themes still resonate with a modern audience. What was then a new focus in theatre has left its legacy, and Ibsen is known widely as ‘the father of modern realism’. One of his most famous works, A Doll’s House, was received contemporarily as completely scandalous. However, after his early days as a stage writer for various companies, Ibsen refused to budge on his moral stance and continued to shine a probing light into society’s dark corners. He made great use of mundane settings in order to foreground devastating discoveries, confessions and breakdowns of pillars of society. In keeping with ancient Greek tradition, Ibsen reinvigorated the stage as a tool to make society re-examine itself, no matter how uncomfortable the process. Although he was ahead of his time in criticising mistreatment of women, Ibsen disliked the label ‘feminist’ and preferred ‘humanist’.
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Henrik Ibsen born

Henrik Johan Ibsen was born on 20th March 1828 in Skien, Norway.

Listen to a BBC Radio 4 podcast about Ibsen


Ibsen left home

Aged 15, Ibsen moved just over 100 km away to Grimstad. His father’s lumber business had become bankrupt, plus Ibsen wanted to study for university entry. Ibsen worked for a while as an apothecary’s assistant to support himself.

First child

Ibsen fathered a child with a maid. He never met his first-born son but did support the child’s mother financially.

First play and first theatre job

Ibsen wrote his first play, Catiline. Although he studied for his entrance exams in Oslo, he never started university as he got a job as director and playwright at a theatre in Bergen. He had to write a play every year for the company. However, he felt stifled between demands to write in the heroic Norwegian style and the new, more Romantic French style which was popular at the time. He was also pressured to make a national drama, an epic to capture and idealise the essence of Norway.


Ibsen married Suzannah Thoresen. They had one son and remained together until Ibsen’s death.

Love’s Comedy

Ibsen wrote this play for the Norwegian theatre. With themes of anti-idealism and heavy satire of love, it was not received well. However, he kept true to this style throughout his life.

The Pretenders

This play was Ibsen’s offering of a national drama, something he had worked on for a long time. However, the theatre in Oslo was bankrupt and his career there was over.

Travelled in Europe

Ibsen felt liberated now that he could write for himself, in his own style. A small grant meant he could work in Italy. Over the next 27 years, he travelled extensively in Europe and returned to Norway infrequently, feeling it was a small-minded place.


Ibsen wrote this poem about a pastor with religious fervour who is eventually crushed by God but whose spirit remains strong and hopeful. In Norway the poem was immensely popular and was received as social commentary about life.

Peer Gynt

Ibsen wrote this drama in rhyming couplets. It is also about an antihero and is an indictment of modern society.

A Doll’s House

The most explosive of Ibsen’s works, this play felled society’s pretence and shamed nineteenth-century society’s double standards.

Read a review about why the play is still relevant



Ibsen’s play again met with scandalised reviews. In it, he uses the metaphor of venereal disease to reflect pervasive moral contamination. His plays were starting to gain popularity in small, liberal, progressive theatres across Europe.

An Enemy of the People

This is another play about immoral society. Ibsen mocks his detractors in this work with a truth-telling central character.

The Wild Duck

Ibsen continued to push boundaries with this play in which a family is destroyed by guilt.

Hedda Gabler

Ibsen’s plays from this era revert to a central female figure who creates misery and destruction, similar to 1850’s Catiline. Other characters of this time represent a bitter, failing artist and take a confessional tone.

Return to Norway

Ibsen returned to his homeland. There were rumours of many affairs with other women.


Ibsen suffered a stroke in 1900 and again in 1901.


Ibsen died in Oslo, bedridden from his strokes.

Watch a documentary, Henrik Ibsen: The Master Playwright