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An Enemy of the People | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Henrik Ibsen | Biography


Early Life

Henrik Ibsen, known as the father of modern drama, was born in Skien, Norway, on March 20, 1828. Ibsen celebrated individualism and challenged society through his plays. He viewed mainstream society of his time as hypocritical, and he tackled it head-on, addressing issues of feminism, prostitution, infidelity, sexually transmitted disease, and more. Stylistically, he also chose to reject the formality of previous types of theater, with its rhymed speeches and mythological source materials. He emphasized realistic plots and natural-sounding dialogue. Critics and audiences of his time sometimes hated his plays, but he created a new idea of how the theater could work.

Ibsen grew up in a comparatively well-off family, until bad choices his father made led them to declare bankruptcy. Ibsen intended to be a doctor, but he failed the university entrance exam. Instead, Ibsen found himself working as a stage manager and director in a theater at age 23. He continued to work and write plays there for many years. His earliest plays were very traditional, based on Scandinavian mythology. Ibsen eventually left Norway after the theater he was in charge of went bankrupt. He would not return to his home country for over 25 years, and he would write many of his greatest works while living abroad.

Early Writing Career

Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867) were Ibsen's first two works to receive high acclaim, but A Doll's House (1879) really began his transformation into an international literary figure. A Doll's House explores what happens to a woman who is forced into an impossible choice because of the way society restricts women's lives. The play, which is one of Ibsen's most popular today, horrified audiences of its time because its heroine, Nora, chooses to abandon her family to pursue her own life. Ibsen's next two plays were a reaction to the outcry over A Doll's House. These plays—Ghosts (1881) and An Enemy of the People (1882)—explored equally controversial themes.


Rather than back away from controversial issues, Ibsen went further with Ghosts, which addressed issues of sexually transmitted disease, prostitution, infidelity, and more. Booksellers did not want the play on their shelves, and many copies were returned to the publisher. No Norwegian or European theater would stage the play, so its first performance was in the United States.

The dual rejections of Ghosts and A Doll's House stung Ibsen into writing An Enemy of the People. In it a town doctor discovers the Baths, which provide income to the community, are contaminated. When it becomes obvious repairing this problem will cost the town a lot of money, the people turn against the doctor, naming him "an enemy of the people" because he told them an unpleasant truth. Ibsen clearly felt a kinship with the protagonist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann. In his later works, such as Hedda Gabler (1891), Ibsen continued to explore the theme of the individual versus society.

Back to Norway

Ibsen finally returned to Norway in 1891, where he wrote his last four plays (The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899)). There were large celebrations on his 70th birthday in 1898, but his writing career ended two years later, after a series of strokes. Ibsen died on May 23, 1906, and his funeral was a national event.

Today, Ibsen is not only a national hero in Norway, but he is also one of the most produced playwrights in the world, second only to Shakespeare. His plays are frequently performed and some of his roles are considered to be the pinnacle of a performer's career. The Ibsen Society of America holds conferences and publishes papers to continue and celebrate the playwright's legacy.

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