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Ghosts | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Henrik Ibsen | Biography


Henrik Ibsen was born March 20, 1828, to a wealthy family in the small Norwegian coastal town of Skien. When Ibsen was seven, his father declared bankruptcy, and although the family's circumstances had changed, Ibsen still enjoyed a comfortable life. The well-to-do bourgeois class, which formed the background of Ibsen's youth, would provide the backdrop for many of his plays.

Ibsen left home when he was 15. He worked as an apothecary's assistant while he prepared for a career in medicine. When he was 20, he managed to find enough time to write his first, although unsuccessful, play, Catiline. However, he failed his university entrance exam, and this defeat sent him wholly toward a career in theater. At 23 he was hired as a stage manager and director at a theater in Bergen where he would write one new play each year until 1857. During this period Ibsen turned to the ancient myths of the Scandinavian sagas for his subject matter.

From 1857 to 1862 Ibsen was artistic director at the Norwegian Theatre, but when the theater went bankrupt, he eventually moved to Italy. Ibsen would not return to Norway for 27 years. Thus, Norway's most influential dramatist wrote his most important plays living far from his homeland. Two poetic dramas, Brand and Peer Gynt, established Ibsen as a serious playwright, but his next three plays, A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and An Enemy of the People (1882) took the dramatic world by storm.

The critical and popular reaction to A Doll's House, with its themes of women's rights and equality between the sexes, was both celebratory and shocking. This response, however, appeared muted compared to the uproar caused by Ibsen's next play, Ghosts. The topics of marital infidelity, venereal disease, incest, prostitution, and euthanasia presented in Ghosts generated a horrified outcry when the play was published. 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.

Regarded as a social critic, Ibsen was willing to expose and explore some of the uglier issues in public and private life beneath the polite surfaces. He revolutionized the theater of his day with his brand of realistic drama. In the nine plays Ibsen wrote after Ghosts, he explored social issues, such as the conflict between individual and community, and the psychological development of his characters, often through mature characters who live with the consequences of choices made during their younger years.

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

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