"A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed."
Henrik Johan Ibsen was born 20th March 1828 to Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg in Skien, Norway, a city noted for shipping timber. Once a well-to-do merchant family, they were reduced to poverty in 1834 when Ibsen’s father’s business failed.
Ibsen left School aged fifteeen and worked for six years as a pharmacist’s assistant. In 1846, when Ibsen was eighteen years old, he fathered an illegitimate child following a liaison with a servant. Ibsen never saw his son, but paid for his upbringing until the boy was in his teens.
Ibsen had hoped to continue his studies at Christiania University (now Oslo) but failed the Greek and Mathematics sections of the entrance exam and was therefore not admitted. Around this time, Ibsen developed an interest in reading and writing poetry. He wrote his first drama, Catilina (Catiline), a traditional romance written in verse which explored the conflict between guilt and desire in 1850.
Soon after, Ibsen became assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. As part of his role, he was expected to compose and produce an original drama each year and was involved in the production of more than 145 plays as a writer, director and producer during his time at the Theatre. During this period, Ibsen published five new plays, although these were poorly received at the time.
Ibsen returned to Christiania in 1858 and was appointed as Creative Director at the Christiania Theatre. He married Susannah Thoresen on 18th June 1858 and their only child, Sigurd, was born on 23rd December 1859. The couple lived in poor financial circumstances and Ibsen became disenchanted with life in Norway and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown in 1862 due to overwork. Ibsen petitioned the government for a grant to travel and write and he spent the next 27 years living in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway on only two occasions. Ibsen believed that by distancing himself from Norway, it gave him the perspective he needed to write truly Norwegian drama, explaining “I could never lead a consistent life[in Norway]. I was one man in my work and another outside – and for that reason my work failed in consistency too”.
Ibsen’s work can be widely categorised into three phases: early dramas written in verse and modelled after romantic historical tragedy and Norse sagas; prose drama focusing on social realism (such as The Doll’s House, 1879 and Hedda Gabler, 1890) and dramas dealing with the conflict between life and art which focus on the individual alone rather than the individual in society.
Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 and later wrote When We Dead Awaken, widely considered to be one of his most personal and autobiographical works. After completing the play, Ibsen suffered a series of strokes which left him an invalid for five years until his death on 23rd May 1906 in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway. The day prior to his death, Ibsen’s nurse had assured a visitor that he was a little better, to which Ibsen uttered his last words “On the contrary” (“Tvertimod!”).