Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen; drawing by David Levine

Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), opens on a late summer morning at a seaside hotel. The famous sculptor Arnold Rubek and his young wife, Maja, newly returned to Norway after many years abroad, are sitting on the lawn in a pair of wicker chairs, drinking champagne and seltzer and reading the newspaper. After some lighthearted conversation about the surroundings, Maja asks Rubek if he is happy to be home again. He’s not sure. “Perhaps I’ve been away too long,” he says. He grows irritable, they begin to argue, and soon Maja is complaining about Rubek’s restlessness. “You can’t find peace anywhere,” she says. “Not at home, not abroad. You’ve become a total recluse of late.”

As many critics have noted, there’s more than a little of Ibsen in Rubek. In 1891 he too returned to Norway, having spent nearly three decades living abroad. And like Rubek, he was by then world famous; his plays sold hundreds of thousands of copies and were performed in theaters all over Europe and the United States, provoking scandal and acclaim in equal measure. Yet unlike Rubek, Ibsen was no recluse. He settled in the middle of Kristiania (now Oslo), appearing twice a day at the same café, a habit he’d picked up when he lived in Munich. There he was, his stately head resting on its august pedestal of beard, his lapel affixed with the blinding number of orders and medals showered on him by various monarchs and heads of state. Tourists, many of them young women, would clamor to catch a glimpse of the famous writer, prompting the Norwegian novelist Arne Garborg to quip “To be in Munich and not see Ibsen is like being in Rome and not seeing the pope.”

Yet rather than simply repose in his literary fame, Ibsen remained restlessly prolific. Between 1877 and 1899, he averaged a new play every two years, each one more controversial than the last. In the final years of his life, despite having suffered a heart attack and three strokes that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body, he thought of writing more. “I do not see how I will be able to stay away from those old battlefields for long,” he wrote in 1900. The year before his death in 1906, he cried out in his sleep, “I’m writing! It’s going really well!”

The Norwegian historian Ivo de Figueiredo’s biography Henrik Ibsen: The Man and the Mask is a document of determination, a record of Ibsen’s tireless energy and discipline, and the transformation of a poor Norwegian merchant’s son into an international literary phenomenon who revolutionized modern drama. But it is also, more penetratingly, an account of the transformation of man into mask. “Henrik Ibsen’s life is like a long, gradually drying plaster cast,” de Figueiredo writes. “He became his own statue, an icon, a tourist attraction.” So monumental was his mask that it can be difficult to see the human being behind it. (Even friends and acquaintances found Ibsen “taciturn,” “tight-lipped,” and “not especially articulate.”) But rather than attempt to remove the mask, de Figueiredo accepts it as part of the truth of Ibsen. “This is a book about Ibsen’s life,” he explains, “but it is also a book about the myth of Ibsen that has taken shape over more than a century now, and which is impossible to ignore.”

First published in Norway to coincide with the centennial of Ibsen’s death, Henrik Ibsen: The Man and the Mask appeared in two volumes between 2006 and 2007, totaling a little over one thousand pages. A single-volume edition of 700 pages appeared in 2010, and it is this version on which the present translation is based. Curiously, the translator is Robert Ferguson, author of Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography (1996), a book notable for dismissing everything Ibsen wrote after Peer Gynt (1867) as a betrayal of his true poetic gifts.1 Ferguson’s contribution to the present volume is no less eccentric. His attempt to retain the informal, conversational tone of the original Norwegian never quite sounds natural, while de Figueiredo is too indulgent of cliché. If one were to remove all the banal sentences tacked on at the end of otherwise substantial paragraphs, my guess is this book would be fifty pages shorter: “Yes, indeed, spring really had come to Ibsen’s life, and the summer that was to follow was no less remarkable”; “He had a way with words, you’d have to give him that; and he wasn’t bad when it came to writing them down either.”

These weigh down the reading experience, which is a shame, because de Figueiredo’s biography is commendable in almost every other respect. His evocation of the cultural and political tensions Ibsen lived through and alluded to in his writings is especially illuminating. So too is his portrayal of the giants in the wings, notably the Norwegian playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and the Danish Jewish critic Georg Brandes. Above all, de Figueiredo displays a clear sense of why any biography of Ibsen must also, on some level, be a biography of European culture and society—so representative was the playwright of the age in which he lived. “Ibsen’s career was coterminous with the second half of the nineteenth century,” de Figueiredo writes; “he appears to be almost a personification of the divisions of the literary history of the period.”


Born in 1828, Henrik Ibsen only emerged as a commercially successful playwright after leaving Norway in the mid-1860s. His childhood in Skien, a market town southwest of Kristiania, was blighted by his father’s near bankruptcy when he was seven, which forced the family—there were five children in total, Henrik the oldest—to move into their country house. The social degradation they suffered is supposed to have been a formative experience in Ibsen’s life, though the austerity was perhaps more emotional than material. After leaving home in 1843, he returned only once, and with the exception of two siblings he never saw his family again.

Ibsen found work as an apprentice in an apothecary in Grimstad, where he wrote his first play, Catalina, in 1849. In the 1850s he began a career as a man of the theater, working as a director and producer in Bergen and Kristiania, where he struggled to make ends meet, drank heavily, and ran up debts that dogged him for years to come. In 1858 he married Suzannah Thoreson, and the next year she gave birth to the couple’s only child, Sigurd. (While living in Grimstad, Ibsen had fathered an illegitimate child with a maid to whom he was ordered by the court to pay child support until 1860.) Due to their precarious finances, the family moved often, living in drafty houses or cramped and leaking apartments. The growing number of court cases Ibsen’s creditors subjected him to meant that he had to sell his furniture just to stay afloat. On more than one occasion, he could be seen careening through town in torn clothes, incapacitated with drink. He became the kind of person people crossed the street to avoid.

He picked a propitious, if difficult, time to involve himself in the theater. Though Norway had gained political independence from Denmark in 1814, the country lacked many of the institutions and networks necessary to sustain cultural life. Theaters were privately run and largely reliant on Danish acting troupes. Norwegian writers depended on publishers in Copenhagen to sell their books. Public funding of the arts was not just limited but actively opposed. Ibsen’s generation of writers were therefore “the creators of their own institutions,” de Figueiredo writes. Many of Ibsen’s early verse dramas reflect this; Lady Inger of Ostrat (1854), The Feast at Solhaug (1855), and The Vikings at Helgeland (1858) drew on national-romantic themes and Norwegian folk ballads and sagas. In the early 1860s Ibsen even undertook an ethnographic research trip to western Norway, hiking in the mountains and collecting folk tales from local peasants.

Along with Bjørnson (1832–1910), his sometime friend and constant rival, Ibsen was among the pioneers of Norway’s emerging national theater movement. This proved to be a mixed blessing. In Bergen, where he served as director and resident playwright of the Norwegian Theater, audiences cared little about artistic merit; they just wanted to be entertained. On Sundays they came to the theater with their pets and packed lunches to see the latest French vaudeville comedy or light romance. As de Figueiredo notes, “It meant that the growth of the Norwegian national theatre took place against a background of chatter, laughter, booing, the sounds of people eating—and the baying of dogs.”

In 1862, Kristiania Norske Teater declared bankruptcy. Within the next three years, the Norwegian Theater in Bergen and the Throndhjems Theater likewise closed their doors. Ibsen was partly held responsible for the Norske Teater’s demise. His calamitous personal affairs frequently got in the way of his work as a director; on at least one occasion, the theater committee was forced to meet in the back room of a café where Ibsen had taken to spending most of his time. What’s more, he was growing weary of the predominant style of modern theater, in which the expressions and gestures of the actors were highly artificial and their lines delivered in epic-declamatory fashion while facing the audience. Ibsen longed to give realism primacy over idealism, a development that would make him vulnerable to charges of crudity, immorality, and sensationalism.

In time, Ibsen’s plays would shed their national-historical pretensions, but as long as he lived in Norway he remained caught between his interest in questions about the role of the individual in society and the nation-building imperatives of Norwegian drama. Given his debts and the bankruptcy of the Norske Teater, not to mention his failure to obtain government support, the notion of moving abroad seemed increasingly tempting. In a letter to the Danish critic Clemens Petersen, Ibsen wrote that he felt “spiritually isolated” in Norway, something the relative success of his play The Pretenders (1863) did little to change. He needed to define himself as an artist, which didn’t seem possible in his native country. “I could never lead a consistent spiritual life up there,” he wrote to his mother-in-law. “I was one man in my work and another outside of it—and for that very reason my work failed in consistency too.”


In 1864, with money raised by friends and supporters (including Bjørnson), Ibsen and his family left for Rome, a change in circumstance that soon bore fruit: his poetic drama Brand was published in 1866 by Gyldendal, the venerable Danish publishing house, in a first edition of 1,250 copies. “Never before had a single book exerted such a powerful and immediate effect on readers in Denmark, Norway, and even Sweden,” de Figueiredo writes. (It was published simultaneously in both Denmark and Norway and translated into Swedish in 1870.) Ibsen’s story of an uncompromising rural priest willing to sacrifice everything, even his wife and child, for the sake of his religious faith threw down a gauntlet to prevailing notions of what a drama is or should be. Gone was the national-historical pathos of his early plays; here, instead, was an unsettlingly abstract and darkly religious verse drama better suited for the armchair than the stage. “The whole book bores me so much that I’ve still not managed to read it all the way through,” Bjørnson complained. Even Ibsen’s publisher worried that Brand “might not be understood by the majority of people.” But their anxieties were unfounded. Within a year, it went through three more editions, selling over three thousand copies.

Ibsen’s life was dramatically altered. Never again would he feel the sting of poverty, as the sudden change in his outward appearance signaled: “He put aside his old, shabby clothes and donned a new black velvet jacket, a white linen shirt and a pair of kid gloves,” de Figueiredo writes. In Rome, local Italians called him Il Cappellone for the broad-rimmed hat he took to wearing as he sat in the cafés, holding court with other Scandinavians over carafes of wine.

But Ibsen changed in other ways too. Brand and its equally acclaimed successor, the picaresque Peer Gynt (1867), marked a turning point in his career. According to de Figueiredo, Ibsen’s writing moved “inward towards the personality, the individual and the individual’s ethical responsibilities.” One of the most illuminating aspects of the biography is its portrayal of Ibsen’s political evolution. This is no easy task; Ibsen rarely involved himself in political debates. His friends often lamented his caution even as he provoked storms of debate with dramas that seemed almost plucked from the headlines.

Still, Ibsen first tasted literary success just as the individualist tide of the nineteenth century reached its highest point; Brand was published only a few years after John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and the same year as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. In Scandinavia, the ideas of Mill and Darwin were central to the literary movement that became known as the Modern Breakthrough, whose main enforcer, Georg Brandes, advocated a socially and politically involved literature inspired by French writers. “That literature is alive today is shown by the fact that it sets up problems for debate,” Brandes famously claimed. And though de Figueiredo downplays their relationship, there is no doubt Ibsen recognized in the younger Brandes a kindred spirit. When they finally met in Dresden in the summer of 1871, Ibsen told Brandes, “You provoke the Danes, and I’ll provoke the Norwegians.”

De Figueiredo traces the growing importance of individual freedom in Ibsen’s life and writing back to the social and political upheavals of 1848. “The February revolution, the uprisings in Hungary and elsewhere, the Schleswig war—all this gripped me powerfully,” he later recalled. As a young man, he had composed idealistic battle hymns for the Magyars’ struggle in the Hungarian Revolution, and for a while even contributed articles to the official newspaper of the first Norwegian labor movement, led by the journalist Marcus Thrane.

By the time he left Norway, however, whatever faith he still had in collectivist projects, whether social or national, was coming apart. The Prussian invasion of Denmark in the Second Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864 became “an obsession” for Ibsen, not least because the failure of Norway and Sweden to come to Denmark’s defense revealed the hollowness of Scandinavian brotherhood. Ibsen’s bitter and ambivalent feelings toward Norway were thus compounded by the betrayal of the Danes. “It was a lie in terms ornate,/A Judas-kiss, we found,/When Norway’s sons rejoiced of late/Beside the Danish sound!” he wrote in his 1863 poem “A Brother in Need.”

The capture of Rome in 1870 by the forces of the Risorgimento and the Franco-Prussian War the same year completed Ibsen’s political disillusionment. Henceforth, the only political party that would interest him was his own: “I am a one-man political party, and the only choice people are really going to have is to join me,” he wrote. His party’s ideology was a monumental egoism, what de Figueiredo calls “aristocratic individualism,” an almost Nietzschean opposition to the tyranny of equality. “What is the majority?” Ibsen asked. “The ignorant mob. Intelligence is always to be found in the minority.”

“He was at once reactionary and revolutionary,” de Figueiredo writes, “almost a personification of what is known as ‘the dilemma of freedom,’ the contradiction between freedom as vision and the inevitable consequences of freedom in real life.” Starting with The Pillars of Society in 1877, he began engaging directly with the main currents of contemporary life, just as Brandes had encouraged. The Pillars of Society, in fact, could just as easily have been the title of any of the subsequent dramas he wrote: A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and An Enemy of the People (1882). These “tragedies of middle-class life,” as the Ibsen scholar Tore Rem has called them, are all dramatizations of the individual’s struggle for freedom—Nora escaping the dollhouse of her marriage, Regina fleeing Mrs. Alving’s “infected home,” Dr. Stockmann doggedly pursuing scientific truth. The opening scene of The Pillars of Society reads almost like an announcement of what readers can expect of Ibsen. Mr. Rørlund, the parochial schoolmaster, the very embodiment of the dutiful and moralizing citizen, is reading to a group of local women in Consul Bernick’s home:

MR RØRLUND: And that, my dear lady listeners, brings us to the end.

MRS RUMMEL: Oh, what an instructive tale!

MRS HOLT: And so moral!

MRS BERNICK: Such a book gives us a great deal to think about.

MR RØRLUND: Oh yes, it forms a salutary contrast to what we unfortunately see in the newspapers and magazines every day. The gilded and rouged exterior that these larger societies and communities present us with—what does it actually conceal? Hollowness and decay, if you ask me. No moral bedrock under their feet. In a word—they are whited sepulchres, these great modern-day societies.

To contemporary theatergoers, the experience of seeing an Ibsen play was uncanny. They saw their own lives reflected back at them: the tastefully furnished rooms, the country houses, the servants and maids coming and going. This was the drama of everyday life, a world filled with people much like themselves—bankers, merchants, carpenters, academics—who spoke and acted naturally. Often tightly plotted, Ibsen’s plays were for the most part relatively straightforward, hinging on moments of revelation and recognition. In this respect, Ibsen liberated modern theater from “historicism, mimicry and superficial entertainment,” as de Figueiredo observes, paving the way for the interior dramas of Strindberg, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller.

Eleonora Duse as Rebecca in Rosmersholm at the Norwegian Theater in Kristiania shortly before Ibsen’s death, 1906

Culture Club/Getty Images

Eleonora Duse as Rebecca in a production of Rosmersholm at the Norwegian Theater in Kristiania shortly before Ibsen’s death, 1906

To conservative critics, however, there was always something tabloid-like in Ibsen’s plays. Like Zola, he was viewed by many contemporaries as a spectacle of vulgar immorality. Ghosts, which squeezes alcoholism, adultery, incest, and syphilis into three neat acts, proved so controversial that theaters in Europe refused to stage it. (It had its premiere in Chicago in 1882.) A Doll’s House was sometimes performed in a “corrected” version in which the sight of her sleeping children persuades a tearful Nora not to abandon her family—a change Ibsen, shockingly, consented to.

Still, even in the most controversial of Ibsen’s dramas during the 1870s and 1880s, one gets the impression, on occasion, of a writer a little too pleased with the gasps of his audience, someone who writes to unsettle and shock rather than explore his characters’ psychological depth. As Chekhov is reported to have told Stanislavsky, Ibsen “doesn’t know life; in life it simply isn’t like that.”

Take the idea of freedom. In a revealing letter to Brandes, Ibsen wrote: “The only thing I love about freedom is the struggle to achieve it; possession of it is of no interest to me.” The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, and Ghosts, for all their obvious merits, leave the deeper meaning of freedom largely unexamined, taking it for granted that freedom is inherently desirable. (The exception here is An Enemy of the People, an often riotously funny outlier in Ibsen’s mostly humorless oeuvre.) Strindberg found Nora’s decision to leave her family psychologically unconvincing; given her age and lack of occupation, he thought she was surely walking out into a life of prostitution. What exactly does it mean for Nora to “stand alone,” as she puts it? We are witness to her liberation from the doll’s house of her marriage, but what her newfound freedom will consist of is a question neither she nor Ibsen seems particularly interested in. “I have no idea what is going to become of me,” Nora says, a little unconvincingly.

This weakness in Ibsen’s dramas begins to fade with The Wild Duck, the first of his prose dramas to introduce the allegorical and symbolic components that would characterize his late style. Dr. Relling’s famous line in that play (probably the most quoted line in Scandinavian literary history)—“Take the life-lie away from the average man and straight away you take away his happiness”—hints at Ibsen’s encroaching pessimism, a slackening of his anti-Victorian crusading. The finest works of this late style—Rosmersholm (1886), Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master Builder (1892)—are dramas of intense self-scrutiny and reexamination in which Ibsen appears to turn against even his own cherished ideals of freedom and individualism. An unmistakably oppressive atmosphere pervades these later works, filled with guilt, suicide, bankruptcy, and death, all of which served to make Ibsen an annoyingly difficult figure for his contemporaries to place. Was he a liberal or a conservative? A revolutionary or a reactionary? A believer in progress or a cultural pessimist?

To his champions, Ibsen’s ambiguity is central to his art. “Ibsen’s dramas are fundamentally ambivalent,” de Figueiredo writes toward the end of his biography. “They do not preach, they investigate.” In this reading, the controversy that Ibsen’s plays provoked only serves to demonstrate the author’s Flaubert-like devotion to his art and the moral squeamishness of his critics. For at least one generation of readers, this made the Norwegian dramatist a figure of almost Shakespearean grandeur. Writing in the Fortnightly Review in 1900, six years before Ibsen’s death, James Joyce, who ranked him above Shakespeare, questioned “whether any man has held so firm an empire over the thinking world in modern times.”

Yet one cannot help but wonder, as Elizabeth Hardwick did in these pages nearly fifty years ago, whether Ibsen is still our contemporary.2 He may at first glance appear to be, given the importance of individual freedom, especially that of women, to his dramas. Writing in American Theatre last year, Misha Berson pointed to President Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “enemy of the people” as proof of the relevance of Ibsen’s play of the same name. Yet compared to other nineteenth-century monoliths like Dickens or Tolstoy, his reputation seems to have dipped. His plays are still widely performed and often assigned in college courses, but as the scholar Toril Moi writes in her excellent study Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism (2008), he has come to occupy a “strangely liminal position as an artist at once essential and irrelevant to the theory and history of modernism.”

It’s an issue de Figueiredo doesn’t address—understandably, given that Ibsen’s position in Norwegian (and Danish and Swedish) literature will always be so much more fixed, bound up as he was with those countries’ cultural and social history in the nineteenth century. Still, it is a question that can be traced back to Ibsen’s own lifetime, and even to his plays themselves—in The Master Builder, for instance, the aging Halvard Solness anxiously fears his downfall at the hands of a younger generation of builders, a fear that Ibsen likely shared. At the height of his international fame in the 1890s, he was attacked by a new generation of writers for his psychological rigidity and moral preachiness. Chief among the dissenters was his fellow Norwegian Knut Hamsun, who once delivered a scathing lecture, in Ibsen’s presence, in which he ridiculed the playwright for his “indefensibly coarse and artificial psychology”—a criticism the inscrutable protagonist of Hamsun’s novel Mysteries repeats. Ibsen’s writing, he says, “is simply mechanical routine.”

I find it hard to disagree. Unlike Hamsun and Strindberg, Ibsen never really questioned the stability and coherence of the self (except for Peer Gynt, that odd outlier in Ibsen’s oeuvre), and perhaps for this reason he doesn’t strike us as modern in the way they do. For all that he scandalized polite society, he remained the very emblem of bourgeois respectability, as the younger generation never ceased to remind him. In this and many other respects, perhaps Ibsen’s stature most closely resembles Ivan Turgenev’s—particularly the Turgenev whose “finely discriminating, slightly ironical vision” Isaiah Berlin once contrasted with the obsessive genius of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

In a similar fashion, Ibsen’s ambiguity can seem bland when set beside the colorful rebellions of Strindberg and Hamsun. Who would not prefer the flame of their genius to the cool, calm granite of Ibsen? And yet sometimes it is the voice of composure and reason that we desire—the voice, for instance, of the patient Mrs. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People who, in response to her husband’s triumphant declaration that in his reckless, idealistic quest for truth he has the “compact majority” behind him, wearily responds: “Yes, that’s just the misery of it—that you have something so horrible behind you.”