Home / General / Erik Visits an (Non) American Grave, Part 1,231

Erik Visits an (Non) American Grave, Part 1,231


This is the grave of Henrik Ibsen.

Born in 1828 in Oslo, Norway, Ibsen grew up wealthy, the son of a prominent merchant. The family was slightly downwardly mobile, as his father wasn’t good with money, but despite myths that grew up around Ibsen that he responded to an impoverished alcoholic father, these really are myths. His father wasn’t great with money, that’s true, but while the family lost some of their wealth, they were still rich by any reasonable definition of the word.

Initially, Ibsen intended to become a pharmacist and he started an apprenticeship in the field sometime around 1843. But he started writing plays pretty quickly. It took a long time and a lot of determination, despite his relative wealth and the fact that his family knew everyone. He had a play produced in 1850 but no one paid attention to it at all. By the 1850s, he had given up the pharmacy entirely and dedicated himself to other parts of the theatre, becoming a relatively prominent director. But he couldn’t break through as a writer, got frustrated with a home land he felt did not appreciate his talent, and moved to Italy. Nice that he had the capital to do that. But Italy was also pretty cheap then and part of the reason was that he and his family were not living the kind of life they wanted to at home. Just didn’t have the money.

So he moved and kept writing and it started to click. When he published Brand in 1865, he made a huge sensation and when he followed that up with Peer Gynt in 1867, his reputation was truly ensured. He was very happy. He wanted success very badly. While I knew that the Scandinavian languages are pretty closely related, I did not realize that Ibsen wrote in Danish and not Norwegian, which evidently was common in Norway at that time.

Although Ibsen wrote consistently through his life, after his early plays, there was a bit of a fallow period in what people consider Ibsen’s greatest works. It wasn’t until A Doll’s House, in 1879, that Ibsen returned with a play that most scholars consider equal to his earliest famous work. This is of course his most read work and the one that I am the most familiar with. Following that with Ghosts in 1881 and An Enemy of the People in 1882 was just pouring it on with some of the greatest plays ever written. It’s hard to overstate how great A Doll’s House is. It’s also worth noting that people, or at least Americans, don’t read a lot of nineteenth literature European these days. Even educated people don’t have a lot of references to this literature any longer. A few Dickens’ references, maybe some Jane Austen, but not that much. But everyone has read A Doll’s House and everyone gets the references to Torvald and Nora. Not literally everyone of course, but the kind of people who actually read literature, which these days is like 5 percent of the population or whatever. Not enough.

As time went on, Ibsen became more political. Norway was a deeply conservative place and Ibsen chafed against this. An Enemy of the People explores the bold individual in a society of dumb conservative masses. But of course later plays turned against reformers and what he saw as their ridiculous ideals. In short, Ibsen was the kind of guy who didn’t really like anyone and any meaningful politics. I guess there’s a place for this kind of thing, but it ends up just being boring contrarianism. Luckily, he was such a great writer than he could transcend the clich├ęs inherent to this type of person.

It’s hard to overstate Ibsen’s influence on late nineteenth and twentieth century European culture. He was the key to the move to realism in the theatre. Some have called him “the father of realism,” though I imagine there are several fathers and probably some mothers too. Hedda Gabler in 1890 and The Master Builder in 1892 were a next generation of great plays that continued blowing everyone’s minds. One of the things that Ibsen brought to the game was just writing in straightforward language about the issues of the day. Nothing had to be hid behind metaphor and fancy language. Torvald was an awful husband and Nora was a brave if beaten down character. No reason to hide the terribleness of so many marriages just to make conservative elements of society happy. Just talk about it.

Ibsen became hugely influential for the entire twentieth century world of theatre. People ranging from Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill loved him. Although Ibsen was a finalist for the Nobel Prize several times in the early twentieth century, he never received it, which is interesting only because in the early years of the Literature prize, the committee would give it to any ol’Scando, most of whom have not been read in a century now. He was often criticized for his forthright writing, but he expected that and sometimes wrote plays in response to criticism. That can be a real disaster–just let it go artists!!–but again, because so much of the criticism was about the subject matter, that could make for good art and he made it work.

As for his personal life, for a man so deeply influenced by Norway, he got out of there as quickly as he could and came back as rarely as possible. He lived most of his adult life in Italy and Germany. He did return to his home in 1891 and was surprised how much modernism had transformed Norwegian culture. He was of course in no small part responsible for this.

By the early twentieth century, Ibsen’s health began to decline. He had a series of strokes in 1900 but mostly recovered. He died in 1906, at the age of 78.

Henrik Ibsen is buried in Var Frelsers Cemetery, Oslo, Norway. Also, Olso is a very nice city.

A side note–my ex-wife’s family had this weird tradition of naming pets after literary characters. What made it weird is that they didn’t really read and neither of her parents went to college. But they had a very nippy dog named Hamlet for example. Well, when we got this big gray kitten, she named him Torvald, after the character in A Doll’s House. This was a completely inappropriate name, for unlike that Torvald, this was the sweetest cat in all of cat history. I got the big fella in the divorce and he lived with me for eighteen wonderful years until we lost him last year. Here’s some pics of the best Torvald.

I like the last one especially. It’s like the bird book is his menu for what he wants to kill, not that he was much of a killer.

He’s so cute that maybe we should rethink Ibsen’s Torvald.

Anyway, if you would like this series to visit some American playwrights, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. August Wilson is in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania and Lillian Hellman is in Chilmark, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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