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Henrik Ibsen

Born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway, to well-to-do parents, Henrik Ibsen is widely regarded as the father of modern drama.  He helped bring about the collapse of the Romantic stylists popular in the day by bringing society's problems and ideas into the lives of his dramatic characters.

But the Norwegian dramatist and poet had a difficult early life.  He spent most of his youth lonely land depressed.  When his family's fortunes turned for the worse, Ibsen developed a strong mistrust for society and class, and his skepticism would become the major influence for his writing. 

With his family's stature near ruin, Ibsen set out on his own at 15 to become an apprentice to an apothecary in Grimstad.  Not long after, he began writing his first poetry, and in 1850, he published his first play, Catilina, a tragedy in verse.

In 1851, he began an extended apprenticeship in the theater, first as stage manager and playwright with the National Stage in Bergen and, in 1857, as theater director for the Norwegian Theater in Oslo.  Ibsen's early plays mostly went unrecognized.  Some met with outright condemnation and hostility.  As a man ahead of his time, he was condemned for unveiling truths that Norwegian society preferred be kept hidden.

In 1864, dissatisfied with the social stagnation of Norway and frustrated at not being able to establish a thriving national theater, he exiled himself to Italy.  There and in Germany, he wrote the bulk of his dramatic works.  His early plays consisted mostly of conventional poetic dramas, often dealing with historical themes, folklore, and romantic pageantry.  His Love's Comedy (1862) met with some success.  But, it wasn't until 1866 that he became recognized as a leading dramatist with the publication of his first major work, Brand, the explosive tragedy of an idealist.

Peer Gynt, another poetic drama and Ibsen's least understood work, was produced the following year.  It recounts the adventures of an egocentric but imaginative opportunist.  With The League of Youth (1869) and Pillars of Society (1877), Ibsen set upon a new dramatic phase in which some of his best-known realistic social plays were born.  The author continued rebelling against meaningless social conventions that he felt stifled intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth with his next plays. 

He was especially successful in depicting 19th-century woman whose inner nature conflicted with the social role she was expected to play.  Dramas such as A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1886), and Hedda Gabler (1890) were notable successes and helped to establish Ibsen as the leading dramatic playwright of his age.  Other notable plays from this period include An Enemy of the People (1882) and The Wild Duck (1884), which examine the differences between true and false idealism and how the two affect one another.

Although nearly all of Ibsen's plays contain symbolic elements, it was in his final works that his emphasis on symbolism became stronger.  Plays such as The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1900) offer a firmly knit structure beneath their symbolism and display the playwright's maturity.  The plays blend an introspective realism with folk poetry. 

In 1900, Ibsen suffered the first of several debilitating strokes that left him partially paralyzed.  He died in Oslo in 1906, leaving behind a body of work that has influenced 20th-century drama more than that of any other dramatist.  His plays are to this day regularly revived in the United States and Europe.  

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