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Kristopher Tjornhom

Theatre History II

Joseph P. Dawson

30 April 2019

A Longing for Freedom in the Works of Henrik Ibsen

The world of theatre before Henrik Ibsen would’ve looked

extremely different than what we see today. In Norway, social

unrest called for someone to bring order to the chaos and guide

the confused people towards a goal. Henrik Ibsen established the

belief in Norway that freedom is obtainable but only through a

change in lifestyle. Ibsen travelled the world learning new

stage techniques and writing styles in order to help the

Norwegians achieve a change in their views and lifestyle. His

plays became the medium through which he can express his

thoughts and emotions and show to the world his brilliance. He

attempts to change an issue that he sees in the world by writing

a story about it and allowing the audience to see their

situation from an outside perspective. His ability to create

three dimensional characters adds a level of familiarity that

the audience uses to find a connection with the characters. He

uses this connection with the character to persuade audience

members to take away lessons from this play and use them in real
life situations and he used many different tactics to try to

make this happen. He abandoned the classical style of verse

because he believed it could not truly show the inner struggles

of people’s lives. Ibsen’s main goal was to build characters

from truth and make those characters embody the true inner

struggle between life and a longing for freedom. Just over 30

years after writing his first play, Ibsen achieved this goal

when he published 2 of his most famous plays: A Doll’s House and

Ghosts. These two plays would become known as 2 of his most

famous works and his impact on the theatre world and the style

of realism changed the way drama was written, shaping theatre at

the time into what is now modern drama.

Ibsen began writing plays in 1848 after being inspired by

the revolutionary events that was happening in Europe at that

time. He first began writing around 1850 when his first play,

called “Catiline” was completed and published. Ibsen was an

apprentice for a pharmacist in Grimstad at the time studying

medicine in order to fulfill his father’s desire for him to

become a pharmacist. Ibsen published his first play under the

pseudonym “Brynjolf Bjarme” while he was completing his

apprenticeship (Koht, 37). He moved to Oslo in the spring of

1850 to study medicine at the university there. Under his

pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme, he had already been known as a

successful playwright by the time he got there by many who were


interested in literature. His first play that he produced had

made its way to Oslo and became very popular due to Norway’s

cultural un-informity at the time. Norway had never seen a new

play like this written and at that point had never produced any

significant dramatic literature. All plays that had been done in

the theatres there had been translations of the Classics such as

Shakespeare. Due to this severe lack of cultural influence in

literature, Ibsen became very well known around Norway almost as

soon as the play was released. Although the play was criticized

for its inconsistencies in plot and character development,

Ibsen’s theme and the conflict between the character’s longing

for freedom while still recognizing that the soul is not

entirely pure forced critics to praise his idea and even

recognize his unmistakable talent (Koht 51-54).

Despite Ibsen’s brilliance in literature, he failed two of

his classes at the university and ultimately dropped out. He and

his roommate Ole Schulerud moved out of the student apartments

and began staying at various places around the city. Though they

were very poor and struggled to make ends meet, they never

revealed their poverty to anyone in the outside world. Oslo at

the time was undergoing huge social and cultural movements

following the other countries in Europe who had begun just a few

years before. The citizens of different countries in Europe

believed they had a right to certain freedoms and called for a


change in government from a monarchical structure to one of

democracy. Ibsen saw this demand for freedom and explored and

developed it into his writing. Hans Georg Meyer wrote “Ibsen’s

main theme is self-emancipation unattained because of the

seeker’s own deficiency” (Meyer, 9). Ibsen had established this

main theme partly from the writings of the Danish philosopher

Kierkegaard and the writings of Johan Ludvig Heiberg. They both

wrote about the basic human need for freedom and how freedom

cannot be born unless there if first oppression (Koht, 61). It

was this idea that allowed Ibsen to find the motivation for his

characters and even help drive the development of the social and

cultural reform that was happening in Norway.

Among this cultural unrest, a desire for more Norwegian

literature had been awakened. Ole Bull, a renowned violinist

urged the government of Norway to support this desire and

provide financial aid for a Norwegian National Theatre that had

been established in Bergen Norway in 1850. Most theatres in Oslo

were casting mainly Danish performers and the goal of the

Norwegian National Theatre was to make a push for Norwegian

actors to train and develop as actors themselves. The Norwegian

government refused to provide funds because they believed a

national theatre was not in Norway’s best interest. One of

Bull’s supporters happened to be a paper company in Oslo called

Andhrimmer which Ibsen wrote articles for. Ibsen was a critic of


the theatre at first due to their lack of artistic value (Koht,

70). They were hiring Norwegian actors to put on shows that had

virtually no artistic sustenance and the actors were not being

allowed to grow as performers. Ibsen also was infuriated by the

fact that the crowd in Oslo seemed to love all the performances.

Bull had recognized a need for a change in the theatre crowd and

used it as a point to hire Ibsen at the Norwegian National

Theatre. Ibsen accepted the position and began work for a

musical event that was intended to raise money for the theatre

and protest the government after some controversy over the

importance of the theatre. The house had been sold out for the

event to which Ibsen had written several poems set to song and

Ole Bull and other musical guests performed songs. After the

success of the musical revue, the directors of the theatre

provided Ibsen with the opportunity to go abroad to Denmark and

Germany to learn and study stage techniques. He studied abroad

for three and a half months learning various theatre and dance

techniques so that his actors could look graceful on stage. When

he returned to Bergen, he was merely a stage manager and had

very little influence in the artistic decisions of the theatre.

Ibsen remained here as stage manager until 1857, only writing

and rehearsing 1 play per year to be performed on January 2nd of

every year celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the

theatre(Koht 72-73).
In 1956, Ibsen met Suzannah Thorensen who eventually became

his wife and who he credited his success to. Ibsen used her

unique and inspiring personality as inspiration for several of

his characters in his later shows, including Hjørdis in The

Vikings at Helgeland. Ibsen was writing the play when he

received an offer to become artistic director at the Christiana

Norwegian Theatre. He wrote a letter to the theatre in Bergen

and assumed the position of director on September 3rd, 1857.

Although he was happy to leave Bergen, his 5 years in Oslo are

recorded as the most disappointing and depressing years of his

life (Koht, 109). When he began working here the theatre had

been undergoing reorganization and the theatre was left to be

salvaged by Ibsen. Ibsen began to attack this issue with

determination and began to write plays that would appeal to the

ancient folk life of the people and reflect the spirit of the

nation. Despite Ibsen’s enthusiasm and new approaches to the

theatre he learned while abroad, very little changed in the

first year at the new theatre. He also encountered some

resistance from the board of trustees at the theatre there and

Ibsen’s play “The Vikings at Helgeland” was denied royalties due

to low budgets. Ibsen was furious at the theatre for this

claiming that the theatre couldn’t even be bothered to support

Norwegian dramatic literature. Ibsen took this defeat as well as

several other setbacks and used them to inspire his work.


Between 1858 and 1859, Ibsen produced twice as many plays than

any other year and was working harder than her had ever been

before (Koht, 111). Ibsen was still met with backlash with only

a few of his plays producing solid performances over the next

few years. When his contract ended, he was awarded a grant to

travel abroad. He traveled to Germany, Denmark, Italy, as well

as Austria in search of folklore and the secret behind producing

successful plays. During this time, he wrote several plays and

poems that were well received such as The Pretenders and Brand.

Ibsen traveled and lived abroad for a good portion of his life

obtaining several new theatre practices. Ibsen’s first major

success was his work on A Dolls House which became a staple of

modern realist drama even into today.

At the time in which Ibsen published A Dolls House, women’s

rights in Norway had become a pressing issue. Women had begun to

speak up against oppression and began organizing groups and

parties to make their voices heard. In Oslo, several women began

the Woman’s Reading Society of Oslo in order to expand their

intellectual opportunities. Another woman by the name of

Mathilde Schjøtt published a pamphlet called “A conversation

among friends and the subjection of women” (Koht, 311). Ibsen

used this movement to provide an objective for the character

“Nora”. In his first drafts of the play, Ibsen would ridicule

women who were “domesticated” and subservient to their husbands


by comparing them to the new type of Norwegian woman, one who

was “emancipated” and were bold in speech and action. This

underlying theme supports Ibsen’s main goal to inspire

individuals to strive for independence and freedom. While

Ibsen’s recognition of the push for women’s rights in this show

is indeed important, it was not his main point for the audience

to take away. Ibsen intended for the readers and audience

members to look inside themselves to see what could be holding

them back form freedom regardless of gender or socioeconomic

class. This is evident in the character Torvald Helmer, a man

whose life goal is to be invulnerable from any sort of issue

life could possibly throw at him. Due to this masculine self-

consciousness, he treats the people who he knows as objects or

dolls which her can mold or use to suit his moods. Torvalds

relationship with Nora is clear evidence of this and brought

with it the name of the play (Meyer, 48). Torvald uses Nora by

dressing her up and making there perform dances for him, like

the Tarantella, afterwards taking her back to their happy home

with their happy children where she can continue to play the

role of happy loving bride. He avoids love because it would

complicate his relationship with her as it would put his

invulnerability and ego in danger. He uses this relationship

with her to promote outwardly appearances and add a pretty and

decorative element into his existence. When he is challenged,


his invulnerability is once again put in danger and he

eliminates whatever the problem may be like how he fires

Krogstad and attempts to justify it by claiming it was due to

moral disapproval. Torvalds strange behavior comes from Ibsen’s

goal to create characters who are ideal “pillars of society” so

he can show how ridiculous of a notion it is (Meyer, 49-50).

This character building is an attempt to support the main theme

of emancipation from traditional ideals in search of freedom.

This trait is also evident in Nora’s character, especially at

the end when she realizes her faults and moves away to find

herself. At the beginning of the play, Nora is shown as a model

wife and mother who has a happy home life in her picture-perfect

family with three beautiful children and an ideal husband. She

sees this home life as successful because she has attained

everything that her traditional obligations are telling her to

achieve and she has a loving family with a husband who she

thinks would give his life to save her and her reputation. The

play shows her slow realization as to what reality outside her

“Doll’s House” is and slowly strips away all the traditional

values she once upheld. At the end of the play Torvald shows his

true feelings for her when he would rather put the blame on Nora

rather than accept the things that she has done wrong and help

her fix it. Once she realizes the truth in her relationship with

her husband, she leaves to try to understand who she really is


without him (Shaw, 84-86). The play questions and even ridicules

the social and cultural beliefs at that time in Norway. Ibsen

sets the play during the end of the year holidays (which is

culturally the most import time of the year in many Scandinavian

countries), to further question whether the traditional values

in society at that time should be held up. He sets the play in

the birth of a new year, one in which Torvald becomes promoted

to a position of higher power and income. Ibsen describes the

house in all its holiday glory with gifts around the tree, the

feasts, the tarantella costume and dance and many other Pagan

holiday traditions. This setting would be extremely familiar

with many people at that time and setting a play of such impact

during a time such as this would allow for a much stronger

message to be taken away from it (Johnston, 137 – 139).

Just after Ibsen published A Dolls House he immediately

began work on his new play Ghosts. The play opens on a gloomy

rainy day in Norway in the town of Bergen where Ibsen

experienced a fair amount of gloomy rainy days himself. The

connection between Ibsen’s personal experience with the town and

the setting of the play are no doubt connected, and this fed

Ibsen’s rebellious mind. Like A Dolls House, Ibsen questions the

morals of the society at the time in the relationships of

several of the characters. In the relationship between Mrs.

Alving and Oswald is a perfect example of Ibsen’s critique. Mrs.


Alving is amid discovering herself as a free person, like Nora’s

character in A Dolls House. In fact, Ghosts was written in a

response to several reviews of the play saying Nora should not

have left her husband. There is a clear connection between Nora

and Mrs. Alving and Ibsen intended her character to be a

representation of what Nora’s life would have been like 20 years

later if she had stayed (Fergusson, 110). Mrs. Alving discovers

that her entire life had been devoted to a pointless cause and

there is no freedom of mind or freedom of self inside of her.

She uses this staggering realization to fuel her relationship

with her son and makes him the symbol of everything she seeks:

freedom, innocence, joy truth. She uses the money left behind by

her husband to give her son a free human life because she never

had one. This small fortune left behind by her husband is a

significant plot point and serves as incentive for the

relationships surrounding Mrs. Alving. Oswald’s relationship

with his mother is complicated in the sense that she had sent

him away when he was young to try to save him from Mr. Alving’s

debauchery. Oswald however is a person in his own right and has

his own quest for freedom and a claim to the fortune left behind

by his father. Despite Mrs. Alving’s plans for the money, Pastor

Manders urges her to use the money to establish her son as a

pillar of society just as his father was, however Mr. Alving

intends to use the money to fund an orphanage to clear her and


her son of all the sins of the father (Fergusson, 111). To make

matters more complicated, Oswald wishes to marry Regina who is

the secret illegitimate daughter whom the character Engstrand

was bribed to raise and his own and keep it a secret. In the end

Oswald contracts syphilis, which at the time was a disease that

was believed to be genetic and passed down by his father, and

Oswald eventually dies, and the orphanage burns down (Fergusson,

112).

Ibsen intended the play to be a series of debates on morals

and he accomplishes this through the society in which he puts

them in. He sets the play in a closed society in order to

prevent his characters from becoming larger than life and

altogether unrelatable. This would allow the reader to find

connections between Ibsen’s characters and their own lives. This

also allows for moral and spiritual degeneration to occur much

more rapidly as opposed to being dragged out an entire lifetime.

Each character is essentially forced to speak with one another

in this constricted town therefore exposing the actions of each

character rather quickly. To add onto the chaos, each character

owes each other a lifetime of favor and gratitude because of the

long-lasting relationships that are set in place. This

establishes a phenomenon in which no one character has the moral

high ground and therefore no one character can obtain power over

another (Meyer, 57). This kind of situation is exactly the


literary goal Ibsen was trying to achieve because it allows the

reader to focus more on the internal problems of the characters

as opposed to outside forces influencing their lives.

Ibsen, known as the father of modern theatre, wrote many

different plays in the realistic style and is credited for

perfecting the form of realism (Shaw, 78-90) His plays Ghosts

and A Dolls House were both written in the realistic style and

were actually connected through the characterization of each of

the lead women in the shows. Although Ibsen began writing in a

style that used verse and was viewed more as art rather than

literature, he abandoned that practice and began writing what

would become a collection of over 100 plays and poems in both

realistic style and verse. Realism in playwrighting is

characterized by three unities: unity of place, unity of action,

and unity of time (Meyer, 57). These elements are evident in

most of Ibsen’s works especially in A Dolls House and Ghosts.

Both plays are connected through plot and character in addition

to the style of writing. The two plays share the connection of

the unity of place; all three acts take place within the same

room. A Dolls House is set in a home where Nora and Torvald live

and the scene never changes to anywhere else which was a tactic

used by Ibsen to isolate Nora’s character and strip away her

freedom (Lownethal, 139-143). In Ghosts all action also takes

place in the same room in a house with a window looking out on a


garden in the rain. This unity of place establishes a set

location so the audience focuses more on the action of the play

rather than a change in location. The action of the play also

must be clear and unified into one ultimate ploy point in order

to be considered realistic. Every action that occurs should be

to further the main plot along like in Ghosts where each new

character and each new relationship only built the tension that

eventually comes to a climax at the end of the play. The first

act builds to a small conclusion as does the second until we are

shown the final moment of truth at the end of act 3. Similarly,

A Dolls House follows suit in that there is no dialogue or

action that does not contribute to the point of the show. Nora’s

interaction with Torvald is constantly building their failing

relationship while Krogstaad interaction with Nora is always

about Krogstad blackmailing her. However, Torvald and Krogstad

don’t interact because it doesn’t help the plot (Meyer, 58).

Both plays also follow the unity of time which states that time

moves at a reasonable pace and must be linear. For a play to be

realistic, you cannot be in the present one scene and then the

past and future in the following scenes. The play must flow from

one morning to the next. Past events can be revealed through

dialogue or action in order to further the plot and reveal

truth. Ibsen does this in Ghosts when speaking about the

relationship between Mrs. Alving and the pastor. He also does


this in A Dolls House when revealing Nora’s forgery of her

father’s signature (Meyer, 59).

Ibsen’s lasting influence on the way we view theatre is

still evident in society today. All drama after Ibsen was

influenced by his idea that art is meant to create discussion

and convey and idea while still maintaining insight into the

character that turns the play into something more than mere

entertainment. This is evident in his plays A Dolls House and

Ghosts and their impact on the society around which it was

written. Ibsen’s goal is to change the mind of the common

citizen to enlighten them into a higher way of thinking. With A

Dolls House he built from the social unrest among the women of

Norway and used it to write a play that would inspire them to

rise up and leave their old traditional way of viewing things

behind. He does this again when the community ridicules Ibsen

for his decision to make Nora leave at the end of A Dolls House.

Ibsen takes this debate to the stage in Ghosts and shows the

audience the dangers of not striving for freedom. Due to his

mastery of realism, he can connect with the audience on a

personal level which is what made Ibsen so successful. Henrik

Ibsen’s impact on the world of modern theatre is unparalleled by

any other writer of his time and his work continues to be the

ground plan on which many new writers of today build off. His
influence lives on in his work and his new approach to the art

of theatre.
Works Cited

Fergusson, Francis. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays.

Edited by Rolf Fjelde, Prentice Hall, 1965.

Johnston, Brian. Text and Supertext in Ibsen's Drama.

Pennslyvania State University Press, 1989

Koht, Halvdan. Life of Ibsen. Benjamin Blom, 1971.

Lowenthal, Leo. A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Rolf

Fjelde, Prentice Hall, 1965.

Meyer, Hans Georg. Henrik Ibsen. Ungar, 1972.

Shaw, George Bernard. Quintessence of Ibsenism. Hill and Wang,

1913.