Henrik Ibsen - a Norwegian writer and Ibsen Museum

Henrik Ibsen - a Norwegian writer and Ibsen Museum

Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian writer who had a major impact on the modern drama. His work is recognized all over the world, and his plays are performed at theaters on all continents.

Ibsen became hugely successful, but he had to work to get there. He started out good, being the son of a merchant in Skien, a town in southern Norway, in 1828. But when Ibsen was seven years old, his father went broke, something which was considered very disgraceful at the time. The shame which Ibsen felt over his father’s misfortune would affect his literary works later.

From the age of 14, Ibsen had to support himself. He was sent to Grimstad to be the assistant of an apothecary. He lived under poor conditions, and at the age of 18 he got a illegitimate child with one of the Pharmacist’s maids. Most of his salary was used to pay child support.

In 1850, Henrik Ibsen traveled to Christiania, which was the name of Oslo at the time. The years from 1850 to 1864 were another hard period for Ibsen. In 1850 he tried getting his first play, “Catilina”, published and performed, but in vain. When a friend inherited some money and paid for the publication, only a few of the 250 copies of the play were sold. The rest were used as wrapping paper by a merchant.

Ibsen was hired as an assistant instructor and playwright at the National Scene in Bergen in 1851. In 1857 he transferred to a theater in Oslo where he stayed till 1862. Neither of these jobs paid well, and he had trouble supporting his family. He had married Suzannah Thoresen in 1858, and the year after their son was born.

From 1863 things started going better. He received a scholarship from the government and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, another writer, collected a large sum of money to his friend Ibsen to allow him to go abroad. Ibsen stayed abroad for 27 years. The scholarship and the funds had given him a chance to start over.


Ibsen is most famous for his plays, and it was a dramatist he wanted to be. However, before 1871 he also wrote many poems, including the well-known “Terje Vigen”. “Terje Vigen” is about a sailor who rowed from Norway to Denmark to get hold of grain for his wife and daughter and save their lives. The time which the poem refers to is the Napoleon wars, i.e. just before 1814. During that war there was a blockade all around the Norwegian coast, and this lead to starvation many places in Norway.
Henrik Ibsen. Painting by E. Werenskiold, 1895
Henrik Ibsen. Painting by E. Werenskiold, 1895


As a dramatist, Ibsen wrote plays which can be placed in three different categories. At first, he wrote historical plays about the early Norwegian kings. Then he got his break through with “Idea dramas” - “Brand” (1866) and “Peer Gynt” (1867). Both these plays were written shortly after he left Norway, and they are both written on rhyme. That’s as far as the similarities between the two go - the main character in “Brand” is a priest which sees it as his duty to follow his calling not matter what. Peer Gynt is the complete opposite, he’s a liar, uncertain of what he believes in, a carefree adventurer who deceives the one woman who loves him and waits for him through all his adventures.

The third type of play is realistic plays, taken from the everyday life in Norway in the late 19th century. In these plays the characters are individuals who go through an evolution during the drama; they gain insight into themselves and into their lives. The focus of the play is on the characters, not the plot. Ibsen’s realistic plays have had an enormous impact on the development of drama in the 20th century.

A Doll’s House

“A Doll’s House” (1879) is one of his realistic dramas. In that play Ibsen uses the retrospective technique. This means that as the drama advances, the past is unveiled. Past occurrences are a major part of these plays, and also give the reasons for the characters behavior. Nora and her husband Helmer seem to have the perfect life and the perfect family. But Helmer talks to Nora as if she were a child, telling her what to do all the time. After a while, Nora comes to the conclusion that she’s just a doll in Helmer’s doll house. She feels like she is only serving his success, and that Helmer doesn’t really care how she feels. Nora leaves her husband and children, and this was not accepted by society at the time the play was written. The ending caused many protests. In Germany the objections to the ending were so strong, Ibsen had to re-write it before the theaters would perform it! In 1998, “A doll’s house” was performed in Beijing, China, for the first time.

“The Wild Duck” from 1884 has been described as Ibsen’s best play. “The Wild Duck” describes yet another family which is seemingly happy. The husband, Hjalmar, tells everyone he’s working on an invention when what he really does is taking a nap. It is revealed that the daughter, Hedvig, isn’t Hjalmar’s after all. The play ends with Hedvig’s suicide.

Some of his other plays include: “Hedda Gabler” (1890), “An enemy of the people” (1882), “Romersholm” (1886), and “The Lady from the Sea” (1888).

Ibsen’s last play was “When we dead awaken” (1899). In 1900 he had his first stroke, and was prevented from working. He died May 23, 1906. His works live on, more famous than in his own time, making him one of the master playwrights in the world.

Three Ibsen museums in Oslo, Grimstad and Skien

Norway has three Ibsen museums, the Ibsen House in Grimstad, the Ibsen Museum in Skien and the Ibsen Museum in Oslo.

Henrik Ibsen Museum, Skien

Henrik Ibsen lived on the Venstøp farm in Gjerpen outside of Skien for eight of years of his childhood, from 1835 to 1843. Venstøp was founded as an Ibsen museum in 1958 and is owned by the Telemark Museum

The Ibsen Museum in Grimstad

The Ibsen Museum in Grimstad is located in the house where Henrik Ibsen worked as an apothecary´s assistant during the final years that he lived in the town. In the guardroom of this house he wrote his first play, Catilina.

Celebration of the great author has long-standing traditions in the town. The Ibsen Museum in Grimstad is Norway´s oldest Ibsen museum - it opened in 1916.

10 June 2006 the Ibsen Museum re-opened after extensive reorganisation. The "new" museum wishes to communicate the story of the time spent by the great author in the town and the town´s impression of the young apothecary´s assistant from Skien. Can the Grimstad period have inspired the writer in his authorship? How do the town and its residents appear in his plays and poetry? And what was the man, who would later be known as the reticent "Sphinx", like in his youth?

The Ibsen Museum, Oslo - The new Ibsen Museum

During 2005 and spring 2006, the home of Henrik Ibsen and his wife Suzannah, has been restored and is re-opened to the public the 23 May, exactly 100 years after Ibsen passed away. The new Ibsen Museum consists of two major parts: A new comprehensive exhibit featuring the playwright Ibsen´s life and work, and Ibsen´s private home, the apartment in which he spent his last 11 years. An extensive amount of groundwork was carried out in the recreation of Henrik Ibsen´s home.

The Ibsen Project organization

The Ibsen Project organization was established in 2001 with funding from the National Ibsen Committee of Norway (earmarked grant from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs). In 2006 ibsen.net was the official website for Ibsen year. In July 2007 the editorial office of ibsen.net moved to the National Library of Norway in Oslo.
Contact The Ibsen Project organization
Address of the project and its editorial staff:
Ibsen.net, c/o National Library of Norway
P. O. Box 2674 Solli
NO-0203 Oslo, Norway
Telephone: + 47 23 27 60 15 Fax: + 47 23 27 60 10
E-mail: jens-morten.hanssen@nb.no

Contact Ibsen museum

Postal address:
Ibsen.net, c/o The National Library of Norway
P. O. Box 2674 Solli
NO-0203 Oslo, Norway
Telephone: + 47 23 27 60 15
Fax: + 47 23 27 60 10
Visiting address:
The National Library of Norway
Henrik Ibsens gate 110, Oslo
Internet: http://www.ibsen.net/
The Ibsen Museum, Oslo - The new Ibsen Museum

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