A bluffer’s guide to… Ibsen


It’s less than a month until Hedda Gabler opens at the The Lowry. If you haven’t got your tickets, you can book them here. If you have, here’s everything you need to know to make sure your friends think you’re an expert on 19th-century Norwegian theatre.

Name: Henrik Johan Ibsen

Also known as:  The Father of Modern Drama, The Father of Realism

Born: 20 March 1828 (Skien, Norway)

Died: 23 May, 1906 (Oslo, Norway) – for bonus points, say ‘Or Kristiania, as it was then known’

Genre: Realism (which he pretty much invented)

Notable works: Peer Gynt, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder

His career in a sentence: He wrote over 25 plays, developing from an early period influenced by folk tales, through several plays that attack society’s entrenched beliefs, through to a later focus on psychological realism and pretty much invented modern theatre on the way.

Some useful facts:

  • He’s the second most-performed playwright in the world (after Shakespeare).
  • He’s known for his ‘problem plays’, which examine contentious issues through realistic interactions between characters. Some examples to remember: women’s lives (A Doll’s House), sexually transmitted diseases (Ghosts), the whole of society (An Enemy of the People).
  • He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times: 1902, 1903 and 1904, losing to Theodor Mommsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and, finally, both Frédéric Mistral and José Echegaray.
  • Characters in his plays are often based on and even named after members of his family. Jon Gynt in Peer Gynt, Old Ekdahl in The Wild Duck and Daniel Hejre in The League of Youth are all considered to be modelled on his father, Knud.
  • Despite his focus on morality, he was something of a cad himself. The character of Hilda in The Master Builder is based on three separate women; Ibsen had an affair with two.
  • His last word, ‘Tvertimod’, was his response to a nurse who told a guest that he was getting better. Translation: ‘On the contrary.’
  • His son, Sigurd, went on to become Prime Minister of Norway.
  • Do say: ‘There really is no better way to tackle contemporary issues than a strict focus on realism and interpersonal psychology.’
  • Don’t say: ‘Looking forward to the big dance number.’



Reproduced with permission from the National Theatre.