Six hundred and fifty pages might not seem excessive for a biography of Henrik Ibsen. He lived, after all, a relatively long life, dying in 1906 at the age of seventy-eight. He was an exceedingly prolific author, with an oeuvre of twenty-five plays as well as poetry and incidental writings. And of course there is his high place in the cultural firmament: he was, and remains, the most influential playwright since Shakespeare. He revolutionized the theater, changing its style, its content, its very purpose. And, most importantly, he helped thoroughly to alter ideas about morality—what one owes to oneself and what one owes to society—throughout Europe and America. His concerns, radical in their time, have become so commonplace in modern thought that many look on Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck, The Master Builder, and all the others as mere cultural icons, de rigueur inclusions in regional repertories and college productions, and fail to be shocked and shaken by what they see on the stage. But this is only because we ourselves are products of the social revolution kicked off by Ibsen in the last years of the nineteenth century (and continued, most notably, by Freud), one that in certain ways has not yet played itself out. His characters’ bids for personal fulfillment at the expense of social and religious institutions are unsurprising to us because the twentieth century listened to him and valorized such bids. The rebel without a cause became a cultural hero rather than a public menace.

Why, then, is Ivo de Figueiredo’s new biography of the great man, Henrik Ibsen: The Man and the Mask (translated by Robert Ferguson), excellent and elegant though it is, so hard to get through?1 In brief, it’s because Ibsen the man (as opposed to Ibsen the artist) is just impossible to like. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have a single redeeming quality. He’s stingy, graceless, glum, vain, proud, domineering, ungenerous, supremely egotistical, ruthless, a control freak; on top of this he becomes, as he ages, quite a dirty old man. “The stories of his tactlessness are legion,” as de Figueiredo readily admits. Worse, so far as the reader is concerned, the master’s vices are not of a dramatic or extravagant type; they are simply sordid and unattractive, making for dull reading. Literarily and artistically, Ibsen’s greatness is undeniable, and de Figueiredo writes with commanding intelligence on the plays: all of the critical material in this book is fascinating. But the details of Ibsen’s life are hardly edifying, and de Figueiredo, who has aspired here to write a definitive biography, relates them in agonizing detail. But I suppose we Americans should be grateful it is as short as it is, for it has been considerably abridged from the two-volume original Norwegian-language edition of 2006–07.

Ibsen the man (as opposed to Ibsen the artist) is just impossible to like.

The writer or artist who demonstrates delicacy, passion, and empathy in his work while displaying none at all in his life is so common that the phenomenon has almost ceased to be surprising. In such cases it is usually said that the work is greater than the man. But, still, some explanation seems to be called for, and here de Figueiredo, like his predecessors, is unable to deliver. What soured Ibsen to such a degree? With sound scholarship and a deep understanding of Norwegian social history, de Figueiredo disposes of several myths that have developed around the playwright, but nonetheless offers no satisfying explanation of Ibsen’s faults.

First, the myth of familial humiliation. During Ibsen’s childhood, his father, Knud, was a prosperous schnapps distiller and one of the first citizens of the town of Skien, living high and entertaining lavishly at his well-appointed mansion. But in 1834, his business failed, and the distillery was seized by the authorities. The family declined rapidly thereafter, so that Henrik, instead of heading for university, had to go to work at the age of fifteen as an apothecary’s apprentice in the town of Grimstad. “Knud Ibsen’s ruin has gone down in literary history as one of the great tragedies,” de Figueiredo comments. But in fact, he points out, such failures were so common at that time as hardly to warrant comment:

[T]here is nothing to suggest that there was anything dubious about his reputation as a businessman. His fate was far from unique—almost all the distilleries in the region failed during these years . . . Henrik Ibsen did not carry the mark of defeat on him when he left Skien. He was a true child of the nineteenth century, when the fluctuations of good times and bad times were the rhythm of the age, and where the threat of ruination was the price of freedom.

Nor was the young Henrik’s siring of an illegitimate son in Grimstad the trauma that earlier mythmakers have deemed it. He reluctantly paid a stipend to the child’s mother for several years, as the law demanded, and took no interest whatsoever in the boy. “Some have suggested that the whole business created an obsessive shame and guilt in Ibsen, a feeling of nemesis that would pursue him throughout his life.” But really, de Figueiredo asks, what did he have to be ashamed of? “If it was officially regarded as shameful to have a child out of wedlock, it nevertheless happened all the time, and there are no grounds for assuming that this official, public shame proceeded from some intimate and privately experienced feeling of shame.” It’s true that Ibsen never mentioned this son’s name in his papers or letters (it was Hans Jacob Hendrichssen Birkedalen), but then he never mentioned his parents’ or his siblings’ names either. As an adult he dropped his whole family completely and ruthlessly, rejecting his siblings’ timid attempts to connect and allowing his father to die in penury when he himself was rich and world-famous.

Why? Finally de Figueiredo gives up on attempting to account for this action. Ibsen was never a warm person. In childhood “asocial, inhibited and silent,” in adolescence introverted and unpopular, he was “a shy and rather withdrawn person who, at the same time, wished to attract the attention of others”; he “seemed ill at ease in the world.” These were traits that remained notable even in his years of pompous triumph. The only explanation de Figueiredo has been able to come up with for Ibsen’s dropping his family is the possible existence of some “festering wound that did not disappear.” More probably, though, it was simply Ibsen’s own brand of cold-blooded narcissism, his “need to escape from any notion of a joined fate, from the compulsive demands of family membership—something that would be typical of Ibsen throughout his life. The need to be free of any responsibility save the one he owed to his calling.” Ibsen, his wife, Suzannah, and their son, Sigurd, formed a self-sufficient unit that effectively shut out the emotional claims of all others; even Sigurd’s marriage did not really change this state of affairs.

Another myth about Ibsen is that he was an apostle of the Left, a passionate advocate for democracy, women’s rights, and sexual freedom. As de Figueiredo demonstrates again and again, nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout Ibsen’s life, he displayed a “blazing contempt” for representative democracy, and he nurtured no love for the common people, whose abysmal taste he excoriated. “The minority is always right!,” he often exclaimed. “The majority? What is the majority? The ignorant mob. Intelligence is always to be found in the minority.” His political opinions were neither of the Left nor the Right, but were unclassifiable and often contradictory; the best formulation de Figueiredo has been able to come up with to describe Ibsen’s beliefs is “aristocratic individualism.” He felt “an urgent need to distinguish between the banal usage of the conception of freedom he observes in the political world, and the permanent revolutionary sort of freedom that is his concern—what he calls the revolt of the human spirit.” Anything that stood in the way of the free movement of that individual human spirit Ibsen wished to torpedo: “Our main task is to blow the status quo to pieces—to destroy it!” “Get rid of the state! Now there’s a revolution I could support.”

Or so he claimed when in his cups. In reality he servilely courted royalty, craved medals and official decorations of all sorts, and repeatedly expressed his belief that the state should support artists and writers and subsidize culture in general. Occasionally he expressed a vague yen for despotism: “My dear friend,” he wrote to Georg Brandes, “the liberals are freedom’s worst enemies. Freedom of belief and freedom of thought thrive best under absolutism.” Yet Ibsen himself lived the most conventional of lives, and as he enriched himself he enjoyed all the material perks of the new bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century. Putting it rather kindly, de Figueiredo says the “signs are that he lacked the basic ability to understand and to relate to complicated social questions and the practical mechanics of political life.” In other words, he was a political idiot.

The myth of Ibsen the great liberal is probably due more than anything to the radical message of A Doll’s House.

The myth of Ibsen the great liberal is probably due more than anything to the radical message of A Doll’s House. Published and first performed in 1879, when the early feminist movement was already undermining traditional ideas about women and their lives, the play had a seismic effect on contemporary culture. It was taken then, and is taken now, as a feminist manifesto, but it turns out that’s not what Ibsen had in mind at all. It was Nora Helmer the individual—not Nora Helmer the woman—whose right to an independent identity was being asserted. “I write to describe human beings, and it is a matter of complete indifference to me what the fanatics of the women’s movement do and do not like!,” he stormed. And of course the idea of Suzannah Ibsen walking out on her demanding mate would have been unthinkable. Camilla Collett, a prominent feminist writer of the period and a friend of the Ibsens, wrote dispassionately, “From top to toe he is an egoist, and most definitely a man in relation to women. His own domestic situation appears to have had no influence on him at all in this matter. Note his heroes: every one of them is a despot in his dealings with women.”

No, Ibsen was not a coherent political thinker; he was an artist. De Figueiredo puts it well when he remarks that Ibsen’s work “can be read in a variety of ways, some in direct contradiction of others. And once again it feels as though, in choosing one particular interpretation over another, something gets lost.” He was an artist, with an artist’s sense of mission and calling. It was in his relentless adherence to this mission that Ibsen was most extraordinary, for his circumstances were not propitious.

There was his sorry start, for one thing, with the first six years of his working life—from the age of fifteen to twenty-one—spent in an apothecary shop in a provincial town. But then all of Norway was provincial, a real backwater. It had been a province of Denmark for three centuries until gaining self-government under the Swedish crown at the Congress of Vienna; it would not have its own monarchy until 1905, shortly before the playwright’s death. All high culture was Danish and conducted in the Danish language; Norwegian was regarded more as a crude dialect than a language in its own right. If one wanted to be read, one wrote in Danish. Ibsen moved to Christiania (the name the Danish overlords had bestowed on Oslo) shortly after the publication of his first play, Catiline, in 1850, and began to meet the city’s young writers, a group that in the spirit of the times espoused a genre known as “national romanticism,” the nationalism in question being either strictly Norwegian or a broader Scandinavianism, a creed Ibsen adopted for the moment. At this time, Ole Bull, the great violinist, began a Norwegian-language theater in Bergen and hired Ibsen, as a promising young writer, to work there in various aspects of production, including directing. He spent six years there and learned the business thoroughly. Bull even sent him abroad, to Copenhagen and Dresden, to pick up modern techniques in stagecraft. Our current idea of “directing” was then in its infancy; traditionally, the way a role was played was considered the business solely of the actor, and this was only just beginning to change. It was not until years later that the director would become responsible for the unity and aesthetic of the entire production. Ibsen directed, to the extent that the activity was then understood, but he was never comfortable in the job; his social awkwardness worked against him, in marked contrast to his brilliant contemporary and lifelong rival Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who was outgoing and warm. “The emerging idea of the director’s real function,” de Figueiredo says, “demanded someone with a very different kind of personal authority from the one nature had provided [Ibsen] with . . . . Bjørnson possessed the kind of authority Ibsen lacked.”

Creating a “Norwegian” theater was a challenge, to say the least. Educated audiences went to the Danish-language theater; the Norwegian Theater attracted a working-class crowd, tired and looking for easy entertainment. The plays were performed against a background of “chatter, laughter, booing, the sounds of people eating—and the baying of dogs.” Two-thirds of the productions consisted of light entertainment. The challenge for Ibsen and his colleagues—and it was a big one—was not only to invent original Norwegian drama but to create an audience for it as well. This meant educating that potential audience.

Ibsen’s first works conformed to the precepts of national romanticism, but he soon shifted away from this, and, even more significantly, from the then-prevalent doctrine of idealism, or “idealized reality,” as the Scandinavian critic Jonas Ludvig Heiberg formulated it. As early as Lady Inger of Oestraat (1854), he offended critics with the absence of the spirit of reconciliation in the ending: “Ibsen had broken with the convention that demanded reconciliation, beauty, idealism of any play, including a tragedy,” de Figueiredo says. He was moving in the direction of increased realism, but never realism achieved at the expense of “inner realism”—psychological credibility—and the centrality of ideas and conflict. His 1855 play The Feast at Solhaug gave him his first real success, after which he aspired to be a full-time writer. But there was no such animal in Norway, and with good reason: there were simply not enough playgoers and readers in the country to support a class of artists. Nor was there a royal court or an aristocracy to patronize them. “To live entirely on the proceeds of one’s literary activity is, in this country, impossible,” Ibsen complained, justifiably. After his six years at Bergen, he put in another five at the Norske Teatret in Christiania, an experience he later described as “abortion on a daily basis.” In 1864 he left Norway for Rome; he did not reside in his native country again until old age, spending much of his life in Germany.

It is not that he was ignored or rejected in Norway, as the Ibsen mythmakers claim; it is simply, as de Figueiredo demonstrates, that the cultural possibilities in Norway at that time did not allow him or anyone else to survive there on the proceeds of their writing alone. Still, Ibsen nurtured a festering resentment against his native country. In the year of his departure, this broadened to include all of Scandinavia when Norway and Sweden failed to come to the aid of Denmark when she was invaded by Prussia. So much for pan-Scandinavianism! Any such ideals Ibsen had once entertained dissolved forever that year—not that he himself, of course, was tempted to rush to the front and fight for Denmark: “We poets have other tasks to perform.”

And Rome provided the ideal work environment he had craved. His first play after his removal there, Brand (1866), was the breakthrough he had long awaited. This strange play, a verse drama about a visionary priest, “challenged the reader’s understanding of what a drama is, and of what kind of message a literary work might convey.” It was read and discussed everywhere in Scandinavia. (At that time plays were usually published in book form before their actual performance.) It was disturbingly unclassifiable. Was it satire? Drama? Poetry? Criticism? Philosophy? Parody? Whatever it was, it had a distinctive voice; Ibsen had “announced himself as a new kind of writer: the punitive, angry and truth-seeking poet-prophet.” He took to keeping a pet scorpion under a beer glass on his desk, a symbol to which he enjoyed drawing attention.

Ibsen’s long and painful money troubles were now over, at last and forever. Peer Gynt, published in 1867 (although it would not have its first performance with the score by Edvard Grieg until 1876), created as much stir as Brand had. Bjørnson expressed the ecstasy of many intelligent readers: “I love your anger, I love your courage,” he wrote Ibsen. “I love your strength, I love your heedlessness.” When the dominant Danish critic Clemens Petersen said that Peer Gynt was not poetry, the playwright made a characteristic response: “My book is poetry; and if it is not, then it will become so. The idea of what poetry is—in our country, in Norway, will submit to my book.”

It certainly did, and not only in Norway. Ibsen was gradually becoming an international phenomenon. The young August Strindberg recalled seeing the older writer, who both attracted and repelled him (though the two never formally met), on Ibsen’s first visit to Sweden in 1869 as a newly minted celebrity:

Who does not recall the appearance of the famous poet when he visited Stockholm, a few years ago? Wearing a velvet jacket, a white waistcoat with black buttons, collar in the latest style and carrying an elegant cane, a self-ironic smile playing at the corner of his lips he strolled about, always avoiding any deep conversations.

Despite Ibsen’s unprepossessing physical appearance—short, stocky, hirsute—he became a notable dandy. Even in the Alpine villages where he summered, he wore a black velvet coat, as one acquaintance recalled, “with decorations and ribbons, the blindingly white linen, the elaborately knotted necktie, the very correct black top hat, those discreet gestures, that reserved manner.” He was famous, in fact, for dropping hints in the right places so that he might be awarded medals and knighthoods, and he shamelessly used the honorific “Doctor” for several years before he was finally awarded an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University.

In the mid-1870s, both Ibsen and Bjørnson made a shift in the direction of the modern, portraying contemporary bourgeois life in a realistic fashion. Ibsen’s breakthrough here was The Pillars of Society (1877). In the words of the German producer Otto Brahm, it was while watching The Pillars of Society that he and others like him had their “first inklings of a new sort of creative art, and felt for the first time that we stood face to face with people from our own times—people we could believe in—depicted with a critical insight that was valid for the whole of existing society.” And a new realism of theatrical style kept pace with the increasing realism of the material. Viewers of A Doll’s House, two years after The Pillars of Society, were impressed by the novel absence of declamatory phrases, melodrama, blood, or tears. Ibsen had created not only the modern drama of ideas but the modern well-made play.

With each new drama, Ibsen pushed against convention further and challenged his audiences to refine their ideas of what theater could do, and what it was for. A Doll’s House outraged not only social conventions but also aesthetic ones, blasting ideals of the beautiful and the good that had long reigned in serious drama. Ibsen’s next play, Ghosts (1881), appalled on every level. Even the sympathetic critic Arne Garborg was horrified—writing to Bjørnson, he complained that “[t]his has put our work back ten years. I cannot comprehend why our hopes and plans for the future need to be served up in the form of this farrago of syphilis and filth.” Critics in high-Victorian England were even more virulent in their reactions: “Filth from the gutters and sewers of the continent has, as I have said,” wrote Robert Buchanan, “polluted the sources of English literature, and a kind of literary typhoid has struck down our most able writers. A degraded sexual pathology, expressed in a language that cannot claim to be literature, now threatens our drama.” When someone compared Ibsen with Émile Zola (not meaning it as a compliment!), the playwright lashed out angrily: “Yes, with this little difference, that Zola goes down into the sewers to take a bath, while I do so to clean them.” In fact, as de Figueiredo points out, the exact opposite was true, at least politically: Zola was a reformer, whereas Ibsen was not.

Does Ghosts still have the power to shock? I doubt it; even in the 1970s, when I first saw it, the events of the intervening century had made it seem relatively tame. It also, I think, suffers (as does the work of other late-nineteenth-century writers like George Gissing and, yes, Zola) from an overemphasis on heredity and Darwinian determinism. It turns out that heredity is indeed important, but not quite as important as it then seemed to scientifically minded intellectuals. More interesting, perhaps, is Ibsen’s treatment of Helene Alving, the mother in the play. Many people had wondered whether Ibsen would ever provide a sequel to A Doll’s House in which he revealed what happened to Nora after her departure; he never did, but Helene could provide a hint at what Nora might have become had she stayed on.

The stream of major works kept flowing, more or less one every two years: An Enemy of the People (1882); The Wild Duck (1884); Rosmersholm (1886), in which he moved towards the new Symbolism; The Lady from the Sea (1888); Hedda Gabler (1890); The Master Builder (1892); Little Eyolf (1894); John Gabriel Borkman (1896); and When We Dead Awaken (1899). Strindberg called him “the angriest man in Europe,” kept trying to dislike him, then stopped himself: “But it’s true—he wrote Ghosts! I can’t hate him! No! I shall follow his example and become Moses on the mount!”

Not winning a Nobel is an honor Ibsen shares, de Figueiredo points out, with Tolstoy, Zola, Chekhov, Strindberg, Proust, and Joyce.

Ibsen’s career ended with the century he did so much to define, but he lived on until 1906, the grand old man of letters, celebrated wherever he went with torchlight parades and serenades—honors he accepted with complacency as being no more than his due. In old age he let his interest in pretty young girls get the better of him; the mythmakers whitewashed this tendency by claiming that the various girls he leched after were really muses for his art whom he admired chastely and nobly, but de Figueiredo has dug up one of the “muse’s” diaries, which relates an unbecoming tale of gropings and slobberings. He eventually mellowed somewhat and even warmed to Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who generously came to visit the old man in 1902 even though Ibsen had avoided him for years out of jealousy and resentment, despite his son Sigurd’s marriage to Bjørnson’s daughter. “Of all the memories, and the people, it is you I most often think of,” Ibsen rather surprisingly told his longtime frenemy, adding, “You are dearer to me than all the others.” Relating the incident later, Bjørnson recalled, “I couldn’t say the same thing; but his words made me happy, and made both our families happy.” When the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901, Ibsen’s name was suggested to the Academy, but they decided against him. Not winning a Nobel is an honor Ibsen shares, de Figueiredo points out, with Tolstoy, Zola, Chekhov, Strindberg, Proust, and Joyce.

And Joyce perhaps should have the last word on this truly great author and truly unpleasant man. Ibsen’s self-imposed exile from his native land inspired Joyce’s; the young man saw the old one as the model of the cosmopolitan intellectual who had demonstrated the power and autonomy of the artist. Seeing Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, which mystified many viewers at the time, Joyce was awestruck. “When the art of a dramatist is perfect,” he wrote, “the critic is superfluous. Life is not to be criticized, but to be faced and lived.” In other words, the play was life rather than being about life—though the audiences of 1899 might not have realized it yet. “Many years more, however,” Joyce went on, “must pass before he will enter his kingdom of jubilation, although, as he stands to-day, all has been done on his part to ensure his own worthiness to enter therein.”

1 Henrik Ibsen: The Man and the Mask, by Ivo de Figueiredo, translated by Robert Ferguson; Yale University Press, 704 pages, $40.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 10, on page 9
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