The best plays of Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is undoubtedly the most famous Norwegian playwright who has ever lived. He wrote a number of classic plays in a variety of modes and genres, so in this post we’ve limited ourselves to five of Ibsen’s very best plays.
Hedda Gabler. The role of Hedda Gabler is often considered ‘the female Hamlet’, since actresses want to tackle the role and offer their own interpretation of the character. When her father died, the headstrong Hedda married Tesman, a struggling history lecturer, but soon realises she has made a terrible mistake. This 1890 play is one of Ibsen’s finest achievements, with the tragedy of Hedda’s life unfolding before us on the stage.
A Doll’s House. Arguably Henrik Ibsen’s most famous play, A Doll’s House (1879) has an interesting plot structure: much of the action develops along the lines of the ‘well-made play’, a genre of melodrama focusing on domestic life and family secrets, and a form of play which Ibsen had spent years directing in the theatre prior to the writing of A Doll’s House. But the ending of the play – which (spoiler alert) sees Nora walking out on her untrusting husband and their children, slamming the door behind her – overturns the conventions of well-made plays and shocked audiences around Europe. As the critic James Huneker observed, ‘that slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world.’
The Master Builder. This play, seen as one of Ibsen’s finest mature plays, was first performed in December 1892. The precise meaning of The Master Builder has eluded critics, readers, and spectators for over a century, though male power (in a move that possibly anticipates Freud, Harvard Solness, the master builder of the play’s title, is building a tall phallic tower) has been suggested as a theme, especially given Solness’ history with a young woman, Hilda, whom he reportedly made advances to when she was a girl. But what makes this one of Ibsen’s greatest plays is his refusal to offer up a clear meaning or direct interpretation, with the play’s symbolism ultimately remaining highly suggestive but tantalisingly ambiguous.
Peer Gynt. Before his later, Naturalist plays written in prose, Henrik Ibsen wrote fantastical drama in verse. The most celebrated of these early plays is Peer Gynt, and it was for an adaptation of Ibsen’s play that his fellow Norwegian Edvard Grieg composed his famous music. The titular character travels from the mountains of Norway to the North African desert, meets a troll king, nearly marries the troll king’s daughter (whom Gynt manages to impregnate simply by thinking about sleeping with her), and takes part in numerous doomed business ventures.
Ghosts. First staged in 1882, Ghosts is Ibsen’s examination of the destructive effects venereal disease has on a family – like many of this later plays, then, it explores a secret at the heart of the family unit, something unspoken and perhaps unspeakable. Helene Alving is very pointedly Nora from A Doll’s House in an alternate universe: the wife who didn’t walk out on her husband, but probably should have done. The Daily Telegraph condemned Ghosts as ‘an open drain’ and ‘gross … indecorum’. With a wry sense of humour, Ibsen would follow up Ghosts with An Enemy of the People, a play about a poisoned drain (and supposedly, by the way, the play that indirectly inspired the film Jaws).
Four of Ibsen’s best plays are available in good English translations in Four Major Plays (Doll’s House; Ghosts; Hedda Gabler; and The Master Builder) (Oxford World’s Classics).