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This chapter covers Ibsen’s years in Rome (1864–8), Dresden (1868–75) and Munich (1875–80). Often presented as a voluntary ‘exile’, the move to Rome followed a general pattern of Norwegian authors and artists going abroad for training and studies. Ibsen’s prolonged stay had to do with his need to keep a distance from political pressures and conflicts in a small and transparent society. When he moved abroad, he also left the theatre as the institutional setting for his writings and transferred to the Danish publisher Gyldendal. Ibsen experienced his Scandinavian breakthrough in the book market with the verse dramas Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867). Once again writing a play for performance, The League of Youth (1869), he ended up giving priority to the book. Throughout the rest of his career, Ibsen’s plays were issued as books before they were performed. The League of Youth became Ibsen’s breakthrough in the Scandinavian theatre, while at the same time initiating a rupture with the liberals in Norway. Ibsen’s conservatism became more outspoken throughout the 1870s, and, by the end of the decade, Ibsen had alienated himself from the emerging ‘Literary Left’, headed by Georg Brandes and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Pillars of the Community (1877), however, seemed to signal a cautious reorientation.
A Doll’s House (1879) and Ghosts (1881) represented major reorientations of Ibsen’s dramatic authorship, initiating a turn to middle-class life treated with tragic seriousness and radicalism. These plays made Ibsen the spearhead of the Scandinavian ‘Modern Breakthrough’, reaffirming his literary superiority, while at the same time bringing new levels of commercial success. The reorientation was made possible by the literary dynamics unfolding in Scandinavia at the time. By the early 1880s, Ibsen gave up on his ambition to get a foothold in Germany, moved back to Italy (1880–5) and once more prioritized his home markets. His association with the Literary Left was not a lasting one, however. With An Enemy of the People (1882) and The Wild Duck (1884), he distanced himself from social criticism and gradually established a position all his own. Moving back again to Munich (1885–91), he eventually experienced a breakthrough also in German literature and theatre from 1887, followed by Britain from 1889. After Ibsen again settled in Norway in 1891, he wrote for a European market, concluded his production with a series of self-reflective plays, and tried to frame his oeuvre as a continuously unfolding and self-sufficient whole.
This chapter traces Ibsen’s family background and childhood in Skien (1828–43), his youth as an apprentice to a pharmacist in Grimstad (1843–50) and his years in Kristiania and Bergen until he left Norway in 1864. Ibsen’s literary activity started before he left Grimstad and it continued in Kristiania. After failing the university’s entrance exam in 1850, Ibsen was offered a full-time position at the new Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. The theatre was dedicated to the training of Norwegian actors, the introduction of spoken Norwegian on the stage and the promotion of national dramatic writing. In 1857 Ibsen left Bergen to take up a position at the corresponding Norwegian theatre in Kristiania. The theatre experienced economic difficulties that also affected Ibsen’s finances, and more and more he came to experience the theatre as a restriction on his literary ambitions. These negative aspects have to be balanced, however, against the exceptional training these years offered the young playwright. Furthermore, Norwegian theatre by the middle of the nineteenth century was fully integrated in the European theatre business, and by the 1860s Ibsen had become acquainted with and had started to articulate his ambitions against the contemporary, French-dominated, repertoire.
Henrik Ibsen, the 'Father of Modern Drama', came from a seemingly inauspicious background. What are the key contexts for understanding his appearance on the world stage? This collection provides thirty contributions from leading scholars in theatre studies, literary studies, book history, philosophy, music, and history, offering a rich interdisciplinary understanding of Ibsen's work, with chapters ranging across cultural and aesthetic contexts including feminism, scientific discovery, genre, publishing, music, and the visual arts. The book ends by charting Ibsen's ongoing globalization and gives valuable overviews of major trends within Ibsen studies. Accessibly written, while drawing on the most recent scholarship, Ibsen in Context provides unique access to Ibsen the man, his works, and their afterlives across the world.