One passage of Ibsen's Wikipedia page reads as follows:

Ibsen had completely rewritten the rules of drama with a realism which was to be adopted by Chekhov and others, and which we see in the theatre to this day. From Ibsen forward, challenging assumptions and directly speaking about issues has been considered one of the factors that makes a play art rather than entertainment[citation needed].

As the "citation needed" notice indicates, this claim isn't backed up there, and the whole paragraph reads more like a eulogy of Ibsen than encyclopedic content.

Did Ibsen really transform theatre as a whole into something for "challenging assumptions and directly speaking about issues" rather than simply entertainment? If "theatre as a whole" is too broad, let's say at least European playwrights. I'm aware that he's one of the most significant figures in the history of Scandinavian literature, but how broadly did his influence spread, and to what extent can he be said to have transformed the whole literary landscape?


2 Answers 2





Ibsen had high ambitions for his plays. His early plays, such as Peer Gynt (1867), were written in verse to signal their seriousness. But beginning with The Pillars of Society (1877), he wrote a series of prose plays that upended contemporary norms both dramatic and societal. His earliest and most fervent champion in London, George Bernard Shaw, argued that in plays such as A Doll's House (1879), Ibsen inaugurated a new theatre of ideas that appealed to a new kind of audience:

The difficulty at present is that mature and cultivated people do not go to the theatre, just as they do not read penny novelets; and when an attempt is made to cater for them they do not respond to it in time, partly because they have not the habit of playgoing, and partly because it takes too long for them to find out that the new theatre is not like all the other theatres. But when they do at last find their way there, the attraction is not the firing of blank cartridges at one another by actors, nor the pretence of falling down dead that ends the stage combat, nor the simulation of erotic thrills by a pair of stage lovers, nor any of the other tomfooleries called action, but the discussion of the character and conduct of stage figures who are made to appear real by the art of the playwright and the performers.

This, then, is the extension of the old dramatic form effected by Ibsen. Up to a certain point in the last act, A Doll's House is a play that might be turned into a very ordinary French drama by the excision of a few lines, and the substitution of a sentimental happy ending for the famous last scene: indeed the very first thing the theatrical wiseacres did with it was to effect exactly this transformation, with the result that the play thus pithed had no success and attracted no notice worth mentioning. But just at that point in the last act, the heroine very unexpectedly (by the wiseacres) stops her emotional acting and says: "We must sit down and discuss all this that has been happening between us." And it was by this new technical feature: this addition of a new movement, as musicians would say, to the dramatic form that A Doll's House conquered Europe and founded a new school of dramatic art.

Shaw, pp. 212–213

†[Wisenthal's note] The reference here is to Breaking a Butterfly, an adaptation of A Doll's House by Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman, produced in 1884.

Ibsen maintained that his plays were not vehicles for his own ideas, but that they merely portrayed situations realistically; the social implications followed from the realistic portrayal. Responding to criticism of his next play, Ghosts (1881), he wrote:

They endeavor to make me responsible for the opinions which certain of the personages of my drama express. And yet there is not in the whole book a single opinion, a single utterance, which can be laid to the account of the author. I took good care to avoid this. The method, the technique in itself entirely precludes the author's appearing in the speeches. My intention was to produce the impression in the mind of the reader that he was witnessing something real. Now, nothing more effectually prevents such an impression than the insertion of the author's private opinions in the dialog. Do they imagine at home that I have not enough of the dramatic instinct to be aware of this? Of course I am aware of it, and act accordingly. ... They say that the book preaches nihilism. It does not. It merely shows that there is a ferment of nihilism under the surface, at home as elsewhere. And this is inevitable. A Pastor Manders will always rouse some Mrs. Alving to revolt.

Ibsen, letter to an unidentified friend, quoted in Flom, p. 76. Ellipses as given in Flom.

By virtue of their themes and technique, both A Doll's House and Ghosts were hugely influential not only in Scandinavia, but throughout Europe. Of the ending of the former, James Huneker remarked in 1905:

the slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world, and not over the knocking of the gate in Macbeth was there such critical controversy.

Huneker, p. 65

And Elettra Carbone points out that by the early 1900s, the play had been seen onstage in 46 different countries (p. 112).

The impact of Ghosts was even greater. The play's shocking subject matter (syphilis, adultery, incest, filicide) precluded its performance in mainstream theatres, necessitating alternative venues. Katherine Kelly writes:

The 1891 London production accelerated the circulation of Ibsen by an emerging counterpublic sphere with an expanding base both in the experimental London theatre and in allied circles of intellectuals and artists. Further, with Ghosts, a circuit of experimental exchange between Germany's "Frei Bühne," Paris's "Théâtre Libre," and now London's newly-formed "Independent Theatre Society" was activated. As Kirsten Shepherd-Barr has documented, the flow of Ibsenite influence through theatrical coteries quickly crossed national borders. George Moore, shuttling between Paris and London during this period, reviewed the 1890 Théâtre Libre production of Ghosts, including in the review an appeal for a London "Free Theatre" organized on a subscription basis. Within one year, J. T. Grein had organized such a theatre with Ghosts serving as its inaugural production. Ghosts inspired new forms of theatrical management in part because its scandalous story was sure to exclude it from the repertories of licensed theatres throughout Europe. As a defiant response to the rejection of A Doll's House as "immoral," Ghosts became a crusade in its own right, the fitting vehicle for the independent theatrical societies forming throughout Europe, many of which used subscription as a basis for budgeting and for circumventing official censorship.

Kelly, p. 19

Ibsen's radically new plays thus inaugurated a theatre of ideas where realistic characters and situations were used to depict social issues in heterodox, even shocking, ways. They revolutionized the form, the themes, and even the performance conditions of drama, not only in Scandinavia but throughout Europe and North America.


  • Carbone, Elettra. “Nora: The Life and Afterlife of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.” Introduction to Nordic Cultures, edited by Annika Lindskog and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen. London: UCL Press, 2020, pp. 102–16. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv13xprms.13. Accessed 20 January 2024.
  • Flom, “Henrik Ibsen: Some Aspects of his Life and Work.” Scandinavian Studies and Notes, vol. 10, no. 3, 1928, pp. 67–78. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40915254. Accessed 20 January 2024.
  • Huneker, James. Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists. New York: Scribner's, 1905, rept. 1925. Accessed at archive.org 20 January 2024.
  • Kelly, Katherine E. “Pandemic and Performance: Ibsen and the Outbreak of Modernism.” South Central Review, vol. 25, no. 1, 2008, pp. 12–35. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40040017. Accessed 20 January 2024.
  • Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 1891, rev. 1913, 1922. Shaw and Ibsen: Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism and Related Writings. Ed. and intro. J. L. Wisenthal. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1979, pp. 97–237. Accessed on archive.org 19 January 2024

Not a complete answer by any means, but he did address social issues in a way that was evidently seen as quite shocking (or at least highly controversial) at the time.

For example, A Doll's House is seen as quite feminist and evidently caused widespread controversy based on the fact the main character left her husband over his poor treatment of her. This was so controversial that at least one actress refused to play the ending that way and demanded that Ibsen change it. (I am, ironically, going to point to the Wikipedia article on that play for evidence).

So, at a minimum, he did "challenge assumptions and directly speaking about issues" in a way that caused widespread controversy.

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