Building Plans: Henrik Ibsen’s in four places (4 plays and a very early poem)

This is the latest piece of Ibsen’s verse that has been given to the world; but one of his earliest poems—first printed in 1858—was also, in some sort, a prelude to The Master Builder. Of this a literal translation may suffice. It is called,


 I remember as clearly as if it had been to-day the evening when, in the paper, I saw my first poem in print. There I sat in my den, and, with long-drawn puffs, I smoked and I dreamed in blissful self-complacency. "I will build a cloud-castle. It shall shine all over the North. It shall have two wings: one little and one great. The great wing shall shelter a deathless poet; the little wing shall serve as a young girl's bower." The plan seemed to me nobly harmonious; but as time went on it fell into confusion. When the master grew reasonable, the castle turned utterly crazy; the great wing became too little, the little wing fell to ruin.


Eilif Peterssen, 1895

Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) was a major 19th century Norwegian playwright, theater director, and poet.  He is often referred to as “the father” of modern theater and is one of the founders of Modernism in the theater.  His plays were considered scandalous to many of his era, when European theater was required to model strict mores of family life and propriety.  Ibsen’s work examined the realities that lay behind many façades, revealing much that was disquieting to many contemporaries.  It utilized a critical eye and free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of morality. Ibsen is often ranked as one of the truly great playwrights in the European tradition. Many consider him the greatest playwright since Shakespeare.

Hedda Gabler


A spacious, handsome, and tastefully furnished drawing room,
decorated in dark colours. In the back, a wide doorway with
curtains drawn back, leading into a smaller room decorated
in the same style as the drawing-room. In the right-hand
wall of the front room, a folding door leading out to the
hall. In the opposite wall, on the left, a glass door, also
with curtains drawn back. Through the panes can be seen
part of a verandah outside, and trees covered with autumn
foliage. An oval table, with a cover on it, and surrounded
by chairs, stands well forward. In front, by the wall on
the right, a wide stove of dark porcelain, a high-backed
arm-chair, a cushioned foot-rest, and two footstools. A
settee, with a small round table in front of it, fills the
upper right-hand corner. In front, on the left, a little
way from the wall, a sofa. Further back than the glass
door, a piano. On either side of the doorway at the back
a whatnot with terra-cotta and majolica ornaments.–
Against the back wall of the inner room a sofa, with a
table, and one or two chairs. Over the sofa hangs the
portrait of a handsome elderly man in a General’s uniform.
Over the table a hanging lamp, with an opal glass shade.–A
number of bouquets are arranged about the drawing-room, in
vases and glasses. Others lie upon the tables. The floors
in both rooms are covered with thick carpets.–Morning light.
The sun shines in through the glass door. 

in Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen, 1890




[SCENE.–A room furnished comfortably and tastefully, but not extravagantly. At the back, a door to the right leads to the entrance-hall, another to the left leads to Helmer’s study. Between the doors stands a piano. In the middle of the left-hand wall is a door, and beyond it a window. Near the window are a round table, arm-chairs and a small sofa. In the right-hand wall, at the farther end, another door; and on the same side, nearer the footlights, a stove, two easy chairs and a rocking-chair; between the stove and the door, a small table. Engravings on the walls; a cabinet with china and other small objects; a small book-case with well-bound books. The floors are carpeted, and a fire burns in the stove.

It is winter. A bell rings in the hall; shortly afterwards the door is heard to open. Enter NORA, humming a tune and in high spirits. She is in outdoor dress and carries a number of parcels; these she lays on the table to the right. She leaves the outer door open after her, and through it is seen a PORTER who is carrying a Christmas Tree and a basket, which he gives to the MAID who has opened the door.]

in A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen, 1879




(SCENE.—DR. STOCKMANN’S sitting-room. It is evening. The room is plainly but neatly appointed and furnished. In the right-hand wall are two doors; the farther leads out to the hall, the nearer to the doctor’s study. In the left-hand wall, opposite the door leading to the hall, is a door leading to the other rooms occupied by the family. In the middle of the same wall stands the stove, and, further forward, a couch with a looking-glass hanging over it and an oval table in front of it. On the table, a lighted lamp, with a lampshade. At the back of the room, an open door leads to the dining-room. BILLING is seen sitting at the dining table, on which a lamp is burning. He has a napkin tucked under his chin, and MRS. STOCKMANN is standing by the table handing him a large plate-full of roast beef. The other places at the table are empty, and the table somewhat in disorder, evidently a meal having recently been finished.)

in An Enemy of the people, Henrik Ibsen, 1882





[A spacious garden-room, with one door to the left, and two doors to the right. In the middle of the room a round table, with chairs about it. On the table lie books, periodicals, and newspapers. In the foreground to the left a window, and by it a small sofa, with a worktable in front of it. In the background, the room is continued into a somewhat narrower conservatory, the walls of which are formed by large panes of glass. In the right-hand wall of the conservatory is a door leading down into the garden. Through the glass wall a gloomy fjord landscape is faintly visible, veiled by steady rain.]

in Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen, 1881




A plainly-furnished work-room in the house of HALVARD SOLNESS. Folding doors on the left lead out to the hall. On the right is the door leading to the inner rooms of the house. At the back is an open door into the draughtsmen’s office. In front, on the left, a desk with books, papers and writing materials. Further back than the folding door, a stove. In the right- hand corner, a sofa, a table, and one or two chairs. On the table a water-bottle and glass. A smaller table, with a rocking-chair and arm-chair, in front on the right. Lighted lamps, with shades, on the table in the draughtmen’s office, on the table in the corner, and on the desk.

in The Masterbuilder, Henrik Ibsen, 1892


Born: March 20, 1828
Skien, Norway
Died: May 23, 1906
Christiania, Norway 

Norwegian playwright

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen made a tremendous impact on the course of Western drama. The best of his plays portray the real-life problems of individuals, with a skillful use of dialogue (conversation between individuals in a play) and symbols.

Early life

Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway. His father was a successful merchant. When Ibsen was eight, his father’s business failed, which was a shattering blow to the family. Ibsen left home at age fifteen and spent six years as a pharmacist’s (one who prepares and sells drugs that are ordered by doctors) assistant in Grimstad, Norway, where he wrote his first play. In 1850 he moved to Christiania (Oslo), Norway, to study. In 1851 he became assistant stage manager of a new theater in Bergen, Norway, where part of his job was to write one new play a year. Although these plays were mostly unsuccessful, Ibsen gained valuable theater experience.

Ibsen returned to Christiania in 1857, where he spent the worst period of his life. His plays either failed or were rejected, and he went into debt. He left Norway in 1864, spending the next twenty-seven years in Italy and Germany. He changed his appearance, his habits, and even his handwriting. He became distant, secretive, and desperate to protect himself from the real and imagined hostility of others.

Early plays

The main character in Catiline (1850), Ibsen’s first play, is torn between two women who represent conflicting forces in himself. Ibsen’s other early plays show him struggling to find his voice. The two plays he wrote during his second stay in Christiania were more successful: Love’s Comedy (1862), which pokes fun at romantic love, and The Pretenders (1864), a historical and psychological (relating to the mind) tragedy (a serious drama that usually ends with the hero’s death).

In the first ten years after leaving Norway Ibsen wrote four plays, including the immensely successful Brand (1866), about a man’s attempt to understand himself. His next play, Peer Gynt (1867), made Ibsen Scandinavia’s most discussed dramatist. Peer Gynt is Brand’s opposite, a man who ignores his problems until he loses everything, including himself. Ibsen called Emperor and Galilean (1873), a ten-act play, “a world-historical drama.”

Plays about current issues

Inspired by the demands of critics that literature should address current problems of the day, Ibsen set out to develop a dramatic form in which serious matters could be dealt with using stories about everyday life. Ibsen did not invent the realistic (based on real life) or social reform play, but he perfected the form. In doing so he became the most famous dramatist of the nineteenth century. Still, Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.

Henrik Ibsen. 

As used by George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), a great supporter of Ibsen’s work, the term “Ibsenite” describes a play that exposes individual and social hypocrisy (pretending to be what one is not). Examples are Pillars of Society (1877) and A Doll’s House (1879), which point out how the conventions of society hinder personal development. In Ghosts (1881), however, the character of Mrs. Alving discovers that there are forces within the individual more destructive than the “dollhouse” of marriage and society. The last of the “Ibsenite” plays, An Enemy of the People (1882), is one of Ibsen’s finest comedies.

Later works

After 1882 Ibsen concentrated more on the problems of the individual. The Wild Duck (1884) shows how the average man needs illusions (unreal and misleading thoughts or ideas) to survive and what happens to a family when it is forced to face the truth. In Rosmersholm (1886) a man raised in a tradition of Christian duty and sacrifice tries to break with his past. Hedda Gabler (1890) is the story of an unhappy woman who attempts to interfere with the lives of others. There is much of Ibsen, as he saw himself at the time, in Hedda Gabler.

Many of Ibsen’s last plays represent confessions of his sins. The Master Builder (1892), one of Ibsen’s most beautiful dramas, is the story of an artist consumed by guilt over the wife and children he has “murdered” to further his ambition. John Gabriel Borkman (1896) is a study of a man who sacrifices everything to his vision and is killed by the forces in nature he has sought to control. Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), is an artist’s confession of his failure as a man and of his doubts about his achievement. Soon after this play Ibsen suffered a stroke that ended his career. He died on May 23, 1906, in Christiania.

For More Information

Ferguson, Robert. Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography. London: R. Cohen, 1996.

Gosse, Edmund. Henrik Ibsen. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Reprint, Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978.

Ibsen, Henrik. The Correspondence of Henrik Ibsen. Edited by Mary Morrison. New York: Haskell House, 1970.

Jorgenson, Theodore. Henrik Ibsen: A Study in Art and Personality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.


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