A Playwright Fighting Hypocrisy: Three Great Plays Of Henrik Ibsen

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has been recognized as one of the greatest dramatists in the history of literature, arguably the best one right after Shakespeare. He influenced many writers who came after him, with his bold themes and innovative realism.

Ibsen managed to push the boundaries of drama into previously unexplored terrain and to challenge censorship since he was often focused on revealing ugly truths and tearing away the masks of false morality in his society. Ibsen’s birthday is tomorrow (20th of March), so why not honor him by reading through some of his dramas? Our recommendation includes the following three: An Enemy of the People (read online for free), A Doll’s House (read online for free) and Ghosts (read online for free).

Henrik Ibsen is known as the father of Modern Theatre. He believed that the genre of drama could be effectively used as an artistic space for discussion, since this particular type of literary text comes alive on the stage and affects the audience in a different (and maybe more powerful) way than other literary genres. Ibsen denounced hypocrisy on two levels: the one that is a matter of the individual and the one that is a characteristic of the collective, that is – society. Self-knowledge and finally facing the truth are two of the most important moments in his plays, as he guides his characters towards difficult confrontations with reality. By exposing the true faces of his characters, Ibsen sent a clear message of criticism to his contemporaries. He was heard, and he was understood: from the very beginning of his writing career, he became the target of gossip and outrage from critics and others.

In the drama An Enemy of the People, readers are brutally reminded of the way a political system works. Ibsen here criticizes democracy as a utopian system that simply cannot serve its purpose since people are just too rotten. Plus, another big flaw of democracy lies in the following fact: although people are given the power to choose and they do have a say in the decision-making process, they are often incompetent or easily manipulated. An Enemy of the People shows the ugly truth: how one man who honestly wishes good for his community gets harassed and slandered just because his intentions do not match the government’s plans. This play is rather modern since it describes a situation that we have all witnessed or at least that we have heard of: a situation where there is political arbitrariness that often evolves into tyranny. In this kind of moral climate, an individual will often stay quiet and do nothing, since he or she feels the constant fear of retaliation. In the play, a man called Dr. Stockmann discovers that the water in the town’s bathing complex is seriously contaminated. Although he initially receives support and gratitude of some for his discovery, his brother, who is also the town’s mayor, orders him to cover up his findings and keep his mouth shut, since repairing the damage would be too expensive. Putting money before the health of his citizens, the mayor is a representation of careless politicians. The conflict between the individual and the government is in the focus. Dr. Stockmann refuses to give up, as he concludes:

You see, the point is that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.

A different set of themes can be found in A Doll’s House. Here, Ibsen questions the principles of marriage and how a woman’s role is seen within it. A surprisingly liberal point of view can be found here: Ibsen implicitly votes against patriarchy and male dominance overall. Marriage should be a sacred unity of love where two partners should be equals. One should never lose one’s identity in the marital union, but should instead respect the partner’s freedom in order to live in peace. A pretty modern understanding of love and relationships, don’t you think? The whole play focuses on women, specifically on the one named Nora. Here, she represents the majority of women, who do what they think is best for their families. Nora’s acts could be interpreted as courageous and even bold since she breaks the law (both the real one and the unwritten one) about what a woman may or should not or must not do. Nora is trapped inside her gender role, and she is trying her best to find her way in it. She is benevolent in her actions, and she sacrifices a lot for the well-being of her husband and children. Nora’s „sin“ lies in the following: she borrows money for her family, although her husband does not know about it. She lies and says that the money was a gift from her father. Finally, when the truth is revealed –after many plot twists – while speaking to her husband, Nora realizes the ugly truth. He treats her like a pretty object of which he can dispose as he wishes: she is treated like a doll when all she ever wanted was honest love in a partnership. Her thirst for freedom is present through the whole play, although it transforms its meaning:

Free. To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it. 

In Ghosts, there is a strong message about the dynamics of the relationship between the individual and society. The strange mechanisms of society force people to live up to other people’s expectations, which can lead to severe consequences. The pressure of maintaining a certain image in society can be far more harmful to one’s life than actually telling the truth. This pressure eventually destroys lives in Ghosts. With an unusually dramatic approach, Ibsen discusses the hypocrisy of society: like some sort of a collectively accepted truth, people have built their images and identities among each other, which oddly helps them to find their place in the community. Ibsen crushes these meaningless illusions by putting an individual’s life in the focus: is preserving a certain reputation really more important than living a peaceful and honest life? The title of the play refers to the speech of a character named Mrs. Alving, who speaks about the ghosts of duty that pressure her to keep in mind public opinion:

Ghosts! […] I almost think we are all of us ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks’ in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.

It is indeed a tragedy when a person becomes a ghost, in this sense. Being a member of the upper class, Mrs. Alving feels obligated to keep her late husband’s secret about his illegitimate child Regina, who is now a maid in the house. These plot twists may remind you of the ones seen in modern soap operas, but here – the message is clear. By thinking too much about what other people might say about this type of scandal, Mrs. Alving gradually ruins her own life and the lives of the people around her.

Henrik Ibsen was a master of psychology and realism. He really managed to show the full transformation of his characters by implementing the idea of time into his writings. For Ibsen, who we are is extremely important, since the past has shaped our present and never truly leaves us. Without any doubt, Ibsen was a great critic of masks in society, a critic of its hypocrisy and injustice. His other works are equally worth your time, they are easy to read, not too extensive, but really thorough in the cultivation of various themes.

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