On this day…20 March

On 20 March 1828 Henrik Ibsen was born.

As the towering figure in European literature and theatre at the end of the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that Ibsen exercised an influence on the young James Joyce, not just through his writings but also through his conduct and his life.

Ibsen was born in 1828 in Skien, Norway, the eldest of five children. He left school at fifteen and was apprenticed to a pharmacist. He wrote his first play, Catilina, when he was twenty-one and moved to Christiania in 1850 where he became involved in literary and theatre circles. He worked as a theatre manager in Bergen from 1851 to 1857 after which he returned to Christiania.

Dissatisfied with Christiania, Ibsen moved to Italy in 1862 where he wrote Brand (1865), the play which established his reputation. Peer Gynt, his last verse play, followed in 1867 and Ibsen moved to Germany in 1868. Some of his best known plays, including A Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler, followed during the 1870s and 1880s. In 1891 Ibsen returned to Norway as a hero and there were major celebrations for his seventieth birthday in 1898. When We Dead Awaken was published in 1899, but a series of strokes in 1900 left him unable to write. He died on 23 May 1906.

Joyce was already reading Ibsen’s works before he left Belvedere College and it seems certain that one of the attractions for Joyce was not just Ibsen’s status as the preeminent European playwright but also the controversy that raged around his work. In Joyce’s view, Ibsen not only did not court popular opinion, he actively courted controversy with his uncompromising presentation of often taboo subjects.

Joyce presented a paper on Ibsen’s works (‘Drama and Life’) to the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin on 20 January 1900. His review of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken was published in the prestigious Fortnightly Review in April 1900 and earned him not just twelve guineas but also congratulations from Ibsen himself who communicated his pleasure at the article through his English translator, William Archer.

On 8 March 1901, as Ibsen’s seventy-third birthday approached, Joyce apparently wrote a letter to him in Dano-Norwegian. Joyce reminded Ibsen of his praise for the Fortnightly Review article and in turn praised Ibsen’s indifference to public opinion. It ended rather grimly with Joyce reminding Ibsen that he was an old man fading into silence! The letter has not been found among Ibsen’s papers and only an English draft is extant.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Tysdahl, BJ: Joyce and Ibsen – A Study in Literary Influence, Oslo: Norwegian Universities Press, 1968.


Read the National Library of Norway/Nasjonalbiblioteket Ibsen pages here.

Website of the Ibsen Museum/Ibsenmuseet, Oslo, here.

Website of the Henrik Ibsen Museum, Skien, here.