Henrik Ibsen was born of well-to-do parents at Skien, a small Norwegian coastal town, on March 20, 1828. In 1836 his father went bankrupt, and the family was reduced to near poverty. At the age of fifteen, he was apprenticed to an apothecary in Grimstad. In 1850 Ibsen ventured to Christiania --present-day Oslo --as a student, with the hope of becoming a doctor. On the strength of his first two plays he was appointed "theater-poet" to the new Bergen National Theater, where he wrote five conventional romantic and historical dramas and absorbed the elements of his craft. In 1857 he was called to the directorship of the financially unsound Christiania Norwegian Theater, which failed in 1862. In 1864, exhausted and enraged by the frustration of his efforts toward a national drama and theater, he quit Norway for what became twenty-seven years of voluntary exile abroad. In Italy he wrote the volcanic Brand (1866), which made his reputation and secured him a poet's stipend from the government. Its companion piece, the phantasmagoric Peer Gynt, followed in 1867, then the immense double play, Emperor and Galilean (1873), expressing his philosophy of civilization. Meanwhile, having moved to Germany, Ibsen had been searching for a new style. With The Pillars of Society he found it; this became the first of twelve plays, appearing at two-year intervals, that confirmed his international standing as the foremost dramatist of his age. In 1900 Ibsen suffered the first of several strokes that incapacitated him. He died in Oslo on May 23, 1906.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, into a poor family, August Strindberg suffered a hard and unhappy childhood. He studied for a while at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, but left without a degree. Strindberg began to write while supporting himself at a variety of jobs, including journalist and librarian. The work that first brought him to public attention was the novel The Red Room (1879), a biting satire on Stockholm society that displayed his skill as both a literary stylist and a social commentator. Strindberg went on to write other novels, as well as stories and poems, but it is as a playwright that he is remembered. Sweden's greatest playwright, he ranks just behind Norway's playwright Henrik Ibsen as the leading Scandinavian dramatist. It is not easy to categorize Strindberg's plays. Many deal with social issues, but his own beliefs varied so often and so strongly that his works often contradict each other. Perhaps the only consistent theme in his plays is an abiding hatred of women, or more specifically, of women of strong will and character. The Father (1887), Miss Julie, (1888), and Creditors (1888) contain his severest attacks on women. Strindberg himself was married and divorced three times, and his women-hating plays may well reflect his own marital problems. Fascination with Strindberg has not decreased since his death. His enormous influence on European and world literature can hardly be exaggerated. In general, however, his novels and biographical writings have not been popular with English-speaking readers. His plays, on the other hand, continue to be widely read and produced throughout Europe and the United States. They helped introduce greater attention to individual psychological disturbances as a subject for theater, as well as a poetic and surreal approach to violence, pain, and suffering.
Hauptmann, Germany's outstanding playwright of the naturalist school, was by nature an experimenter. He was a strange mixture: sometimes a revolutionary, as in his greatest play, The Weavers (1892); sometimes the compassionate creator, as in Hannele (1893), about a beggar girl dreaming of heaven. The Sunken Bell (1897), his most famous drama, is an allegorical verse play on the quest for an ideal, similar in theme to Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in 1912 and was given an honorary degree by Columbia University in 1932, at which occasion he delivered an oration on Goethe. Hauptmann is one of the most widely performed German playwrights. He stands as a landmark between the classic and the modern theater. "The heroes of his plays were not from either the ruling class or the bourgeoisie, but almost always from the masses... .By 1913, Hauptmann's naturalism was known throughout the world" (N.Y. Times). Hauptmann deserves no less fame as a writer of prose. His earlier works, such as Thiel the Crossing Keeper (1888), show him at his strongest in the naturalistic mode. His characters are enslaved by their environment and by their own drives, especially the sex drive. In the Heretic of Soana (1918) Hauptmann concentrates on the power of the sexual urge in man in the story of the priest who gave up his church for the love of a woman, but he has moved away from the brooding excesses of naturalism. Frowned upon by the Nazis for having been a prominent figure under the Republic, which once favored nominating him for the presidency, Hauptmann never spoke out against Nazi tyranny but shook hands with Goebbels and accepted a medal. Yet when he died at his home in the Silesian Mountains, he had been about to move to East Berlin at the invitation of the Soviet Military Government. These events were forgotten or ignored during the 1962 centennial celebrations of his birth in the two Germanys.
Renowned literary genius George Bernard Shaw was born on July 26, 1856 in Dublin, Ireland. He later moved to London and educated himself at the British Museum while several of his novels were published in small socialist magazines. Shaw later became a music critic for the Star and for the World. He was a drama critic for the Saturday Review and later began to have some of his early plays produced. Shaw wrote the plays Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Pygmalion, which was later adapted as My Fair Lady in both the musical and film form. He also transformed his works into screenplays for Saint Joan, How He Lied to Her Husband, Arms and the Man, Pygmalion, and Major Barbara. Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. George Bernard Shaw died on November 2, 1950 at Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in the provincial town of Taganrog, Ukraine, in 1860. In the mid-1880s, Chekhov became a physician, and shortly thereafter he began to write short stories. Chekhov started writing plays a few years later, mainly short comic sketches he called vaudvilles. The first collection of his humorous writings, Motley Stories, appeared in 1886, and his first play, Ivanov, was produced in Moscow the next year. In 1896, the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg performed his first full- length drama, The Seagull. Some of Chekhov's most successful plays include The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters. Chekhov brought believable but complex personalizations to his characters, while exploring the conflict between the landed gentry and the oppressed peasant classes. Chekhov voiced a need for serious, even revolutionary, action, and the social stresses he described prefigured the Communist Revolution in Russia by twenty years. He is considered one of Russia's greatest playwrights. Chekhov contracted tuberculosis in 1884, and was certain he would die an early death. In 1901, he married Olga Knipper, an actress who had played leading roles in several of his plays. Chekhov died in 1904, spending his final years in Yalta.