Although recognized primarily as Norway’s greatest dramatist of his generation—best known for his satires and his two plays with erotic themes, Balkonen (1894; The Balcony) and Kjoerlighetens tragedie (1904; The Tragedy of Love)—Gunnar Heiberg also enjoyed a reputation as one of his country’s established essayists. Beginning in 1879, at around the time he wrote his first play, Tante Ulrikke (Aunt Ulrikke), Heiberg worked for various newspapers in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. Living outside of Norway for some of his life and hence commanding a European perspective, he wrote frequently on topics involving theater—e.g. in Ibsen og Bjørnson på scenen (1918; Ibsen and Bjørnson on stage) and in Norsk teater (1920; Norwegian theater)—but also on Norwegian politics and the current debate on art. He wrote with a sense of urgency and clarity.
Heiberg’s primary essay collection, Pariserbreve (1900; Letters from Paris), includes portraits of authors, travel descriptions, and political journalism surrounding the Dreyfus affair. Another volume resulting from his residence in France, Franske visitter (1919; Flying visits), contains portraits of that country’s literary personalities. Examples of his essays on aesthetics can be found in the collections Set og hørt (1917; Seen and heard) and Salt og sukker (1924; Salt and sugar).
Heiberg contributed to the development of the impressionistic essay, which portrayed the personalities of national writers. This subgenre of the essay made possible the interpretation of works based on the temperaments of their authors. Heiberg’s portrait of the patriotic Norwegian critic and poet Henrik Wergeland (1808–45), for example, is among the most inspiring Norwegian portraits.
In his essays, Heiberg speaks to man’s inner strength. His descriptions are detailed studies in which he often suggests his personal engagement or observation. It has been said that Heiberg’s “artikler,” as they are called, afford a veritable view of his life and character. He abhorred the lack of personal conviction and personality he sometimes observed in individuals, addressing this condition with skepticism on the one hand and wit on the other. In the public sphere, he raised humanistic concerns above politics.
Along with Nils Kjær, Heiberg is noted for his stylistic mastery of the essay. The many nuances and associations of language in his work reflect the attitude with which he approached the multifarious sides of human experience. As James McFarlane (1993) describes Heiberg’s tone and content: “Acerbic, bitingly satirical, wickedly sarcastic when his indignation took command, he was at the same time possessed of a vision of love and passion and a faith in the potential for good in the individual which inform all that he wrote.”
Gunnar Edvard Rode Heiberg. Born 18 November 1857 in Christiania (now Oslo).
Studied law at the University of Christiania, 1874–75. Traveled to Italy, where he met Ibsen, 1878–79. Wrote his first play, Tante Ulrikke (Aunt Ulrikke), 1879: published 1883, produced 1901. Worked as a journalist in Norway and abroad, from 1879, including for the Verdens Gang (World progress) newspaper, Oslo. Artistic director, National Theater, Bergen, 1884–88. Married Didi Tollefson, 1885 (divorced, 1896); also married a second time. Lived abroad, especially in Paris: returned to Oslo, 1902. Died in Oslo, 22 February 1929.
Essays and Related Prose
Set og hørt, 1917
Ibsen og Bjørnson på scenen, 1918
Franske visitter, 1919
Norsk teater, 1920
Salt og sukker, 1924
Hugg og stikk: Artikler i utvalg, edited by Einar Skavlan, 1951
Artikler om mange ting, 1972
Artikler om teater og dramatikk, edited by Hans Heiberg, 1972
Other writings: several plays (including Tante Ulrikke [1883; Aunt Ulrikke]; Kong Midas, 1890; Balkonen [1894; The Balcony]; Kjoerlighetens tragedie [1904; The Tragedy of Love]; Jeg vil voe mit land, 1912; Paradesengen, 1913) and poetry.
Beyer, Edvard, Norsk Litteratur Historie, Oslo: Aschehoug, 1952: 349–53
McFarlane, James, “Norwegian Literature, 1860–1910,” in A History of Norwegian
Literature, edited by Harald S.Naess, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
Skavlan, Einar, Gunnar Heiberg, Oslo: Aschehoug, 1950:299–336
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