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American Drama

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English Literature

You might enjoy a nice evening at the theatre, but when was the last time you considered the influence of American Drama in English Literature? American drama has produced some of the world’s most important playwrights, writers who have won Nobel Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, and made invaluable cultural contributions. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that American drama barely existed prior to the 20th century!

History of American Drama

Puritan, Revolutionary, and Early National Periods (1620–1830)

Drama had a slow start in American literature, largely due to Puritan New England. In the early colonies, Puritan immigrants saw drama as immoral, and theatrical performances were outright banned in some states during the eighteenth century in some states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Besides this, most of the early drama that was produced in the United States was brought over from Europe, including classics such as those written by Shakespeare. There was little to no new drama being produced in the country.

American Drama, A woman performs in a classic theatrical production, StudySmarterMost early theater in the United States was imported from Europe or Great Britain, Pixabay.

During the American Revolution (beginning in 1775) and the Early National period (1775-1830), literature shifted to reflect the changing climate of the new country. Most writings were political in nature and explored ideas related to the new government and the developing American identity.

Drama was no different, and many of the plays written during this period were political satires or propaganda to support the cause of the revolutionaries. These included Mercy Otis Warren’s The Adulateur (1773) and John Leacock’s The Fall of British Tyranny (1776).

The Nineteenth Century

As the nineteenth century began, drama was a popular form of entertainment; yet, it was still not considered an important part of American literature. American drama continued to lag behind the country’s broader literature, which was beginning to come into its own by the nineteenth century with the advent of American Romanticism (1830–1865), arguably the first uniquely American literary movement.

American Romanticism: a literary movement from 1830 to 1865 that focused on conveying strong emotions, individualism, and the beauty of nature.

However, as in the proceeding years, almost no significant dramatic works were produced in the United States. Theatre existed solely to entertain audiences.

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays were still popular, as were melodramas and comic minstrel shows whose jokes were often based on racial stereotypes and featured actors in blackface.

Building on the literary movement of Romanticism, melodramas were highly emotional and dramatic productions that focused on universal themes such as love, heroic quests, and good versus evil.

The minstrel shows of the same period featured musical entertainment and various comic skits and variety shows. The comedy of these shows relied almost exclusively on racist stereotypes of African Americans portrayed by white actors in blackface.

Perhaps the most memorable example of American drama during the 19th century was the stage adaptation of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. George Aiken adapted the novel to the theatre in the mid-nineteenth century. However, many of the productions did not honor the author’s original intent and strayed more toward the comic minstrel shows that were in fashion.

Theatre, in general, was still not taken seriously, and actors were not well respected.

However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the literary movements of Realism and Naturalism overtook Romanticism in American literature, paving the way for the first great American playwrights.

  • Realism: a literary movement that began in the mid-nineteenth century and focused on portraying life as it really was, even the parts that might be ugly or unpleasant. Authors told stories about the everyday lives of ordinary people and did not rely on elaborate literary conventions.
  • Naturalism: an extreme form of Realism, popular between 1865 and 1914, that focused on determinism and the effects of the environment and circumstances on the individual.

The Twentieth Century

The 20th century is where the story of American drama really begins.

Early to Mid-20th Century

In the early twentieth century, drama began to grow as a legitimate literary form in the United States, and some of the first major American playwrights were taking the stage. The first half of the twentieth century was rocky, with World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II turning the world upside down. American drama often reflected this upheaval, and many plays doubled as social commentaries.

Like other forms of literature in the twentieth century, American drama also became increasingly experimental. Playwrights played with form, structure, different narrative techniques, and vernacular language in their dramas.

Along with the dawn of literary Realism and, later, Naturalism in the mid to late nineteenth century, European playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), August Strindberg (1849–1912), and Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) began to write dramas that were more realistic. Together, these three playwrights are often regarded as the founders of modern drama. Their plays experimented with literary forms and put aside theatrics and melodrama to delve more deeply into the human psyche.

The work of these playwrights would be extremely influential for the upcoming generation of American dramatists.

As the literary movements of Realism and Naturalism gave way to Modernism, Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953), the first great American dramatist, began producing plays. O’Neill’s works, such as The Iceman Cometh (1939) and A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941), were complex, emotional, and serious, unlike any American drama that had come before them.

Modernism: a literary movement that began around 1914 and focused on style and structure over plot. Authors experimented with different literary forms, structures, and points of view, emphasizing how the story was told rather than the story itself.

Before O’Neill, American theatre was simply a form of popular entertainment, but O’Neill recognized and legitimized the medium’s literary merit. He became the first American playwright to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.

O’Neill was also associated with the Expressionist literary movement.

Expressionism: a literary movement that developed in Germany and made its way to the United States in the early twentieth century. Expressionism was known for exaggerating certain elements of the drama to express the intense inner emotions of the characters and the failure of social systems, including those related to government, family, and employment.

American Drama, The iconic Chicago Theatre, StudySmarterAmerican drama finally became internationally recognized by the middle of the twentieth century, Pixabay.

Mid to Late Twentieth Century

By the mid-twentieth century, American drama finally began to gain international recognition on a large scale. The two most influential playwrights of this period, besides O’Neill, were Arthur Miller (1915–2005) and Tennessee Williams (1911–1983). Works such as Miller’s modern tragedy Death of a Salesman (1949) and William’s classic dysfunctional family drama A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) remain some of the most performed plays in theatre.

Both of these writers used their plays to delve deeply into the American psyche, developing complex characters that explored the plight of the working class, difficult family dynamics, and the ins and outs of the human condition.

The mid-twentieth century also saw a rise in the success of African-American playwrights, including Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (1964), and August Wilson’s Fences (1985).

As the century progressed, American drama continued to diversify, evolving into the complex body of work we see today. Playwrights of the 60s, 70s, and 80s continued to tackle many important social issues of the day, including the civil rights movements, the Vietnam war, and the AIDS crisis.

Theatre also became increasingly experimental and creative, with American dramatists taking advantage of different structures, literary forms, and advances in theatrical performance.

Modern American Drama

Drama continues to be an important part of modern American literature. Modern American drama ranges in style from the hyper-realistic to the completely experimental and deals with a myriad of themes and ideas.

American Drama, An alternative theatre space for a modern American drama, StudySmarterModern American drama is often set in unconventional theatre spaces, Pixabay.

Works such as Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (2007), for example, delve into the deterioration of the modern American family, while Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (2012) explores post-9/11 Islamophobia and the American-Muslim experience.

Drama in the United States continues to be a place to explore identity, current social issues, and how Americans interact with and relate to one another.

The Importance of American Drama in English Literature

Until the 20th century, American drama had virtually no importance in English literature. However, writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams transformed American drama into an art form with considerable literary merit worthy of international recognition.

American drama has since produced some of English literature’s most noteworthy playwrights. These writers have influenced dramatists and other authors around the world.

American Drama Examples

The three most important figures of American Drama are Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams.

Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953)

Eugene O’Neill was the United States’ first important playwright and the recipient of the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature.

His works were generally tragedies that explored themes of disillusionment and despair in the lives of people in a variety of socio-economic positions. O’Neill used vernacular language in his plays to reflect how people really spoke and was the first writer to legitimize the literary merit of drama.

His most important works include The Hairy Ape (1922), The Iceman Cometh (1939), and A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941).

Arthur Miller (1915–2005)

Arthur Miller was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright. Like O’Neill, Miller was known for his complex and tragic depiction of inner emotions as well as disillusionment with American society and the American dream.

His most important works include Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953).

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

American playwright Tennessee Williams was well known for his dramas that tackled controversial subjects, such as violence and sexuality, that were largely taboo at the time.

His most important works include The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

Other Key Works

Some other important works of American drama include:

  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1962) by Edward Albee (1928-2016)
  • Fences (1985) by August Wilson (1945-2005)
  • Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991) by Tony Kushner (1956-present).

Features of American Drama

Much like American literature in general, American drama is such a diverse field that it can be difficult to identify common features. However, much of American drama deals with current issues, critiques social norms, and relies on in-depth character studies to drive the action.

Much of American drama, from the twentieth century to today, deals with the experience of the common man. The lives of the poor, the working class, or those on the fringes of society are often dramatized, and many works show how the lives of the characters are impacted by society and current events.

Many works are also intensely psychological, relying on in-depth, complex character studies to convey the inner experiences of the plays’ protagonists.

Many American dramas contain critiques of social norms, including disillusionment with the American Dream, unrealistic expectations of the American family, and the realities of classism and racism in the United States.

American Drama - Key takeaways

  • Until the twentieth century, drama in the United States existed primarily for popular entertainment and had no real literary merit.
  • Early forms of theatre in the United States included melodrama and comic minstrel shows.
  • Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953) was the first significant American playwright who helped American drama become recognized as a serious literary form.
  • Arthur Miller (1915–2005) and Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) were contemporaries of O’Neill, and the three remain among the most important American playwrights.
  • American drama explores many important themes, including social critiques, struggles of the common man, and the failings of society.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Drama

American drama generally refers to plays written in English by playwrights in the United States.

American drama was influenced by many different factors, including the work of European playwrights and various social, political, and cultural happenings in the United States and around the world.

American drama is a diverse body of work with many different characteristics. However, much of American drama deals with current issues, critiques social norms, and relies on in-depth character studies to drive the action.

Early forms of theatre in the United States were generally imported from Europe, including classic works such as Shakespeare. Following the American Revolution, theatrical forms such as melodrama and comic minstrel shows became popular.

American drama had a slow start in the United States because Puritans in New England considered theatre immoral. Theatre was even outlawed in some of the early colonies, and very little important drama was produced until the mid-twentieth century. After this, however, playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams helped bring American drama to the world stage.

Final American Drama Quiz

Question

Who wrote Romeo and Juliet?

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William Shakespeare

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When was Romeo and Juliet written?

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1597

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What are the names of the feuding families in Romeo and Juliet?

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Capulet and Montague

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Who is Romeo in love with before he meets Juliet?


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Rosaline

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What is the name of the man Juliet's parents want her to marry?

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Paris

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Which act is the climax of the drama?


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Act 3

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Who helps Romeo and Juliet to marry in secret?

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Friar Laurence

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Why is Romeo exiled?

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Because he kills Tybalt

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Where do Romeo and Juliet meet?


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At the Capulets' masked ball

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Which is NOT an important theme in Romeo and Juliet?

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Religion

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Does Shakespeare use prose or rhythmic verse in Macbeth?

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Both

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What is iambic pentameter?

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A verse consisting of five verse feet

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Which character talks Macbeth into murdering the King?

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Lady Macbeth

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The Witches predict that who’s dependents will ascend to the throne of Scotland?

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Banquo’s

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What promotion does Macbeth receive that makes him believe the witches’ prophecy might come true?

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He is promoted to Thane of Cawdor.

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Who kills Macbeth at the end of the play?

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Macduff

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Which of these is NOT an important theme in Macbeth?


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Love

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How does Lady Macbeth’s guilt begin to manifest?

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She starts sleepwalking and saying crazy things.

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Why does Macbeth kill the King’s guards after King Duncan’s murder?

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So that the guards cannot contradict his claim that they killed the King.

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Who’s ghost does Macbeth see as he entertains the noblemen in Act 3?

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Banquo’s

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Who wrote Macbeth?

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William Shakespeare

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When was Macbeth first thought to be performed?

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1606

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Who wrote The Crucible? 

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Arthur Miller

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What is the definition of a tragic hero? 

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A protagonist with heroic qualities who also has a fatal flaw that results in their demise. 

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What is a Puritan? 

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Any member of a Protestant group in England and the American Colonies that in the 16th and 17th centuries wanted to make the Church of England simpler in its services and stricter about morals.

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What is an allegory? 

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A story whose details (i.e., characters, setting, plot, etc.) correspond with another, often theoretical or abstract story, typically with a moral or message. 

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Who is the protagonist of The Crucible? 

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John Proctor 

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What is McCarthyism? 

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The practice of making accusations of treason and subversion with little to no evidence.

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Why does John Proctor refuse to confess to witchcraft? 

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To preserve his good name (and not betray his integrity). 

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Why does Abigail Williams accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft? 

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Because Abigail wants to be with John Proctor and to seek revenge for Elizabeth kicking Abigail out of the Proctor home. 

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What is spectral evidence? 

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Testimony about visions and dreams, which was initially considered credible during the Salem Witch Trials (but was later dismissed as not credible). 

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The Salem Witch Trials took place when? 

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1692

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Where was Henrik Ibsen born?

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In Skien, Norway


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When was Henrik Ibsen born?

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March 20, 1828

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Why did Ibsen go into self-exile?

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He was unhappy with his reception at the Bergen theatre and he was frustrated with the financial hardships felt by many throughout Norway.

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What is Henrik Ibsen's most famous play?

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A Doll's House (1879) 

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When did Henrik Ibsen die?

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May 23, 1906

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What are 4 examples of plats by Henrik Ibsen?

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A Doll's HouseHedda GablerPeer Gynt, and Ghosts.  

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What genre did Henrik Ibsen write in?

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Naturalism (drama and theatre).

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What is naturalism (drama and theatre)?

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A 19th-century literary movement that focused on realistic acting, the environmental and hereditary motivations of characters, and a deep study into the psychology of characters. 

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What was Henrik Ibsen's writing style?

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Ibsen wrote dialogue that flowed naturally and used colloquial language.

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What does colloquial mean?

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The use of familiar and informal language, especially in dialogue. 

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What is a theme?

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a central idea or topic that is found throughout a written work 

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What are two common themes in Ibsen's plays?

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Women's suffrage and their societal expectations, and the social class divide are two common themes in Ibsen's plays. 

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What is the Bourgeoisie?

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A social class that belonged to the upper-middle class that saw its rise after the fall of the aristocracy.

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What is liberalism (19th century)?

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The belief that citizens should get greater individual rights and protections.

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What is the Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, the founder of?

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Henrik Ibsen is the founder of Modernism in theatre.

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When was A Doll's House first debuted?

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In 1879

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Who is the author of A Doll's House?

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Henrik Ibsen

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Where is Henrik Ibsen from?

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Skien, Norway

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