Heinrich was born into a wealthy merchant family in a small seaside town. However, his father's fortunes soon faltered and the family was forced to declare bankruptcy. The poverty and poor schooling of his early years left a lasting impression on Ibsen, fostering a rebellious, belligerent and rowdy attitude. Flouting social conventions, which would become a theme throughout his life, teen Ibsen began engaging in practical jokes, drunkeness, gambling, and sex, and fathering an illegimate child at 18.
Norway had just recently become an independent country and Heinrich developed a patriotic fervor that led him to write poetry and become involved in politics. While studying for his University entrance exams, he composed his first play. His exams and his play were both failures. He then joined an underground revolutionary group which was broken up by the government, an experience that disabused him from political involvement for the remainder of his life.
He continued to write and enter into the literary circles of the Norwegian capital that allowed him to catch the attention of a famous violinist who helped Ibsen obtain a position as a theatre poet and director in Bergen. The 21 year old would spend the next 10 years directing over 150 plays, first at Bergen and later for the Norwegian Theater, during which time he married and had a son. The plays that he wrote were all failures and most people felt he would be a mediocre playwright at best. When the Norwegian Theatre went bankrupt, Ibsen fell into despair and turned to drink, despite having to support his family. He had enjoyed success with one play, but his unemployment, despair and disappointment over Norway's failure to support the Danes in war, led Ibsen to leave Norway and live in Europe for the next thirty years.
In Italy he wrote Brand, which became such a success that the government awarded him a small pension for life. With his financial pressures eased, Ibsen devoted himself to writing, producing a steady stream of plays, many of which were meant to be read rather than staged. His reputation grew in Norway despite his absence and he finally achieved European fame with plays that tackled social problems such as women's rights and veneral disease, angering the conservatives of the time.
Ibsen, in his later years, became increasingly aloof and isolated, rarely attending social functions or cultivating friendships (which he viewed as a costly luxury). In 1891, at the age of 63, he returned to Norway and was greeted as a national figure. However his success did not seem to satisfy him. The plays of his later period express a sense of regret about devoting his life to art at the expense of his personal relationships (or lack thereof). He suffered a stroke in 1901 that left him debilitated for the next five years until his death in 1906.