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the master builder

10 december 2016

The Master Builder is one weird play. It is very impressive and highly memorable, thanks in part to its weirdness. I first read it when I was being an Ibsen completist back in college, 40 years ago, and in preparing to teach some Ibsen for the first time in a while this year, I thought at once of re-reading it now. It's a thrilling piece of drama that makes so much emotional sense that you look straight past the fact that it makes very little sense as a window on the real world.

The master builder is a fellow named Solness. He seems to be a bit of a Pecksniff, if not quite as insufferable. He's an architect, though reluctant to call himself one because he has no academic training. He has poached his practice from an older architect named Knut Brovik, who now works for him, and he continues to poach strong new work from Brovik's son Ragnar. Solness is so afraid that Ragnar will strike out on his own that he's seduced Ragnar's fiancée Kaja Fosli, who clerks for them, and keeps her on a string so that she will keep Ragnar secured.

Solness has made his fortune by dividing up his wife's inherited real estate after a fire burned down her family home (and contributed indirectly to the death of the Solnesses' infant twin sons). As a result, Aline Solness has become more than a bit depressive, and the Solnesses' marriage is a mess, unhelped by the master builder's guilt complex, manipulativeness, philandering, and (what he perceives as) incipient madness.

So far, none of this is too weird; it resembles the set-ups of more realistic Ibsen plays like An Enemy of the People or Hedda Gabler. But into the play strides a young woman named Hilde Wangel. She may or may not come out of Solness' distant past. Did he have a pedophilic thing for her a decade ago? Did he promise then that he'd change her life, a decade later? Did he climb the steeple of a church he'd built? The latter seems least in character for Solness; he's deathly afraid of heights. But he's building a new house for his fractured family, and somebody will have to hang a wreath at its highest point. And when you introduce a climbing challenge in the first act, somebody is going to have to fall in the third …

125 years later, one imagines that Hilde's motivation for egging Solness into a big fall must be revenge for his long-ago molestation of her. But the emotional logic of The Master Builder truly doesn't work that way, at least not on paper. (And I wonder if it has to on stage; it seems important to me, for instance, that Solness never touch Hilde Wangel, though he should be all over the more flesh-and-bones Kaja Fosli.) Hilde, who seems quite ethereal, wants Solness to build "castles in the air," more important for people's spirits than earthbound homes or even churches. Caught up in her mysticism, Solness climbs to his doom. Meanwhile back on earth, Aline thinks he's just embarking on another of his adventures with younger women, the Broviks see him as exploitative as always, and Kaja sees herself as tossed aside. Only the ecstatic Hilde sees the end of the play (Solness falls, thankfully, well offstage) as a victory of sorts. Or is it only her victory over him?

The Master Builder is thus a typical domestic/professional drama suddenly shaken by magical-realist forces that its prosaic elements cannot control. Few plays in the Western repertoire generate as much energy out of their contradictions.

Ibsen, Henrik. The Master Builder. [Bygmester Solness, 1892.] In The Master Builder and other plays. Translated by Una Ellis-Fermor. 1958. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975. 121-211.