Thoughts on Ibsen’s The Master Builder (by Bethany)

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After Act I, I thought The Master Builder was going to be my least favorite of the four Ibsen plays in this book. After I read the whole play, it was my favorite. How did this change happen? I’ll explain.

Act I seems to be rehearsing many of the same tropes and patterns that were almost comically reiterated throughout A Doll House, The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler. None of these patterns are bad in themselves, and of course all writers have their habits and obsessions. But there is a sense –  and this is only one of the many senses in which I experienced these plays – that reading several Ibsen plays in a row is like watching a weekend marathon of a formulaic sitcom, in which you know from the outset that Cliff Huxtable is going to wear tacky sweaters and sneak fattening food and play the straight man to some adorable child or other, and then you both smile and groan at the dozens of variations that these patterns can take. And in Act I of The Master Builder, Ibsen seems to be up to his old tricks. Halvard Solness is the master builder of the title – not an architect, as the play explains, but an acclaimed master builder near the end of his career, known for building churches for the first half of his career and then developing an even more stellar reputation later in life for his creation of idyllic family homes. He also appears to be a bit of a jerk: namely, he seems determined to stifle the career of the son of his former partner (Ibsen’s plays abound with former partners – with pairs of characters who started their careers as equals, one of whom succeeded and the other of whom remained low and subservient to the first), and he also seems to have an appetite for younger women. He is actually fairly direct about the fact that one of his many reasons for refusing to allow his former partner’s son to do any independent work is that he wants to make sure that this young man will always be working in his office – making it all the easier for Solness to prey on this man’s young fiancée.

Late in Act I, the requisite visitor from the past shows up in the person of Hilda Wangel, a young girl who had a chance encounter with Solness about ten years earlier – on the occasion of the dedication of the last church Solness ever built – and has remained obsessed with him ever since. According to Hilda, Solness promised her on that occasion that he would “buy her a kingdom” some day and make her his princess (330). She even claims that he “bent [her] back and kissed [her] – many times” (331). Solness is very alarmed by Hilda’s presence and actually barely remembers her (although his wife does), but he is also clearly aroused and pleased by her attention. The ensuing discussion about where Hilda will sleep – Solness’ house has three nurseries in spite of the fact that he and his wife have no children (and he is a builder of domestic spaces, remember) – prompts Solness to reveal a great deal of backstory about a fire that destroyed Solness’ wife’s ancestral home and sent her spiraling into such a severe depression that she was unable to care for her twin infant sons, who died shortly thereafter, an incident that also took place right around the time that Solness dedicated his last church. The tragic fire and death of the babies was the event that prompted Solness never again to design another church.

In Act II, a few things start to become clear. It seems that in addition to being a master builder and a chaser of young women and a jerk, Solness is also a paranoid schizophrenic. Now, obviously I know that Ibsen would not have known that term, but it’s also clear that Ibsen has built a scaffold of characters around Solness who clearly know that he is not in touch with reality and who are determined both to protect him from the outside world and to protect the outside world from him. Their family doctor comes on command whenever Solness’ wife summons him, and the hushed conversations between them indicate that both the doctor and Mrs. Solness are deeply concerned about Solness’ mental illness. Second, it also starts to become clear that Hilda isn’t really a person. Instead, she seems to be a manifestation of Solness’ ego. As they talk throughout Act II, Solness and Hilda make reference to a “troll” that lives inside Solness. The term is first used in Act I, when Hilda remembers Solness promising to return “like a troll” in ten years and take her off to her kingdom to be a princess. Later, this term takes on a meaning much less out of a fairy tale and seems to come to mean an inner demon – a manifestation of Solness’ talent, perhaps, but of a talent that is dark and twisted and all-consuming. Solness seems to think that he’s made a sort of Faustian bargain in his life: “All my life I’ve been given to do, to build and shape into beauty, security, a good life – into even a kind of splendor… [but] I’ve got to make up for it all. Pay up. Not with money, but with human happiness. And not just my own happiness. With others’, too. You understand, Hilda! That’s the price my name as an artist has cost me – and others. And every single day I’ve got to look on here and see that price being paid for me again and again – over and over and over, endlessly!” (350).

By the way, running a Google search for images from this play was an interesting experience. The search produced many different pictures of a character I assume to be HIlda, all of which seem designed to play up her weirdness. She might look like this:

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or like this:

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or like this:

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All of these images, by the way, depart considerably from Ibsen’s descriptions of Hilda in his stage directions, in which she is described as wearing late-nineteenth-century hiking clothes: a short skirt and a sailor-style top. Nowhere is she described as wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, or having white-girl dreadlocks, or laying her head on a table as if she is about to be guillotined. But whatever. Artistic license.

In Solness’ disturbed mind, his talent has been elevated into a form of destructive magic. He asks Hilda, “Don’t you believe with me, Hilda, that there are certain special, chosen people who have a gift and power and capacity to wish something, desire something, will something – so insistently and so – so – inevitably – that it has to be theirs? Don’t you believe that?” (354). Solness and Hila also discuss the possibility that they both feel that “the impossible” sometimes “whisper[s] and call[s] to [them]” (350), an idea that also seems connected to this idea of an inner troll. Hilda echoes and agrees with everything Solness says about his beliefs about his inner powers, and her agreements seems at first to be merely the sycophantic echoes of a devoted servant, but later it seems as if she feels everything Solness feels because she is him, and she is the only character who can understand these powers he feels he has because she is him, and she feels them too. For the secular Solness, who gave up building houses for God and now only builds houses for people, Acts II and III of this play seem to take place in sort of a symbolic confessional, where Hilda takes the form of his psyche in some ways (possibly his ego, but I also think that Hilda is his conscience in some sense, and she wants to understand why he has made the choices that he has made) and also of the confessor or judge that he feels he needs to answer to for the choices in his life. Solness soon recognizes that Hilda has “the troll” in her too: “that’s what calls on the powers out there. And then we have to give in –whether we want to or not” (356).

As the play progresses, the conversations between Solness and Hilda become more and more symbolically weighted:

SOLNESS (looks at her probingly): Hilda – you’re like some wild bird of the    woods.

HILDA. Hardly. I don’t go hiding away under bushes.

SOLNESS. No. No, there’s more in you of the bird of prey.

HILDA. More that – perhaps. (With great vehemence.) And why not a bird of prey? Why shouldn’t I go hunting as well? Take the spoil I’m after? If I can once set my claws in it and have my own way.

SOLNESS. Hilda – you know what you are?

HILDA. Yes, I’m some strange kind of bird.

SOLNESS. No. You’re like a dawning day. When I look at you – then it’s as if I looked into the sunrise.

HILDA. Tell me, Mr. Solness – are you quite sure that you never called for me? Within yourself, I mean?

SOLNESS (slowly and softly). I almost think I must have.

HILDA. What did you want with me?

SOLNESS. You, Hilda, are youth.

HILDA (smiles). Youth that you’re so afraid of?

SOLNESS (nodding slowly). And that, deep within me, I’m so much hungering for. (357-8)

So Hilda is youth. She’s also a dawning day and a bird and a nymphlike young girl to whom Solness is attracted. She wants to be a princess and she confesses to feeling the presence of an inner troll. She is totally devoted to Solness in ways that initially seem creepy and weird, but that start to suggest that she is part of his psyche – a part from which he has become disconnected as he suffers with his feelings of guilt and tries to build houses that will somehow exonerate the horrible loss of his sons.

This play reminds me a lot of Long Day’s Journey into Night, a play that I love and that Jill is reading right now. Solness’ wife Aline is very much like Mary Tyrone, at once long-suffering at putting up with the whims and obsessions of her husband (and worried about him in his decline) and also terribly damaged in her own right. Both Aline and Mary and their husbands are still grieving for children who died as babies, and all four feel that they are guilty for the deaths of those babies. Both plays are about talent and genius and family and memory and the way the past can just open the door of one’s home and walk in.

I would love to see this play staged. Like the other plays in this volume, Acts I and II of this play are set in a home, and there is always an outer room, which makes up the bulk of the stage set, and an inner room that the audience can only see through a door – suggesting the various levels of privacy that take place within a home. Unlike the other plays, though, this play concludes in an outdoor setting, in which Solness proceeds to dedicate a new building, just as he was dedicating a building on the day he met Hilda. The fact that this play (and, by extension, this book of four plays) ends out of doors suggests to me an opening-out in symbolic ways as well – toward the infinite, I guess.

I had a few moments of frustration while reading these Ibsen plays, but overall I enjoyed them very much. It’s very interesting to see the obsessions of this playwright work themselves out over and over again using different materials. Of course we see this sort of thing take place any time we read multiple works by the same author, but in Ibsen this process seems more concentrated somehow, and is therefore easier to follow and trace. I do wish we had read The Master Builder in A.P. English and had spent more time on Ibsen in general in that class. I came away with a memory only of A Doll House, which is the simplest of the four plays in this book and by far the least interesting. I think A.P. students would love The Master Builder and many of the ideas it raises, especially if they could read it side by side with Long Day’s Journey into Night. I also think it might be interesting to read this play side by side with King Lear, which we did read in AP English, and which also deals with aging and parents and children and insanity and regret and memory and the encroachment of death. It might be interesting to look at Hilda and the Fool as parallel characters.

And maybe in April, when we read King Lear, I’ll do that.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Drama, Henrik Ibsen, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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