Tuesday, 28 April 1998

Henrik Ibsen: The Master Builder (1892)

Translation: Michael Meyer, 1961
Edition: Methuen
Review number: 36

The Master Builder is one of Ibsen's later plays, and presumably shares some of the themes and preoccupations of The Lady From the Sea, with which it shares the character of Hilde Wangel.

Halvard Solness is a well known builder, a master builder, who has driven many of his rivals out of business in the course of his long career. He is currently building a house for himself and his wife, Aline, to be a home to properly replace Aline's family house which burnt down some years ago killing his twin baby sons. This is to be the culmination of his artistry, and will be an unusual house with a tall spire - Solness has become more and more obsessed with spires as he has got older. (The obvious psycho-sexual idea is clearly intended here.)

Solness also has a predilection for the society of young women. His book-keeper is Kaja Fosli, who is engaged to Ragnar Brovik. Brovik is the son of one of the men forced out of business by Solness, and acts as a draughtsman to Solness. Brovik has completed some excellent designs for a new house, and Solness' approval will enable him to set up on his own and marry Kaja, neither of which are events Solness wants to happen. He has a morbid fear of young men coming up and overtaking his business, as he did to older men some years before. (There are shades of Ibsen's distrust for the younger generation of playwrights in this.)

This situation of building tension is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Hilde Wangel. Ten years before, when only fourteen, she watched Solness climb the spire of the new church in her home town. She managed to get him to promise to return to take her away in ten years time, a promise instantly forgotten by Solness but the mainstay of Hilde's emotional life. The ten years up, Solness did not appear, so Hilde came in search of him.

Now, though, she discovers that Solness is no longer the man she thought him to be. He has become terrified of heights, and will no longer climb spires as he used to - indeed, he has difficulty remembering that he ever did. She persuades him to climb the spire of the new house, but he falls, and is killed to end the play.

As can be seen, the play is full of symbols and resonances with Ibsen's own life. Apart from the distrust of young people, Ibsen also enjoyed the company of young women in his old age. It is thus more personal than many of his other plays, which deal with perhaps more universal themes. Having said that, the theme of aging is one which comes to us all in the end.

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