My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In my understanding of Ibsen’s career, The Master Builder (1892) belongs to the end of his realist period, where the biological and economic naturalism of such plays as Ghosts and A Doll’s House gives way to that infusion of naturalism with symbolism that will go on to characterize so much of modernism. In this, Ibsen returns to his pre-realist roots in such works as Brand and Peer Gynt, which juxtapose the metaphysical and the supernatural with the everyday. Ibsen’s great theme, early and late, was the conflict between the ideals that individuals and societies attempt to attain and the material world that hems them in. While the more activist naturalist plays rub the hypocrisy of bourgeois ideals into the face of the bourgeois audience, a work like The Master Builder seems to want, by contrast, to honor the nobility of the striving individual—though an air of irony, conferred if only by the stolidity of the middle-class furniture with which the stage is encumbered, hangs over the whole proceeding, even when the dialogue takes lyrical flight. (It should be recalled how crucially Ibsen influenced Joyce.)
This play concerns a self-made and self-styled builder—not “architect,” which implies more formal education—named Halvard Solness. Now middle-aged, he came to his present state of architectural mastery when his wife’s ancestral home burned down, the strain of which killed his infant sons, after which he was able to raise new houses and villas for the middle classes on the empty property. Finished with God after the deaths of his children, he deliberately turned away from church-building to build dwellings for humans. Now he lives in an uneasy tension with his dutiful wife and two assistants, a father and son he binds to him, fearing competition from “the rising generation,” by first refusing to allow the son to become an independent builder in turn and second by holding the son’s fiancee in erotic thrall.
Into this unstable and unsatisfying situation comes a young woman named Hilda who claims that she knew Solness a decade before when she saw him climb the steeple of the church he had just erected in her town to plant the wreath crowning his accomplishment, following which he kissed her—when she was only twelve or thirteen, by her own account—and promised that in ten years he would take her away and make her his princess. While her manner is half-zany, half-chilling, and her claims dubious, she seduces Solness through the second and third acts of the play to recall his own abandoned idealism, get over his self-imposed guilt for his wife’s suffering and children’s death, and climb the steeple of the tower he is building on his new family home. The dialogue, which in the first act had been so functional and prosaic, becomes uncanny with references to trolls and Vikings as Hilda summons forth the Nietzschean blonde beast in Solness from its respectable dormancy; Solness, for his part, believes that his desires materialize themselves in reality—which is partially why he blames himself for his wife’s family’s fire—so that he only has to want something for it to come true.
The Master Builder may be a bourgeois problem play, but it is also a tragedy; so the ending will come as no surprise. More puzzling is what we are to take from it, what moral we should ascribe to the drama—pride goes before the fall, as the Bible tells us, or, rather, as Goethe’s God of Faust counters, all who strive will be saved? The play’s social meaning is clearer than its metaphysical one: phallic and mythic, redolent of late nineteenth-century Decadence with its femme fatale leading the good burgher to his “voluptuous doom” (to cite Thomas Mann in reference to his gay revision of this topos), The Master Builder both envisions the spiritual regeneration of the middle-class even as it is unable to conceive the spiritual without visions of evil or at least amoral entities (the trolls), ancient bloodlust (the Vikings), and wicked women (Hilda, who, as if in an erotic trance like Wilde’s Salomé, keeps referring to what she is doing to Solness as “thrilling”). But social context does not explain all: the trolls and Vikings go back a long way in Ibsen’s work—we do not really read his Viking plays, but we do read Peer Gynt—and Hilda herself, I only learned after I read the play, appears in Ibsen’s earlier work, The Lady from the Sea.
In any case, there are live questions for contemporary readers of this in some ways old-fashioned drama: are boredom with and rebellion against middle-class respectability, conventional morality, and horizonless secularity worth what they may cost? And do we lead two lives as citizens on the one hand and creators and appreciators of art on the other—every citizen would approve of Solness’s seemingly stolid wife*, but every playgoer and reader, I am sure, wants to meet or wants to be Hilda. I know I do.
* Or not so stolid: with persuasive Christian alibi, she confesses to Hilda that she mourns the dolls she lost in the fire more than her children, who are, she reasons, in heaven. This might imply a certain aesthetic idealism on her part too.