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The Master Builder (Norwegian: Bygmester Solness) is a play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It was first published in December 1892 and is regarded as one of Ibsen's most significant and revealing works.
The play was first performed on 19 January 1893 at the Lessing Theatre, Berlin, with Emanuel Reicher as Solness. It opened at the Trafalgar Theatre, London on the 20th of the following month, with Herbert H. Waring in the name part and Elizabeth Robins as Hilda. The English translation was by the theatre critic William Archer. Productions in Oslo and Copenhagen were coordinated to open on 8 March 1893. In the following year the work was taken up by Théâtre de l'Œuvre, the international company based in Paris, and they mounted productions in Paris, London and other European capitals. The first U.S. performance was at the Carnegie Lyceum, New York, on 16 January 1900, with William Pascoe and Florence Kahn.
Halvard Solness, the master builder, has become the most successful builder in his home town by a fortunate series of coincidences for him which were the chance misfortunes of his competitors. He had previously conceived these fortunate coincidences in his mind, powerfully wished for them to come to pass, but never actually did anything about them. By the time his wife's ancestral home was destroyed by a fire in a clothes cupboard, he had already imagined how he could cause such an accident and then profit from it by dividing the land on which the house stood into plots and covering it with homes for sale. Between this fortuitous occurrence and some chance misfortunes of his competitors Solness comes to believe that he has only to wish for something to happen in order for it to come about. He rationalises this as a particular gift from God, bestowed so that, through his unnatural success, he can carry out His ordained work of church building.
Solness confides his beliefs to Hilda, a twenty-four year old woman whom he first met ten years previously, when she was fourteen, while Solness was building a fine new church in her village. Hilda unexpectedly visits Solness at his home. Although to Solness these fantasies are indications of his own madness, Hilda dismisses them as no more than rationalisations to appease his uneasy conscience regarding the supernatural "helpers and servers" he believes he conjures up to help him to worldly success. Later, however, Hilda plays upon these fancies to introduce in Solness' mind the notion that his desire for her, supposedly still fresh from their encounter ten years previously, has summoned her to him after ten long years. Solness warns Hilda that she may be the one with the mysterious power and that through her exaggerated memory of how she had once seen him at the top of her village church tower she may be the one whose secret desires are controlling events. Hilda concocts a fantasy of the earlier "ecstatic erotic encounter" in order to entrap Solness through awakened desire and guilt; however, all Solness can remember of Hilda is that she was "one of those little devils in white…screaming up at me". The realistic interpretation is that Hilda has maintained a girlish, erotic obsession for her "ageless prince" and has arrived to claim the "magic life" he can offer.
Meanwhile, Solness' wife Aline remains deeply hurt after losing her two sons to an infection contracted as a consequence of the fire that destroyed their home, and their marriage has suffered since then. It is of little consequence to her that her husband is building a fine house with an imposing tower for them to live in together, all in her honor. Prior to Hilda coming into his life Solness had lost his zest for the project, however Hilda and her plan to build a "castle in the air" together with Solness soon preoccupies Solness' mind and he renews his efforts. As a result Hilda persuades Solness to attach a garland to the highest point of the tower, as she had seen him do at her village church, although Solness has developed an intense fear of heights. Nevertheless, Solness ultimately agrees, however in doing so he falls to his death.
The setting and plot of The Master Builder can be taken as one of unrelenting, "frock-coated realism": the destructive outcome of a middle-aged, professional man's infatuation with a younger, teasing woman or, as critic Desmond MacCarthy prosaically describes this concept of the work: the tragedy of an "elderly architect who falls off his scaffold while trying to show off before a young lady". If, however, we take Solness's belief in his powers at their face value, the play can also be a lyrical and poetic fairytale, in the manner of Peer Gynt travelling the Earth in his magical adventures while the faithful Solveig waits for his return. On stage both interpretations are possible, although it is difficult to give equal weight to both meanings in the same production.
At the time Ibsen was plotting The Master Builder he was holidaying in the mountain resort of Gossensass and spending much time with Emilie Bardach, an eighteen-year-old Viennese student with whom he found a temporary "high, painful happiness" in a brief affair. Not only did the relationship presage the age differences in the play but the real-life prototype of Hilda made no secret of her delight at stealing husbands. "She did not get a hold of me", Ibsen was later to claim, "but I got hold of her—for my play". Theatre director Harold Clurman notes that many interpreters of Ibsen's text have associated his frequent references in the play to Hilda as a "bird of prey" with Bardach's predatory behaviour. After leaving Gossensass Ibsen carried on a correspondence with Bardach, but he continued to see Helene Raff, an acquaintance of Bardach's whom he had also met that summer. It was Raff who told Ibsen the story of the architect of St. Michael's Church, Munich, who had cast himself from the tower as soon as it was finished. Ibsen took this tale, a common legend at many German churches, as evidence of a pervasive human belief that a man could not achieve success without paying a price. From Ibsen's inscription in the copy of the play he sent to Raff (he sent no copy to Bardach) she too can be regarded as an inspiration for the unequal affair between Hilda and Solness. An equally obvious influence is Ibsen's relationship with Hildur Andersen, whom he met as the ten-year-old child of friends and who, when she had reached the age of twenty-seven, became his constant companion. He wrote of Hildur as "his bird of the woods", the phrase he initially uses to describe his character Hilda, but the character refuses this, accepting only that she is a "bird of prey", as was Bardach. The character of Hilda is a blend of all three women, but Hildur Andersen was the most significant.
The autobiographical elements Ibsen includes go further than his relationships with Bardach, Raff and Andersen: in the character of Solness Ibsen is drawing parallels with his own situation as the "master playwright" and the consequences in his own life. That Ibsen was offering a parable was noted in a review of the first London staging, when the translator, Edmund Gosse, was asked to explain the meaning of the work. "An allegory of Dr Ibsen's literary career", he replied.
Following the controversy attached to Ghosts, with its sensitive topic of inherited syphilis, the play's reception in London was not favourable. The more charitable reviews took Solness at his own assessment, as a madman, and decided the other two protagonists were mad as well. Some transferred the conclusion to Ibsen himself, his translators and his director. Even The Pall Mall Gazette, a champion of Ibsen's work, offered sympathy to the "daring" actors whose mediocre talents were unable to relieve the tedium of this lapse on the part of the "northern genius". The Daily Graphic, however, found the performances of Waring and Robins the "redeeming feature" of the production. At the end of the run at the Trafalgar Theatre run the two principals engaged a new supporting cast and secured a transfer to the nearby Vaudeville Theatre but, again, reviews were hostile.
The Master Builder was the first work Ibsen wrote upon his return to Norway from Europe in July 1891. It is generally grouped with the three other works written during this late period of Ibsen's life – Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken – as "symbolic plays" that lack the thematic clarity of such earlier works as Hedda Gabler. Early reactions to the play by Ibsen's critics were mixed, probably due its heightened symbolism, much of which is unclear. Hilda, for example, seems to alternate roles between an inspiring force, urging Solness to temper his rampant ambition and so find real happiness, and a temptress, pushing Solness to commitments he cannot possibly fulfil. English critic William Archer (the play's original translator) suggests that the play is not as completely symbolic as some have maintained, interpreting it instead as "a history of a sickly conscience, worked out in terms of pure psychology". He notes that in this regard the play is similar to earlier Ibsen works that deal mainly with a retrospective look at a character's psyche.
The Master Builder has been translated into other languages. B. Suresh has translated The Master Builder to Kannada as BaaLura Gudikaara meaning Temple Builder of BaaLuru. Kannada play has been directed by B. Jayashree.
The 2008 Malayalam-language Indian film Aakasha Gopuram is an adaptation of the play. Directed by K. P. Kumaran, the film starred Mohanlal as Albert Samson, the master builder, and Nithya Menen as his wife. Development of the film began in late-1980s but Kumaran wanted the role of the master builder to be done by none other than Mohanlal and he had to wait for nearly two decades for Mohanlal to get the matured look of Halvard Solness. The film started filming in early-2008 and was released in August.
Quotations from the 1893 Gosse and Archer translation
|Wikisource has the text of a 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article about The Master Builder.|