Archive for April 7th, 2019

“The Master Builder” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics


The Master Builder continues to puzzle and bewilder audiences and readers. When watching a performance in the theatre, or reading the text at home, one can hardly miss its intense, life-and-death seriousness. But what is it all about? All kinds of possible interpretations have been put forward – that it is a political allegory, a representation of Man turning against God, a dramatisation of inter-generational conflict, an exploration of Nietzschean concepts of morality, and so on. Ibsen himself, when asked about its interpretation, replied that he simply wrote about people, and that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Of course, he was being disingenuous, but perhaps that is not a bad way of approaching this inscrutably obscure drama. It’s not that the play is not about a great many different themes and ideas, but, perhaps, none of that makes too much sense unless we engage first with the people – the characters on stage who carry the drama.

The setting seems realistic enough. In the first scene, we are in an office in the house of master builder Halvard Solness, and we see his employees at their work. This could easily be the setting of a realistic social drama, such as The Pillars of Society. And indeed, in the course of the drama, nothing happens that is unrealistic – in the sense that nothing happens that is physically impossible. But yet, it becomes impossible to take this drama on purely realistic terms. At the heart of the drama are a number of scenes between Master Builder Solness, and his young visitor, Hilde Wangel (whom we had seen in the earlier play The Lady From the Sea), and the duologues between them seem to make little sense if considered from a strictly realistic perspective. From such a perspective, we could say that they are both, in essence, mad – that they are both locked into their own personal fantasies, and that these fantasies somehow feed off each other. We could say that, on occasion, the reality of the lives around them enter into their fantasies; but equally – and, by the end, fatally – their fantasies also obtrude into the real world.

But to leave it there is to relegate this drama into the realms of nonsense: what interest could there possibly be in the fantasies of two crazy people? The reviews of the first London performance did, indeed, see the play in such terms (there’s a wonderful collection of quotes from these reviews in Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen): “… a play written rehearsed, and acted by lunatics”; “… platitudes and inanities…”; “… the most dreary and purposeless drivel … pointless, incoherent, and absolutely silly…”; “three acts of gibberish…”; “dull, mysterious, unchaste”.

It is easy to look back on such uncomprehending early criticism, and congratulate ourselves on our greater understanding, but it remains true, I think, that if we fail to enter imaginatively into the fantasy worlds created by Solness and by Hilde, and if we fail to see these fantasies as important counterpoints to the very real and solid world with which they overlap, then the criticisms quoted above may be seen as entirely reasonable, and “dull, mysterious, unchaste” may appear an entirely reasonable summary. Ibsen did, indeed, as he insisted, portray people, but to understand the nature of the people he portrayed, we must prepare ourselves to enter into their fantasies, and take them as seriously as the reality which, throughout all the dramatic complexities, never quite go away.

The opening scenes are very realistic indeed: Ibsen needed a strong, solid base on which to build. Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, as the Norwegian title proclaims) is described in the stage directions as being in his “late middle age”: I think we can take that to mean he is in his 50s – hardly in the first flush of youth, but far from descended into the vale of years: we see him as vigorous, energetic, masterful, exerting his personal power over people around him; and, if the drama that unfolds is to make sense, he is charismatic, and still sexually attractive. Certainly Kaja, his bookkeeper, is completely in thrall to him: he is, naturally, fully aware of the power he exerts over Kaja, and is happy to take advantage of it.

Kaja’s intended, Ragnar Brovik, and Ragnar’s father Knut, also work in the office, as architects and designers. Old Knut Brovik once had his own construction business, but that had failed, and we see him merely an underling of Solness. Now, obviously old and ill, he would like to see his son succeed in the business, and he asks Solness to recommend Ragnar’s design for a commission, but Solness, terrified of the thought of being supplanted by a younger generation (as he, as a young man, had supplanted Knut Brovik), angrily refuses.

BROVIK: Am I to depart this life so poor?

SOLNESS [appears to be  struggling with himself; at length he says quietly, but firmly]: You will have to depart this life as best you can.

BROVIK: Well, so be it. [He walks away.]

SOLNESS [going after him, almost despairingly]: But I can’t do otherwise, you see! I am the way I am, after all!

Like God Almighty, he is what he is.

This opening exchange lays bare the essential character of Solness. He can be cruel, he can hurt people; but cruelty is not something that comes to him naturally. He has to struggle with himself before he utters those immensely cruel words “You will have to depart this life as best you can”. And afterwards, he has to try to explain himself. As the scene continues, we see him pour out a glass of water for his employee, and seeing that he is ill, advises Ragnar to take his father home. He is not amoral: he has a sense of what is right and what is wrong, of what is kind and what is cruel, but he cannot do otherwise: he is what he is.

So far, so realistic: this could still be a play from Ibsen’s earlier years. But in the scene that follows between Solness and the doctor, Solness comes out with the most extraordinary paranoia: has not Aline, Solness’ wife, asked the doctor to keep an eye on him? Has not Aline confided to the doctor that she thinks he is … mad? The doctor denies this, but Solness doesn’t quite believe him.

Because to some extent, you see, she – she might have reason to think such a thing.

Solness changes the subject quickly after this, but if we had thought this a realistic play, we are, perhaps, a bit less sure of our ground now. The ground shifts even further as Solness tell the doctor that he feels that he has certain supernatural powers: his deepest desires, he feels, though unspoken, somehow communicate themselves to others, and these others, unbidden, serve him: he can, he is convinced, bend the will of others to his own merely by desiring.

And then there comes a most extraordinary exchange that seems to confirm Solness’ suspicions concerning his own sanity. Contrary to the doctor’s suspicions, he is not, he insists, having an affair with his bookkeeper Kaja, but he allows his wife to suspect that he is:

Because I feel there is a kind of – kind of salutary self-torture for me in simply allowing Aline to think unjustly of me … it’s like paying off some portion of some vast and bottomless debt …

The doctor at this point throws up his hands and says he doesn’t understand a word of this, and we in the audience may start feeling the same. But Solness goes further: he is frightened. Yes, he has been successful in his career, “but at some point, the turn will come”. The younger generation will rise up, he says, and will overthrow him. Youth will come knocking at the door. And, as if to underline how far we have strayed by this point from the strict realism with which the play had begun, there is indeed a knock on the door at this precise point, and it is indeed youth who is knocking. But not the youth that Solness had been expecting: it is a young lady, a stranger, Hilde Wangel, who seems to have known Solness, but whom he cannot recognise. Having laid the basis of the drama in these few short but densely packed scenes that start with strict realism, but which, in Solness’ conversation with the doctor, drift towards what seems like madness, Ibsen now introduces Hilde, the final character of the drama. The prologue, as it were, is now over.

Hilde had appeared in a play Ibsen had written some four years earlier – The Lady from the Sea. There, we had seen her a teenager, living with her elder sister and her father, both gentle and loving souls, and with her stepmother, from whom she feels alienated. The play does end with a promise of renewal, but Hilde herself had emerged a not entirely sympathetic character: she is fascinated by the fact that a neighbouring young man is, unknown to himself, terminally ill, and, while others are kind to him despite his foolish and conceited nature, she teases him mercilessly. There was, in that play, something predatory about her, a certain failure of human empathy. Ibsen presumably felt that given the supporting role she had played in that drama, there wasn’t room to develop her character as he might ideally have wanted; whether he did or not, he brings her back here, and allots her a more prominent role. There is still an element of the predatory about her: though it is not explicitly stated – virtually nothing is explicitly stated in this play – she has certainly come to take Solness away from his wife. But there is more. She is, we find out, also locked into her own personal fantasies, although how much of her fantasy is also real is, from the beginning, uncertain, and open to question.

Solness does not recognise her at first. She has to remind him: some ten years ago, when she had been about twelve or thirteen, Solness had gone up north to Lysanger, Hilde’s hometown, to build a church. And, on that occasion, to consecrate the new church, Solness had climbed up the high tower and had placed upon it a wreath. Hilde describes the scene in almost ecstatic terms:

… it was so splendid and so terribly exciting. I couldn’t believe there was a master builder in all the world who could build such an enormously high tower. And then the fact that you were standing up there yourself, at the very top! In person! And that you weren’t the slightest bit dizzy. That was the most – kind of – dizzying thought of all.

But there is more. Hilde goes on to claim that afterwards, he, Solness, had found her alone, and had told her she looked beautiful, like a princess. Solness has no recollection of this, but Hilde continues. He had promised that in ten years’ time he would return like a troll; that he would carry her off; and that he would buy her a kingdom, and a castle. Solness feels uneasy: he doesn’t remember this, but doesn’t contradict her. But then, Hilde says, he had bent her back and had kissed her, passionately, many, many times.

In our own times, with our greater awareness of child abuse, we are likely to find this narration deeply shocking. I think it is intended to be shocking. There can be no excuse for any man behaving in such a manner with a twelve-year-old girl. And indeed, at this point, Solness himself is very deeply shocked by the accusation, and he vehemently denies it. But, very disconcertingly, she is not accusing him: she has come, she says, to claim what she had been promised – her kingdom and her castle. The ten years, she says, are up, and since he hadn’t come to her, she has had to come to him. And in a tone that seems both joking and serious at the same time, she claims from the Master Builder the promised kingdom.

Solness first claims that all this is something she may have dreamed, but then seems to halt in his tracks: “Wait, though,” he says, “there’s something here that goes deeper…” Could it be that the memory of actually having done all this now resurfaces? Or could it be that he thinks that he had communicated to her his unspoken desire, and, as he is convinced he has the ability to do, he had, through some supernatural power, bent her will to his? We never do find out whether the story Hilde tells is indeed true – whether Solness really had done all this. But true or not, Solness, though remaining puzzled as to her true motive in seeking him out after all these years, is happy that she had come: he seems to find in her someone who is, if not necessarily a kindred spirit, someone he could talk with openly, in the hope of being understood. He invites her to stay in his house, in one of the three empty rooms, the nurseries that have never been used.

In the course of the play, a series of quite extraordinary duologues develop between Solness and Hilde, as each invites the other into their own fantasy, and they find these fantasies, in effect, complementing each other. If we are to look at it purely from a realistic perspective – and while this is not the only perspective, it is one always worth bearing it in mind – regardless of whether or not Solness had made advances towards the then twelve-year-old Hilde, she had been drawn to him; and now, a grown-up woman, she has come to take him away from his wife. And he – again regardless of whether or not the reported incident had actually happened – had secretly desired her then; for how could he have communicated his desire to her if he had not desired in the first place? And he continues to desire her now. But that is only a very partial view of the drama. To get to the mysterious and elusive heart of the play, we must enter into their fantasies, which develop on a related but somewhat plane from reality. We seem, in some ways, to be back in the world of Peer Gynt, where reality and fantasy seem to exist and develop side by side, interpenetrating and reflecting each other, but never quite touching.

There is, of course, a third point in the triangle: Aline, Solness’ wife, to whom Solness feels he owes a “vast and bottomless debt”. In the first two acts, she seems a pallid, almost a ghostly, presence, solicitous of her husband, but very unlike her husband: she is retiring and self-effacing, and almost entirely passive. When she says she will help Hilde settle in, she adds it’s her “duty”. The emptiness of duty devoid of love had been a theme in many of Ibsen’s earlier work – in particular, Ghosts – and this sense of emptiness strikes Hilde forcibly. Why had she not said she would help Hilde because she wanted to? This emphasis on duty has such a coldness about it.

But before this, there had been a brief but remarkable scene between Solness and Aline, which, like so much else in this play, seems almost impossible to summarise. Solness, we know, feels guilty towards his wife, although we do not yet know why. In this scene, she surprises him by expressing her own sense of guilt. “I should have hardened myself. Not let the shock get hold of me.” We cannot be sure at this stage what she is referring to. Solness tries to assure her that things would be better for them once they move into their new house, but she can see no such hope. Eventually, Solness gives up trying to persuade her, and vents his frustration:

SOLNESS [clenching his hands and crossing the floor]: Oh, but this is all so hopeless! Never a ray of sunshine! Not so much as a glimmer of light falling into this house!

MRS SOLNESS: This is no home, Halvard.

SOLNESS: No, well may you say that. [Heavily] And God knows you could be right – maybe things won’t get any better for us in the new house either.

MRS SOLNESS: They never will. Just as empty. Just as desolate. There as here.

The worst is that these two, caught in their joyless life together, are actually solicitous for each other, and have for each other a kind of love, even in their mutual misery. Later in the play, Solness describes his marriage in startlingly vivid terms:

And now she’s dead – for my sake. And I am chained, living, to the dead. [Frantically] I – I – who cannot live a joyless life!

The soul within Aline seems dead. At the start of the third and final act, Hilde has a scene with Aline, after which she says “I have just climbed out of a tomb … I am chilled to the bone…” In Ghosts, Ibsen had depicted a world stripped of human joy by insistence on duty – unquestioning duty that is to be carried out for its own sake, without love. Here, similarly, Solness, who cannot live without joy, feels he is chained to a corpse. But if Aline is indeed a corpse, Solness knows it is he who has killed her. This is the “vast and bottomless debt” he feels for her, and he is caught hopelessly between this immense sense of obligation he feels for her, and an overwhelming desire to break free.

The past that has led to this present is related in Act Two – but then again, only through Solness’ narration, which is not necessarily the most reliable. He has, in his career, been successful, but that success had only come at a great cost. His wife’s family home had burnt down, to the ground. This had given him the opportunity to divide the estate into small plots, and build houses on them. And that fire he had willed. He had noticed a fatal crack in the flue of the old house which, if not seen to, could cause a catastrophic fire; and every day, he would look at that crack, willing the disaster to happen. And yet, when the fire did happen, it wasn’t because of that crack: it was proven that the fire had started elsewhere. However, he had willed it: that, for Solness, was enough:

SOLNESS [confidentially]: Hilde, don’t you too believe that there are certain special, chosen people who have been granted the blessing and the power and the ability to wish for something, desire something, want something so deeply and so – so inexorably – that they’re bound to get it in the end? Don’t you believe that?

In Solness’ mind, there are, as he calls them, “helpers and servants” – supernatural beings who are summoned merely by the fact of his desire. And so, because he had willed it, the house had burnt down, and the entire family had had to evacuate into the freezing cold night. And the price paid was even greater than the house: their newborn infant sons, twins, had died shortly afterwards. But for this, Solness refuses to accept responsibility: he claims that Aline had caught a chill that night, and that her breast-milk had become infected; but that she had insisted that it was her duty to carry on breast-feeding them.

Now, this part of Solness’ narrative I, personally, would take with great scepticism. First of all, there is no evidence, either in medicine or in popular folk belief, that this can happen. And secondly, even if this really did happen, one may justly ask how Solness, in those days before full post-mortems, could be so sure of it. I would guess that this is another of Solness’ fantasies, part of the mythology he has created around himself. He is prepared to invent the mythology of his “helpers and servants” to justify the immense sense of guilt he feels for his wife, but to accept responsibility for the death of his children was too much, even for him; and here, I think, he had to transfer the guilt to his wife, and, significantly, to that particular aspect of his wife’s character that he finds so intolerable – that sense of loveless duty.

Later, at the start of the third act, Hilde speaks with Aline, and, like her husband, Aline finds herself telling things to Hilde that she is unlikely to have told anyone else – certainly not to her spouse. To Hilde’s surprise, Aline feels no remorse for the death of the children: that was God’s will, and it is her duty to accept. But it’s the smaller things that hurt more – things that to most other people may appear insignificant: in that fire, her childhood dolls had been burnt, and that she cannot come to terms with. Her connection with the past, her childhood, had been destroyed.

We are not told this, but we may infer that, after the fire, after the death of their children (of which the symbolically empty nurseries stand as a permanent reminder), she had suffered some sort of mental breakdown. Which, of course, would have been untreated in those days. In an earlier scene with her husband, she blames herself not for the death of the children (that story about the infected breast milk is, I think it is safe to assume, entirely Solness’ fantasy), but for not being strong enough after the tragedy had struck. And so she remains, a living corpse to whom the still vigorous Solness finds himself chained. This is what he has willed – this is the desire his “helpers and servants” have brought to fruition.

This is what folk call having Fortune on your side. But let me tell you how that Fortune feels! It feels like a large, raw patch here on my chest. And the helpers and servants, they go around tearing chunks of skin off other people in order to close my wound. But sill the wound won’t heal.

Hilde diagnoses him: he has an “ailing conscience”. This is not the Master Builder she had pictured. She had pictured a man with a robust conscience, a man unafraid to strive for what he desired. That was the man whom she had seen those ten years ago, on the tower, unafraid, not dizzy. And she had heard “harps in the air”. Soon afterwards, Hilde hears from Aline that Solness is actually afraid of heights, and dare not climb up towers any more. Hilde is outraged. Is it true that “my master builder dare not – cannot – climb as high as he actually builds?” Does he, after all, have a “dizzy conscience”?

It would be easy to see Hilde as merely a harpy, compelling Solness to leave behind his moral obligations. And while there is certainly some truth in this, this is not the entire truth either. After all, it is she who persuades Solness to do the right thing with Ragnar Brovik, and to approve his design. And, after speaking with Aline, she seems to lose her own will: her conscience, too, is not as “robust” as she had thought.

I cannot hurt someone I know! Cannot take away something that belongs to her.

Solness, too, acknowledges his moral  obligations:

HILDE: That a person doesn’t dare to reach out and seize his own happiness. His own life! Simply because someone they know is standing in his way!

SOLNESS: Someone they’ve no right to pass by.

HILDE: Who’s to say one doesn’t, in fact, have the right to do that? But, then again – Oh, if only one could sleep through the whole thing!

Hilde’s hopes seem dashed. Claims of moral obligation, which she had once thought dispensable, now assert themselves. As Rebecca West had found in Rosmersholm, the Rosmer way of life ennobles, but … but it kills happiness. It makes impossible the joy that Solness cannot live without.

And now, Solness, in the final duologue between them, tells her of what he had actually done when she had seen him on that one occasion, defying his fear of heights and actually climbing that tower. It had been ten years ago, shortly after the death of his children.

Solness had, he tells Hilde, come from a “religious home from a small village”. And he had believed that building churches was the finest thing he could do.

SOLNESS: I feel he ought to have been pleased with me.

HILDE: He? Who’s he?

SOLNESS: Him – the one the churches were for, of course! The one they were meant to glorify and praise!  

Solness cannot even bring himself to speak God’s name. But that day, on top of that tower that he would usually be afraid to climb, he had rebelled against God, whose name even now he is unable to articulate. He had said to God that he shall no longer build churches. He shall build houses – houses for people to live in. But it was no good: for at the centre of Solness’ own house remain those empty, desolate rooms. John Rosmer, having rejected the God he had once believed in, but unable to shake off the God-given guilt, had to pass judgement on himself; Solness, similarly having rejected Him whom he cannot even name, and similarly weighed down by guilt, now faces the horrifying fact of nothingness:

So you see, that’s what it all amounts to, no matter how far I look back. Nothing built, basically. And nothing sacrificed to be able to build anything either. Nothing, nothing – all of it.

This contemplation of nothingness is the bleakest point of the drama – its moral and spiritual nadir. But there is a coda. Solness and Hilde, from this point onward, both appear to retreat completely into the fantasy worlds they have created for themselves. Solness will give his princess the castle he had promised her, and it will be the finest castle that may be built – a castle in the air. He will, once again, defy his dizziness: he will climb the tower, and prove himself free. To Aline Solness, living in the real world and terrified for her husband’s safety, he is foolishly endangering his life for no reason; but on a different dramatic plane, this is his victory, and this is Hilde’s victory: she sees him great again. Of course, he crashes to the ground, and dies: from the perspective of the real world, it was madness. But Hilde, by this stage, is completely locked in her fantasy.

HILDE [in a sort of quiet, bewildered triumph]: But he got to the very top. And I heard harps playing in the air. [She waves her shawl above her head, and cries with wild rapture] My – my master builder!

The master builder that others see – their master builder – fell to his death in a foolhardy escapade. But her master builder finally dared to climb as high as he builds: he got to the top.


What are we to make of this strange play? I have tried in this post to give as lucid an account as I can of how I see the play, but reading over what I have written, I can’t help but feel that my interpretation simplifies matters, smooths out too many complexities. Perhaps that is the fate of all interpretations. Great works of art are all, despite possible interpretations, ultimately inscrutable, and do not give up their secrets. In this dizzyingly enigmatic and elusive play, Ibsen takes us into realms of the human mind which even he had not entered before. It is a play that continues to fascinate my imagination, even as I struggle to articulate why.