Henrik gets kinky

The Ibsen section of my modern drama class is coming to a close with The Master Builder. It’s a bit verbose, but still fascinating play about a man who believes god has singled him out, and a younger woman who either wants him, or wants to destroy him. The two lead roles are psychologically complex: Halvard Solness is the “master builder” who was renown for the inspiring steeples on his churches, but when his two young sons die, he is possessed by the idea that god has extracted a price for the gifts he was given. As a result, Solness turned his back on churches, and instead, only builds houses.

Appearing on his doorstep one day, is Hilde Wangel, an attractive young woman half Solness’s age who practically dares him to take possession of her. But she too has her demands, he can’t be an average man, he must be great, he must rise above the crowd literally as well as figuratively. Hilde is is some ways, a variant on Hedda Gabler, interested in manipulating those around her. Unlike Hedda, however, she’s no coward. She hikes through the countryside on her own, and has no fear of what other people may think.

miranda-richardsonIn the 1984 BBC production, Hilde is played by the attractive Miranda Richardson, and Leo McKern stars as Solness. It’s quite clear when Hilde first appears that sex is the bait on her hook. Her first lines tell us that she’s out adventuring on her own, which is rather shocking for the period, that she’s not interested in sitting about knitting like other women, and she has dirty underwear in her backpack.

Things really heat up, however, in Act II, when Solness and Hilde essentially share a rape fantasy. He talks about how the Vikings of old would carry off women during their raids, she tells him she’d love it, if the man was a real man. The language isn’t explicit, it was 1892 after all, but the sexual tension between the two is evident, nonetheless.

Interestingly, the character of Hilde was derived from two (or maybe three) young woman Ibsen himself met. The first was Emilie Bardach. She declared to him at one point that she wasn’t interested in marriage, but destroying them was quite amusing. He called her a “bird of prey,” and that image appears in The Master Builder. Scholars disagree as to whether or not the two of them had an affair. The second woman was Hildur Andersen, who he had first met when she was a child of ten (as do Solness and Hilde). Again, there are rumors of an affair between the playwright and the grown-up Andersen, who was a concert pianist. The two of them spent a good deal of time together when Ibsen’s wife was away, and he even signed a note to her “your master builder”. Again, there is much gossip and speculation, but no hard facts.

As if sex and religion aren’t enough, Ibsen also address the “will to power”, fear of death, and psychological obsession.  It’s a lot to cram into one play, and it can feel awfully talky, especially since a subplot about Solness’s underlings doesn’t really add much, except to highlight some negative aspects of the builder’s personality; something that could have been done more compactly, I think.

The Master Builder may not have the appeal of A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabbler, but it shows the playwright still wrestling with some of the key issues of human existence in a fascinating way.

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