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The Master Builder The Master Builder
by The Ovi Team
2022-01-19 08:43:53
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January 19th 1893; Henrik Ibsen's play The Master Builder receives its premiere performance in Berlin. The play was first performed 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. 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, came to be the most powerful builder in his home town by strange coincidences that he conceived of in his mind, and wished for, but never acted upon. His wife's ancestral home burned down, from a fire in a clothes cupboard, but he had already imagined how he could cause such an accident in the wooden building, and then profit from the destruction by dividing the land on which it stood into plots and covering it with homes for sale. From this chance occurrence, and the misfortunes of his competitors, he came to imagine that he only has to wish for something for it to come to pass. This he rationalises as a particular gift from God, bestowed so that, through his unnatural success, he can carry out his ordained work of church building. All this he confides to Hilda, a young woman whom he first met as a child ten years before while building a fine new church in her village. Although to Solness these fantasies are indications of his own madness, Hilda dismisses them as no more than rationalisations to appease his uneasy conscience. Later, however, she plays upon these fancies to introduce in his mind the notion that his desire for her, supposedly still fresh from their encounter ten years previously, has brought her to him, even though they have not met in the interim. Solness warns 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.

Aline Solness was deeply hurt when she lost her two sons to an infection, contracted as a consequence of the fire, and the marriage has suffered since then. It is of little consequence to her that her husband is building her a fine house, with an imposing tower, for them to live in together. Since Hilda has come into his life Solness himself has lost his zest for the project: Hilda, and their plan to build a "castle in the air" together, now occupies his mind. It is not difficult for Hilda to persuade him to attach a garland to the highest point of the tower, as she had seen him do at her village church, although he now has an intense fear of heights. 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". 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 can also 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. The autobiographical elements Ibsen includes go further than his relationship with Bardach and Raff: 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 pursue real happiness, and a temptress, pushing Solness to commitments he cannot possibly make. English critic William Archer, however, has suggested 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.

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anonymouse2011-02-03 09:45:02
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