On Page and Stage: Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder

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At intermission at the BAM Harvey Theatre during its production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder last Saturday, my friend turned to me and said, “You know?  This talk of climbing high makes me think of Safety Last!”  I politely agreed, adding to myself, since I had finished reading the play a few days previously, “You don’t know how right you are.”

The night before going to see The Master Builder, this friend and I had a Harold Lloyd marathon of films DVRed from Turner Classic Movies’ Lloyd night the evening before.  It had been her first time seeing Safety Last!, with its thrilling building-climbing climax.  (For those of you unfamiliar with Safety Last!, it’s the silent film that contains this iconic clock image.)  Naturally, any talk of climbing tall steeples in The Master Builder would hearken back to that.

My friend didn’t know how curious of a connection this was until the end.  The texts explore building climbing and the quest to achieve heights in opposite ways.  While Lloyd’s character is an accidental hero, Ibsen’s character defiantly tries to show that he is greater than he is.

In a nutshell, I find The Master Builder to be about the cost of achieving greatness.  Master Builder Halvard Solness seeming to have all the fame (or notoriety) and success he could want.  He has a frail-ish wife and a young mistress, and he employs his former boss.  He has gotten where he is by short-changing others.  But inwardly, he is worried that a new generation will soon usurp him.

In steps youth in the form of Hilde Wangel, goading him along to try to achieve more.  Hilde reminds Solness of promises he had made to her when she was a young teem, pushing him to a breaking point.

Hilde, I think, is where the production of The Master Builder at BAM, directed by Andrei Belgrader and starring John Turturro, either succeeded or failed.  I just can’t tell.  On the page, Hilde seems bizarre and unbelievable, a fantasy that Solness would dream up.  On the stage, she was exactly that, strangely animated and speaking with a childish high voice.

Seeing The Master Builder on stage emphasized the madness of the characters.  Hilde writhed around like a strange worm in some scenes.  Solness, at parts, seemed quite deranged, bent on pushing himself to dangerous heights, both literally and figuratively.

And yet, I have troubled finding fault in it because the written play had this strange sense of, well, weirdness.  I remember that when I first read Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, I found the dialogue a little off and wondered if it was due to the translation from Norwegian.  The Master Builder was in the same book as the former and suffered from that same strangeness.  It’s hard for me to tell if it’s the language or the content that seems so odd.  I’ve read that Ibsen’s plays have the power to shock because he describes scenarios that could happen in real life but that are rarely depicted on the stage, where life somehow seems glossier than reality.

And thus, The Master Builder commands a strange power of fascination.  The first act gripped me from the start.  I was reading it on the subway, and if I hadn’t been in public, I would have said, “What?  What?” more than a few times.  And the climax – well, I was on the edge of my seat reading it and seeing it.

The Master Builder may not be as famous as Ibsen’s The Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler, but it’s well worth a look, whether in written or performed form.

This was book #11 off my Classics Club list.  To see the rest of it, click here.

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