The Master Builder belongs to a series of dramas that depart from the earlier types written by Henrik Ibsen. In this play the bitter satire of the social dramas is not present; instead, the play is mysterious, symbolic, lyrical. Ibsen here deals with the human soul and its struggle to rise above its own desires. The idea had been in Ibsen’s mind for many years before he actually wrote the play, which is one of the most original of his works.
Ibsen completed The Master Builder in 1892, two years after the stormy but mostly favorable reception of Hedda Gabler (pb. 1890, pr. 1891; English translation, 1891). Whereas he had labored slowly and revised with care the earlier play, his work on The Master Builder proceeded smoothly, requiring few major changes from the first draft to the finished manuscript. One year before, Ibsen had left Munich to return to Norway, where he resided in Oslo until his death in 1906. His return to his native land, an event marked by great professional success and personal satisfaction, corresponded with a significant change in his dramatic style. His early romantic plays in verse are generally lofty, treating historical or epical subjects. The second period of his creative work, including Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), consists of social dramas, written in conversational, realistic prose. The last period, beginning with The Master Builder and including Naar vi døde vaagner (pb. 1899, pr. 1900; When We Dead Awaken, 1900), is noted for qualities often described as metaphysical or spiritual. Confessional plays with a clear autobiographical impulse and written in a style that moves easily from prose to prose-poetry, they break new ground in the history of the late nineteenth century European theater.
Although Ibsen never denied the subjective character of The Master Builder, the play should not be studied merely as a symbolic summary of the writer’s life. Instead, it is a great work of dramatic art and, judged solely on the basis of its structural values, one of Ibsen’s most finely crafted pieces. Nevertheless, as a confessional drama, The Master Builder certainly presents some of Ibsen’s important ideas and obsessions. For example, like Halvard Solness, Ibsen was impressed with (although not neurotically dismayed by) the success of younger writers. Ibsen himself wrote of Camilla Collett that “A new generation is now ready to welcome and understand you.” Also like Solness, Ibsen was attracted to youthful women. Critics generally believe that Hilda Wangel is modeled upon Emilie Bardach, who was also a part-prototype for Hedda Gabler. At any rate, shortly after the production of The Master Builder, Emilie sent the author a photograph signed “Princess of Orangia,” which apparently annoyed him. If Emilie was not the single inspiration for Hilda, then surely another of Ibsen’s young friends might have been part of the composite picture, beginning with Engelcke Friis and continuing with Helene Raff, Hilda Andersen, or the youngest, Edith Brandes.
In many other ways, the career of the Master Builder parallels Ibsen’s own. Solness began by building churches. Later he decided to design “only houses for people to live in.” Finally, to please himself and reassert his will to achieve the impossible, he designed a splendid house with a tower, fanciful as a “castle-in-the-air.” Ibsen’s experience with the theater similarly consisted of three stages: Romantic poetic drama, social drama intended to reform outworn traditions, and personal drama with a special concern for a philosophy of life and death. There...
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