Illustration of Harvard Solness perched at the top of a high church tower

The Master Builder

by Henrik Ibsen

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What is Ibsen trying to say in this play?

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This play, concerning an architect’s reluctance to give his young apprentice an opportunity to establish his own career, depicts a realistic setting for a very abstract philosophical problem:  What is the importance of continuity in our life’s value.  That is, are we here merely to thrive and become “famous” (Solness is obssessed with being the most famous architect) or is part of our life to “build” a continuing structure of human progression?  The most telling line in the play is “Make room!  Make room!” a particularily relevant metaphor for a builder.   Ibsen, in dramatizing the conflict between Solness, the Master Builder, and his draughtsman, Ragnar, is dramatizing the life question of “What do we leave behind – churches, buildings, things, or are we also supposed to make a path for our followers?”  The plot also contains relative complications (Solness’ assistant, who was once a good architect himself, but has been reduced from his former greatness to simply help Solness, has an ambitious son, the draftsman who is challenging Solness’ “Master Builder” status) and a love plot showing the sexual competition between two generations (Aline, his wife, and Kaia, who has a “crush” on Solness) – both these subplots also explore questions of legacy in society.  The autobiographical undertones are recognized in all criticism, notably William Archer’s, since this play is late in Ibsen’s own career.

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