Halvard Solness rose to his high position as a master builder because of a fire that had destroyed the ancestral estate of his wife’s family. On the site he built new homes that won him fame and assured success in his profession. The fire gave him his chance, but he made his own opportunities, too, by crushing all who got in his way.
Knut Brovik, employed by Solness, had once been a successful architect, but Solness had crushed him, too, and then used him as he had many others. Ragnar, Brovik’s son, is a draftsman in Solness’s office, and it is Brovik’s only wish that before his own death his son should have a chance to design something of lasting value. Although Ragnar has drawn plans for a villa that Solness does not wish to bother with, the builder will not give him permission to take the assignment. Ragnar is engaged to Kaia Fosli, Solness’s bookkeeper, and he cannot marry her until he has established himself. Ragnar does not know that Kaia has come under the spell of the master, as had so many other young women. Solness pretends to Kaia that he cannot help Ragnar because to do so would mean losing her; in reality, he needs Ragnar’s brain and talent and cannot risk having the young man as a competitor.
Solness’s physician, Doctor Herdal, and his wife fear that the builder is going mad. He spends much time in retrospection and also seems to have morbid fears that the younger generation is going to ruin him. Not all of the younger generation frightens Solness. When Hilda Wangel appears at his home, he is at once drawn to her. He had met Hilda ten years before when he hung the traditional wreath atop the weather vane on a church he built. She was a child at the time. Now she tells him that he had called her his princess and had promised to come for her in ten years and carry her off to build her a kingdom. Because he has not kept his promise, she has come to him. Solness, who cannot remember the incident, decides that he must have wished it to happen and thus made it come to pass. This, he believes, is another example of his power over people, and it frightens him.
When Hilda asks to see all he has built, especially the high church towers, he tells her that he no longer builds churches and will never build one again. Now he builds homes for mothers and fathers and children. He is building a home for himself and his wife, and on it he is building a high tower. He does not know why he is putting the high tower on the house, but something seems to be forcing him. Hilda insists that he complete the tower, for it seems to her that the tower will have great meaning for her and for him.
Hilda tells Solness that his need of her is the kingdom he has promised her and that she will stay near him. She wants to know why he builds nothing but homes, and he tells her of the fire that had given him his chance. At the time of the fire, he and his wife had twin baby boys. Although all had been saved from the fire, the babies died soon afterward from the effects of the fevered milk of their mother. Solness knows that his position and his fame are based on the tragedy of the fire and on his wife’s heartrending loss, but he believes also that...
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he had willed the fire to have his chance. Whatever he wills happened, and afterward he has to pay somehow the horrible price for his almost unconscious desires. So he builds homes for others, never able to have a real home himself. He is near madness because his success is based on his and his wife’s sorrow.
Solness seems to have power over human beings as well as events. Brovik is one man who serves him, his son Ragnar another. Solness, afraid of Ragnar’s younger generation, believes that it will crush him as he has crushed others.
Hilda, begging him to give Ragnar and the other young people a chance, says that he will not be crushed if he himself opens the door to them. She tells him that his near-madness is caused by a feeble conscience, that he must overcome this weakness and make his conscience robust, as is hers. She persuades him to give Ragnar the assignment the young man wants. She wishes Solness to stand completely alone and yet be the master. As final proof of his greatness, she begs Solness to lay the traditional wreath on the high tower of his new home, and she scoffs at a builder who cannot climb as high as he can build.
Hilda alone wants Solness to climb the tower, and only she believes that he will do so. She once had seen him standing on a church tower, and his magnificence had thrilled her. She wants the thrill again. On that other day she heard a song in the sky as the master builder shouted into the heavens, but it is not until now that she learns what he had shouted. He tells her that as he had stood at the top of the church he had known why God made the fire that destroyed his wife’s estate. It was to make Solness a great builder, a true artist building more and more churches to honor God. God wanted him to have no children, no real home, so that he could give all his time to building churches. Solness, however, had defied God that day. He had shouted his decision to build no more churches, only homes for mothers and fathers and their children.
God had taken his revenge. There is little happiness in the homes Solness builds. From now on he will build only castles in the air, with Hilda to help him. He asks Hilda to believe in him, to have faith in him. Hilda, however, demands proof. She must see him standing again, clear and free, on the top of the tower. Then his conscience will be freed, and he will remain the master builder. He will give her the kingdom he promised.
Even though his wife and others plead with him not to make the ascent, Solness is guided by Hilda’s desire. As he climbs higher and higher, she hears a song in the air and thrills to its crashing music. When he reaches the top of the tower, he seems to be struggling with an invisible being. He topples and falls to the ground, lifeless. Then Hilda hears music in the sky. Her master builder has given her her kingdom.