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

The Master Builder

by Henrik Ibsen

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Critical Overview

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When The Master Builder (Bygmester Solness in Norwegian) was published in Scandinavia in 1892, the public response was greater than for any other Ibsen play since A Doll House. Henrik Jaeger praises the structure of the play in Dagbladet, writing that it becomes ‘‘a dialogue’’ between Solness and Hilde ‘‘so powerful and brilliant that it is more gripping than the most exciting ‘scene.’’’ Christian Brinckmann, in his review in Nyt Tidsskrift, applauds the way ‘‘despair resounds like jubilation and madness sounds like wisdom’’ in the play.

Some reviewers, however, criticized what they considered obscure subject matter. George Göthe, in Nordisk Tidskrift, insists that the play presents ‘‘precious and pretentious abstract grandiloquencies.’’ He notes that solving riddles can ‘‘be amusing,’’ but ‘‘when the riddles are so complex that one suspects that even the riddler himself does not really know the answer, the game ceases to be amusing.’’

The response to the initial stage performances of the play, which opened simultaneously in Berlin and Trondhjem, Norway in 1893, however, was mostly negative, due to its intricate structure, which placed heavy demands on the actors. Reviews of a later staging in London included one in the Daily Telegraph that claimed that in the play, ‘‘dense mist enshrouds characters, words, actions, and motives.’’ A writer for the Saturday Review called it ‘‘a distracting jumble of incoherent elements’’ and argued that ‘‘there is no story’’ and ‘‘the characters are impossible.’’ Appreciation of the play, though, has grown since its first productions. Most critics now consider The Master Builder to be one of Ibsen’s finest, echoing Edvard Brandes’s assessment in Politiken that the play blends ‘‘supreme craftsmanship’’ and ‘‘characteristic profundity.’’

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