Master Builder, Master Destroyer
By Rainey Wetnight
“Homes for human beings…” -Donald Wolfit as Halvard Solness, on what he designs
In high school, I had a thing for Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. While my classmates devoured the latest teen magazines and YA novels, I slowly savored A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. I can’t recall reading A Master Builder back then, though, and in retrospect I’m glad. To understand this master work and what makes it tick, it takes a lot more maturity than my sixteen-year-old mind could have mustered. It centers around several opposing themes: youth versus age, desire versus duty, light versus darkness, and life versus death. Which characters embody which concepts, and at which times during the play? I have chosen to review the 1958 made-for-television version, distributed by BBC Films and 2 Entertain.
Halvard Solness (Donald Wolfit) is a man on a mission. Just as driven as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Solness’ goal is to slay the great white whale of “the younger generation”. The eponymous middle-aged architect is afraid that one day youth will replace him, crying “Make room! Make room!” Therefore, he has practically enslaved his former employer Knut Brovik, Brovik’s young but slightly-stooped son Ragnar, and his bookkeeper mistress, Brovik’s niece Kaia (Catherine Lacey). Ragnar has definite talent, but Solness yearns to keep him under tight control. Kaia yearns for Solness, even though she and Ragnar are engaged. Knut yearns to see his son branch out and build on his own, although he fears this won’t happen before illness overcomes him. At the beginning of the movie, he begs Solness to let Ragnar go. “Am I to die in such poverty?” he rasps. To which the Master Builder replies: “You must die as best you can.”
Also dead are Solness’ wife Aline, in a spiritual sense, and the two twin boys they once had. Rather than consider this dire misfortune to be what it is, he believes it’s the source of his remarkable luck in business. Once their former residence, Aline’s ancestral home, is consumed in a fire, the Builder is free to parcel out the land and build “happy homes, [for a] mother, father, and a troop of children” - the ones he lacks. His own house is a dark mausoleum, a monument to the past, with no less than three (!) separate nurseries. Who will occupy them now? Enter Hilda Wangel (Mai Zetterling), a lovely sprite of twenty-four who knew both Solness and Aline ten years before. She appears out of nowhere, dead broke and seeking lodging.
Why has Hilda returned after all this time? What does she want from Solness, and what is she prepared to take from his family? Those are the central questions of the play, and I won’t spoil it entirely. I’d much rather explain why, two centuries later, The Master Builder casts a spell over those who cherish drama.
This play is, first and foremost, a character study. All of the explosions and special effects are the ones secretly churning in the human heart, searing everyone they touch once they boil over. It’s also about our longing to relive and correct the past, especially if it contains tragedies we’d rather try to hide. Solness’ struggle is our own, on a profound level. As he attempts to build high towers and “castles in the air”, so do we. He is no longer satisfied with what he promised (and what he shouted at God) that he would do. He craves much loftier things, even though he’s now terrified to glance down from a second-floor balcony.
However, what separates the Builder from most of the rest of us is the true source of his strength. It’s most clearly expressed in his greatest delusion of grandeur. Solness believes that he is one of a very few “special people” who can cause events to happen if they simply wish hard enough. (Did he write the massively popular self-help book The Secret two hundred years in advance?) He calls “helpers and servers” to him, uses them, and then discards them like apple cores. Indeed, one can almost say that he consumes them, as one consumes food, attributing their positive qualities to himself while projecting his own negative qualities onto them. He is a Narcissus in love with his own reflection, and the Impossible Dream. There is nothing he would not do for what he wants, and for the people he supposedly loves.
Solness is a master destroyer, a false Odin - god of the sun - taking human sacrifices unto himself.
RAINEY’S RATING: 4 STARS