The Master Builder

By Houe, Poul | Ibsen News and Comment, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Master Builder


Houe, Poul, Ibsen News and Comment


Ibsen Fest, The Commonweal Theatre, Lanesboro, Minnesota

April 16 - June 13, 2015

When I attended The Master Builder at The Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro in early June, it was after a three-hour drive in steady rain. The lush and hilly landscape of southeastern Minnesota is always a soothing experience, but now I had the added benefit of spending pre-show time in a cozy cafe and later dining in the town's best restaurant with Jeffrey Hatcher's scripted adaptation of Ibsen's play at hand. I mention these paraphernalia because they made for one part-contemplation and reflection-of the sandwich that enveloped my theater experience. The other part, which threw the virtues of the first into sharp relief, appeared the next day as I watched a segment of PBS Newshour about this summer's movie rollout. Of the viewer expectations Hollywood seeks to exploit, one critic said: "You know it's going to be fun. You know it's not about anything. There's no message. There's no exploration of the human condition."

One film this critic mentioned was "Mission: Impossible 5," brimming with impossibilities but artistically flatfooted: a perfect example of what drama like Ibsen's is up against right now. His impossible plots and actions notwithstanding, the art of the impossible (explicitly referenced twice in Hatcher's adaptation) is what sets Ibsen apart-assuming an audience is prepared to contemplate and reflect enough to notice. The actual audience I was in consisted of fewer than one hundred, mostly middleaged, people.

While a "Mission" audience may enjoy non-committal hype in return for boosting the product's profit margin, the Commonweal's offer of an artful Ibsen is premised on committed thought and feeling, a currency rarely exchanged for blockbusters. Of that we were reminded when the cast made its call for donation pledges after curtain call. Of course, none of this is new. But it does seem increasingly likely that the sheer mass of low hanging fruit described by PBS's movie critic will soon distract from performances wedded to the highest human striving, such as Ibsen's portrayals of inward journeys with little bang for the buck. How long will inwardness immune to the noise of spectacle attract sustainable audiences?

Although The Master Builder invites thesequestions,it'sunclearhowpersuasively they emerge from Hatcher's adaptation and Lee Gundersheimer's direction. That Ibsen relies on viewer contemplation and reflection does not privilege these mindsets as laurels to be rested upon. Contemplation and reflection are but necessary means to bold and daring ends. Like Solness's crowning achievement, ten years after Hilde claims to have heard him singing like a harp, Ibsen's final dramas are rock-solid castles in the air, structures of lofty words stemming from harsh reality.

This structural tension remains central in Hatcher's adaptation. The fire that destroyed Solness's old house was a purifying force of life, a product of subconscious desires and demonic dreams, cleaning the slate for the new by leaving only the foundation of the old intact; fusing the builder's happiness with "raw burning pain." And as Solness on his stepladder rises from the fire, not from the ashes, Ibsen's entire craft turns symbolist and his pivotal notion of "character" solidly elusive.

Symbolically speaking, the author, through his Master Builder, turns from erecting churches to building homes with towers (cursed by God, abandoned by people) to making godlike self-creations of castles in the air, now to be crowned with the wreath of accomplishment; as this ascension progresses, its precarious balancing act becomes increasingly dependent on trolllike, devilish dreams (inspired by Hilde once Solness has lost his own demons). To the extent success is beyond him and he fails in his endeavor, Solness's plight is Ibsen's. But to the extent Solness can testify that reaching the height of one's building requires payment with one's life (and the lives of others)-you either climb to your death or crawl back to your so-called life, as Ragnar describes the trajectory- Ibsen is invested in this insight as well. …

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