Ibsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900

By Kirsten Shepherd-Barr | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The Master Builder: 'An
Ibsen within an Ibsen'

Symbols are much better imagined than seen. 1

We have seen how with the introduction of plays like Rosmersholm Ibsen began to be interpreted as something other than a realist, social-problem dramatist. In Britain the label 'symbolist' was not yet applied to him as freely as it was in France, where he was programmatically staged as a symbolist dramatist by Lugné-Poë and proclaimed the leader of this new movement in the theatre. Most of the Ibsen plays performed in Britain had been realistically staged and had emphasized feminism and the New Woman, an aspect comparatively muted in French productions. But The Master Builder marked a change in critical reactions and approaches to Ibsen in Britain. As William Archer recalled later:

The Master Builder produced a curious double effect. It alienated many of the poet's staunchest admirers, and it powerfully attracted many people who had hitherto been hostile to him. Looking back, it is easy to see why this should have been so; for here was certainly a new thing in drama, which could not but set up many novel reactions. A greater contrast could scarcely be imagined than that between the hard, cold, precise outlines of Hedda Gabler and the vague mysterious atmosphere of The Master Builder. 2

This 'vagueness' meant that while the French première in 1894 was another triumph for the symbolist theatre, in Britain the niche for this play was harder

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