Sunday 7 April 2013

"The Master Builder": Should We Just Shut Up About The 'Nudge-nudge-wink-wink'?

Gemma Arteton as Hilde Wangel

Slightly pushing the boundaries of a literature blog, I admit, this post focuses on Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play, “The Master Builder”. As readable in its own right as some of the era’s best loved prose works, “The Master Builder” cements the Norwegian playwright’s reputation as one of the 19th century’s finest wordsmiths.

In the century and a bit that has passed between Ibsen’s completion of the play and the present day, much has been made of the symbolism of the piece. The aging builder (Solness), nagged by doubt as to his potency and his skill; the vibrant, enthusiastic young woman (Hilde) who wants nothing more than to hold Solness high on a pedestal; and of course, the towering steeple Solness builds for his new house and for the church at Lysanger. Need I say more?

But to take such a ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ tack with “The Master Builder” is lazy and reductive. This is not to say that such themes aren’t evident in the play, but to write off Ibsen’s work as the ramblings of a horny old man seems somewhat unfair.

That said, this reading of the text does have a basis in historical context. Ibsen penned the play on his return to the land of his birth after 27 years abroad. Two years earlier, while on his travels, Ibsen had met and – by most accounts – become besotted with an 18-year-old Viennese girl named Emilie Bardach.

It seems likely that Miss Bardach was a direct inspiration for the play’s character of Hilde Wangel, the young girl who arrives at Solness’ home, demanding her promised kingdom. Some academics have disputed this, including Jens-Morten Hanssen, the editor of Norway’s National Library, who cites the “devilish and calculating” habits of Hilde has evidence that Ibsen was not in fact writing about his beloved Emilie.

I don’t read the text in this way. For me, Hilde is the antithesis of Solness’ aging, waning character. While she is wilful, carefree and full of joie de vivre, he is old, aching and carrying a lumbering heart. For the briefest of moments, Solness is given the chance to be free and happy once again.

As Ibsen was entering the final phase of his career when he penned “The Master Builder”, certain parallels can be drawn between himself and the character of Solness, just as similar parallels can be drawn between Hilde Wangel and the real life Emilie Bardach.

So, read as one of Ibsen’s later ‘realist’ plays, “The Master Builder”’s exploration of the dichotomies of love and duty, and of human happiness and responsibility remains a fascinating and ultimately multi-faceted one. The drama is rife with symbolism and is a tantalising candidate for any sort of analysis, but it goes far beyond common conceptions of the play as a sort of Scandinavian proto-Carry On piece with a tragic ending.

Isn’t it time we looked a little deeper?

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