The Master Builder
The Master Builder is a play
Play (theatre)
A play is a form of literature written by a playwright, usually consisting of scripted dialogue between characters, intended for theatrical performance rather than just reading. There are rare dramatists, notably George Bernard Shaw, who have had little preference whether their plays were performed...

 by Norwegian playwright
A playwright, also called a dramatist, is a person who writes plays.The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite", but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder...

 Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is often referred to as "the father of prose drama" and is one of the founders of Modernism in the theatre...

. It was first published in December 1892
1892 in literature
The year 1892 in literature involved some significant new books.-Events:*Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper becomes the second novel by an African-American woman published in the United States-New books:...

 and is regarded as one of Ibsen's most significant and revealing works.


The play was first performed on 19 January 1893 at the Lessing Theatre
Lessing Theater
The Lessing Theater was a theater in Berlin-Mitte, Germany, at Friedrich-Karl-Ufer 1 . It opened in 1888 and was destroyed in April 1945 in a bombing raid; its ruins were demolished after World War II....

, Berlin, with Emanuel Reicher as Solness. It opened at the Trafalgar Theatre
Duke of York's Theatre
The Duke of York's Theatre is a West End Theatre in St Martin's Lane, in the City of Westminster. It was built for Frank Wyatt and his wife, Violet Melnotte, who retained ownership of the theatre, until her death in 1935. It opened on 10 September 1892 as the Trafalgar Square Theatre, with Wedding...

, London on the 20th of the following month, with Herbert H. Waring in the name part and Elizabeth Robins
Elizabeth Robins
Elizabeth Robins was an actress, playwright, novelist, and suffragette.- Early life :Elizabeth Robins, the first child of Charles Robins and Hannah Crow, and was born in Louisville, Kentucky. After financial difficulties, her father left for Colorado, leaving the children in the care of Hannah...

 as Hilda. Productions in Oslo
Oslo is a municipality, as well as the capital and most populous city in Norway. As a municipality , it was established on 1 January 1838. Founded around 1048 by King Harald III of Norway, the city was largely destroyed by fire in 1624. The city was moved under the reign of Denmark–Norway's King...

 and Copenhagen
Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, with an urban population of 1,199,224 and a metropolitan population of 1,930,260 . With the completion of the transnational Øresund Bridge in 2000, Copenhagen has become the centre of the increasingly integrating Øresund Region...

 were coordinated to open on 8 March 1893. In the following year the work was taken up by Théâtre de l'Œuvre
Théâtre de l'Œuvre
The Théâtre de l'Œuvre is a Paris theatre, located atop cité Monthiers, at 55 rue de Clichy in the 9° arrondissement in Paris, France. It is best known as the theatre where Alfred Jarry’s nihilistic farce Ubu Roi premiered in 1896....

, the international company based in Paris, and they mounted productions in Paris, London and other European capitals. The first U.S. performance was at the Carnegie Lyceum, New York, on 16 January 1900, with William Pascoe and Florence Kahn
Florence Kahn (actress)
Florence Kahn was a Jewish American actress and the first wife of caricaturist and parodist Sir Max Beerbohm.-Acting career:...



  • Halvard Solness, master builder.
  • Aline Solness, his wife.
  • Doctor Herdal, physician.
  • Knut Brovik, formerly an architect, now in Solness's employment.
  • Ragnar Brovik, Knut Brovik's son, a draftsman.
  • Kaia Fosli, a book-keeper.
  • Hilda Wangel, a character introduced earlier, in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea
    The Lady from the Sea
    The Lady from the Sea is a play written in 1888 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.Kvinnan från havet is a ballet by choreographer Birgit Cullberg, and based on Ibsen's play...


Plot summary

Halvard Solness, the master builder, comes to be the most powerful builder in his home town by a fortunate series of coincidences. He conceives these in his mind, powerfully wishes for them to come to pass, but never actually does anything about them. When his wife's ancestral home burned down, from a fire in a clothes cupboard, he had already imagined how he could cause such an accident in the wooden building and then profit from the destruction by dividing the land on which it stood into plots and covering it with homes for sale. From this fortuitous occurrence, and some chance misfortunes of his competitors, he comes to imagine that he only has to wish for something for it to come to pass. This he rationalises as a particular gift from God, bestowed so that, through his unnatural success, he can carry out his ordained work of church building.

All this he confides to Hilda, a young woman whom he first met as a child ten years before while building a fine new church in her village. She unexpectedly visits Solness at his home after these ten years. Although to Solness these fantasies are indications of his own madness, Hilda dismisses them as no more than rationalisations to appease his uneasy conscience regarding the supernatural "helpers and servers" he believes he conjures up ("they came and obeyed my will") to help him to worldly success. Later, however, she plays upon these fancies to introduce in his mind the notion that his desire for her, supposedly still fresh from their encounter ten years previously, has made her come to him, even though they have not met in the interim. Solness warns that she may be the one with the mysterious power and that through her exaggerated memory of how she had once seen him at the top of her village church tower she may be the one whose secret desires are controlling events. The realistic interpretation is that Hilda has maintained a girlish, erotic obsession for her "ageless prince" and has arrived to claim the "magic life" he can offer. She concocts a fantasy of the earlier "ecstatic erotic encounter" in order to entrap Solness through awakened desire, or guilt; all Solness can remember of Hilda is that she was "one of those little devils in white…screaming up at me".

Aline Solness was deeply hurt when she lost her two sons to an infection, contracted as a consequence of the fire, and the marriage has suffered since then. It is of little consequence to her that her husband is building her a fine house, with an imposing tower, for them to live in together. Since Hilda has come into his life Solness himself has lost his zest for the project: Hilda, and their plan to build a "castle in the air" together, now occupies his mind. It is not difficult for Hilda to persuade him to attach a garland to the highest point of the tower, as she had seen him do at her village church, although he now has an intense fear of heights. He falls to his death.


The setting and plot of The Master Builder can be taken as one of unrelenting, "frock-coated
Frock coat
A frock coat is a man's coat characterised by knee-length skirts all around the base, popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The double-breasted style is sometimes called a Prince Albert . The frock coat is a fitted, long-sleeved coat with a centre vent at the back, and some features...

 realism": the destructive outcome of a middle-aged, professional man's infatuation with a younger, teasing woman or, as critic Desmond MacCarthy
Desmond MacCarthy
Sir Desmond MacCarthy was a British literary critic and journalist.-Early life and education:MacCarthy was born in Plymouth, Devon, and educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he got to know Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell and G. E...

 prosaically describes this concept of the work: the tragedy of an "elderly architect who falls off his scaffold while trying to show off before a young lady". If, however, we take Solness's belief in his powers at their face value, the play can also be a lyrical and poetic fairytale, in the manner of Peer Gynt
Peer Gynt
Peer Gynt is a five-act play in verse by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, loosely based on the fairy tale Per Gynt. It is the most widely performed Norwegian play. According to Klaus Van Den Berg, the "cinematic script blends poetry with social satire and realistic scenes with surreal ones"...

travelling the Earth in his magical adventures while the faithful Solveig waits for his return. On stage both interpretations are possible, although it is difficult to give equal weight to both meanings in the same production.

Autobiographical elements

At the time Ibsen was plotting The Master Builder he was holidaying in the mountain resort of Gossensass and spending much time with Emilie Bardach, an eighteen-year-old Viennese student with whom he found a temporary "high, painful happiness" in a brief affair. Not only did the relationship presage the age differences in the play but the real-life prototype of Hilda made no secret of her delight at stealing husbands. "She did not get a hold of me", Ibsen was later to claim, "but I got hold of her—for my play". After leaving Gossensass Ibsen carried on a correspondence with Bardach, but he continued to see Helene Raff, an acquaintance of Bardach's whom he had also met that summer. It was Raff who told Ibsen the story of the architect of St. Michael's Church, Munich
St. Michael's Church, Munich
St Michael is a Jesuit church in Munich, southern Germany, the largest Renaissance church north of the Alps. The style of the building had an enormous influence on Southern German early Baroque architecture.-Architecture:...

, who had cast himself from the tower as soon as it was finished. Ibsen took this tale, a common legend at many German churches, as evidence of a pervasive human belief that a man could not achieve success without paying a price. From Ibsen's inscription in the copy of the play he sent to Raff (he sent no copy to Bardach) she too can be regarded as an inspiration for the unequal affair between Hilda and Solness. An equally obvious influence is Ibsen's relationship with Hildur Andersen, whom he met as the ten-year-old child of friends and who, when she had reached the age of twenty-seven, became his constant companion. The autobiographical elements Ibsen includes go further than his relationships with Bardach, Raff and Andersen: in the character of Solness Ibsen is drawing parallels with his own situation as the "master playwright" and the consequences in his own life. That Ibsen was offering a parable was noted in a review of the first London staging, when the translator, Edmund Gosse
Edmund Gosse
Sir Edmund William Gosse CB was an English poet, author and critic; the son of Philip Henry Gosse and Emily Bowes.-Early life:...

, was asked to explain the meaning of the work. "An allegory of Dr Ibsen's literary career", he replied.


Following the controversy attached to Ghosts
Ghosts (play)
Ghosts is a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It was written in 1881 and first staged in 1882.Like many of Ibsen's better-known plays, Ghosts is a scathing commentary on 19th century morality....

, with its sensitive topic of inherited syphilis
Congenital syphilis
Congenital syphilis is syphilis present in utero and at birth, and occurs when a child is born to a mother with secondary syphilis. Untreated syphilis results in a high risk of a bad outcome of pregnancy, including mulberry molars in the fetus. Syphilis can cause miscarriages, premature births,...

, the play's reception in London was not favourable. The more charitable reviews took Solness at his own assessment, as a madman, and decided the other two protagonists were mad as well. Some transferred the conclusion to Ibsen himself, his translators and his director. Even The Pall Mall Gazette, a champion of Ibsen's work, offered sympathy to the "daring" actors whose mediocre talents were unable to relieve the tedium of this lapse on the part of the "northern genius". The Daily Graphic, however, found the performances of Waring and Robins the "redeeming feature" of the production. At the end of the run at the Trafalgar Theatre run the two principals engaged a new supporting cast and secured a transfer to the nearby Vaudeville Theatre
Vaudeville Theatre
The Vaudeville Theatre is a West End theatre on The Strand in the City of Westminster. As the name suggests, the theatre held mostly vaudeville shows and musical revues in its early days. It opened in 1870 and was rebuilt twice, although each new building retained elements of the previous...

 but, again, reviews were hostile.


The Master Builder was the first work Ibsen wrote upon his return to Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

 from Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

 in July 1891. It is generally grouped with the three other works written during this late period of Ibsen's life – Little Eyolf
Little Eyolf
Little Eyolf is an 1894 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The play was first performed on January 12, 1895 in the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.-Plot:...

, John Gabriel Borkman
John Gabriel Borkman
John Gabriel Borkman is the penultimate composition of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, written in 1896.-Plot:The Borkman family fortunes have been brought low by the imprisonment of John Gabriel who used his position as a bank manager to illegally speculate with his investors' money...

, and When We Dead Awaken
When We Dead Awaken
When We Dead Awaken is the last play written by Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Published in December 1899, Ibsen wrote the play between February and November of that year. The first performance was at the Haymarket Theatre in London, a day or two before publication.-Plot summary:The first act...

– as "symbolic plays" that lack the thematic clarity of such earlier works as Hedda Gabler
Hedda Gabler
Hedda Gabler is a play first published in 1890 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The play premiered in 1891 in Germany to negative reviews, but has subsequently gained recognition as a classic of realism, nineteenth century theatre, and world drama...

. Early reactions to the play by Ibsen's critics were mixed, probably due its heightened symbol
A symbol is something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for...

ism, much of which is unclear. Hilda, for example, seems to alternate roles between an inspiring force, urging Solness to temper his rampant ambition and pursue real happiness, and a temptress, pushing Solness to commitments he cannot possibly make. English critic William Archer, however, has suggested that the play is not as completely symbolic as some have maintained, interpreting it instead as "a history of a sickly conscience, worked out in terms of pure psychology". He notes that in this regard the play is similar to earlier Ibsen works that deal mainly with a retrospective look at a character's psyche.


The Master Builder has been translated into other languages. B. Suresh has translated The Master Builder to Kannada as BaaLura Gudikaara meaning Temple Builder of BaaLuru. Kannada play has been directed by B. Jayashree.

External links

  • 1960 TV version with EG Marshall as Solness and Lois Smith
    Lois Smith
    Lois Smith is an American actress whose career in theater, film, and television has spanned five decades.Smith was born Lois Arlene Humbert in Topeka, Kansas, the daughter of Carrie Davis and William Oren Humbert, who was a telephone company employee...

    as Hilda
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