Ibsen, Henrik. The Master Builder. Dover Publications, 2016.
by Eli Joseph, Harmony Gilliard, and Wynesha James
The first act of the The Master Builder starts with stage directions depicting a plainly decorated workroom belonging to the protagonist, Halvard Solness. Connected to this room is a draughtsman’s office, an office used to prepare technical drawings and plans used by production and construction workers. This of course gives the reader insight regarding Solness’s career, which later is revealed to be a “master builder.” The stage directions then acknowledge the presence of several other characters in the house, including Miss Kaia Fosli, Mr. Knut Brovik, and his son Ragnar Brovik. Following the setting description, the actual story starts off with a conversation among Brovik, Ragnar, and Kaia. Brovik seems to suffer from some sort of respiratory problem evidenced by his labored breathing. He seems adamant about confronting Solness about something, but he resolves to do so after returning from a walk with his son Ragnar. This exit by Brovik and Ragnar leaves Kaia alone with an entering Solness.
The conversation that follows between them reveals that Solness is an architect/builder and that he is quite fond of his secretary Kaia. This conversation is followed by a heated conversation between Brovik and Solness. Brovik asks Solness to allow his son to become more independent to secure his financial future. An imminent marriage between Ragnar and Kaia is also brought up in their conversation. Throughout the entirety of the conversation, Solness expresses a variety of differing emotions, all of which reflect his inherent selfishness, pride, greed, and possessiveness, most notably his statement: “I will never retire! I will never give way to anybody! Never of my own free will.” After this conversation, Kaia returns and speaks to Solness; it becomes apparent that Solness does not desire Ragnar and Kaia’s marriage because of his own feelings for Kaia. This is made more interesting given the entrance of Mrs. Solness in the next scene, indicating some sort of infidelity on the part of Solness.
Mrs. Solness’ entrance amidst the conversation between Kaia and Mr. Solness transitions the conversation from one between Solness and Kaia to one between Solness and a new character named Dr. Herdal. Their conversation puts Solness on the defensive about his relationship with Kaia as Dr. Herdal questions him about it. At the end of their conversation, another new character emerges named Miss Wangel, also known as Hilda. Hilda greets the Doctor warmly and vice versa. Solness expresses some confusion as Miss Wangel identifies him but he does not seem to know who she is. Hilda converses with Solness at length as the Doctor leaves, refreshing his memory about the first time they met; apparently a long time ago Solness had promised the very young Hilda a castle. As their conversation draws to a close, Mrs. Solness enters again, announcing that Hilda’s quarters are ready. The scene closes with the last vestiges of conversation between Hilda and Solness, implying that this is not the last of the conversation the audience will see between the two.
Act 2 begins with Solness reviewing Ragnar’s portfolio while Mrs. Solness tidies the study. When Kaia arrives to work she begins to update Mr. Solness of the status of Mr. Brovik’s health. They have seen no signs of improvement and Ragnar has chosen to stay beside his father. Kaia then tries to revert the conversation back to Ragnar and his portfolio. Solness, however, shows no interest in Ragnar’s project. He dismisses Kaia to tend to her duties, and then he proceeds to question his wife on the whereabouts of Hilda. Mrs. Solness is skeptical of his concern for their guest and curious to know if she was the one he had been thinking of during their time in the study. To solidify the innocence of his question he mentions that it is comforting to make use of the nurseries by allowing her to stay. Solness admits to Mrs. Solness his eagerness from them to move so they are no longer haunted by the tragic events that happened in their home many years ago. Mrs. Solness argues that she doesn’t share the same passion for them to leave. Despite what Solness thinks, she values the memories of her parents’ home, and the pain she feels in their current home will only linger to their next. This was astounding to Solness because he believed that living in the old house was the bane of their relationship. When he asks her why have they built the house in the first place, she insinuates that it was only a priority of his. Solness tried to find a deeper understanding of her statement and accuses her and the doctor of believing he was becoming a madman. He insists that he is not crazy lives in debt to his wife. But before he can dwell on the conversation with Mrs. Solness, Hilda enters the room.
Hilda greets everyone and expresses how comfortably she slept in the nursery that had been unoccupied for years. Mrs. Solness offers to go into town and buy Hilda some new clothes so she can avoid being viewed as crazy in public. Thanked and embraced by Hilda, Mrs. Solness states that there is no need for appreciation because it is her duty to help. Shortly after Mrs. Solness exits, Hilda expresses to Solness that she took offense at Mrs. Solness’s comment. She had hoped that Mrs. Solness had made gesture because she approved of Hilda’s presence rather than because she felt obligated. Hilda becomes preoccupied by the sight of Ragnar’s drawings. Initially she thought the drawings belonged to Solness, but once he informed her of whom they belonged to she questioned why he would allow anyone to build besides him. Subconsciously his desire to stay in control was one of the reasons he doesn’t care to see Ragnar excel; he wants to be the sole builder. She accuses him of being stupid for sharing his knowledge and he agrees that he may be slightly off. He begins to point her in the direction of the new house he is building and how the burning down of his previous home was the making of him as a builder.
While discussing the fire, he confesses how the loss of his sons forced him to focus on building. His exhilaration for building high towers and churches gained him the reputation as the “Master Builder.” He expresses how he must retire because he built a career of building homes for families, which acts as a reminder of what he lost in the fire and how he still struggles to forgive himself. In the midst of him dwelling on the house, Ragnar enters the room. He confirms that his father is not improving and explains that his father hopes to hear before he dies that Solness has approved Ragnar’s drawings. Solness demands an end to the conversation: he insists that Ragnar should continue to stay with him because he has no value working on his own. With this disappointing news, Ragnar exits and Hilda shares her discontentment with Solness’s cruelty. The scene ends with her backtracking on her previous statement and convincing Solness to allow Ragnar to build on his own for his father’s sake.
Act 3 begins with Mrs. Solness resting in an arm chair, gazing over to the right and watching Hilda’s approach. The women begin discussing Mrs. Solness garden, Hilda mentioning her fondness for it. Hilda questions Mrs. Solness about the new home, Mrs. Solness expresses her lack of enthusiasm, and Hilda sympathetically refers to Mrs. Solness’s loss as the cause of her life’s despair. At first surprised by Hilda’s knowledge, Mrs. Solness begins discussing the loss of her family home sadly and in detail, telling Hilda about the loss of her children and her prized possessions. When Hilda mentions Mrs. Solness’s two sons Mrs. Solness interrupts and asks her not to mention the boys anymore. Mrs. Solness continues with details of her favorite items in the house that were forgotten during the fire. She mentions her childhood dolls, and when she explains to Hilda the significance of the dolls and begins to cry, she asks Hilda not to laugh. Dr. Herdal enters and observes Hilda and Mrs. Solness. Mrs. Solness begs Hilda to remove the idea of climbing the scaffolding from Solness’s head and asks her to be friends. Hilda enthusiastically embraces Mrs. Solness. Disengaging herself from the embrace, Mrs. Solness and Dr. Herdal go inside. Solness enters and approaches Hilda, and they discuss Mrs. Solness’s grief pertaining to her sons and family home. Solness agrees that he has noticed her grief but dismisses any sympathy toward his wife by saying that she cannot move on from the tragedy. Hilda very seriously says she is leaving, and Solness loudly says she cannot leave. Hilda explains that being in close contact with Mr. And Mrs. Solness has led her to realize that she does not want to hurt anyone. Solness asks her what is he to do when she leaves, and she tells him to live for his duties to his wife. Solness eagerly explains that his wife is lifeless and unhappy, and there is nothing he can do about it, yet he would still like to be happy. Hilda changes the subject by asking what he will build next. He responds by saying that he will no longer build. Hilda states that it is foolish to be miserable because of someone else’s unhappiness. Solness asked her if she was happy with her father, and Hilda says she only had a cage and she never wants to go back. Excitedly, Hilda exclaims she knows what Mr. Solness will build next, stating that Solness will build a castle in the air. Although Solness questions her about this castle, he becomes more and more excited and interested. Solness firmly declares that they will build this castle together.
Ragnar enters carrying a green wreath with flowers and silk ribbons. Hilda and Solness are pleasantly surprised with the beautiful wreath. Solness and Ragnar discuss Ragnar’s father’s health. Ragnar explains that his father has had a stroke. When Solness insists that Ragnar go to his father, Ragnar explains that Kaia is by his bedside and insists on staying. Solness leaves with the wreath through the garden. Hilda asks if Ragnar has thanked Solness for his job. Ragnar goes on to explain angrily that Solness has kept him from succeeding. Ragnar explains that Solness possessed Kaia’s mind so she could only think about him. Hilda angrily disagrees, saying that Solness only held onto Kaia for Ragnar’s talent, exclaiming that Solness is a coward. Hilda defends Solness by sharing her experience with him fastening a wreath to a church vane and exuberantly saying he will do it again one day. Mrs. Solness enters and asks where Solness is. Hilda explains he has gone with the wreath. With fear in her eyes Mrs. Solness asks Ragnar to get him. Mrs. Solness says she will wait for Solness outside, but Dr. Herdal says there are some ladies waiting for her. Mrs. Solness goes inside saying it is her duty to see the women at once. Dr. Herdal asks Hilda to occupy Solness if possible, and she agrees to do so. When Solness enters Hilda and Solness discuss how he could climb the scaffolding once before, and Hilda proclaims that he must climb the scaffolding once more as she has always dreamed. Solness excitedly declares that he will climb the scaffolding, and when he does he will speak to God and declare to God what he is going to build. A crowd has begun to gather in the street; music is playing. Mrs. Solness enters and Solness tells her he is going down below where the men are building. Mrs. Solness begs him to be careful, and Solness leaves. Ragnar approaches Hilda and tells her spitefully that all his students have come to see the master builder climb the scaffolding. Hilda notices Solness climbing the scaffolding, and Mrs. Solness shouts in fear when she realizes Solness is climbing. Dr. Herdal tells everyone to stay still and quiet, not to disturb Solness. Hilda happily sings; she hears music in the air. A group of women and Mrs. Solness shout that he is falling, they gather around his body, and Mrs. Solness screams for help. Hilda stares blankly in the air. “My master builder,” she shouts, “I hear harps in the air.”