Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder
was written in December 1892 and first published the same year in Copenhagen. The first performance of the play occurred on January 19, 1893, in Berlin. It is considered one of his greatest works.
The play centers on Halvard Solness, the master builder who rises to his high position because of a fire that destroyed the ancestral estate of his wife’s family. After the fire, Solness builds new homes on the site, securing for himself a reputation in the community. The fire gave him the opportunity to demonstrate his skills, but his success is sealed by his determination to annihilate anyone who dares to get in his way.
Knut Brovik, one of Solness’s employees, is a skilled architect in his own right. He was on the path to success until Solness manipulated and used him to his own advantage, as he does with most people he encounters. Brovik’s son, Ragnar, is a draftsman in Solness’s office, and Brovik wishes to see him design something of lasting value before his own passing. Ragnar has drawn up a design for a villa, but Solness is not interested in pursuing the project and will not give Ragnar permission to take it on himself.
Ragnar is engaged to be married to Kaia Fosli, Solness’s bookkeeper, but they cannot be married until he has established himself in his career. Unfortunately, Kaia has fallen under the spell of the master builder, as so many before her have. Solness makes her believe that he wishes to help Ragnar but that he cannot risk losing her. In reality, he is motivated by his desire to keep Ragnar in his employment to utilize his skills while keeping him down so as not to have the man as his competition. Recognizing that Ragnar is smart and skilled, he is intimidated, so he tries to sabotage his career.
Meanwhile, Solness’s physician, Doctor Herald says that he fears the builder is going mad. He spends all of his time ruminating about the past and is paranoid that the younger generation is going to ruin him, his reputation, and his years of hard work. Although Solness fears the younger generation, when Hilda Wangel shows up at his home, he is immediately attracted to her. He remembers meeting Hilda many years ago when he hung a traditional wreath atop a weather vane on a church he constructed. At the time, she was just a little girl.
Wagnel reminds Solness that it has been ten years since he called her princess and promised to come for her and carry her off to build a kingdom of her very own. The ten years are now up, and because he has not kept his promise, she has come to remind him of it. Solness has no memory of this but assumes that his charismatic nature and ability to assert his power over people made it happen. He is frightened of his own abilities.
Hilda asks Solness to show him everything he has built, especially the high church towers. He tells her that he no longer builds churches and that he has no plans of doing so ever again. He tells her about the fire that gave him his chance to demonstrate his abilities, and that since then he has only been building homes.
At the time that the fire occurred, Solness and his wife had twin boys. The babies perished because of the fevered milk of their mother. Believing that he willed the fire to happen, Solness accepts the tragic consequences of his actions. He believes that whenever he exerts his power, there will be some kind of backlash against him. He is driven to build homes for others, knowing that he will never have a real home himself. His madness derives from the fact that his success is based on that singular event that also caused him and his wife such sorrow.
Hilda begs Solness to give the younger generation a chance, promising him that he will not be overtaken if he opens the door to them. She persuades him to allow Ragnar to pursue the project he wishes to build. She also challenges Solness to hang a wreath on the latest home he has built, stating that a true builder must be able to climb as high as he can build.
Solness tells her that he has defied God by refusing to build any more churches. He says that God made the fire happen so that Solness would rise to greatness and, without a real home or family of his own, devote all of his time to building churches. He believes his decision to build homes for parents and their children is in direct defiance of what God would have wanted.
Hilda demands that Solness make the ascent to the top of the building in order to prove his dedication to her and that he will follow through on providing her with the kingdom of her dreams. Although others plead with Solness not to do it, spurred on by his devotion to Hilda, he climbs the house. As he reaches the top, he seems to be struggling, eventually toppling to the ground, lifeless.