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The Master Builder

Henrik Ibsen

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Tags: Fiction » Plays

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The Master Builder is a play by Henrik Ibsen, first published in 1892. With its first performance in 1893 in Berlin, The Master Builder is one of Ibsen's more significent works. It tells the story of Halvard Solness who lives in Norway. A master builder who has a good reputation among the locals. Another main character is Hilda Wangel, a young woman who Solness met briefly when she was thirteen years old, and who arrives at his house to remind him of this meeting. Eventually she moves in with him to assist in household duties, and becomes more and more supportive of his work. Not having a good relationship with his wife, Solness becomes closer to Hilda.

This edition includes an introduction by one of the translators, William Archer.

This book has 116 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1892. This is a translation by Edmund Gosse and William Archer.

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Excerpt from 'The Master Builder'

With The Master Builder—or Master Builder Solness, as the title runs in the original—we enter upon the final stage in Ibsen's career. "You are essentially right," the poet wrote to Count Prozor in March 1900, "when you say that the series which closes with the Epilogue (When We Dead Awaken) began with Master Builder Solness."

"Ibsen," says Dr. Brahm, "wrote in Christiania all the four works which he thus seems to bracket together—SolnessEyolfBorkman, and When We Dead Awaken. He returned to Norway in July 1891, for a stay of indefinite length; but the restless wanderer over Europe was destined to leave his home no more.... He had not returned, however, to throw himself, as of old, into the battle of the passing day. Polemics are entirely absent from the poetry of his old age. He leaves the State and Society at peace. He who had departed as the creator of Falk [in Love's Comedy] now, on his return, gazes into the secret places of human nature and the wonder of his own soul."

Dr. Brahm, however, seems to be mistaken in thinking that Ibsen returned to Norway with no definite intention of settling down. Dr. Julius Elias (an excellent authority) reports that shortly before Ibsen left Munich in 1891, he remarked one day, "I must get back to the North!" "Is that a sudden impulse?" asked Elias. "Oh no," was the reply; "I want to be a good head of a household and have my affairs in order. To that end I must consolidate may property, lay it down in good securities, and get it under control—and that one can best do where one has rights of citizenship." Some critics will no doubt be shocked to find the poet whom they have written down an "anarchist" confessing such bourgeois motives.

After his return to Norway, Ibsen's correspondence became very scant, and we have no letters dating from the period when he was at work on The Master Builder. On the other hand, we possess a curious lyrical prelude to the play, which he put on paper on March 16, 1892. It is said to have been his habit, before setting to work on a play, to "crystallise in a poem the mood which then possessed him;" but the following is the only one of these keynote poems which has been published. I give it in the original language, with a literal translation:


De sad der, de to, i saa lunt et hus ved host og i venterdage, Saa braendte huset.  Alt ligger i grus. De to faar i asken rage.

For nede id en er et smykke gemt,—et smykke, som aldrig kan braende. Og leder de trofast, haender det nemt at det findes af ham eller hende.

Men finder de end, brandlidte to, det dyre, ildfaste smykke,— aldrig han finder sin braendte tro, han aldrig sin braendte lykke.



They sat there, the two, in so cosy a house, through autumn and winter days.  Then the house burned down.  Everything lies in ruins.  The two must grope among the ashes.

For among them is hidden a jewel—a jewel that never can burn. And if they search faithfully, it may easily happen that he or she may find it.

But even should they find it, the burnt-out two—find this precious unburnable jewel—never will she find her burnt faith, he never his burnt happiness.

This is the latest piece of Ibsen's verse that has been given to the world; but one of his earliest poems—first printed in 1858—was also, in some sort, a prelude to The Master Builder. Of this a literal translation may suffice. It is called,


I remember as clearly as if it had been to-day the evening when, in the paper, I saw my first poem in print.  There I sat in my den, and, with long-drawn puffs, I smoked and I dreamed in blissful self-complacency.

"I will build a cloud-castle.  It shall shine all over the North.  It shall have two wings: one little and one great. The great wing shall shelter a deathless poet; the little wing shall serve as a young girl's bower."

The plan seemed to me nobly harmonious; but as time went on it fell into confusion.  When the master grew reasonable, the castle turned utterly crazy; the great wing became too little, the little wing fell to ruin.

Thus we see that, thirty-five years before the date of The Master Builder, Ibsen's imagination was preoccupied with a symbol of a master building a castle in the air, and a young girl in one of its towers.

There has been some competition among the poet's young lady friends for the honour of having served as his model for Hilda. Several, no doubt, are entitled to some share in it. One is not surprised to learn that among the papers he left behind were sheaves upon sheaves of letters from women. "All these ladies," says Dr. Julius Elias, "demanded something of him—some cure for their agonies of soul, or for the incomprehension from which they suffered; some solution of the riddle of their nature. Almost every one of them regarded herself as a problem to which Ibsen could not but have the time and the interest to apply himself. They all thought they had a claim on the creator of Nora.... Of this chapter of his experience, Fru Ibsen spoke with ironic humour. 'Ibsen (I have often said to him), Ibsen, keep these swarms of over-strained womenfolk at arm's length.' 'Oh no (he would reply), let them alone. I want to observe them more closely.' His observations would take a longer or shorter time as the case might be, and would always contribute to some work of art."

Production notes: This edition of The Master Builder was published by Global Grey ebooks on the 11th May 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'The Art Student' by Thomas Eakins.

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