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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ibsen’s Master Builder: A narcissist?

A visit to Chichester’s Minerva Theatre to watch an excellent production of Ibsen’s ‘The Master Builder’.

Master Builder Solness is a narcissist who in the end is outmanoeuvred by the only other character in the world capable of weaving a comparable web of manipulative deceit: another narcissist.

Hilde - played with acerbic energy by Naomi Frederick - is the burgeoning of youth come to displace the older Master Builder Solness; a man obsessed and quite sick with the unending game of self-love and domination. Now, the only effective narcissist is a person equipped to live without ever bowing to the nagging, imploring criticisms of ethical life. All other people – at least the ones that try to avoid using their fellows - are fools, instruments or ‘creatures’ who are either of use or not.

But, there is no point in a narcissist who has ceased suppressing his or her guilt. Such a surrender is at the root of the Master Builder’s demise.

Perhaps this is all a little unfair on the character of Solness. The Master Builder is a play said to be rich in symbolism, and the role of Solness, in keeping with the Master Builder’s own difficult character, is demanding. Michael Pennington, a well respected actor with a distinguished portfolio which includes the RSC, adds to the complexity of Solness’s character in conveying his sophisticated and vulnerable sides. But as ever with this type of maladjusted character, Solness’s vulnerability is not as it seems. His fear and vulnerability is of a different nature to that of the 'well-adjusted' member of civic society.

No, his is a vulnerability born of a lifetime spent repressing guilt: the guilt of building a reputation on the ashes of his wife’s inheritance; the guilt of serial philandery; the guilt of oppressing the people around him. It is the absence of this guilt, the type of guilt that is said to eat away inside, that separates the narcissist from the fully reflective member of the human race. Once the Master Builder can no longer resist this guilt, once he succumbs to it, he becomes human. But it is a phryyic triumph, with the price of now being prey to the narcissistic spirits who were once his bedfellows. It is ultimately this that the narcissist fears, the fear that the golden rule, the rule which enjoins us to treat others as we would have them treat ourselves, that rule which the narcissist is uniquely gifted to exploit, can be turned upon its head.

It is not long before Hilde’s well honed sense for the vulnerable deploys itself – by way of quite subtle manipulation; of Holness’s wife Aline; his underlings; and of the Master Builder himself…

It was the first time I’d seen a play by Ibsen, so I am unsure whether it is to his, or to David Edgar’s, skill in adapting the tale that amidst the play’s symbolic references to guilt, betrayal and domination, the audience is not forced to take a moral stance. For me it seemed to be a reconstruction of the subtle and, often seemingly inoffensive, interplay of domination and manipulation that can occur in real life.

It ends the only way it can – no twist - to the sound of the screaming, hysterical narcissism of Hilde now become master of the Master Builder himself.

- The Master Builder, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 9 October.


  1. A very interesting review and superficially I would agree. Solness is a nasty character, there are a lot of instances where this is revealed: eg the scene that made me gasp, when Old Brovik almost begs if he could sit down in front of Solness and Michael Pennington plays it as if he was a king most graciously granting this "unheard-of" wish :), and poor Kaja he abuses even worse than a prostitute - at least in the relationship between prostitute and pimp the motives of each party are clearly defined. Solness has got a lot of faults indeed, but unlike the narcissist there are hints that he is aware of his actions being wicked, when confiding in Dr Herdal his secret ideas Solness feels the urge to explain why he is abusing Kaja and her feelings towards him, i e his fear of the young as incorporated by Ragnar. So in conclusion I would rather say that he is not wicked but weak.
    The antisocial picture of Solness is for me totally cracked when it comes to the relationship between him and Alina, his wife. This very unhappy bond is sustained by his feelings of guilt towards her. He takes the blame for her unhappiness, something he believes was brought about by their twin sons' death in infancy as a direct result of the burning to ashes of Alina's family home. He is definitely suffering, but he is not in so much suffering his loss as he is suffering her supposed loss.
    Another result of the destruction of Alina's house and the death of his children, is that Solness because he feels that his own happiness was denied by his god, he begins building homes for people/families to live in. His wish is that at least they might find happiness.
    This play by Ibsen is very profound and complex indeed and I wonder why it isn't staged more often. Chichester was also my first acquaintance with it.


  2. Thanks for your comment Daniela. You put foward some important objections to my critique. In particular you argue he is weak rather than wicked.

    My point is that in the play we witness a change in Solness.

    As I say: '... there is no point in a narcissist who has ceased suppressing guilt.'

    This is what happens to Solness. In facing up to his fearful guilt in relation to Alina, the Master Builder ceases to be a narcissist. He becomes human.

    But it is a double edged sword, since this leaves him prey to others (ie Hilde) who would seek to dominate him in the way he formely dominated others.

    thanks for your commnent

    Paul H

  3. Well when I was in Chichester there was an after-show talk and one question or remark from the audience stroke me as being very odd, which was that the play would be a totally different one if Hilde was not there. At the time I thought what an utterly stupid remark, but I've come to realise that what is actually expressed by the remark is that the entire play hinges on the way one interprets Hilde. The main question definitely is who/what is she? People went as far as to say that she probably does not even exist in reality and she is just a figure made up by Solness' imagination. She was called a catalyser or even Solness' conscience. I wonder if you could find anything selfish in her, she has a certain view of Solness and she would go to any length to prove she is right, agreed. Still she has a high moral standard, eg she demands of Solness to release Ragnar, and it is her denying Solness to have sexual intercourse with her, just because she knows the awful truth behind Alina's sufferings. Is she really a stalker? I wonder probably Ibsen had no concept of such a person. I believe she is a metaphorical personification of something that is essential to an artist, his inspiration, his muse.

    I also wonder if it isn't his shortcomings that do rather make Solness look so human, after all, for who is so "sittlich" that he might cast the first stone. Maybe the degree is overdone a little bit here, but in our society today, these are actions one has to perform to survive.

    I would love to discuss this play with you if you don't mind, just go to my profile, there you will find my homepage and there is an email address there.