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Theatre / The Master Builder

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The Master Builder is a play written by Henrik Ibsen and published in 1892. The play marks the start of Ibsen's last creative phase. It tells the story of architect Hallvard Solness, a middle-aged, grumpy man who seems to have been giving up on life completely, but hangs on to his position, even if it costs the people around him dearly. Then along comes a young girl, Hilde Wangel, who urges him on to a last push - which eventually kills him.


The play contains examples of these tropes:

  • Action Girl: Hilde Wangel, coming straight from a mountain trip, makes a good show for it.
  • ...And That Little Girl Was Me: Hilde and Solness relates the time when he built the church in her hometown. He complains about a thirteen-year-old bratty girl who acted out on the ground and nearly made him fall down. Hilde confirms it was her.
    Hilde: The brat, it was me.
  • Anti-Hero: Solness. For the record, there are no heroes at all in this play, but several pawns and butt monkeys. Even Ragnar, the closest you come to a sympathetic male character, is broken at the end.
  • Arc Words: For Hilde, the arc word is "Exciting!"; she uses it time and again.
  • Artist Disillusionment: Invoked. Both in-play and outside it, depending on whether Solness is an Author Avatar.
  • Ascended Extra: Hilde Wangel takes centre stage, now grown from her adolescent state in The Lady From the Sea.
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  • Awful Wedded Life: Solness and Aline, his wife.
  • Beleaguered Assistant: Knut Brovik, also his son Ragnar. It seems Solness is keeping them For the Evulz. He obviously hinders Ragnar in getting his own assignments as an architect.
  • Break the Cutie: Aline. Period. Also Kaja, but Aline's predicament is far worse.
  • Broken Ace: Solness surpassed everyone, at the cost of his children, the health of his wife, possibly his own sanity. And he gives it back by breaking others around him.
  • Call-Back: If you are familiar with the works of Ibsen, the play calls back to at least The Warriors at Helgeland, Brand, and The Lady From the Sea. It seems like Ibsen is taking some time in evaluating his earlier production here. The Brand reference is jarring:
    • Solness - Brand.
    • Aline - Agnes.
    • Hilde - Gerd.
    • Even the dead children and the "new church" (at least the tower part) gets a reference.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Solness has a fear of heights. This became a problem for him ten years before the play (and Hilde made matters worse), and it finally kills him at the end of the play (with Hilde making matters even worse).
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  • Chekhov's Gunman: Hilde Wangel, being responsible for Solness climbing the tower, and also for him falling down from it.
  • Climbing Climax: When Solness enters the tower, everyone is dumbfounded, especially Aline, who knows his fear of heights. She hushes everyone, because they might disturb him. It almost works, but Hilde doesn't care. Disney Villain Death follows suit.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Hilde at the end of the play. Solness likewise. When the two of them decide the best thing to do is to build "air castles" for her to play in, they seem to be pretty far out. Hilde's reaction when Solness is dead is also quite far out in left field.
  • Cloudcuckooland: The promised kingdom of "Appelsinia" (Orangeland) that Solness promised the thirteen-year-old Hilde. Ten years later, she still clings to this, and gets Solness to dream of a kingdom where she will live as a princess. Cloudcuckooland indeed.
  • Darker and Edgier: Compared to The Lady From the Sea.
  • Disney Villain Death: Solness falls from a high tower, losing his life when he smashes his head against a rock underneath. And he was not exactly a hero, was he? Predates Disney by several years, as Walt Disney himself was born nine years after the play was published.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Falling down, smashing your skull to pieces against a rock. Dead on the spot. Happens off stage. Probably just as well...
  • Femme Fatale: Hilde. Who, if any, would turn the tables and make Solness drop dead to the ground?
  • Freak Out: Knut Brovik at the start of the play. Invoked in the very first spoken line:
    Brovik: Soon I can't take it any longer!
    • He is on his deathbed before the end of the play.
  • Freudian Slip: Hilde suggests rather pertly that Solness should have more towers on his buildings. "High towers, that rise towards the sky..."
  • Genki Girl: Hilde, up to and including the cat reference. Her behaviour is wild, irresponsible, and playfully looking for entertainment, even if that costs a life. Hilde is a dark version of the trope.
  • Genre Savvy: Aline. She knows the quirks of Solness pretty well. When Hilde arrives, and Solness presents her to Aline by the first name and explains he has known her from she was a child, Aline just smirks. And takes Hilde in.
  • Gilded Cage: Hilde recalls her childhood this way. She left as soon as she was able to.
  • Girl Friday: Kaja Fosli, the secretary of Solness, and fiancée of Ragnar Brovik. She is selflessly giving her life for her boss, even setting her own marriage on hold for him. Unresolved Sexual Tension is an obvious part of her suffering. And then comes Hilde.
  • Gold Digger: Hilde has some of it, leading and older and successful man on. She is even described as a "bird of prey", out hunting.
  • Guilt Complex: Solness knows that his success possibly is based on arson. The fact that his former home burnt to the ground paved the way for his ability to build new homes on the property. Both Aline and their two infant sons got sick afterwards, and the sons died. This is a heavy Guilt Complex for Solness.
  • Horny Vikings: Solness and Hilde discuss whether it would have been better to live in the Viking ages, without that much guilt to carry around.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: It is implied that Ragnar Brovik, a gifted architect to be, actually did the better part of the master builder's work. So did his father.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Solness defends his actions this way. The fact that he is tormented by guilt is hidden from everyone, except Hilde.
  • I Regret Nothing: Discussed. Solness is tormented by guilt. Hilde would prefer a "robust conscience" - and that would make her move on without regrets. In the end, she doesn't seem to fathom the concept of guilt at all.
  • It Amused Me: Hilde's reasons for doing things are very much about what she finds exciting. It was fun to see Solness climb a tower when she was fourteen years old, so she danced under the tower, making him almost lose balance. At the end of the play, she does so again, and this time, Solness drops to the ground and is killed. Her reaction? It was exciting to watch.
  • It's All About Me: To Solness, all the characters around him is solely there to do his bidding. Except Hilde Wangel, who makes him do what she wants.
  • I Will Wait for You: Hilde implies that Solness would come back for her. He didn't, so she sought him out herself, determined that he shall keep his promise—not-so-coincidentally ten years after their first meeting, to the day.
    • Of the Ibsen women on hold (Solveig, Ellida Wangel), Hilde is the first to make a point of seeking out her interest.
  • Karmic Death: Falling to your death from the top of a tower when you are afraid of heights? The death of Solness is karmic on oh, so many levels...
  • Kavorka Man: Implied with Solness. He doesn't seem that charming, and he gets around anyway.
  • Kick the Dog: Solness against both Knut and Ragnar Brovik. He seems to be close to causing the stroke that kills Knut, and makes a point of torturing him on his deathbed by not acknowledging Ragnar's work, until it is almost too late.
  • Lonely at the Top: Solness states it, and seems initially happy that Hilde is there to share it with him.
  • Lonely Doll Girl: Aline had a collection of dolls from her childhood. The collection burnt with her old house.
  • Male Gaze: Dr Herdal, complimenting Hilde. Obviously Distracted by the Sexy.
  • Manchild: Solness acts it out more and more prominently towards the end of the play. The last conversations between him and Hilde sounds disturbingly like two kids in the schoolyard, or on the playground, playing a dare-game.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: Discussed. When Hilde recalls the heroic Viking ages, she dreams of being a woman the Vikings can abduct and rape. Boy, does that girl have issues.
  • May–December Romance: Solness and Hilde.
  • Meaningful Name: Hilde is originally a name given to one of the valkyries. Might be a covert reference to Richard Wagner and his romanticing of the norse. Ibsen did write this play while in Germany, all things considered.
  • Ms. Fanservice: As far as 1892 standards go, Hilde's outfit is described in detail. She is dressed as a tourist with a backpack. Her skirt is "hitched up", and her collar is "let down". So, after a proper standard, we have access to her neck and her legs. That is actually fanservice in spades for the 1890s.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Solness. Up to and including "bushy eyebrows and a great moustache". It is implied that the character is partly based on the philosopher.
  • Not So Different: Solness and Hilde, as it turns out.
  • Oops! I Forgot I Was Married: Solness gets close, so close...
  • Precision F-Strike: This play contains more swearing than most of the works written by Ibsen.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Hilde Wangel is based on the eighteen-year-old Emilie Bardach, whom Ibsen encountered in Austria. He became infatuated with her, although nothing ever came of it. She was clearly in love with him, but he, being 61 at the time, and married, had to decline. He used her as a model for Hilde, and also for Hedda Gabler. Some of the essential traits to be found in Solness is, of course, a flanderized version of himself.
  • Really Gets Around: Solness. Called out on it by Dr Herdal.
  • The Resenter: Solness envies others for their happiness, which he lacks.
  • Sanity Slippage: Solness debates whether he is losing his mind completely. At the end of the play, it is debatable whether or not he has lost it.
  • Spiritual Sequel: To The Lady From the Sea - courtesy of Hilde. Also, it seems, to Brand.
  • Tempting Fate: Solness, rather out of it, complains that the youth will knock on the door and take over. Serves as Foreshadowing when he says: "And that will be the end of Solness". Then Hilde comes knocking... with fatal results for him.
  • The Tease: Hilde Wangel has not changed that much since The Lady From the Sea. But now she lampshades it.
  • The Tower: The central structure that is the downfall of Solness. Climbing the tower is a feat when you fear heights, and some snotty girl brat is waving at you from below. The tower structure is laden with heavy symbolism.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Solness and Kaja. Then Solness and Hilde. It seems they all lust for him.
  • Vengeance Feels Empty: Solness takes his misery out on his gifted assistant Ragnar. He admits he does it for the sake of envy, and is not happy about it.

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