Henrik Ibsen poses a question: How far can professional success take us if we ignore other things that matter?
The tendency toward symbolism, to be observed in the early romantic works of Ibsen, and occasionally in his dramas of social awakening, becomes dominant in ‘The Master Builder’ (‘Bygmester Solness’), published in 1892 and played the next season. Already in ‘The Wild Duck’ and ‘The Lady from the Sea,’ Ibsen had mingled symbolism with naturalism; but only in ‘The Master Builder’ does the hidden allegory threaten to warp his surface story out of consistency. The piece, which begins with matter-of-fact scenes and situations from middle-class life, ere long develops into a tenuous fable that suggests much more than it presents.
As a drama of ideas ‘The Master Builder’ emphasizes two notions: the peril of selfish individualism, already shown in ‘Rosmersholm’ and ‘Hedda Gabler’; and the struggle of age against youth. Ibsen, conscious of his advancing years, felt the inevitable passing of power from the older to the younger generation. He felt, also, not only the fear of youth, but its fascination, especially in his innocent affair with Emilie Bardach, a girl of 18 whom he, at the age of 61, had met in the Tyrol during the summer of 1889, and with whom he later corresponded. He has universalized these merely personal sentiments, setting forth the problem of every man who lives long enough to regret what is gone and to strive desperately to hold what is slipping from him. This particular conflict Ibsen associates with the still larger conflict between individualism and altruism.
Solness, the master builder, has achieved success at the expense of his wife and his business associates. He has checked the rise of old Knut Brovik, and refused to young Ragnar Brovik permission to build independently. He has employed the latter's sweetheart and captured her affections only as a ruse by which to retain Ragnar's services. Obsessed, as he admits, with dread of the younger generation, yet thinking himself at last secure from it, he succumbs when the younger generation knocks at his door in the person of Hilda Wangel. Hilda, who had already appeared in a minor rôle in ‘The Lady from the Sea,’ is a strange and wilful maiden who induces Solness to relax his selfish schemes, and, at the same time, to attempt to mount, as he once was wont, to the top of a lofty tower.
He can no longer safely climb to such heights, and yet, inspired by Hilda's faith, he makes the attempt, only to fall. Though he forfeits life, Hilda professes satisfaction, inasmuch as, when he stood at the dizzy summit, she has heard ‘harps in the air.’ Hilda is the puzzle of the play, an influence for both good and evil, a symbol of youthful aspiration, or perhaps of youth as the enemy of age and of woman as the enemy of man. The charm of the drama lies in its tantalizing hints of concealed significances; its defect lies in its lack of proper correspondence between the human action and the allegory. Much in the later portions of the work is scarcely intelligible as a natural representation of life.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920