The Master Builder
Reviewed by David Kashimba
Photo by David Allen

Aurora Theatre in Berkeley has put together an incredibly rich production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder. When Ibsen first wrote the play, many people were puzzled by this drama about the passion of a young woman and a much older man.

Halvard Solness (James Carpenter) is a famous architect and master builder who has, “become so terribly afraid of the young,” and the change they will bring. Yet he has an eye for women much younger than himself. Since the tragic death of his two children, his marriage has been reduced to a cold duty. “Now she’s dead for me, and I’m chained to a corpse,” he tells Hilda (Lauren Grace), a young woman who has been enamored of him since she was 12.

The inspiration for this play came in part from Ibsen’s infatuation with a Viennese girl named Emilie Bardach who Ibsen first met when he was 61 and she was 18. Ibsen, an admirer of Freud’s psychological theories, fills his drama with comical Freudian slips, where his characters say something that is charged with an undercurrent of sexual meaning. While this provides a lot of comic relief for the audience, the drama delves into much deeper layers about art, humanity, and our place in the universe and before God.

Solness spent most of his life building only for God. But he’s changed his direction saying, “no churches, homes for people to live in with towers.” Yet he fears retribution and recognizes the sacrifices of his art: “In order to build homes for others, I had to renounce a home for myself… The price artistic success has cost me.”

And now this young woman is pushing him to recapture his youth and, “do the impossible once more.” Throwing caution to the wind, he ignores the foundations of his life experience to rise to the occasion with the young Hilda. He defies God by climbing a tower, “a palace in the sky” that he has built so that he can, “look down on everyone else.” The results are the tragic story of a man who hasn’t learned to respect his own limitations.

For tickets or more information about this fine production, directed by Barbara Oliver, call (510) 843-4822 or visit

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