Volksbühne Berlin am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz
Currently no performances. Coming back soon.

Baumeister Solness

The Master Builder - adapted from Henrik Ibsen

The hubris of the post-heroic character

Ibsen's „Master Builder“ as a revenant of history

Man is a rope, as Henrik Ibsen famously put it, linking the average person to the master builder. How to max out the few decades that are bestowed upon us on this planet? Should we lead an ordinary life until retirement or strive to create something out of the ordinary, seek ingenuity by sweeping away all the small-minded building regulations and building an acropolis the size of the Shanghai Towers with spires that reach up high into the universe?

In Ibsen's play the fate of the genius who is surrounded by evil spirits and ghosts of the past, and by future competitors, seems to follow a ruthless arithmetic. The Norwegian playwright selects his words as if they were part of a mathematical equation cutting through the algorithms of life like a knife, cranking up a cog-wheel system made of iron, which – click clack click clack – inexorably and in perfectly logical steps will result in the master builder's self-destruction. Ibsen cultivates a style of writing which is the opposite of euphoric. On the surface of it, there is no place for ardent passions or sex in this cold drama. However, libido and desire are the lubricants that set the whole theatre mechanism into action. Solness is introduced as a Don-Juan person who has known many women in his lifetime: „I cannot conceal the fact.“ There is an inkling of an adulterous affair with the typist Kaja, who is soon going to marry Ragnar, Solness' apprentice. The sexual act – merely a sideplay in a larger strategy game - between Solness and Kaja never takes place, which creates a state of suspense, of erotic anticipation and sexual dependency. The ropes of libido tie the employees of Solness' office for grand visions to the master builder through a state of waiting for and anticipating the achievement of some abstract dream.

This system, which at the same time brutally suppresses the desires of the younger talents striving for autonomy and success of their own, topples when Solness meets Hilde, who is modelled after the 18-year-old Emilie Bardach, a girl the playwright met in real life at the age of 61. Hilde, a Scandinavian sylph with a white satchel, comes out of the mountains to remind the master builder of a libidinous incident when the ageing architect had „embraced and kissed“ her – she was merely 12 years old at the time – and „well, you know what I mean.“ Yet Solness does not seem to know what she means. And we, the audience, do not know who is telling the truth. Are Solness' memories being computed through the logic of „what is not allowed to happen never happened“? Or is the episode a fantasy made up by the then pubescent Hilde? It is detective instinct rather than certainty that hints at what really happened up there in Lysanger long ago. Hilde's imagining Solness on the church spire in her memory is enough to set free a tremendous wave of desire. Looking at her own reflection in the mirror, she dreams of the „rough guy“, the „Viking“ raping her and taking her as a prisoner, and she imagines herself grabbing „lustfully“ her „bird of prey“. Sex with Vikings? „Every woman adores a Fascist”, Sylvia Plath wrote famously in her poem „Daddy”, in which she equals her authoritarian father with a Nazi before she's going to drive the vampire away, execute him in her imaginary realm.

In the real world, the twentieth-century political master builders – and Ibsen, too, dreamt of a „third realm“, a Utopian society populated by wise and knowledgeable folk, mature and grown-up human beings in his play „Julius Cesar“ - have always established close links between erotic appeal and barbarism. Eroticised masses collapsed in front of those two men sporting moustaches, who would build huge empires in Europe's east and west and inspire millions of „ministering spirits“ willing to march, murder and die for the „grand“ visions and ideologies of their leaders. And today? Are we living in a post-master builder, post-heroic world? We are ruled by a post-auratic, democratic rationality after all. We, the masses, the Kajas and Broviks who work and feel somewhere in society's wide middle range, may decide upon our future, upon future policies by an act of voting every few years. Differences in opinion may be taken to the streets, it's within the tolerance range of our liberal societies. We are allowed to voice our protest and condemn public figures guilty of money-wasting and irresponsible decisions, for example when it comes to building new railway stations, cultural centres, airports or concert halls such as Hamburg's Philharmonie.

But what about the big decisions, the ones that really change the architecture of our political landscape? Can we participate in these decisions? Where was our right to vote when a couple of people decided to first save, then nationalize the Hypo Real Estate Bank spending a three-digit billion amount of euros to secure the transaction with taxpayers' money? Why did the government turn a deaf ear on the negative vote of the people when the contribution to the military missions in the Balkans and the Hindu Kush was decided? And what about Berlin's huge inner-city construction site behind the Nordbahnhof train station where Deutsche Bahn and the German secret service are about to recreate the spirit of snooping and administrative control right in the middle of our sexy capital in the shape of drab and dull yet expansive concrete buildings and office blocks? Maybe democracies, the system deemed to be the best of all systems, function in the same way, to use an example offered by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, like the „Close the door“-button in an elevator – it doesn't matter whether you push it or not, the door closes in exactly the same time as when you just pressed the floor button without "speeding up" the process by pressing also the "Close the door"-button. Is our belief in political participation a placebo effect?

Perhaps we live in the eye of the hurricane, in a calmed zone, anaesthetized against the urbanisation abuse right at our doorsteps, unwilling to take notice of the storms of warfare raging at the borders of our prosperous territories. We do not wave swastika flags and we do not wear uniforms in military grey or colonial brown. We sport the insignia of the individualized crowd. We have our preferred hairdresser, our preferred jogging track, our preferred kitchen manufacturer, and our own preferred bonus-mile card we use hoping – that's our kind of social utopia nowadays – for an upgrade to the front seats of the air plane. We serve the God of the career ladder striving to be creative, unique, successful, liberal, and innocent most of all – and in doing so, we contribute to a particular type of politics. Cheerio! The post-heroic construction EU, in whose sheltered nest we snuggle, is expanding and fights with godless efficiency against anachronistic, despotic master builders in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and in the Middle East who act in the names of various monotheistic gods. Our generation's point of reference is no longer the immediately neighbouring country, the focus has shifted to frontiers of the continent.

This is our Wende, the „turnaround“ moment; and the inhibition to describe the battle for freedom at our borders in not just pacifying terms has lowered. Horst Köhler stepped down from his office as federal president after he had provoked a storm of indignation for his insight into the close ties between sending German troops on international military missions and German economic interests. The successor to his successor, Joachim Gauck, blusters without meeting much resistance about the blessings of neoliberalism and how Germany's military voice must make itself heard, loud and clear, across the planet. If promoting rollback and regime change was previously the silent yet efficient work of different transatlantic secret services under the guise of unilateralism, it has now become our official geopolitical stance. We, the Ibsenian „ministering spirits“ of the white middle classes in the west are backing this political principle, confident that, in the „contest of value systems“ (Ursula von der Leyen) we reign supreme. But in what form will the imps and trolls appear who chip away at the hubris of the master builders in the future? Will it be in the form of „merely“ social and ideological tensions or will it catapult the horror scenario of blowback reactions such as terror and war right into our peaceful centres? Hilde: „Oh, if only one could sleep away the whole silly story!“

Every present has a past, and memory is an ol' nuisance. In the social dramas of the Norwegian playwright there is this „biting the apple“-part, a reminiscence of the primal scene, the expulsion from paradise when things get out of balance, a scene which ties success to guilt. In „The Master Builder“ it is the birthplace – the old bandits' lodge - of Solness' spouse. He knows there is a crack in the chimney but he chooses not to have it repaired with the „irresistible“ thought in mind that in the case of fire he would be able demonstrate that he is the chosen one. The building is made of wood, and one night it burns down. Fever befalls Mrs Solness as a result of the shock. This has grave effects for the mother milk, and the family's two infants die. It is their bleak ashes from which the master builder arises like a phoenix to prove his architectural genius. The ever-dutiful wife returns like the last living being returning to the realm of the dead, creating herself a surrogate reality with dolls devoid of all vitality. She teams up with the physician Herdal, who has a normalising impact on her, and they build a phalanx to break the master builder's genially mad tendencies channelling them towards the average. Without the belief in a God encouraging his visions, he is unable to build castles in the air and Babylonian towers (an „enterprise“ which was doomed to „fail due to the lack of substance“ anyway), instead he applies his know-how to more functional, horizontally aligned houses for real human beings now (a fixed „abode“ up to „our needs“; Immanuel Kant). It is this shift from heaven-assailing fantasies, from the principle of ascendancy to the geopolitical logic of area and „pure reason“, which holds the potential to lose one's way.

Ibsen wrote the Мaster Builder・ upon returning to Norway after 27 years in exile, and it is also an examination of the literary scene and the next generation of writers in his native country. Knut Hamsun had published the subjective realist novel Hunger and sawed at the legs of Ibsen's throne. But the dramatist stood his ground and negotiated the experience of intergenerational competition in the play, climbing to literary heights once again. For why should the master builder-artist leave the kingdom he created to aesthetic epigones and stylistic nit- and ragpickers, or to graduated artists with diplomas and art curators and managers sneaking around in the corridors of the cultural administration authority. The threat of competition comes from his own breed of apprentices. Ragnar from the Prater intends to build a tower which is 12 steps higher ・ but it's likely they find an agreement on that at least for the time being.

Text Sebastian Kaiser; translation Bettina Seifried