“THE MASTER BUILDER”
A SYMBOLIC IBSEN PLAY AT YALE REP

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

It is very difficult sometimes to translate a play from the original language, in this case Ibsen’s 1890’s Norwegian prose, and fully succeed in capturing the author’s original poetry and intent.  At Yale Repertory Theatre we are seeing a play through the eyes, ears and mind of a modern day translator, Paul Walsh, a teacher at the Yale School of Drama, with the trust that he has rendered something very close to Ibsen’s work. 

Taken on the surface, this play is about a despicable, egocentric architect. He guards his power by denying a deserving employee an opportunity to advance, selfishly takes advantage of his much younger secretary, and is heartless towards his wife who has become understandably embittered.  The reason for his behavior is finally revealed through the re-telling of an earlier family tragedy -- a fire in which the couple’s two young boys were killed.   During a period of angry desperation, a young girl whom he has met many years ago, at the peak of his career, suddenly appears in his life.  She encourages him to fulfill a forgotten promise (to build a special palace for her) and inspires him to change his current ways.  Although he straightens himself out and begins to climb the ladder towards his bliss, it is too late.  The end result is tragic.

 As this reviewer interprets this play, both the plot and the characters in “The Master Builder” are meant to be symbolic.  Therefore, what we are viewing on one level is not a simple “Love of Life” TV drama.   Like Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” this is a Romantic Period-style piece containing philosophical undertones that were not fully developed at Yale Rep. The main conflict of the play concerns the architect’s inner conscience and his inspirational muse in the form of the visiting young girl.  The girl represents “The Master Builder’s” youth and his past prime of life.  While the architect’s character and daily encounters are molded by life’s tragic circumstances, like Goethe’s “Dr. Faustus” the central character is fighting age, the encroachment of youth and his failing ambition to fulfill an unreachable goal.

Unfortunately, the meaningful, symbolic nature of this play was not very apparent in Yale’s production.  As presented, this was a very wordy, highly repetitious and tedious hodge-podge that lacked emotional impact.  Whether it was the master writer, Henrik Ibsen, the modern translator, Paul Walsh, or director Evan Yionoulis’ mis-interpretation that was at fault, I’m sorry to say that the puzzling result failed to hit the mark.

David Chandler as Architect, Halvard Solness, played his role as a one-dimensional, cartoon character.  Because of his continuous, un-modulated, ranting and raving, we hardly got a glimpse of his tormented soul. Felicity Jones as The Master’s neglected, cold wife, and Bill Buell as the wise and confident doctor were intelligently played Ibsen characters.  Highly spirited Susan Heyward was the youthful counselor  (or inner conscience).  Like a much needed “Tinker Bell,” she gave the play a tone of otherworldliness as she practically danced across the stage.

Speaking about architecture, Timothy Brown deserves to be singled out for his futuristic set which depicted spacey house frames and floating flower-boxes.

“The Master Builder” continues through October 10.  The next production will be “Eclipsed” -- about Liberia’s civil war and its affect on its women (Oct. 23 - Nov. 14).

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