A Reflection on The Master Builder
Last night I finally realized my dream of seeing Ralph Fiennes on the London stage. His inspiring work has touched me for the past twenty years from “Schindler’s List” and “The Constant Gardener” to “Maid in Manhattan” to his brilliant depiction of Voldemort. I felt truly blessed to see him perform live.
His performance, of course, was phenomenal. I expected nothing less from Fiennes, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Before last night, I wasn’t familiar with the play “The Master Builder.” Henrik Ibsen wrote it in 1892 when he was in his 60s. It is a somber and darkly humorous piece whose characters, on their surface, could almost be clichés.
The emotionally rigid, passionless wife. The nubile temptress. The “misunderstood” husband looking to recapture lost glory between the thighs of said temptress while grappling with a middle-age crisis and emotional cowardice.
Little did I know it would descend into an existential quandary. From appalling coincidences (like the play’s date being the birthdate of my rapist: 19 Sept – another haunting number I must soon replace) to deeper, frightening parallels with my own life and experience.
Frankly, it hit a little too close to home. Whereas there are many parts of the play and characters that bore no resemblance to my experience, the ones that did were harrowing.
First, the Master Builder, Halvard Solness. My husband is a General Contactor. After 25 years, he’s indeed a “Master Builder.” Some of Fiennes mannerisms and reactions could’ve been my husband. It was uncanny. It didn’t help that there is a resemblance between the men, especially with a beard.
Secondly, Solness is a coward on many levels, preferring to hide and avoid any uncomfortable feelings with workaholism, further alienating him from himself and his wife. He lives in a fantasy world of his own making. He’s slightly insane and knows it. Sound familiar?
Third, his wife is unable to recover from a debilitating trauma, and his neglect certainly doesn’t help her heal, emotionally abandoned in an empty relationship. It negatively affects their marriage and her health. In his exhaustion, he says, “I’m chained to a corpse.” Perhaps my husband felt that way, too. Did the vivacious, lusty woman I once was become a corpse? A shell? A black hole of despair due to trauma, to emotional abandonment and neglect? Is that why he left?
Fourth, Solness was building a new house for his wife that she didn’t want, similar to my “castle house” dream that my husband attempted, but he bought a house where he wanted to live: in the middle of Yahoo Central. It wasn’t for me just as Solness’s efforts weren’t for his wife. Instead of listening to what she wanted/needed, he did what he wanted under the delusion it was for her. Believing it was for her because it was all he knew how to do.
The fall perhaps was the most disturbing parallel. My husband had a near-fatal fall 4 years ago. He cracked his skull and broke his pelvis. He couldn’t walk for months. Terrified, I sat by his intensive care bed praying he wouldn’t die.
He didn’t. At least not in an obvious way, but I’m convinced my husband did die from that fall in the end. Between the brain trauma and the emotional trauma, his personality changed to one unrecognizable and even cruel. Arrogant. Selfish. Dead.
My husband fell metaphorically, too. He fell from being a supportive, loving husband, from someone who was both strong and kind. He fell into a dark cave and is too afraid to reemerge.
Then there is me, the “temptress” Hilda, idealizing an unavailable man, putting him on a pedestal so high he can’t help but fall from it, metaphorically. Putting so much pressure on him to be the man she sees, the man he showed her he was, the man she believes he can be again, he couldn’t help but fall from such heights. Her entire life was built around the fantasy of him, the promise of him. She knew so little about him: an impressive feat, an inappropriate kiss, and an impossible promise. She filled in the rest with ideal and romantic notions. She defined him into something he wasn’t because she never got to see reality, so he became her savior. He was the man who would build her that “castle house,” and all would be wonderful. They would be together, and all would be right with the world.
His ego bought into her fantasy, for he, too, needed to believe it. He needed to believe he was worthwhile, enough, loved. Her image of him falsely propped him up, giving him the courage to finally face his fears, but in his arrogance, intoxicated by her fantasy, he faced them in a reckless way. Then he fell. Metaphorically and for real.
The fantasy shattered along with his skull.
Similar with Mr. Impossible. Unattainable. Unavailable. So desperate to know him, to replace the fantasy with a human being because it would cure the fantasy. Intimacy gently leads your beloved down from the pedestal. Reality, with all the flaws and disappointments and issues, is far more intoxicating than any fantasy, just as vodka is more intoxicating than butter beer. It’s not as romantic, but it’s real. Genuine.
Devoid of reality, of data, I fill in the blanks while coping with uninvited and unwanted feelings. Idealizing him. Finding solace in the fantasy of him while craving connection on any level. Knowing that knowing him would deepen the love I feel. Knowing as much as it would bring me joy, it would also bring heartbreak. But it would be real.
Too close to home.
It made me wonder if my life is such a cliché, so commonplace that a 100-year-old play could reflect my experience on such a profound level. It is truly possible we are all so similar, so terrified, so broken? That we all struggle with the same issues in varying degrees of courage, of success? That we all make the same mistakes over and over and over as the decade and centuries pass? Never learning from history? Never learning from art? Never learning that it is precisely facing those fears that will give us that freedom and fulfillment and connection we so desperately desire?
It reinforces my belief that hope is dangerous; life, ultimately pointless. Nothing exists except for this moment. The past is smoke. The future a dream that ends in death. Everything in between is filling the hours with meaning we create, grasping for connection and intimacy (sometimes catching it, briefly), and reveling in the genuine, albeit fleeting moments of beauty and joy, of love.
May you all find peace.