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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Wrenn Schmidt, Max Gordon Moore, and John Turturro in The Master Builder, at BAM. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger

Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence and subsequent work, articulates a theory of poetry whereby the young poet is inspired by an older poet, but then fears producing weak work that is merely derivative of his great precursor. This anxiety of influence prompts a struggle to overcome that influence which requires a deep change in the poet himself (emptying himself of his anxious ego), but also a deep change in the precursor, in which the precursor is not so much killed (he’s functionally already dead) as consumed, his work so radically reinterpreted that the young poet effectively becomes its new author.

It’s a potent metaphor, and one that I come back to when I encounter work generally acknowledged great that I find myself irritated by. A good example is Saul Bellow, whom I’ve just about given up on after gnashing my teeth all the way through The Adventures of Augie March. The compulsiveness with which Bellow shows off his broad but shallow knowledge, the importance he attributes to his erotic impulses, his unshakeable conviction that his author surrogates are adorable, these things drive me to distraction. And I realize, reluctantly, that it is in part because I share these attributes, but lack Bellow’s freedom from self-consciousness about them. I do not want to be like him, and yet I recognize that he has a freedom that I deny myself to my detriment. I want to choose another father.

Ibsen is another one of these gods I resent, and denigrate in consequence. I can articulate all the reasons why I frequently don’t love his work – his plots feel too contrived, his symbolism clunky, his characters badly dated – and then, if I am honest, I must say: those things don’t seem to bother you about, say, Dickens. Just possibly your aversion has more to do with his male heroes, not only so frank in their hungers (I adore Roth, and nobody’s more frankly hungry than he), but so convinced that those hungers are justified, that the failure of life to satisfy them is tragic, and their accomplishments in the face of that failure genuinely heroic. I wish, on some level, I had that conviction, and yet, on another, I’m relieved I don’t.

There’s probably no Ibsen play better for approaching this nexus of anxiety and resentment than The Master Builder, and the current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music does an excellent job of throwing that nexus into sharp relief.

Director Andrei Belgrader has set the play vaguely in period, but the erector set structure (designed by Santo Loquasto) that dominates the stage seems intended to invoke a more modernist idea of a “master builder,” and both the language and the body habitus of the principal characters has been modernized as well. This makes the first act of the play wonderfully accessible. I thought, watching John Turturro’s Halvard Solness spar first with Kaja Fosli (Kelly Hutchinson), his assistant who is hopelessly in love with him (a love that is not requited); then with his wife, Aline (Katherine Borowitz), who tartly notes her husband’s roving eye through a terrifyingly frozen smile; and most sparkingly, with the young minx, Hilde Wangel (Wrenn Schmidt), who has come to claim Solness as her destined prince – I thought I was watching Strindberg, the passions roiling these people were so vivid. I also thought, well, if we’re being so up-front about Solness’s mid-life crisis, and Hilde’s father lust for him, well, I was dying to know where we’d go from there.

But where we go is deeply disappointing in that Ibsen way. There’s ever more talk of the phallic steeples that Solness once built, but now refuses to (because he’s angry at God for being bigger than him). Solness intimates that he believes he has a magical power to conjure up what he wishes, a crazy metaphor for the creative process that never properly connects to the psychological reality of these characters. Hilde spends some quality time with Mrs. Solness, and comes away disturbed that the woman she aimed to oust is a human, and a human in pain, which drains her character of much of her previous interest. On the other hand, Borowitz’s portrait of a psychologically shattered woman (she never got over the loss of her doll collection in a fire, but seems resigned to the death of her twin children to fever), was the most interesting on view, and one that I wish had resonated more with the rest of the play. But no, we’re going to have to swing back to our titular master builder, and whether he will muster the courage to personally climb the tower of his new residence, and hang the ceremonial wreath thereon. (Spoiler alert: he climbs, and falls to his death. It’s unfortunately an unavoidably comic moment.)

I don’t know what I would do to salvage this masterpiece from its absurdities. Leaving the theatre, it occurred to me that Solness bears some of the signs of a Randian superman. He’s self-made, growing rich and powerful without jumping through the proper credentialing hoops (he calls himself a master builder rather than an architect because he doesn’t have the degree). His work is the pure expression of his own vision, unswayed by the demands of God or man. Indeed, he is convinced that his will gives him the magical power to conjure up his desire. And younger women are practically throwing themselves at him. So perhaps it would be instructive to play him as Howard Roark, building skyscrapers rather than steeples, towers in the park rather than bourgeois homes. It would certainly provide more punch to the relationship between Solness and his junior, Ragnar Brovik (Max Gordon Moore), whom Solness has deliberately kept down so that he can continue to reign supreme among builders. Given the ever-increasing potency of Rand’s myths in our culture, a portrait of an aging Roark might actually be instructive.

Ultimately, though, what I want to see is Solness’s – and Ibsen’s – pretensions punctured. And it’s not clear to me that the play allows that. Solness is supposed to be a tragic God-man. But it’s hard for me to care about his fall when I never wanted to believe in him in the first place.

The Master Builder plays at the BAM Harvey Theatre through June 9th.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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