Ibsen and the height of folly

March 11, 2016

The brilliant actor Ralph Fiennes, playing the role of architect Halvard Solness in Henrik Ibsen’s classic work The Master Builder, slowly reveals the mind of a man whose self-worth is tied up in the success of his work. And there are tragic results.

Fiennes is a wonderful actor, able to convey deep emotion and personal conflict with the smallest gesture or intonation. In this recent production at The Old Vic in London, we are treated to a masterclass of interpretation: through Fiennes’s subtle portrayal of Solness, we see beyond the self-made builder who dominates his local town to an increasingly troubled man who fears a younger rival will supersede him. As a result, Solness is vulnerable to dreams of lost youth.

Ibsen’s play brings these dreams alive in the form of a young temptress – a wild girl called Hilde Wangel who professes her love for the older man, inveigling her way into his home, the confidence of his wife, and eventually triggering the climax of the play, when Solness must conquer his fear of heights to impress her.

Of course there is nothing new in storytellers exploring the concept of hubris – excessive pride, and a belief that one has godlike powers. The Greek legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, reminds us of the dangers of getting too near to power. And the character of Icarus is echoed in that of Jatayu in Hindu mythology, whose wings were left permanently damaged by the sun’s rays.

Warnings against overweening ambition are universal. But surely we could still be striving to do better?

I believe the key lies in combining a desire to strive for more, with thoughtful self-analysis. As the artist Salvador Dali said: “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” We do need some sense of purpose if humankind is to keep developing and enriching itself. It is the fuel for our engines.

But as Solness finds out, ambition without thought – which is fuelled by desire, not intelligence – is a dangerous trait. In seeking to stay ahead of his competitors while trying to impress the young, headstrong Hilde, he fails to think of the consequences of his actions.

The play ends with Solness on top of the steeple of his newest building, overcome with vertigo: a Norwegian Icarus whose pride is his downfall.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation