Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Master Builder 2

One of our young readers writes to ask: "do you really think that as we master building we can't help but build masters? Are you scared of your computer and the robotic vacuum cleaner? And what DO you think is our central obligation to life?"

Actually, I didn't mean mastering building / building masters in a Sorcerer's-apprentice-runaway-technology sort of way, which I think is basically over-simplified sci fi paranoia. What I meant was that the vast extension of our reach through various achievements---technological and otherwise---leaves us, as a race, more dependent on the co-ordination provided by leaders than ever. And, in the vast abyss of ignorance which is the collective sum of the awareness of the masses, this all too often leads to various sorts of appalling idol worship or to an arrogant but ignorant insistence that one needs no master but oneself. But this latter sentiment is always an illusion, because what is the self, torn free of all of its influences and context? One is always led my somebody or some idea; what’s imperative is to choose well. As Bob Dylan says, "you gotta serve somebody."

As for central obligations, I think Ibsen’s right that they have to do with honouring the sort of person one believes it is best to be, but with the caveat that this must embrace the fullest manageable respect for the full continuum of life. In short, as much as Nietzsche may have been right to mock the tyranny of insipid mediocrity inherent in the emphasis on meek conformity to bourgeois morality, one's choice instead to assert oneself ought to be made with cognisance of and respect for all the many others whom one may effect. As we can see, to merely assert one's strength in pursuit of one's own satisfaction results, for instance, in leaving succeeding generations at the brink of ecological collapse.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Master Builder

The Theatre Kingston production of Ibsen's The Master Builder, which I directed from a script that I had adapted fairly heavily---not only modernizing the text, but condensing it and even changing the story somewhat, particularly in the third act---opened last week, and I am extremely satisfied with it. However, I have my doubts that what I saw in the play is readily evident to everyone who sees the production. That's fine, really, in that a work of art can remain somewhat baffling and still be fascinating. But, at the same time, I don't have any aversion whatsover to the idea of explaining my work---although I prefer to do so once I have already finished directing, which is my way, really, of discovering what I REALLY think about a play. So here's my attempt to explain what I've done with The Master Builder, starting with the director's notes I wrote for the program:

Director’s Notes:
"2006 is the centenary of the death of Henrik Ibsen, the playwright who arguably exerted more influence on the nature of modern drama than any other. Ibsen had an instinct for finding the dramatic qualities inherent in all those questions that lie at the core of what it means to be a fully-realized human being in the modern world. He bluntly asked such questions most notoriously in his so-called "social problem plays," such as A Doll’s House, Ghosts and An Enemy of the People. But, beyond all such questions about issues such as, respectively, equity in relations between the sexes, the effect of corrupt patrimony hypocritically wrapped in public respectability, or the readiness of many people to sacrifice the common weal to selfish interests, lay one very basic sort of question: having considered all the circumstances in which we find ourselves in the modern world, what sort of people do we now want to be?

In his late plays, including The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen turned toward the spiritual dimensions of this question. In particular, he was absorbed by the difficulty of how, having achieved greatness of a kind in an agnostic world where traditional spiritual guidance inevitably seems so ineffectual, one is able to avoid the corrosive effect of self-delusion. In treating such a complex problem using relatively simple artistic means, Ibsen’s last plays invite comparison with Shakespeare’s late Romances or with Beethoven’s late string quartets.

But, as one as always does in Ibsen, one also encounters echoes of some of the great thinkers who shaped the twentieth century—sometimes Charles Darwin, for example, or Karl Marx, and especially Sigmund Freud. And in the case of The Master Builder, one finds particularly vivid reminders of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ibsen’s contemporary, who taught the Twentieth Century that "Life simply is will to power," arguing that human nature has always directed us to dominate and to reshape the world to fit our own preferences, and that our central obligation to life is therefore to assert our personal strength to the fullest degree possible. Looking back over more than a hundred years, haunted as we are by memories of some who felt they knew just what Nietzsche meant and who tried to act on it accordingly—and I’m thinking of all those many ideologues, with the architects of the Third Reich only providing the central tragic example—it is easy to see in The Master Builder a parable of the twentieth-century human being. For, as we continue to master building—in this or in that sense—we inexorably find ourselves involved in the process of building masters, and it is here that we will discover the continuing relevance of the story of Halvard Solness and Hilda Wangel."

And here's a section taken from an email I wrote to a friend who had asked me a question about the production:

"My sense of what I was doing with Hilda---and whether, for most viewers, I have actually succeeded in doing this or not is another matter, of course---had to do with my thinking about what the various young women said to have been involved in Ibsen's real life as he entered late middle age had done for or to him----at least, according to his imagination, and as distilled into the character of Hilda Wangel. Now, I had not STARTED with the biography, of course, I had started with the play. But reading the biography, contrary to the expectation that it would make Hilda seem more real if I had a sense of the real life model, only reaffirmed my initial response to the character. My feeling was that Hilda's operations as a free agent in the play were much less important than the specific ways in which she was operating as a resonator of thoughts and desires already within Solness: a point that is made repeatedly in Ibsen's script. Furthermore, I felt that the character was a little on the thin side: not so much embodying the convincing illusion of an autonomous human being (as we see, for example, in Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer), but merely an IDEA of a young woman as seen by a middle-aged man. I was intrigued by the ambiguity that seemed to be latent in the work as to whether this "middle-aged man" was always just Ibsen (i.e., an indication of the limits of his imagination with regard to young women at the particular moment of writing this play---in other words, the ways in which the young women with whom he was involved were stirring but ultimately enigmatic to him---which, frankly, seen in this light would be a weakness in the play), or often Solness himself, as suggested by numerous enigmatic lines and reinforced by the long duologues between the two characters that stand at the heart of the play (seen by this light, not a weakness, but a central idea in the play). Basically, I decided to take that latent ambiguity and bring it right up to the surface, so that the question of whether Hilda had ANY identity independent of Solness's imagination was implicitly posed.

Odd, in a way that people should find this so disturbing (and in saying this, I hasten to add that it disturbs me fairly deeply myself, which is precisely why I was determined to experiment with it), because, after all, it would not bother us to hear it asserted that Hilda had no existence independent of Ibsen's imagination, would it? That would seem the natural way of things: fundamentally, a play's charaters are all phantasms of the playwright's imagination; much as the characters who appear in our dreams are----whoever they may resemble---ultimately phantasms of our own minds. At any rate, I had decided to make the play much more a play of the mind, a psychomachia like the medieval play Everyman if you like, but with a hint of expressionism; and if one does this by stripping away almost everything that does not pertain directly to Solness, one ends up with something much like the structure of my adaptation (Aline Solness's dolls, for example, being one casualty).

I furthered this by never letting the play emerge from Solness's office, so that it becomes less about Solness's emergence into the outer world---office to sitting room to outdoor garden----than the struggle and gradual failure of others to exert an influence on Solness: Brovik, then Kaia, then Herdal, then Aline, and finally Ragnar---with Hilda, a sort of exception in Ibsen's hands, being no exception at all in mine, because it's not clear that in putting himself into his own hands he is doing any more than choosing to surrender all his loyalties to his anima or his shadow self or whatever you want to call it. I find all sorts of support for this shift within the play itself---perhaps chiefly in the idea that Solness moves from building churches (monuments to an external guiding presence) to homes (the humanist shift to emphasis on the human scale) to the awkward compromise of his own home with its own church tower (a monument to himself alone) to "castles in the air"---surely a repudiation of all the external world. And given that it is Hilda who abets him on this journey into his inner core, it is fitting that she seem to play a role like that Wisdom does to Everyman: the guide and (nearly in the case of Wisdom) final companion on his journey to his ultimate destination.

The crucial difference with the journey of Everyman, of course, is that I see Solness's journey as a probably demonic one---a perspective that I am quite sure I share with Ibsen; if I am wrong about this, I am wrong about everything in the play and probably much of the rest of Ibsen's work. I think that Ibsen foresaw Nietzscheanism, one of the central lines of thought in late humanism (should we call it post humanism? comprising both modernism and postmodernism?) as a potentially dangerous force when in the grip of already egoistic, paranoid and self-deluded minds (and the mind of each of us can be at least a LITTLE like that at times). As I suggest in my notes, I think that twentieth-century history tragically proved him right."

Well, I guess it's pretty obvious that I'm an academic.

On the Name of the Blog

"From this expedition [in 1609] Champlain learned much regarding the geography of eastern North America, and he brought back with him to France, to present to King Henry IV...a girdle of porcupine quills made from the Canadian porcupine..."

—From Pioneers in Canada by Sir Harry Johnston (1912)

I am irresistably attracted to the peculiarity of this image of a porcupine girdle. Now, what is probably being described is a sort of belt in which porcupine quills were woven decoratively, but it would still have been an odd item to see in 17th-century France. I guess what I like most is the suggestion of something strange and somewhat enigmatic brought from Canada to the rest of the world.

In some ways, I regard this as a natural sequel to the metaphor that I used for the title of my first book, The Buried Astrolabe: Canadian Dramatic Imagination and Western Tradition (McGill-Queen's UP, 2001), which was based on an astrolabe which the explorer Samuel de Champlain allegedly (though there was an article in The Beaver not long ago which disputed the notion that the astrolabe was Champlain's) lost in 1613 during a portage, and which was only discovered buried in a farmer's field in 1867. If I write another book on Canadian drama----and I've been thinking about it---it may well be called The Porcupine Girdle. How's that for perversity.