This August 15th we’ll be opening Jonathan Demme’s filmed version of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s acclaimed stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s A MASTER BUILDER. Recently film critic David Edelstein, a self-proclaimed Ibsenite, sat down for a group interview with the triumvirate:
On Wednesday, July 22, I had the privilege of hosting a talk with Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, and Jonathan Demme, under the auspices of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, after a screening of the trio’s impressive collaboration A Master Builder (now playing at New York’s Film Forum). Much as they did with Uncle Vanya (filmed by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street), Gregory, Shawn, and the cast rehearsed Ibsen’s play for many years, ultimately performing it for small, invited audiences. Malle being dead, Demme stepped into the breach and filmed the production quickly and well.
A Master Builder centers on acclaimed architect Halvard Solness (played onscreen by Shawn), who fears being dislodged by the next generation. He feels especially vulnerable because he has, over the last decade, gone from making towering structures to smaller buildings in which real people can live. He has lost some stature and is in a depressive marriage with a prim ghost of a woman (Julie Hagerty). At a key juncture, a young woman, Hilda (Lisa Joyce), a kind of architect groupie, arrives to spur Solness to ascend once more — to drive him toward that unattainable ideal, both metaphorically and literally. (She wants him to lay a wreath at the top of his new tower in spite of his fear of heights.)
This was a transitional play for Ibsen (he had many), a move from the more naturalistic dramas (the best known are A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler) of his middle stage and towards the mysterious, symbolic works on which he labored until his death. Gregory and Shawn’s innovation is to make Hilda and everything that happens in her wake a deathbed dream of the master builder. That might offend purists, but, as far as I’m concerned, it brings out every one of the play’s undercurrents while accounting for its often ludicrous surface. I’m not sure Ibsen would have approved, but I think he’d have liked how well the version plays.
What follows is an edited version of our onstage talk. Let me warn you that we don’t discuss Gregory and Shawn’s dramatized version of their friendship inMy Dinner With Andre or Shawn’s inconceivably beloved performance in The Princess Bride. The audience consisted of actors, and the focus was tightly on this play, this film, and this creative process. I had a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.
David Edelstein: First let me say that I’m not just a film critic, I’m an Ibsenite. I love Ibsen and I love this play … and every time I’ve seen it, it has stunk up the stage. It’s an obstacle course over a minefield. You have this naturalistic form and these mythic characters, and audiences either laugh inappropriately or roll their eyes. If you had asked me, “Should we do this play?” I’d have said, “Steer clear.” And yet this is a great movie. What drew you to A Master Builder in the first place? And at what point did you think you could make sense of it by doing it as a dream play?
Andre Gregory: Well, I think what drew me to it was that I was getting old. [Audience laughs and claps.] Thank you.
Wallace Shawn: He wasn’t 80 at that time.
Gregory: When we started this 16 or 17 years ago, I was young, yeah. On a more interesting level, I think that I saw Solness as an artist who had, in a way, reached the end of his career or had nothing left in him to create and finds the way to embrace the last interesting creative challenge, which is giving up this life, and how to do that. When I was a 7-year-old boy, I went to a school where every Christmas, they read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I was fascinated by the character of Scrooge, who I see somewhat like Solness. There’s always hope. No matter what kind of a son-of-a-bitch you are, no matter how unhappy you are, how loveless, it’s not over ’til it’s over. And once, when I was in Poland, I was introduced to a young man who didn’t know who I was and he looked into my eyes and he said, “When I look into your eyes, I see the saddest optimist I’ve ever met.” I don’t know if that answers your question.
It does. I never thought of A Master Builder on those terms. I think of Ibsen’s final play When We Dead Awaken that way, as the story of an artist figuring out how to die, but it never occurred to me that you could locate that idea in A Master Builder, too.
Gregory: Well, of course we emphasize it, and when Wally and I had our mutual, in a way, death scene together — that first scene in the movie — this guy [Jonathan Demme] was roaring with laughter. The more depressing it got, the funnier he thought it was.
Was the theatrical production a dream play?
Shawn: I didn’t feel comfortable tampering with the text, really, until we put in something like a dozen years. We rehearsed the play starting in 1997—
Most artists peak around the seventh year of rehearsal, I hear.
Shawn: —and after we had done about 12 years, I did feel that somehow I had earned that right — which could be certainly argued with, some people might say that was a terrible thing to do — but I did tamper with the text, taking out certain things and putting in the fact that it was all a dream. Because it is not a realistic play, and it can’t be a realistic play, and Hilda cannot be a real girl. I mean, in a very, very tortured way, you could figure out a story in which Hilda made sense as a real person, but you’d be disturbing Ibsen’s play, really.
She was based on a real person in Ibsen’s life, but he transformed her into a mythic creature.
Shawn: She’s a fantastical figure, and Andre had always seen her as that. Once that decision was made, you can see how the play really is about someone wrestling with the contradictions in his own life, contradictions that he cannot resolve and he doesn’t resolve. And of course, you feel that of Ibsen himself.
Gregory: He was the most self-revelatory writer. Maybe because it was so outlandish and so impossible — and people in his time didn’t know that you could be a confessional dramatist in that way — that I don’t think people asked him, “Gee, do you feel these contradictions within yourself?” Because they wouldn’t have presumed such a thing.
Read the rest of the interview on the Vulture.com site.