Ibsen met Emilie Bardach, a beautiful Viennese Jew, in 1889. She was 18, he was 61. Their love affair ended by letter but Ibsen’s passion for her continued in his plays. The Master Builder, more than any other work, was inspired by Emilie, although Hilde is not a straightforward portrait. Ibsen once referred to Emilie as a ‘demotic little homewrecker’ which was both unworthy and unjust of her, but an accurate description of Hilde. Emilie (who never married) at the age of 84 went to see The Master Builder and observed that there was not much of her in the character of Hilde but that in Solness, the master builder himself, there was ‘little that is not Ibsen’.
When The Master Builder was first performed, it was received with contempt and dismay by the critics although Henry James allowed that it had an ‘odd baffling spell ... it lives and makes its life felt on the consenting.’ In Adrian Noble’s tense production for the RSC it still works