Drama Turned Inward

A MASTER BUILDER (12) 2014 USA 122mins, from a play by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Wallace Shawn, directed by Jonathan Demme, with Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory made two films with the French director, Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street; A Master Builder (with different director) completes a kind of trilogy, an exploration of sorts of their relationship and obsessions, both together and severally. There is a progression: in the first film, set in a restaurant, Andre Gregory is a theatre director, urbane, educated, dissatisfied, searching for truth; Shawn is an actor, inquisitive, in need of a good meal (which he gets), eloquent, individual, thoughtful, concerned. Both have a sly sense of humour, an intent in the direction of self-parody. By the film under review, Shawn has graduated to master (the eponymous Master Builder) and Gregory represents the older generation (the architect surpassed), cast off, disregarded, treated with disdain. There is still the sense that they are taking the whole thing with a grain of salt, that the overall project is to prick the bubble of self-aggrandisement, to make somewhat ridiculous the whole idea of presenting the theatre as a realm of personal exploration, personal affirmation.

There’s no doubt that My Dinner with Andre has entered the pantheon of films which everyone (everyone who is interested in film maybe) has heard of, if not seen. It’s a kind of post ‘60s hippy-ish exploration, to exhaustion, of the idea that creativity is all about the search for one’s inner life. In Andre Gregory’s case, his search extends to a theatrical guru, Jerzy Grotowski, Polish and famous, again in certain circles, for his explorations in the fields of ‘Poor Theatre’ and ‘Holy Theatre’, concepts made widespread by another theatrical saint, Peter Brook, in his book, The Empty Space. (Who cares about this stuff, you may well ask?)

Theatricality, the word, the concept, doesn’t really have a good press. If there’s one connecting theme or spirit in all three films, it’s an attempt to undercut the very idea of theatricality, to make theatre everyday, accessible (the word du jour), not highfalutin. Wallace Shawn, in his quiet way, is a familiar face and voice (though most people wouldn’t recognise his name) in many popular films, Toy Story, for example, despite his background as almost New York royalty (his father edited The New Yorker magazine for many years).

So, A Master Builder: Ibsen, just as Chekhov as discussed re. The Seagull, was writing in a time when what we would call melodrama was the style du jour. In other words, the theatre was a place where audiences were accustomed to a certain exaggerated method of expression. Film hadn’t yet been invented. There was no such thing as a ‘close up’. Exaggeration was another way of saying ‘this is for everyone, this is how we relate to each other, this is a picture of our society’. It was external, ‘out there’ as it were, the opposite of an inner, contained, life.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, in these films, seem to be searching for a way to make theatre, theatricality, acceptable for these times. A Master Builder is presented as taking place entirely inside the mind of the dying architect. The exhortation to idealism, which takes theatrical form in the original, is presented on film as an inner morality, an inner search for the sublime.

As much as I have enjoyed all three of these films, there is an unresolved conflict, a sense perhaps that no one involved really knows the answer to the burning question: how do we deal with the great issues of the day when the only thing on offer is to look inward, that the answer, if it doesn’t lie inside, where does it lie? We as filmmakers know there’s a problem but we have no idea how to confront it. I guess that’s really what gives these films their charm, their honesty.

Paul Corcoran