Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Strindberg becomes part of the great pancake - To Damascus - Life used to be just a great nonsense.

STRANGER:  I’ll soon believe nothing is impossible.  This is the worst I have ever known.

MOTHER:  Oh no.  There's worse possible.  Just you wait.

That beautiful sentiment is from Act II, Scene 5 of To Damascus I  (1898).  These are the most perfectly Strindbergian lines I found in all of Strindberg.  Why did Samuel Beckett even bother (because Beckett is funnier).  This play is Strindberg’s return to drama, practically to writing, after several years of spiritual, artistic, sexual, you name it crisis.  It is not his return to theater, since the play is unplayable, not that that has ever stopped a theater director.

Two great artistic benefits came out of Strindberg’s crisis.  First, he abandoned his misogyny, finding the female within himself and turning his attention to integrating the male and female principle, etc., etc., not a good idea but as bad ideas go much less painful to read and I think more imaginatively fruitful than Woman-as-Enemy.  Some of this he picked up from alchemy, some from Swedenborg, some perhaps from his second wife.

Then second, he invented the dream play, or his version of it.  Strindberg acknowledged The Tempest and Life Is a Dream as precedents, directing attention away from his great debt to Goethe’s Faust and his enemy Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.  I love all of these plays.  None of the three To Damascus plays rank with them, although A Dream Play (1901) might.

As the title suggests, To Damascus is a conversion narrative, with a Strindberg-like Stranger who as the Saul who becomes Paul.  He is subjected to a series of trials and torments on his way from this world into the next, from doubt to belief. 

STRANGER:  Yes.  I’ve been noticing everything lately.  Not just things and incidents, forms and colours – now I see thoughts and what things signify.  Life used to be just a great nonsense.  Now it has a meaning, and I see a purpose in it where before I only saw a game of chance.  (To Damascus I, Act I, Sc. 1)

Since the play has just begun, the Stranger is only in the preparatory stage of conversion.  There are three plays (the first two written in 1898, the last in 1901) not because Strindberg had planned a trilogy but because he doubted that he had really gotten the Stranger across the divide.  It is as if there are always more tests.  Strindberg was likely right about that.

The form is completely free, limited only by the convention the scene.  Sets float around, light and sound replace action, and characters all have allegorical labels.  Dream logic prevails, supposedly.  I have doubts.    The results are passages like this one, perhaps my favorite in all the Strindberg I read:

DOCTOR:  He’s lost already, like a broken egg.  Now he’ll be whipped into a froth, and atomized, and become part of the great pancake.  All right, then.  Go to hell.  [To the OTHERS.]  Howl, victims!  Howl! [The GUESTS howl.]  (To Damascus II, Act IV, Sc. 1)

No point in giving any context; context will only damage the sublimity of the great pancake.

For the To Damascus plays I have switched to the Michael Meyer translation in The Plays of Strindberg, Volume II, Vintage.


  1. Your posting suggested/implied a choice between Strindberg and Beckett. As for me, long live Beckett. Of course, I could be a bit partial since I direct a production of Waiting for Godot for my thesis project in 1972. As for Strindberg, he has become something like a museum piece in theaters. Beckett is not likely to suffer the same fate.

  2. I had not understand the degree to which Beckett was a descendant of Strindberg. Pretty direct.

    I've only seen the one Strindberg, but that wasn't a museum piece. But I never saw Strindberg in Chicago, or even remember a production, while Chekhov and Beckett were fairly common. A production of something every couple of years. Ibsen was rare, too.

    In the English-speaking world, though, you almost have to be in London to really know what is going on. Strindberg appears to be alive and well at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.

  3. Seattle, or at least small pockets of it, is in the midst of a citywide Beckett festival. Plays, readings, interpretive dance, a season of failing better, hopefully. The production of Waiting for Godot last month was stellar. Odds are against a Seattle Strindberg Festival; we just had a Strindberg film fest in 1994, fer gosh sakes.

  4. Replies
    1. "Lucky," that's a good one. I got nothing.

    2. There's always this:

      ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
      VLADIMIR: Oh!
      He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.