Ingmar Bergman devotes a chapter of The Magic Lantern to A Dream Play (1901). “In 1986, I was to direct Strindberg’s A Dream Play for the fourth time, a decision that seemed good” (35), even though the three earlier attempts had “come to grief” or “turned out poor” or “been ruined” (36). But this time, despite the small stage, pregnant lead actress (the great Lena Olin), and heartbroken stage designer, Bergman tries again, as certain kinds of artists do.
I wanted the audience to experience the stench of the backyard of the Advocate’s office, the cold beauty of Fagervik’s summer countryside in snow, the sulphorous mist and glint of hell in Skamsund and the magnificent flowers round the Rising Castle, the old theatre behind the theatre corridor. (36)
Hang on, I want to return to that stage designer.
The designer’s lips trembled and he looked at me with his slightly protruding eyes. ‘I want her to come back,’ he whispered. I did not embark on a cure of souls and persisted, but a few weeks later, he broke down and said that he couldn’t cope, after which he packed his bags and returned to Gothenburg, where he hoisted sail and went to sea with a new lover. (36)
Someday a Swedish director will make a film based on this chapter.
In A Dream Play Indra’s Daughter (an Indian deity) descends to earth to experience humanity. The first thing she see is that Rising Castle, a flower-like structure steadily growing out of a pile of manure, the primary sex-and-dirt image in this play.
DAUGHTER: Tell me, Father, why do flowers grow out of dirt?
GLAZIER [piously]. Because they don’t like the dirt, so they hasten up into the light, to flower and die. (181, pages from the OUP edition)
This is not Strindberg’s answer. The goddess plunges into the muck, experiencing love, marriage, poverty, and so on, accompanied by a number of Strindbergish figures, until she reasserts her godhood and brings the play to a close in a Prospero-like manner, in verse, even.
Our parting is at hand, the end approaches;
Farewell you child of man, you dreamer,
You poet who understands best how to live;
Hovering on wings above the earth,
You dive at times into the mire
To graze against it, not fasten in it! (246)
Bergman worries over scene after scene. “[T]he unhappy coal-heavers are a taxing affair.” In the Fingal’s Cave scene characters “declaim beautiful and worthless verses about each other, the vilest and the most lovely side by side” (39). That scene climaxes in a shipwreck and a vision of Christ walking on the water; it involves one of the strangest mixes of tone I have ever seen, equal to the most baffling parts of Goethe’s Faust.
The rising waves threaten to drown them in the cave.
DAUGHTER. If only I were sure it is a ship…
POET. To tell you the truth… I don’t think it is a ship... it is a two-storied house, with trees outside… and… a telephone tower… A tower reaching up into the skies… It is the modern Tower of Babel, sending its wires up there – to communicate with those above…
DAUGHTER. Child, human thoughts need no metal wires to transmit themselves; ––– The prayers of the devout make their way through every world… That is certainly no Tower of Babel, for if you would storm heaven, then storm it with your prayers. (234-5, ellipses all Strindberg’s)
Have I just copied out a chunk of Swedenborg, updated for the age of telephony? The characters at this point pop back out in the theater to witness the satirical argument of the Deans – “The following scene in the theatre corridor is dull and says nothing, but cannot be excluded” (Bergman, 40).
Of course the production is a failure, as was, on a smaller scale my reading of the play. “So much effort, pain, anxiety, tedium, hope, all to no avail” (51). This was Bergman’s last try, with this play, not with Strindberg. Not mine, though, not yet.