Four more days on August Strindberg, I promise, and I already have no idea what I want to say.
Strindberg is weird and I barely understand him. Some of his plays, or large parts of them, are obviously immensely effective theatrical art. Then other sections, even in the same play, are baffling, cryptic, tedious, didactic – name your sin. The “dream plays” – A Dream Play, To Damascus, The Ghost Sonata – abandon ordinary narrative logic and structure, which leaves Strindberg free to write as a genuine visionary writer, but also allows him to spew some pretty dubious nonsense.
Then there are Strindberg’s ideas, about women, marriage, and sex, particularly, that occasionally take some pretty appalling turns but are always –and remember I have only read eight plays, but within those, I do mean “always” – redeemed by an irony or reversal so fierce that the original terrible idea is at least challenged and sometimes demolished. The latter effect is impressive.
Or so it seems to me. Here is Ingmar Bergman, who is directing The Ghost Sonata:
At my side was a tiny little creature, or possibly a ghost, the grand old lady of the theatre. Maria Schildknecht, dressed up in the parrot dress and hideous mask of the Mummy. ‘I assume you are Mr Bergman,’ she whispered, smiling kindly but terrifyingly. I confirmed my identity and bowed awkwardly. We stood in silence for a few moments. ‘Well, what do you think of this then?’ said the little ghost, her voice stern and challenging. ‘To me it’s among the greatest works in the history of drama,’ I replied truthfully. The Mummy looked at me with cold contempt. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘This is the kind of shit Strindberg knocked up so that we should have something to play at his Intimate Theatre.’ She left me with a gracious nod… Imperishable, in a role she hated under a producer she hated. (Ch. 12 of The Magic Lantern, italics added)
So there are differences of opinion. This is her part:
MUMMY [like a baby]. Why are you opening the dawer; didn’t I twell you to keep it cwosed?...
BENGTSSON [also babbling like a baby]. Ta, ta, ta, ta! Ittle lolly must be nice now, then she’ll get a sweetie! – Pretty Polly!
MUMMY [like a parrot]. Pretty Polly! Is Jacob there? Currrrre!
BENGTSSON. She thinks she’s a parrot. Maybe she is… [To the MUMMY] Come on, Polly! Give us a whistle!
The MUMMY whistles. (Scene 2, tr. Michael Robinson, Oxford World’s Classics, p. 266, italics in original)
Actors sometimes have to suffer for our entertainment. She gets her revenge by the end of the scene, though.
MUMMY. [opens the closet door] Now the clock has struck! – Get up and go into the closet where I’ve been sitting mourning our misdeed for twenty years – You’ll find a rope in there like the one with which you strangled the Consul upstairs, and with which you thought to strangle your benefactor… Go!
[The OLD MAN goes into the closet]
MUMMY [Closing the door]. Bengtsson! Put up the screen! The death screen! (Sc. 2, italics in original)
I am making Strindberg sound like Alfred Jarry here, a writer of nightmare gibberish. The Mummy whistles. The death screen! And this isn’t the craziest stuff.