Thursday, October 16, 2014

'To me it’s among the greatest works in the history of drama,’ I replied truthfully - poor suffering actors - some Ghost Sonata

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.


  1. I recall doing a set design project (as an M.A. theater student in Fresno) for The Ghost Sonata. Trying to faithful to Strindberg's lunacy -- my critical assessment of his work -- I not so originally combined Escher (stairways to nowhere / strange intersections of planes / useful and useless doorways) and made it brilliantly, 100% white. Even though I thought at the time that it would have never worked if actually used on stage, but I had fun convincing the design teacher that it was perfect for Strindberg. I think that is the key to Strindberg: Think theatrically -- then go somewhere beyond those boundaries -- throw in a bit of insanity and irrational logic, and voila -- you have Strindberg on stage. Perhaps he would have been better off living a few decades later and writing for expressionistic film. I am thinking Bunuel as his counterpart. But I could be wrong.

  2. Yes, the Expressionist filmmakers were highly receptive to Strindberg. By which I mean they plundered him ruthlessly. More than I had realized.

    Stairways to nowhere - that sounds just right. Well in tune with the text.

  3. The oddest thing happens to me when I visit blogs like yours. I am drawn into my own ghost sonatas . . . territories where forgotten memories suddenly reappear . . . I had no idea that I remembered that design project so vividly . . . and suddenly Bunuel' s La Chuen Andalou appears . . . It is all very unsettling . . . I prefer my ghosts to remain buried . . . Damned Strindberg . . .

  4. Forgive my mutilation of the Bunuel film title. The English version is The Andalusian Dog.

  5. "Strindberg is weird and I barely understand him."

    Neither do I. God knows, I've tried. After all, one can't be an Ibsen fan and not at least know Strindberg. But even in his more "realistic" plays - The Father, Miss Julie, The Dance of Death - he is weird, and I barely understand him. He seemed to use theatre, the most public of all literary forms, to express the most private of visions.

    I've been reading through your posts on Strindberg, hoping there may be something of some interest I could find to say on the subject. But every time I go back to Strindberg, or even think back on him, I am as puzzled as ever.

    Ibsen, in his later years, bought Munch's portrait of Strindberg, and hung it in his study. He said he particularly liked the "mad, staring eyes".

  6. Well, if I can find the energy I'll start using the actual text of the actual dang plays, and then we can demystify him to at least some degree.

    Some of what he does I don't want to understand, but that's a separate issue.

  7. The Bergman quote is priceless!

  8. I suppose I have made it clear enough that Bergman's book is quite good? It has far more about his work in theater than in film, but film buffs will not be disappointed.