Last Updated September 5, 2023.
August Strindberg’s A Dream Play is an expressionistic play in which a deity travels to the world to experience and witness human suffering.
Indra, a deity in Hinduism and Buddhism, sends his daughter Agnes to Earth to examine and report back to him on whether human suffering is justified. She descends or "sinks" into the world. As a resident of heaven or some supernatural place, Agnes's visit to the world is presented as a dream, perhaps her dream. This is important because it suggests that the world and human existence itself is a dream. And if life is like a dream, anything can conceivably be conjured up—good and bad. Time is not necessarily linear, things don't have to make sense, and there need not be any underlying meaning or universal truth about the how and why of life. It is a struggle to make sense of things, and it is a struggle to endure the conflict between misery and happiness. The characters in the play show that misery and happiness always occur together.
Note that many of the characters constantly want to know what is behind the door. When the door finally opens, there is nothing there. Strindberg illustrates that life seems both logical and illogical. The recurring phrase is that "humans are to be pitied" because they have to struggle through a dreamlike, senseless existence. As an existential play, consider that if there is no inherent meaning to existence, one (or a character) must make meaning for him or herself.
The Officer continues to wait for Victoria. Although he waits interminably, he finds meaning in this ritual. He is an idealist and believes that his problems would be solved only if Victoria loved him back. The Lawyer is a realist who tries to show Agnes human misery by marrying and having a child with her. The marriage is miserable, and he chastises her for abandoning her child when she goes to witness further human suffering elsewhere. Agnes treats him as a Jesus-like figure: he has spent a good amount of time championing the less fortunate. As a result of taking on their burdens, he himself is treated poorly. The Poet is both a realist and an idealist. When he has his educated, philosophical thoughts, he feels the need to “ground” himself. He does this by caking himself in mud—literally bringing himself down to earth. He debates with Agnes about meaning and existence, once saying,
[D]o you now understand what love is, with its utmost joys merged into its utmost sufferings, with its mixture of what is most sweet and most bitter? Can you now grasp what woman is? Woman, through whom sin and death found their way into life?
Agnes meets other minor characters, each with his or her own tale of woe.
The play ends with Agnes ascending back to heaven with the promise that she will give an honest report on human misery. Her relief from witnessing human suffering is to leave the world, giving the notion that death is relief from suffering—a conflict that humans must endure.