Where Henrik Ibsen had hit his stride with realistic drama and then developed a naturalism in his later work, August Strindberg hit his stride with naturalistic drama—for example, Fadren (pr., pb. 1887; The Father, 1899) and Fröken Julie (pb. 1888; Miss Julie, 1912)—and turned, after a particularly harrowing period in his life, to expressionist drama. The turning-point period lasted from 1894 through 1897 and is detailed in his autobiographical work, Inferno (1897; English translation, 1912). During this period, which followed the divorce from his first wife in 1891 and separation from his second wife in 1894, he existed in a state marked by hallucinations, near madness, and odd pursuits, including occultism and alchemy. His unhappy marriages—he later, in fact, had a third unhappy marriage ending in divorce—contributed to the sense of incompatibility between the sexes that is much in evidence in A Dream Play.
The canon of Strindberg’s expressionist plays include one early work, Lycko-Pers resa (pr., pb. 1883; Lucky Peter’s Travels, 1912; better known as Lucky Per’s Journey), a play modeled less on expressionism than on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (pb. 1867; English translation, 1892). The others, along with A Dream Play, are Himmelrikets nycklar (pb. 1892; The Keys of Heaven, 1965); Till Damaskus (parts 1 and 2, pb. 1898; part 3, pb. 1904; To Damascus, 1913), a trilogy which Strindberg considered to be his companion piece to A Dream Play; Spöksonaten (pb. 1907; The Ghost Sonata, 1916); and Stora landsvägen (pb. 1909; The Great Highway, 1954), Strindberg’s last play.
Criticism of A Dream Play ranges to extremes; some critics dismiss it as totally incoherent while others see it as Strindberg’s greatest play. Against the charge that it lacks characterization, defenders cite the subjective growth of Agnes from her incarnation as an innocent girl to her ascension as a female force of divine wisdom. That Strindberg wanted his characters to serve as generic types is clear from his identifications of them by function (the Mother, the Lawyer, the Poet, and so on) more than by name. Properly produced, A Dream Play provides audiences with a lyrically spectacular display of existential insufficiency; carefully and appreciatively read, it offers the satisfactions of poetic drama in the tradition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Percy Bysshe Shelley.