Analysis

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

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A Dream Play is a Swedish play written by August Strindberg and was first performed on the 17th of April 1907 in Stockholm. Agnes, who is the daughter of Indra, the god of thunder and war, comes to Earth with orders from her father to establish the reason for the discontent and anguish witnessed among the human beings. In the play’s foreword, Strindberg ensures that readers are acquainted with the characters and setting of the play. He stipulates that the characters have the ability to assume any number or form whatsoever. This is made possible by their ability to split, multiply, disperse, and assemble. When Agnes descends to Earth, she meets various characters, some of whom had symbolic value (e.g., the four deans who represented medicine, theology, law, and philosophy). Similar to the story of the Bible where Jesus, the son of God, took human form and lived among people, Agnes also reincarnates as a human being and has to live among the people. She has to endure pain and suffering just as Jesus did. She is married to an attorney who gives her more insights into the human suffering, especially those related to family squabbles and poverty. The attorney also reminds Agnes of her sacred duty to her child.

The different people with whom Agnes interacts during the play have problems of their own. The first one is Alfred, a military officer who is disillusioned and weary of waiting for Victoria, his dream lover. He quickly deteriorates from a well-groomed, effervescent, and youthful soldier into an unkempt, weary, and hopeless person who spends every moment of his life waiting for Victoria. He clings to his hope that one day love will take away his sorrows. This is the same hope that Agnes had when she first came to Earth, believing that love had the ability to conquer all. However, her hopes are dashed by the painful stories told by people and the pain that comes with marriage. The pain and suffering experienced by Agnes are an allusion to the pain experienced by Jesus during his stay on Earth despite his firm belief that love had the ability to cure human pain. The story of the attorney within the play shows that anyone who sides with the poor and the less fortunate in the society does not have a place within the society. The academics who considered themselves righteous deny the attorney his doctorate because of standing for justice. This story also alludes to the story of Jesus, who was rejected by the teachers of law because he defended the helpless and the poor in Israel.

In the long run, Agnes states that “there are tears for sufferings, and there is a pity for humankind." Eventually, due to the immense pain and suffering witnessed among humankind, Agnes concludes that “Det är synd om människorna” (humans are to be pitied).

This is the same feeling that the Poet has toward human life. When the people around him are on the verge of abandoning hope, he concludes that the only way that humans can get redemption is via suffering and death. This is quite a pity: humans are designated to suffer for as long as they live, and death is their only redemption. In other words, humanity is doomed, and the only thing that Agnes, the daughter of a god, could do is have pity on them.

The Play

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The prologue to A Dream Play is set in the firmament. Indra, the Vedic god of war and thunder, is addressing his daughter, who has followed a streak of lightning from the High Ether past the planet Venus and finds herself sinking toward Earth. She is puzzled by the dualities that she observes—stuffiness and beauty, darkness and light, and lamentation and joy. Indra instructs his daughter to visit Earth for the purpose of determining whether the constant complaints of humans are justified. She is then to return and make her findings known to him.

The action begins outside a castle, which is both mineral and vegetable: It is fertilized by stable manure, it grows, and it is crowned by a huge chrysanthemum bud. Indra’s daughter is now incarnate as the daughter of a glazier. She tells her father that she is going to free someone who is a prisoner in the castle. The prisoner proves to be Alfred, the officer, who recognizes that the daughter is a child of Heaven and who complains of life’s unjust treatment of him.

As the daughter and Alfred converse, their attention is caught by a domestic scene. In this scene the Mother (Kristina) and the Father of Alfred greet their son and the Glazier’s daughter, whom they identify as Agnes. Kristina speaks of being about to die and reminds Alfred of his having committed a wrongdoing for which his brother was punished. Alfred, realizing that his mother has been dead for ten years, nevertheless continues his conversation with her and chides her for letting the maid Lena wear the mantilla that his father had given to her as a present. The Father lets his hurt be known; Kristina, concluding that to do good for one person is to hurt another, trims the candle and extinguishes it, leaving the stage in darkness.

Agnes hereupon utters two statements which will be repeated during the play and which will underscore the irony of human existence. The first is “Det är synd om människorna” (humans are to be pitied), an echo of Vergil’s “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” (there are tears for sufferings, and there is pity for humankind); the second is “Kärleken besegrar allt!” (love conquers all), a literal translation of Vergil’s “Omnia vincit amor.” She then finds herself in a stage-alley, on the far right of which is a door with an airhole in the shape of a four-leaf clover. She talks with a motherly doorkeeper, whose shawl she borrows, and with a billposter, whose life’s wish, a dip net and a green fishing-box, has been realized after a wait of fifty years; later he will confess a gnawing disappointment for his fulfilled wish.

Alfred appears with a bouquet of roses to wait happily for Victoria, whom he is to marry. He calls to her, and she answers, but his wait will go on for years: The roses will wither, he will grow old, and Victoria will never come to him. He expresses his curiosity about what lies behind the door with the cloverleaf hole. A locksmith is summoned to open the door; the Glazier comes instead, but a policeman intervenes to prevent the opening. Alfred decides to consult a lawyer.

The next scene is set in the Lawyer’s office. Agnes enters, still wearing the doorkeeper’s shawl, with which she intends to gather up all human sufferings. The Lawyer insists that the shawl would be insufficient for the task and catalogs the extent of human sufferings. Agnes places a crown of thorns on his head and wins his consent to be married. During their married life, which is shown in the wretchedness of its poverty and sacrifice, Agnes addresses her husband as Axel. Their maid Kristina pastes strips of paper on the windows to keep out the cold. Alfred enters and Agnes accepts his invitation to go to Fairhaven.

They arrive at Foulstrand instead, a hellish place presided over by the Quarantine Master, who appears in blackface. An old dandy is pushed forth in a wheelchair; at his side are a sixty-year-old flirt and her forty-year-old companion. Alfred recognizes him as “the major, our schoolmate”; the Quarantine Master identifies him as Don Juan. The Poet joins the Quarantine Master, Alfred, and Agnes and points out to Agnes the married drudgery of Lina. The young lovers, He and She, arrive by boat from Fairhaven to spend forty days of quarantine on Foulstrand; they are horrified, and they learn that happiness must be built on agony. Alfred then relives one of his class sessions in school, where his answers are logical but totally wrong. The scene shifts to Fairhaven, where newlyweds learn that happiness is deceptive, the Blind Man bemoans the loss of his son, and Axel appears with information for the Blind Man and Agnes that the worst thing in life is repetition and that life consists of doing the same thing over and over again. As cries of agony from Foulstrand are heard, Axel tells Agnes that a liberator once came but was crucified by all the right-thinking people. Another hellish scene develops as coalheavers on the Italian coast punctuate their misery with explanations of the difference between labor and management.

The Poet and Agnes come to Fingal’s Cave, where, again, the beauties of life are seen to be fraught with agony and suffering. The next major scene involves “all the right-thinking people” in the presence of the deans of the university faculties, who speciously argue the merits of their respective disciplines. At the end of this dispute the cloverleaf door is opened, presumably by the Glazier: The secret of life concealed behind it is Nothing. The deans debate the meaning of this and conclude that they have been deceived, but Agnes informs them that they “didn’t understand the nothing.” The Poet and Agnes muse upon their understanding of human life. The Doorkeeper returns to burn her shawl. Victoria, unseen by Alfred, enters to say, “My beauty, my sorrow”; she is followed by Homely Edith, who says, “My homeliness, my sorrow.” The Blind Man puts his hand in the fire. Don Juan, from his wheelchair, urges haste, because “Life is short.” Kristina enters, looking for more windows to paste. Finally, Agnes ascends to heaven after stating that the Poet has the best understanding of life, that she knows the agony of what it is to be human, and that she will intercede for humans when she is before the throne of heaven. She accomplishes her ascension by entering the growing castle, which then bursts into flames as its rooftop explodes into a giant chrysanthemum.

Dramatic Devices

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The actions, stage settings, and stage directions of A Dream Play are all calculated to produce the effect of a dream. To this end Strindberg removes the demarcations of logic, space, time, life, death, myth, and reality. While the work was in progress he retained the demarcation of acts: “Act 1” included all the scenes up to and including Agnes and Alfred’s decision to marry, “act 2” moved from the wretchedness of the actual marriage through the Coalheavers episode, and “act 3” began with the visit to Fingal’s Cave. Subsequently, however, he abandoned the division into acts and all designations of scenes and episodes save for asterisks and white spaces. The dreamlike continuity that he thereby achieved has been deprived of much of its efficacy by editors and translators, who preferred to restore the three-act structure of the draft.

The nebulousness of a dream is created through unobtrusive scene changes— sometimes in brief darkness, sometimes with the addition of a screen or simple backdrop, sometimes by allowing a single prop to serve different functions in different scenes—and by overt characteristics of fantasy. The Father, for example, at one point walks right through a wall. The growing castle combines the worlds of mineral, vegetable, and, given the humans inside it, animal. The living converse with the dead as though the dead were still alive (but not, it is to be noted, as though the dead had been resurrected). The effects of time’s passage are discernible, as in the cases of a Lina grown ten years older and the naïve, girlish Agnes having developed wisdom and maturity, but the passage itself is entirely indistinct. Agnes plays a Kyrie on the organ, which produces music in the form of women’s and children’s voices. Later, a ships’ buoy issues forth music, again a Kyrie, as prelude to a vision of Christ walking on the water. The conclusion of the play—the burning castle and the blooming of the giant chrysanthemum—is consistent in its special effects with the continuum of the phantasmagoria.

The major dramatic device is the use of Vedic deity in the context of incarnation, ascension, and mediation between the human and the divine. Into this context are woven symbols and images of the Christian Messiah. The Lawyer, for example, serves as a repository of human suffering and is accordingly given a crown of thorns by Indra’s Daughter; the marriage of the two, as Agnes and Alfred, manifests a conjunction of Eastern and Western religions, the dramatic import of which is both the religious complementarity of male and female and the failure of religion (as a human construct) to provide a meaning for human existence.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Austin, John. Review of A Dream Play. Theatre Journal 47 (December, 1995): 553-556.

Carlson, Harry G. Out of Inferno: Strindberg’s Reawakening as an Artist. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

Johnson, Walter. “A Dream Play: Plans and Fulfillment.” Scandinavia 10 (1971): 103-111.

Johnson, Walter. “Introduction to A Dream Play.” In A Dream Play and Four Chamber Plays. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

Marker, F. J., and Christopher Innes, eds. Modernism in European Drama. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Meyer, Michael. Strindberg: A Biography. London: Secker and Warburg, 1985.

Sprigge, Elizabeth. The Strange Life of August Strindberg. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

Sprinchorn, Evert. “The Logic of A Dream Play.” In Strindberg: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Otto Reinert. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Sprinchorn, Evert. Strindberg as Dramatist. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Tornqvist, Egil. Strindbergian Drama. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982.

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