Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633
Arkenholz (AHR-kehn-hohlts), a student. The unshaven young man’s appearance is less an indication of slovenliness than of the fact that he is a man of action. The student was a hero in a disaster, a house collapse, that occurred just before the time of the play. Throughout, his vigorous, life-affirming qualities are in contrast to those of the mostly anemic, old, or quite literally dead characters who appear in this dream play. The “student” aspect of his character is at least as important. As the central character, his chief function is to observe the events around him, contemplate the various intrigues and disclosures of corruption, and thereby learn what life and death truly entail. At the end, he shares his conclusions with the audience.
Hummel (HUHM-mehl), an old man. Hummel has white hair and a white beard, wears glasses, and uses a wheelchair. Rather than the grandfatherly figure his appearance would suggest, Hummel is a sinister character who generally goes by “the old man” rather than his surname. “The old man” may recall “old Nick” and other sobriquets for the devil, an appropriate association because Hummel operates in a context of vampirism and the satanic. He seems to have had a hand in the lives (or deaths) of most of the characters in the play, and he entangled Arkenholz’s father in shady dealings in the past. He seems intent on ensnaring Arkenholz as well, at least early in the play. If Arkenholz is the student, Hummel is the teacher; Arkenholz’s wisest decision is to reject the teachings of his master.
The Girl, a friend of Arkenholz. Unnamed, like most of the characters, the Girl ostensibly is the daughter of the Colonel, who lives in the imposing house that dominates the setting of the play, but really is the daughter of Hummel. She appears wearing first a riding outfit, then a dress. From their first meeting, Arkenholz and the Girl seem destined for each other. Unlike many of the other characters, she survives long enough to share with Arkenholz some of the secrets of the house and to witness his final illuminating vision. Although spiritually innocent, she is contaminated by the tradition of corruption represented by Hummel and the house itself, and at the end she moves toward death.
The Milkmaid, an apparition. The Milkmaid is seen only by Arkenholz, but she is much feared by Hummel, whom the Milkmaid implicates in her death. She—like most of the characters in the play except for Arkenholz, Hummel, and the Girl—has no personality as such but serves to personify some facet of experience.
The Colonel, the ostensible father of the Girl and husband of the Mummy. As is true for many of the characters, the Colonel’s past is more important than what he does or does not do in the play. According to Hummel, the Colonel beat his wife, who left him, then returned to marry him a second time.
The Mummy, the Colonel’s wife and mother of the Girl. White and shriveled, she is a sort of walking death, broken not by age so much as by the lies of her life. She lied to her husband about her age when they first met, for example. More important, her daughter was fathered not by her husband but by Hummel. Early in the play, she can hardly speak, only parroting phrases of others. By the end of the penultimate scene, though, she has worked up enough rage to tell everyone the truth about Hummel, thereby causing his death.
The Dead Man
The Dead Man, a consul. The Dead Man’s corpse awaits burial throughout the play. Sometimes, the Dead Man walks around, generally to check on his funeral arrangements.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1649
Jacob Hummel is 80 years old and wheelchair-bound, but he has been many things in his lifetime. His servant, Johansson, describes him as ' 'a horse-thief in the human market,’’ someone who ‘‘steals human beings in all sorts of different ways.’’ His main motivation in the play is revenge: Years ago the man who now calls himself the Colonel apparently stole Hummel's fiancee from him. Later, Hummel had an affair with Amelia, the Colonel's wife, and they had a daughter, Adele. Now Hummel has returned to exact his full revenge. His plan is to lie to the Student and use him to get inside the Colonel's house. Once there, he will ruin the Colonel by revealing all of the lies he has built his life on—his wealth, his noble name, his military title, and the girl he believes is his daughter. He also plans to reveal all of the crimes committed by the people in the house, and chase them all away. In the end, he hopes, Arkenholtz will marry Adele and they will live in the newly purified house together.
What Hummel does not count on, however, is his own criminal past coming back to haunt him. First Amelia stands and accuses him of lying to her, of lying to Arkenholtz, and of murdering the Dead Man by piling him with debts he could not repay. Then Bengtsson recognizes him as the man who once tried to starve his family to death, and later murdered the Milkmaid to prevent her from revealing a crime he had committed. Finally, in defeat, Hummel crawls into the Mummy's closet where he hangs himself.
Although the Colonel believes Adele is his daughter, she is actually the child of the affair Amelia had with Jacob Hummel. Along with the Student, Adele is one of the few ' 'innocent'' people in the play, but she must suffer along with all of her guilty family. She has a mysterious illness which saps all of her strength. When she goes out, which is rarely, she likes to go horseback riding. When she is home, she spends her time tending her flowers in the Hyacinth Room. As Hummel finally reveals, Adele's sickness is caused by the lies and crimes of the people in the house that are polluting the air. If they were to confess all their sins and leave the house, she would be saved. It is too late, however. Despite Hummel's attempts to drive everyone from the house, and the Student's efforts at wooing her and trying to convince her there is beauty in the world, Adele collapses and dies at the end of the play. Amelia
Amelia is the Colonel's wife. As a young lady, she was beautiful. Even at 35, she convinced the Colonel she was only 19, which is when he first married her. The Old Man tells the Student that Amelia once left the Colonel, that he beat her, and that she returned to marry him again. She went crazy and began to think she was a parrot. For twenty years she lived in a closet because her eyes could not stand the light, and her skin became pale and wrinkled, like a mummy's. During the ghost supper, when the Old Man is prepared to reveal everyone's secrets and run them out of the house, Amelia stops time by holding back the hands on the clock, and turns the tables on Hummel. Instead of allowing him to ruin them, she confronts him with all of his own crimes, and forces him to crawl into her closet where he hangs himself.
See Baron Skanskorg
Arkenholtz is a student and the son of a merchant. His father was ruined by Jacob Hummel while Arkenholtz was a very young boy. Initially, he is happy and idealistic, but by the end of the play he has learned some brutal lessons about life's lies, disappointments and tragedies. He possesses special powers because he is a ‘‘Sunday child.’’ His supernatural birthright gives him glimpses into the future, and allows him to see ghosts where others see only empty air. This ability allowed him to save the inhabitants of an old house moments before it collapsed, and for his heroics Hummel claims he will make him a wealthy and famous man. Even more importantly, the Old Man convinces the Student he will get him introduced to the beautiful Girl, Adele, who lives inside the rich house Arkenholtz has been admiring.
Arnkenholtz is confused by Hummel, youthfully naive, and smitten with the Girl, so he agrees to help the Old Man with his strange plans to get inside the house. He is in the Hyacinth Room with Adele when Hummel attempts to ruin the Colonel and his friends, so he does not hear about everyone's crimes, or see Hummel's undignified death. After the Old Man's funeral, Arkenholtz returns to the house and tries to save Adele from her suffering and convince her to be his wife. She has been exposed to the foul air of the sinful house for too long, though, and even as he attempts to play music and sing for her, anything to break the mysterious spell that grips her, she grows weaker, and dies before him. In the end, Arkenholtz finally recognizes that the world is not always what it seems; that guilt, suffering and death often lie behind the doors of beautiful homes, and that paradise may only exist in a life after death.
The Colonel's butler, Bengtsson, has seen many ups and downs in his life. He has been both master and servant to the Old Man. Once, the Old Man lived in Bengtsson's house as a vampire who tried to starve Bengtsson's family to death. Years later, Bengtsson encountered the Old Man in Hamburg, where he was a villainous money-lender who murdered the Milkmaid in order to prevent her from reporting a crime he had committed. It is Bengtsson's testimony about the Old Man's crimes at the ghost dinner that finally defeats him, and saves the inhabitants of the house from being revealed and evicted.
The Caretaker's Wife
The Caretaker's Wife helps tend the house. She once had an affair with the Consul, the Dead Man who was buried on the day the play begins. Their child is the Dark Lady.
As a young man, the Colonel was actually a poor kitchen servant who stole Jacob Hummel's fiancee from him. Since then, he has falsely acquired his military title and noble family name, and has borrowed large amounts of money in order to maintain a wealthy lifestyle. He married Amelia, the Mummy, when she was 35, thinking she was really a young girl. He believes the Girl is his daughter, though she is actually the child of Jacob Hummel, who had an affair with his wife, Amelia. Though he has built his entire life on a series of carefully constructed lies, he willingly and honestly admits his mistakes as the Old Man reveals them one at a time during the ghost supper.
The Cook is somehow related to Jacob Hummel, the Old Man. As the Girl explains to the Student, she ' 'belongs to the Hummel family of vampires.'' The Cook is slowly starving the Girl and her family to death by feeding them only watery broth and meat boiled clean of all nourishment. Despite the family's protests, the Cook refuses to leave, and the family is powerless and cannot drive her out. She is, the Girl claims, part of the price they all must pay for their past sins.
The Dark Lady
See The Lady in Black
The Dead Man
Described by the Old Man as ' 'a benevolent scoundrel whose only aim in life was to have a magnificent funeral,’’ the Dead Man was a consul who loved the uniforms, ribbons, medals and ceremonies involved with his public life as a government official. He had an affair with the Caretaker's Wife, and their daughter is the Dark Lady.
See Miss Beatrice von Holsteinkrona
Johansson is an educated man, a bookseller who committed some kind of crime, and would have gone to jail if he had been discovered. But the Old Man knew about his indiscretion, and instead of turning him over to the law, he has made a servant out of him. Johansson serves the Old Man in exchange for food and the small amount of freedom he is allowed.
The Lady in Black
The Dark Lady is the daughter of the Dead Man and the Caretaker's Wife, and she is engaged to Baron Skanskorg.
The Milkmaid is a silent character in the play. She is the ghost of a young girl murdered in Hamburg by Jacob Hummel. She witnessed a crime Hummel committed, and to avoid being caught he lured her out onto some thin ice, and she fell through and drowned. She appears from time to time throughout the play to terrify Hummel's guilty conscience.
The Old Man
See Jacob Hummel
The Aristocrat, Baron Skanskorg, is the son-in-law of the Dead Man. He was once Amelia's lover, and he is now engaged to the Lady in Black, though he is still married to a wealthy baroness. His wife is divorcing him and presenting him with a stone mansion just to get rid of him. When he arrives at the ghost supper, the Old Man recognizes him as a jewel thief.
Miss Beatrice von Holsteinkrona
The Fiancee is introduced by the Colonel as Miss Beatrice von Holsteinkrona, a reasonably wealthy, and very religious woman who lives in one of the apartments above the house. As a young woman, she was engaged to Jacob Hummel, the Old Man. The Colonel apparently seduced her away from Hummel, and the Old Man has spent the rest of his life seeking revenge.