Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641
In a life charged with personal and spiritual obsessions, August Strindberg wrote three dozen plays, seven novels, six volumes of essays, three volumes of short stories, and a volume of poems. Most of these works reflect his extensive reading of the Bible, mythology, theosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Emanuel Swedenborg, as well as much else that stimulated his creative impulses. The Ghost Sonata can be grouped with Oväder (1907; Storm, 1913), Brända tomten(1907; After the Fire, 1913), Pelikanen(1907; The Pelican, 1962), and Svarta handsken(1909; The Black Glove, 1916) as the third in a quintet of what Strindberg called chamber plays. The term “chamber play” was a reference to their analogies to musical forms, and they were written for Strindberg’s Intimate Theater in Stockholm. He initially thought The Ghost Supper an appropriate title to evoke the central event of the play, but switched to The Ghost Sonata as proper for a play built around three scenes.
Strindberg preceded and influenced such playwrights as Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Edward Albee in his exploitation of expressionist techniques and in the use of settings, sound effects, and other devices to suggest states of mind. The apparition of the Milkmaid, for instance, prompts a reaction in Hummel that expresses his guilt over the events in Hamburg. For Hummel, the Milkmaid functions much as the Furies do in Greek tragedy, guilty consciences that drive their victims toward expiation. Other examples include the Mummy and the Colonel. The Mummy hides in her closet, dehumanized and reduced by the manipulative Old Man to a mere parrot of a person; the Colonel, with his spurious military title, his wig, and his mustache, collapses as a hollow man under Hummel’s ruthless attack on his puffed-up self. When the Old Man himself is exposed, he succumbs to the Mummy’s parrot speech as a sign of his own spiritual emptiness.
Vampirism and exploitation constitute the main theme of The Ghost Sonata. Johansson says of the Old Man that “he’s like a horse thief, only with people. He steals them, in all kinds of ways.” Hummel rides around, Johansson says, “like the great god Thor,” destroying houses, killing his enemies, and forgiving nothing. In his younger days, he had been a Don Juan who was so clever that he got his women to leave when he had used them up. Hummel knows everyone’s dark secrets, and his corrosive cynicism shows up in his talk about them, as when he reveals the identity of the lady in black.
The Old Man explains at the ghost supper that “Nature itself plants in human beings an instinct for hiding that which should be hidden” but that “sometimes the opportunity presents itself to reveal the deepest of secrets, to tear the mask off the imposter.” That is what he has chosen to do at the ghost supper, “to pull up the weeds” and “settle the accounts” so that the Student and the Young Lady can start afresh. It is too late, however, for the Old Man Hummel himself: The Mummy charms him into her parrot role and puts the death screen around him.
Ironically, it was the folly of the Student’s father, to expose everyone’s pretensions at a dinner party, that led to his incarceration in a madhouse. The Student has clearly inherited his father’s inverted idealism and his disgust for a world that cannot live up to his standards of honesty and goodness. His tirade in the last minutes of the play condemns creation: “Why is it that the most beautiful flowers are so poisonous, the most poisonous? Damnation hangs over the whole of creation.” Students of Strindberg’s life see autobiographical elements in the Student’s bitterness. Whatever its source in the author’s creative impulses, The Ghost Sonata dramatizes with great power the dark and apocalyptic side of existence.