Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

The Ghost Sonata was first produced at Strindberg's Intimate Theatre in Stockholm on January 21,1908. The play followed The Storm and The Pelikan as Opus No. 3 of Strindberg's ‘‘chamber plays,’’ which he wrote specifically for his tiny theatre. Like these two previous productions, however, The Ghost Sonata was attacked and ridiculed by critics who did not, or would not, understand the symbolic dream worlds Strindberg was attempting to portray on the stage.

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After the failure of The Ghost Sonata, Strindberg wrote no more great plays. In 1908-09 he produced a few historical dramas of little note, then spent his last few years writing only essays about religion and politics. The real accomplishment of The Ghost Sonata was not widely understood, and the playwright himself was not universally appreciated until after his death in 1912.

Max Reinhardt's production of the play in Berlin in 1916 was the first to meet with popular and critical success. Reinhardt toured the show to the Lorensberg Theatre in Gothenburg, Sweden, then on to the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where Strindberg's play finally received the acclaim from his countrymen he had so desperately sought. Afterward, Reinhardt's production traveled to Munich, Vienna, and Frankfurt, and he mounted other productions in cities across Europe into the 1920s.

Other famous directors have approached the play, including Olaf Molander, a lifelong devotee of Strindberg's, who mounted The Ghost Sonata at the Royal Theatre of Stockholm in 1942, and Ingmar Bergman, who produced the play twice, once in Stockholm in 1941 and once in Paris in 1962 for the Theatres des Nations festival. The play was first produced in England at the Oxford Playhouse in 1926, and appeared in America for the first time at Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Playhouse in New York in 1924. The Provincetown production fared miserably. Attendance was low, critics complained, and the show closed after only 24 performances.

Over the years, The Ghost Sonata and a few of Strindberg's other ‘‘dream plays’’ have appeared occasionally on the stages of universities and community theatres in Europe and the United States. By themselves, they have never achieved tremendous popularity, but as forerunners to some of the great artistic movements of the twentieth century, and as models for some of the great modern dramatists to follow, they are now viewed as monumental turning points in the history of dramatic literature. Antonin Artaud, the famous French director and playwright, credited Strindberg's work as an important precursor to his own ‘‘Theatre of Cruelty.’’ Randolph Goodman, in the introduction to his English version of the play in Drama on Stage, writes, ‘‘His [Strindberg's] influence is clearly discernible in the work of Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O'Neill, and Sean O'Casey, to name but a few of the masters. In more recent times such cynical social commentators as Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, and Genet have raised a superstructure of raucous laughter, of cabaret and farce, on the somber foundations laid down by August Strindberg.’’

No less a critic than the great British historian Allardyce Nicoll proclaimed in World Drama, ‘‘Three things in especial Strindberg did. First, in the supreme concentration of the dramas of his middle period, he showed how much even the closely packed realistic plays of Ibsen lacked of essential dramatic economy. Secondly, he came as near as any man towards creating a modern social tragedy. And, thirdly, in his latest works he achieved what might have seemed impossible—producing theatrical compositions that in effect are wholly subjective. In the long range of his writings his hands touch now the early romantics, now the realists and naturalists, now the expressionists, now the surrealists, and now the existentialists. There is no author whose range is wider or more provocative. In him the entire history of the stage from 1800 to the present day is epitomized.’’

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