Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2610
August Strindberg spent much of his life on a quest for psychological and spiritual fulfillment. Contemporary accounts written by friends, family and colleagues, as well as the playwright's own journals and letters, describe Strindberg as a man who was eccentric, almost always unhappy, and constantly battling mental illness.
Over the course of his lifetime, his madness took many forms. As a boy, he resented his mother for her lower class background, yet still fought for her attention among seven brothers and sisters. She died when he was only thirteen, and his father married their housekeeper. For the rest of his life Strindberg experienced a strong attraction toward women he thought of as pure, motherly figures, and a repulsion from women he damned as promiscuous sinners. As often as not, he felt both feelings toward the same woman, seriously complicating his relationships and contributing to his three failed marriages.
Besides his sexual conflicts, Strindberg also suffered from a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, frequent bouts of paranoia, hypochondria, delusions, and hallucinations. There were times in his life when he would write for days on end, producing volumes of prose or dramatic text; and there were other, less fertile periods when he would sit, stare into space, and ponder for hours, oblivious to anyone around him. During his darkest hours, while living alone in Paris from 1894-96, he claimed that severe electric shocks were passing through his body, and that hostile "Powers" were pursuing him, bent on his destruction. He turned to pseudo-science, and worked feverishly with chemical experiments designed to produce gold. Recognizing how close he was to the edge of sanity in the summer of 1896, he wrote to Anders Eliasson, a doctor who had been treating him, "I do not especially fear the madhouse, for it would be interesting to see these people whom I believe to be possessed by demons and not sick or senile. And I would regard it as a new education for a new life.’’
Arguably, what ultimately saved Strindberg from a complete nervous breakdown that summer was his discovery of a new spiritual faith. As a boy, Strindberg detested religion, and vehemently denied the existence of God. As an adult, however, and after experiencing some of the disappointments and tragedies of life, the troubled artist found himself searching for solace in the spiritual realm. In his quest for faith in some kind of higher power, Strindberg turned to Buddhism, occultism, existentialism, mysticism, and Theosophy, before discovering his own unique form of religion, based largely on the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the eighteenth century Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian. From the summer of 1896 forward, Strindberg's life and work, including the 1907 Ghost Sonata, were indelibly marked by the playwright's newfound religious beliefs.
In Swedenborg, Strindberg found the balance he was seeking between traditional Western Christianity, Eastern mysticism, and the waking supernatural realm of the occult that he had been exploring, and living, for many years. Strindberg identified with and understood such works as Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia, which emphasized a supernatural vision of the afterlife existing parallel to the mortal world, and acknowledged the unavoidable presence of sin, terror and suffering among all people. In Swedenborg's, and Strindberg's, view, the mortal world was a place for humans to work off their debt of Original Sin, pay the penance of guilt, mental anguish and physical pain, then pass into the afterlife, where their souls would be treated accordingly.
Goran Stockenstrom summarizes the central tenet of Swedenborg's teachings in ‘‘The Journey from the Isle of Life to the Isle of Death: Reconciliation in The Ghost Sonata.'' Stockenstrom writes:
After death men are transported to the spiritual world or the lower earth. After their arrival the appearance of the newly fledged spirits remains unaltered and they can still conceal their thoughts and feelings as they could in life. Therefore many believe that they continue to reside in earthly existence. When after a while the external condition is unveiled by the internal one, the human spirits can no longer hide their thoughts. As feature after feature is stripped away, all hypocrisy dissolves, and the exterior is transformed into a mirror-image of the interior condition. The ultimate objective of this differentiation of spirits is to unmask the person's true self, so that there emerges a complete correspondence between the outer appearance and the inner reality. It is not a question of a judgment in the usual sense, for to Swedenborg God is absolute love. Rather than submitting to judgment, the evil and the good spirits unite with their equals by their own free will in order to be finally dispatched to one of the different societies in heaven or hell.
The place where this unmasking occurs is a sort of purgatory for souls on the way to heaven or hell. The Theosophists of the nineteenth century, who also drew upon the works of Swedenborg, called this place "Kama-Loka," a phrase Strindberg used as the original subtitle for The Ghost Sonata. In the play, as in Swedenborg's purgatory, Kama-Loka, masks, lies and illusions are slowly stripped away, baring the naked souls of the people underneath. Life begins with promise and ends, as often as not, in humiliation, degradation and, eventually, release.
The promise of life in The Ghost Sonata is found, of course, in the Student, Arkenholtz. Young, heroic and idealistic at the beginning of the play, Arkenholtz has not yet seen enough of the world to know that what he wants—paradise on earth—is unattainable, that it doesn't exist. There is little doubt that the author saw a great deal of himself in his character. Milton Mays notes in ‘‘Strindberg's Ghost Sonata: Parodied Fairy Tale on Original Sin," "Like Strindberg, the Student is an innocent trying to believe in an unfallen world in the face of the horrors of real existence.’’
Arkenholtz has rescued people from a collapsed building, catches glimpses of the future with the second sight granted him as a ‘‘Sunday child,’’ and has just discovered a mysterious benefactor who is prepared to introduce him to the life he has dreamed of living in an elegant city apartment house. ''Think of living up there in the top flat,'' he has said to his companion, ''with a beautiful young wife, two pretty little children and an income of twenty thousand crowns a year.’’
A bourgeois lifestyle, however, does not begin to pay for Original Sin, and the Student, along with all of the other characters in the play, must begin the process of transformation from sinner to penitent to saved soul. Jacob Hummel, the Old Man, is prepared to force them all along that journey. In the first scene of the play, outside the house, Hummel seems omniscient and all-powerful. He gulls the Student into doing his bidding, knows everything there is to know about the strange inhabitants of the house, and orders his servant, Johansson, about like a slave, because he holds his freedom in his hands.
The building up of opportunity and power in the first scene, though, merely sets the stage for the ritual of soul cleansing that is to follow. Like the mortal souls that enter Kama-Loka, everyone in the house must be stripped of masks, illusions and artifice. Their true natures must be laid bare, so their souls can be separated into the good and the evil.
Initially, the Old Man presides over the unmasking. Once he has worked his way into the house, on the premise of attending the evening's ‘‘ghost supper,’’ Hummel sets about taking his revenge on its inhabitants by revealing all of their secrets. The telling of truths begins when he encounters the Mummy, Amelia, who was once his lover. She was young and beautiful, until she lied about her age, married the Colonel, and had an affair and a daughter with Hummel. Since that time, twenty years ago, she has lived in shame and isolation in a closet of the house, where she avoids the light of the sun and the light of public scrutiny, and her skin turns white and wrinkled like a mummy's.
Together, Hummel and Amelia discuss the crimes and secrets of the rest of the household. Baron Skanskorg is divorcing his wife in order to marry his lover, the Dark Lady. This mysterious Dark Lady is the daughter of the Caretaker's Wife, who had an affair with the Dead Man, who was in turn another of Amelia's lovers. Hummel's former Fiancee will be attending the ghost supper. She was seduced away from him by the Colonel, Amelia's husband. It is, as Hummel jokes, "A select gathering.’’ Adulterers, thieves and, as it later turns out, murderers, are on the guest list of the ghost supper. ‘‘Crime and secrets and guilt bind us together,’’ Amelia mourns, ‘‘We have broken our bonds and gone our own ways, times without number, but we are always drawn together again.’’
The secrets kept for so long by the weird inhabitants of the house are not uncommon ones, or so the playwright would have his audience believe. Although the world his characters inhabit is clearly not the world most people recognize as real, it is meant to be a parallel world where people like us, yet not like us, live the way we do, and suffer the way we suffer. As Strindberg famously wrote about The Ghost Sonata in a letter to Emil Schering in 1907, ‘‘It is horrible like life, when the veil falls from our eyes and we see things as they are. It has shape and content; the wisdom that comes with age, as our knowledge increases and we learn to understand. This is how 'The Weaver' weaves men's destinies; secrets like these are to be found in every home. People are too proud to admit it; most of them boast of their imagined luck, and hide their misery.''
Hummel, the would-be "Weaver," saves his deadliest ammunition for the Colonel, who he has been plotting against ever since the younger man stole his fiancee years before. Hummel now owns all the Colonel's debt, and reveals that the wealth he has surrounded himself with is all borrowed goods. His family name, too, is borrowed. While the Colonel truly believed himself to be a nobleman, Hummel provides him with a document that strips him of his titles. Furthermore, the Old Man presses, he is not even a Colonel, since the army he once served in disbanded and abolished all its titles. The relentless Hummel pins the broken Colonel in a chair and warns him that if he removed his wig, his false teeth and his moustache, he find underneath all the lies a miserable lackey who once served in a kitchen.
Hummel's intention is to methodically strip the masks away from all the guests at the ghost supper, "to pull up the weeds, to expose the crimes, to settle all accounts, so that those young people [Arkenholtz and Adele] might start afresh in this home, which is my gift to them.’’ What the Old Man does not count on, however, is that he, too, is mortal, and like all mortal souls to Swedenborg and Strindberg's way of thinking, he must face his own reckoning.
Amalia abruptly breaks out of the trance that has held her for twenty years and turns the tables on the group's accuser. ‘‘We have erred and we have sinned, we like all the rest,’’ she rails at Hummel, "We are not what we seem, because at bottom we are better than ourselves, since we detest our sins. But when you, Jacob Hummel, with your false name, choose to sit in judgment over us, you prove yourself worse than us miserable sinners.’’ In the Swedenborgian realm, Amelia is warning, they have suffered for their sins, but now their souls are prepared for a rewarding afterlife. Hummel's, on the other hand, will continue to suffer after the sorting of his sins.
The list of Hummel's crimes runs long. He stole Amelia's heart with false promises, murdered the Dead Man by burying him in debt he could not repay, and conned the Student by lying to him about his father. Worse yet, he once lived as a sort of vampire in Bengtson's home, nearly starving his family to death, before moving on to Hamburg where he committed crimes and murdered an innocent Milkmaid who might have exposed him. In the end, Hummel is reduced to the gibbering parrot Amelia once was, and crawls into her closet to hang himself.
Despite the seeming justice of Hummel's end, and the suggestion that the sinners of the house have suffered enough, and order will now be restored, the still-innocent young people in the play who were viewed as the hope for tomorrow do not fare any better than their guilty parents. The Girl, Adele, has lived too long in the polluted air of the house, and now suffers like a vicarious sinner in her Hyacinth Room where everything seems perfect, but is really damaged and dying. For his part, Arkenholtz tries to save her. He woos her, even proffers marriage, but she is not to be moved. He tries to play her music, but even the harp will not sound in her room where nothing is what it seems.
Finally, she droops, and dies at his feet. The Student prays for her, wishing for her the best fate that anyone can achieve while passing from this world of misery into the afterlife of the unknown. "The Liberator is coming,'' Arkenholtz announces, ‘‘Welcome, pale and gentle one. Sleep, you lovely, innocent, doomed creature, suffering for no fault of your own. Sleep without dreaming, and when you wake again, may you be greeted by a sun that does not burn, in a home without dust, by friends without stain, by a love without flaw.’’
This world, the Student now recognizes, is a world of "illusion, guilt, suffering and death.'' It is a world of ‘‘endless change, disappointment, and pain,’’ and only a merciful god in the afterlife can offer any balm to soothe the suffering souls of all of mankind.
Some critics have found fault with Strindberg' s variation on a fundamental Christian principle that is reflected in the Student's new outlook. As Stephan C. Bandy explains in ‘‘Strindberg's Biblical Sources for The Ghost Sonata,'" 'Instead of looking to Christ for release from his unhappy existence, the Student in fact redefines Christian salvation in his own terms. At the center he places not an abstract God, but the Self. And thus it appears that Strindberg has presented us with nothing less than a modern-dress, thoroughly up-dated parable of redemption— but a redemption stripped of its Christian idealism and optimism.’’
Nevertheless, as bleak and hopeless as the play may make the world seem, there is intended to be a note of optimism in its characters' suffering. Despite the trials and tribulations of life in the mortal realm, Swedenborg suggested, and Strindberg believed, that the hereafter could be different. For Strindberg, writing The Ghost Sonata and his other ''chamber plays'' that addressed the sin, guilt and terror of life was a form of therapy. He alleviated some of his own anxiety and misery by expressing his feelings, and promoting his religious beliefs, in his art. ‘‘What has saved my soul from darkness during this work has been my religion,'' he wrote to Schering,"the hope of a better life to come; the firm conviction that we live in a world of madness and delusion from which we must fight our way free.’’
Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Lane A. Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6418
August Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata is the most produced of his Chamber Plays. Its complexity and depth allow a great many directorial approaches and absorb countless interpretations. Perhaps this is one reason for its popularity: expressionism, symbolism, and realism can all be found in the work and can each, when used as a major production style, produce valid, powerful results. From the realistic interpretation given the play by Olof Molander, to the divergent expressionistic approaches taken by Max Reinhardt and Ingmar Bergman, The Ghost Sonata has been proven to be a remarkable play capable of communicating its complex ideas through many voices.
Part of the play's success in this regard may be a result of the form of the work itself—a form that combines realism and symbolism to create a tension between the material and the immaterial concerns of the drama. Such a tension enabled Strindberg to make a difficult theme not only dynamic but also dramatic and allowed him to complete a theatrical experiment in which he had been engaged for years. As Evert Sprinchorn has pointed out, Strindberg, through his scientific experiments beginning in 1891, searched for the great coherent principle in nature and so attempted to "combine the realms of inorganic and organic matter in one grand synthesis in which the universe would display a kind of order without having any teleological end.’’ Further, Strindberg expanded his pursuits to include not only matter but also mind. In his own terms, his intention was to eliminate ‘‘the frontier separating matter from what was called mind.’’ In his later works, including The Ghost Sonata, one finds a further attempt to eliminate not only the frontiers separating matter from mind but those separating matter, mind, and spirit.
Consequently, Strindberg strove in his scenic experiments to expand even the concept of reality until it was seen to be a single and unified fabric consisting of a homogeneous blend of matter and mind, material and spirit, subjective and objective modes of perception. All phenomena would thus be seen to exist concurrently and coproductively. As with Freud, the map of reality is enlarged. But for Strindberg, it has become all-inclusive, leaving nothing outside its boundaries.
The Ghost Sonata represents a major step in Strindberg's theatrical experiments in staging this broadened reality. In it, realism plays a large role in the staging, but it is a realism that is inclusive rather than exclusive of spiritual and metaphysical concerns. The first scene establishes the context of the play visually as well as verbally. The audience is induced to view the drama from a broadened perspective—a perspective that Strindberg may have regarded as being a primary state of awareness before abstractions are enforced.
Indications for this perspective are immediate. Note, for example, Strindberg's changes within the layout of the set. From the opening moments of the play, one is not looking out upon a street or an exterior environment from inside a drawing room, as was customary, but is looking in upon the interior action from an exterior advantage. The view is from "the other side,'' both literally and figuratively, and quickly establishes an important context: one enters the house—the small interior world of humanity— from the far side of life; and one's interpretations of the subsequent action will be partially determined from this bias.
Thus, the standard or the norm by which one will view the scene will be that of the world of the Milkmaid—that outer realm that interpenetrates the inner. This does not mean, however, that this play is simply a dream play. It is a dream play and much more. For the world of the Milkmaid is complex and multidimensional. She exists in several realms that operate simultaneously. The Student can see her at the fountain although Hummel cannot. This is possible because she is of the spirit world, visible only to the Sunday child. Neither can Hummel see the dead Consul. Yet, moments later when Hummel boasts of having saved a drowning girl in Hamburg, the Milkmaid appears to him. She is now of the world of dreams—of the drama of mind—and it is Hummel's conscience that "sees" her.
Had Strindberg chosen to present the Milkmaid in verbal discourse alone, or had he not been careful to have her enter the scene, fully visible to the audience, before the Student, and to have her use the physical fountain because she feels the heat of the day, her role in the opening scene and the perspective that she represents may have been reduced to that of a psychological aberration—a sign of strain on the mind of the Student. Moreover, had the Milkmaid been visible only to the Student and not to Hummel (who we know is not a Sunday child), her citizenship in multiple worlds would not have been depicted. The audience sees her in several connections, and her reality is therefore a more complete one. Hers is that wide realm in which all partial "realities" (material, spiritual, and psychological) are merely modes of one whole reality.
The play takes on a semidreamlike quality, to be sure, for there are a number of private dreams staged; and, more importantly, one is not used to viewing the world in the way that Strindberg shows it. One is more inclined to believe in the "reality'' of Hamlet's murdered father stalking the parapets than in that of a drowned milkmaid wandering the streets of Stockholm. The one reality is theatrical, but the other—Strindberg's—oversteps its theatrical bounds. Strindberg does not ask, as does Shakespeare, that one willingly suspend one's disbelief, he asks that one actually change one's beliefs to accord with his own. That is, Strindberg seems to require that his audience accept his personal vision (minus a modicum of artistic exaggeration, of course) as a true depiction of the way things are. How is one to make this change? The Milkmaid herself is not ready to accept the reality of this interpenetration of realms. She is not so much frightened at seeing the Student as at being seen and spoken to by him. He is special. He has an expanded vision almost like that of the audience, who will now view the whole of the real world at once rather than piecemeal. The action of the first scene not only establishes the relationships between characters and the exposition of antecedent action needed for the audience to better understand the play but also determines the way in which the play will be viewed. It eases the otherwise unwilling audience into the proper frame of reference.
When this context is established, the audience finds itself peering into a new house, probing into the lives of living people, descending into the material depths. Appropriately, the guide for this stage of the journey is Hummel, for he is alive, rooted firmly to the material mode, and complexly related to the other people in this living inferno. He leads the Student and the audience through an examination of the house and the people within it.
This house is one of many houses talked about in the play; but because of its similarity to the others, it comes to represent society at large. We know that one house has collapsed—the house of the elder Arkenholz is in shambles—and we realize that this one may someday end in the same way. Societies come and go, as do families and nations, and this new house in a new style is no exception. For the moment, however, it seems to resist decay. It appears so perfect and so inviting. The student remarks with an unabashed ardor:
I have already looked at it—very carefully.... I went by here yesterday, when the sun was glittering on the panes—and dreaming of all the beauty and luxury there must be in that house, I said to my friend, ‘‘Imagine having an apartment there, four flights up, and a beautiful wife, and two pretty kids, and twenty thousand crowns in dividends every year.’’
The Student has looked at the house. He says he has looked very carefully. But he has not looked into it. He has seen only the outside of the house and the few objects visible to him through an open window—objects of luxury and elegance that are also visible to the audience at the opening of the curtain: ‘‘When the curtains are drawn and the windows opened in the round room, one can see a white marble statue of a young woman surrounded by palms and bathed in sunlight. On the windowsill farthest to the left are pots of hyacinths—blue, white, pink.’’ The house itself is finely decorated: ‘‘Through the door can be seen the hall and the staircase with marble steps and balustrade of mahogany and brass. On the sidewalk on both sides of the entryway are tubs with small laurels.'' If appearances mean anything, this is a place to be desired. It is a scene of material perfection, both beautiful and opulent, into which everyone dreams of entering—the beggars at the back door, the Student, and Hummel.
To this vision are added the peeling bells and distant organ tones of a Sunday morning. Ships' bells in the harbor signify the beginning and end of different journeys. The atmosphere early on is reminiscent of that at the close of Goethe's Faust. For salvation is in the air, and the best that life has to offer stands bathed in sunlight on a glorious morning. If appearances mean anything, the Student has stumbled into an earthly paradise. But unlike Faust's kidnapping from the mouth of hell, any salvation that will be open to Strindberg's seeker after knowledge lies on the far side of hell. He must first descend into its depths, experience pain, love, confusion, and anguish; his eyes and his mind will be opened until he can no longer bear to see or to know. When his knowledge and his vision crush him, and his love crumbles away, he will have discovered both the reason and the need for faith. Like the outside of this modern new house, the Student will find the promise of this particular Sunday morning a mere façade behind which something rots.
As the ships' bells toll, the Student's journey into the house of Man begins. He has gone through one passage and approaches another. As he grows to physical and spiritual maturity, he leaves the vanished child behind and presses on through The Valkyrie into the round room and the room of ordeals. Hummel has come full circle to the end of his own journey. Life and death meet in the person of the Milkmaid; and the theme is reiterated in the scene. Even in this radiant place where every detail breathes success, ‘‘Hanging on the railing of the balcony on the second story are a blue silk bedspread and two white bed pillows. The windows to the left are covered with white sheets signifying a death in the house.'' As spruce twigs are scattered on the ground, one journey through this life is accomplished, and another begins.
Overtly symbolic of this rhythm of comings and goings, life and decay, is the statue of the Colonel's wife. ‘‘Was she so wonderful?’’ inquires the Student. Then, in a non sequitur that belies his own love of beauty for beauty's sake, he adds,"Did he love her so much?'' Hummel replies:"Suppose I were to tell you that she left him, that he beat her, that she came back again and married him again, and that she is sitting in there right now like a mummy, worshiping her own statue. You would think I was crazy.’’ In the idealistic Student's eyes, something is crazy. For how could ugliness reside in beauty? How could the truly beautiful decay? He does not understand, as yet, the rhythms of life.
In the first scene of The Ghost Sonata, matter and mind, life and death are depicted as a confluence of realms interdependent on each other. The action in one sphere defines the action in another; and causes and effects are so interwoven that no amount of analysis could ever unravel them into their separate strands. This complexity of causation and relationship has grown from its initial articulation in the preface to Miss Julie to include every conceivable kind of determinism. After Hummel tries to give the Student an idea of the interconnections among the persons in the house, he adds, ‘‘Complicated, don't you think?’’ To which the Student can only respond, ''It's damned complicated!’’ Indeed it is, to borrow Hummel's words, inside and outside. The complicated outside of The Ghost Sonata—the context—is established.
Unlike the first scene, the second presents space and the objects within it in the convention of the bourgeois drama. The atmosphere of this interior scene will be darker and more terrible than that of the exterior scene; but, perhaps with the exception of the death screen, the scenery will not be. The darker mood will be established through action, characterization, and language rather than through the visual symbolism of Strindberg's scenography.
The scene is the round room, a conventional drawing room whose furnishings are indices of a particular time and place. The place is an upper-class set of apartments in Strindberg's own Stockholm. The milieu, as many have pointed out, is highly specific; and if the universal can be found in the particular, the universal might be found here. For Strindberg has brought along the baggage and the trappings of naturalism. He does not, however, treat the properties and the setting as mere decoration. The objects in the round room will not function simply as indices of time and place, class and taste, nor will they be, for the most part, overtly symbolic. The objects will play the role of objects in the material world. As characters in the drama, they will represent that material world in the same way that human characters represent humanity. Furthermore, these objects will function as that material stuff through which the human characters must battle.
In terms of the set, the round room is pierced with several doors that lead into other rooms with other doors. There is always a way into or out of a room in this labyrinthine drama of passage and passages. Life is lived in a series of interconnected spaces. In this connection, the role of the Mummy's closet takes on a special function. There is a door, a passage, which leads into a closed room. The purpose of this room is for storage; it was never intended to be a place to live. Much like the psychological niche into which the Mummy has retreated, the closet is a cul-de-sac. It is part of the round room and is not. The parrot-character is in this world and is not. Thus the Mummy lives on the fringe of life and passes now this way, now that, through the papered door—now taking refuge in oblivion, now returning of necessity to eat or to drink in the great round.
Resuming my discussion of the physical objects within the scenic space, the realistically individuated properties of the rich interior constitute a repetition of "things" to which the inhabitants of the house are inextricably wed. Ironically, these inhabitants are both masters and prisoners of their own possessions. In the context of the multiple dimensions established in the first scene, this statement is both sociological and ontological. Sociologically, these bourgeois characters are tied to the objects that support them in their station. The humans are thus defined by their property to such an extent that they would cease to be what they are if their material worth were at all diminished.
For example, in verbal discourse, the Colonel is stripped by Hummel of his stations as a noble and as a military man. These have been the credentials upon which the Colonel has been able to extend his credit, accumulate the hallmarks of his apparent wealth, and move up in the world. Without them, he would have been nothing; and to lose them destroys even his ability to rebuild. He has lost his possessions to Hummel and, by extortion, his ability to recover from the loss.
Yet Hummel does not stop at this. He continues. ''Take off that wig of yours and have a look at yourself in the mirror. And while you're at it, take out those false teeth and shave off that moustache and let Bengtsson unlace your metal corset.’’ Much of what appears to be the Colonel is a fabrication, in a literal sense, laid upon the animal. His appearance is supported by objects that have become a part of his character. The Colonel and the other members of his household are indeed trapped in a deteriorating social structure, as Maria Bergom-Larsson has suggested; but they are also trapped in the world of things, of physical objects and a physical being, from which they cannot escape. Societies change, a person's dreams may be altered, but the human condition as Strindberg so often depicts it, is rigid. For the round room is also Kama-Loka, the realm of desires, the world of flesh and material need. In this more ontological context of the scene, the human characters are bound to the physical matrix of the great round of life; and they cannot be freed from that bondage without physical death. Strindberg plunges his characters into the agony of an existence they can in no way alter. As Harry Carlson puts it: ''The pain in this world of lies and illusions is not simply a result of social injustice, it is existential. Social evils must be remedied, but the great round of life creates and devours in a rhythm that is not governed by human concepts of order and justice.'' Ethics, it would seem, are a manufactured sociological expedient that have no permanent place in the natural world.
There is, however, a great difference between total capitulation to the material mode of reality and the recognition of that mode as Maya— a veil over a deeper and more complete reality. Hummel has capitulated. He has given himself over not only to satisfying survival concerns but to taking into himself every good thing that crosses his path. Perhaps no character in the play is so deeply rooted in the physical as is Hummel. One of his first acts in the round room after banishing the servants is to roam about that room fingering objects. In one respect, he is taking inventory after having purchased all the Colonel's debts. His action thus sets up the next scene in which he strips the Colonel. In another respect, however, he is making love to the house, touching it, petting it—stimulated by the sight of the statue of the woman who had come to represent for him all of this wealth. He took her when he could not take it. Now he has returned to take it. Hummel becomes, for the audience, the incarnation of lust and greed that he threatened to become in Johansson's introduction of his character to the Student in the first scene:
—All day long he rides around in his chariot like the great god Thor.... He keeps his eye on houses, tears them down, opens up streets, builds up city squares. But he also breaks into houses, sneaks in through the windows, ravages human lives, kills his enemies, and forgives nothing and nobody. ... Can you imagine that that little cripple was once a Don Juan?
If the world were simply material, Hummel and his ilk would not be in the wrong. Survival of the fittest would be the only ethic.
There is, however, something more to life, and the Mummy points this out when she turns on Hummel in the climax of the supper sequence: "We are poor miserable creatures, we know that. We have erred, we have transgressed, we, like all the rest. We are not what we seem to be. At bottom we are better than ourselves, since we abhor and detest our misdeeds.’’ Hummel has been, like everyone else, in the "wrong." But the Mummy does not come to this conclusion simply because she is on the losing end of a material battle. Rather, she has discovered the value of human cohesion after having come to recognize the realm of desires for what it is. That realm is Maya; and Maya in The Ghost Sonata is the clutter of the physical mode—the illusion created by both pretense and the ''reality'' of physical objects. It is the shroud that hides the individual soul from its true, nonmaterial nature.
The round room up to this point has stood as a symbol for the great round of life—the cycle in which all living things feed on one another. We see now, however, that the round room has a secondary symbolic meaning tied to late T'ang Buddhist philosophy—that of the Round Enlightenment and its consequent defilements of the real. On the path to Round (perfect) Enlightenment, all Maya must be removed to escape the realm of Kama-Loka; and the participants in the ghost supper are doing much more than waiting upon all-conquering death to liberate them. They are engaged in sloughing off their bondage to the material mode and to the illusions that they have constructed through a lifetime of ignorance and misunderstanding.
In the Mummy's phrase ‘‘at bottom we are better than ourselves,'' the human existence is split. The Mummy is voicing a concern of the soul, the eternal portion of the human. The recognition of the physical aspect as Maya is made from this more spiritual perspective; and once Kama-Loka is revealed for what it is in truth, the individual soul, in Strindberg's syncretistic blending of Buddhism and Christianity, can move to make reparations with its fellow souls. Reconciliation is sought with both human beings and God. Although complete reconciliation waits upon death, preparations must be made.
When Hummel points to the clock, which he uses to signify finite human nature—when he points to linear time, which winds down and brings all things to a close, the Mummy ripostes by offering a different perspective: ‘‘But I can stop time in its course. I can wipe out the past, and undo what is done. Not with bribes, not with threats—but through suffering and repentance.'' She cannot stop material time, this woman who wears its ensign more than any other character in the play; but she speaks from a vantage point of timelessness, from a knowledge that the physical life is just one ordeal to be passed through. She stops time in the sense that she knows that it too is Maya. This life will end for her, and therein lies hope. The first stage in the movement toward perfect enlightenment is accomplished in the banishing of lust and greed made manifest in the destruction of Hummel. This act is the initial step in the deconstruction of all Maya.
Although the human characters in this scene are more than physical and possess eternal souls, the realm of Kama-Loka is no illusion. As one has seen in the first scene, the existence of one mode of reality does not negate the existence of all others. The realistic properties in the round room play the role of a very tangible Maya. For it is the people and their language (their verbal discourse) and not their material environment that is half in and half out of this world. It is verbal discourse that makes the environment appear to be illusory: for it is through that discourse that the soul voices its aphysical nature. To pit the world of objects against the world of the soul, the scenographic discourse is borne out realistically in the tradition of the illusionistic theater. In this way, the major conflict in the scene is recognized as being not between Hummel and all others, nor between the characters and a fictive life, but between the human soul and the necessity of living in a material body in a material world. The harsh character of this material world advances through the realistic staging.
Scene 3 is played in the hyacinth room, and one discovers quickly that the ordeals borne in this place are extensions of those so graphically depicted in the last scene. The theme is repeated, although the point of attack is much earlier—closer to the moment when innocence comes face to face with decay. Yet, even though the theme is reiterated, the third scene is not merely a repetition of the second. The second scene has served, in combination with the first, to prepare the audience for the difficult concepts and discourse of the final movement of the sonata. Leitmotivs have surfaced and resurfaced to foreshadow what will become the dominant strain of the third scene.
The scenographic depiction of the realm of desires is also reiterated when the language of the two human characters parades before the mind's eye a series of psychological scenes in which the material mode seems to act in direct opposition to the human will. That will is the will of innocence to create the best of all possible worlds, and Strindberg shows that such a world cannot exist in the corrosive presence of realistic detail. Although there is little to unmask in either the Student or the Young Lady, an unmasking does in fact take place. It is the unmasking of the scene, which not only serves to reveal the true nature of the hyacinth room but also operates as the dramatic event by which the Student and the Young Lady are led to the transcendence of a world of Maya.
The scene is initially "transported" by the presence of objects symbolic of transcendence. Strindberg's stage directions treat these objects simply:
A room decorated in a bizarre style, predominantly oriental. A profusion of hyacinths in all colors fills the room. On the porcelain tile stove sits a large Buddha with a bulb of a shallot (allium ascalonicum) in its lap. The stem of the shallot rises from the bulb and bursts into a spherical cluster of white, starlike flowers. . .. The Student and The Young Lady (Adele) are near a table, she seated at her harp, he standing beside her.
A room in a bizarre oriental style breathes a mysticism that is reinforced by the Buddha with his shallot. The hyacinths splash the stage with color. A harp echoes the final tones of an unheard song. The scene is at once transported in time, place, and mood from the grimness of the preceding scene.
Yet that grisly scene lingers: "In the rear to the right, a door leads to the round room. The Colonel and The Mummy can be seen in there sitting motionless and silent. A part of the death screen is also visible.’’ This is a haunting reminder that one has not left the earth, that one has not been transported to Shangri-La, and that, as yet, love has not been able to conquer all. Paradise, or at least a small touch of heaven-on-earth, is juxtaposed to the hell-on-earth of the previous scene. To the rear at the left, like an umbilical life-support for the human beings in this other-worldly plenum, is the door to the kitchen. Strindberg has left no doubt about the context in which this third scene will be played.
As the action begins, the Student tries to leave things as they appear to be. He and the Young Lady, like Dante and Beatrice before them, stand atop purgatory in an earthly paradise looking into heaven. To heighten the reality of their situation into this dreamworld, the Student constructs some symbolism. "Is this the flower of your soul?'' he asks. The flower in question is the hyacinth; and by linking it to the Young Lady's soul, he develops a resonance between it and the transcendent nature of her spirit. The mood darkens momentarily as the Student recognizes another resonance. The flower was created, according to legend, in the commingling of blood and earth—in the death of Hyacinthus, whose brains were dashed out by a discus hurled by his lover Apollo and blown awry by the jealous Zephyr. This unspoken legend foreshadows the Young Lady's death in the final moments of the play, but the Student has another reason for avoiding it. He is still determined to put the best face on their situation. He hastily drops the subject and proceeds to create another myth—a symbolic meaning for the flower and a symbol of hope for himself and his companion.
First you have to interpret it. The bulb is the earth.... Here the stalk shoots up, straight as the axis of the world, and here at its upper end are gathered together the six-pointed star flowers.... It's an image of the whole cosmos. That's why Buddha sits there with the bulb of the earth in his lap, watching it constantly to see it shoot up and burst forth and be transformed into a heaven.
The Student has settled on the dominant metaphor of the Buddhist "emptiness" philosophy— K'ung-hua, "the flower in the air as the symbol of an empty mirage of a flower (hua) grounded on empty space (k'ung).’’ The Student, however, transposes empty Nirvana to a heaven—something more approachable by the Christian Young Lady and her Christian audience. This world, symbolized by the flower, may someday become a heaven. The young couple is excited about this prospect as if in the creation of such a myth they could make the idea it represents become a reality.
As they re-create the world in the light of their own hopes, the young couple surround themselves with a tentative Eden. They are insulated form an oppressive reality by symbols, flowers, music. They console each other with the notion that earth can indeed be made into a heaven. After this act of creation, the Student proclaims, ‘‘We have given birth to something together. We are wedded.’’
As with the original tenants of Eden, knowledge will be this couple's undoing. The Young Lady's reply,"No, not yet,'' picks at the thread that begins the unraveling of this make-believe universe. To be truly wedded (as well as to be truly enlightened), time, testing, and patience are required. The testing has begun. From this point on, the scene of beauty will be stripped away in a protracted analysis of the environment. A tension is created between symbolism and reality—that is, between the object as it is used symbolically and the same object in its material function. In this way, the objects in the scene end by working as all objects do: to subdue, to constrain, to poison the ideal with the real. Clearly, the fabrication of a symbolic transcendence within a material existence cannot hold for long. For the imposition of symbolic nature upon an object interrupts only briefly its material function, and the materials used to signify spirituality soon decay into those functions.
In this room of ordeals, as the Young Lady calls it, examples of this fact abound. The Young Lady takes the Student on a verbal tour of the room and of her trials and tribulations within it. She speaks of the furniture, the stove, the windows, the laundry, and so on, through a chorus of things and chores that keep her battling to ‘‘keep the dirt of life at a distance.’’ An example of the imperfections within the room is the writing desk, which, even though it is verbally presented in only a matter of seconds, encapsulates the nature of all the household objects and symbolizes the plight of the Young Lady herself. ''Do you see that writing table?'' she asks the Student. He replies,''What an extraordinarily handsome piece!’’ The Young Lady continues: ‘‘But it wobbles. Every day I lay a piece of cork under that foot, but the housemaid takes it away when she sweeps, and I have to cut a new piece. The penholder is covered with ink every morning, and so is the inkstand, and I have to clean them up after her, as regularly as the sun goes up." Her tale of woe is not merely an indication of the untidiness of a maid who ought to be dismissed; it is a parable about the problem of living. Although the writing table is a beautiful piece of furniture, it is also an artifact with a utilitarian function. Its defect, its one short leg, does nothing as yet to impair its beauty but does impair its function. The table wobbles. Therefore, its functional aspect must be ministered to regularly. But its use as a writing table impairs its beauty, for because it is used, its top gets messy and must be constantly cleaned.
Like everything else in the room, the writing table has a functional aspect (a material aspect) that works against its symbolic or aesthetic aspect. Moreover, the functional aspect of each object is imperfect. It is difficult to write on the table. It is nearly impossible to keep a fire going in the stove. It is impossible to marry and have children with the Young Lady.
The symbol enlarges metaphorically: the Young Lady is beauty or the keeper or repository of it. She also has a functional self. Beauty, here equated with purity and innocence, coexists with utility in a combative relationship within the same person. On the ontological level, the functions of the human woman in her daily life compel constant ministering to keep beauty alive. Sociologically, the household and the Young Lady's way of life can be maintained only at great cost. She has been buoyed up upon a sea of people who have labored to support her in her pristine state. But as the sociological structure breaks down, and as the Hummel family of vampires eats away at the foundations, the Young Lady gets ever closer to the filth that is the basis of all material life. In the first scene, the Student claims he had marveled at an apartment that was four flights up. One no longer wonders why that apartment is now on the ground floor.
The worldly paradise tentatively established by the young couple crumbles back into purgatory and the inferno. The Student rages at a world of appearances that kills the individual (the idealistic individual) with its insidious realities. He ends by stripping away even those insulatory secrets that the Young Lady had asked him to let her keep:
It was a Sunday morning, and I stood looking into these rooms. I saw a colonel who wasn't a colonel. I had a magnanimous benefactor who turned out to be a bandit and had to hang himself. I saw a mummy who wasn't one, and a maiden who—speaking of which, where can one find virginity? Where is beauty to be found? In nature, and in my mind when it's all dressed up in its Sunday clothes. Where do honor and faith exist? In fairy tales and plays for children. Where can you find anything that fulfills its promise? Only in one's imagination!
Indeed, the illusions of reality are a construct of the Round Enlightenment mind. But as the Maya gives way to understanding and emptiness, Kama-Loka falls away. Likewise, as the Young Lady comes under the blows of the Student's revelations—as she is confronted with the truth against which she no longer has any defense, her hold on life is loosened. Her sickness "at the very core of life’’ kills her psychologically because she cannot bear the oppression of living while knowing that her life is borne upon pretense. It physically kills her because, without the hope that the pretense had given her, she is no longer strong enough to keep tying that knot that binds her body and her soul together. She is freed spiritually as her mind and body pass into oblivion. To borrow words used by Yeats in another connection, ‘‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned''—drowned first in the wash of a decaying civilization and a decaying body and then drowned in the knowledge of its own impermanence. The Young Lady's soul escapes her body and leaves the room of ordeals behind.
In the final sequence of The Ghost Sonata, the material mode of reality is passed through. But the clarity of the vision of the life beyond is obscured. How is this vision of the purely immaterial to be expressed in a physical theater without using clichéd images of the afterlife? And if the Buddhist motif is still used, how would one depict ‘‘emptiness’’? Strindberg knows not to portray too much. His initial intent was to deny the eye any concrete image on which to focus. The lessons of the third scene would teach this much. Therefore, the senses are transported to another level. All visual signs blur, when the walls of the house fall away, into pure light—a radiantly white incandescence. Likewise, speech and all other auditory signs pass into music. The movement of the senses is thus from an object plane to an ephemeral plane. This would have been the more powerful ending to the play.
Strindberg could not, however, use the magnesium light that he wanted, so he called for his set to dissipate into a two-dimensional vision—a painted backdrop of Böcklin's Isle of the Dead seen as a continued mode of reality. One sees the Young Lady moving across a Stygian stretch of water into another portion of her life in which the earthly Kama-Loka is finished.
Once it is clear that the material mode is to be traversed—that is, lived through rather than capitulated to (as in the case of Hummel) or avoided (as in the case of the Mummy in her closet) or poetically dressed in its Sunday best—then the Maya falls away and nonrealistic staging takes over. To get to this point, however, the realistic depiction of the material scene provides a theatrical vehicle for the character of the human soul whose vehicle is the language of the dialogue. Since conflict can exist only between characters that are truly opposed, Strindberg has, in The Ghost Sonata, brought both characters face to face. He has pitted humanity's spiritual nature against its physical nature.
Source: Jon M. Berry, ‘‘Discourse and Scenography in The Ghost Sonata,’’ in Strindberg's Dramaturgy, edited by Goran Stockenstrom, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 316-29.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5190
The divergence of critical response to Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata is adequately represented by Eric Bentley and Maurice Valency. Bentley writes:"For all the heterodoxy of style and the fantasy of the action, the play is simple in structure and straightforward in its symbolism. The three compact scenes constitute a statement, a counterstatement, and a conclusion.’’ Valency, on the other hand, states that ''Unquestionably the play has many faults. Its underlying narrative is fantastically complex. The relation of its three movements is neither close nor entirely apparent.'' The play, Valency concludes, is ‘‘a momentary glimpse of the world through the eyes of madness.’’ Although it has frequently proved a temptation to locate, in Strindberg's art and vision, more of the apoplectic than the apocalyptic, to overemphasize, or indeed to take refuge in psychoanalysis rather than criticism, the extraordinary sense of form which is apparent in much of Strindberg' s art would seem to argue that Bentley' s sensitivity to the overall clarity of design in The Ghost Sonata is valid.
From his earliest plays on, Strindberg was subject to a deeply felt to urge objectify the interior life so as to give it shape. Like others of his epoch, he endured the abrupt disappearance of the gods and the resultant sense of dispossession. However, as Wallace Stevens observed, ‘‘There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world in his own terms.’’ For Strindberg, as perhaps for most others suddenly in exile, a complete resolution of the self and the world was never possible. Nonetheless, Strindberg attempted to meet the challenge "to resolve life and the world in his own terms.’’ Something of this attempt is evidenced in the various prefaces, letters and essays from the Preface to Miss Julie, through ''The New Arts, or the Role of Chance in Artistic Creation'' to Open Letters to the Intimate Theatre; together, these works reveal in Strindberg a mind seriously determined to forge a new and a vital aesthetic of the theatre, an aesthetic responsive to an ever-changing vision of the self and the world. The "heterodoxy of style'' in some of the late plays is to be seen as the direct expression of this ever-changing vision—a vision characterized by a moral and intellectual turbulence well beyond the sense of a relatively calm and logical response which might inform the more conventional sequential dramatic structure implied by Valency. On the the other hand, although Bentley's sensitivity to the controlling shape of The Ghost Sonata is surer than Valency's, there is little evidence to support the rigidity of his formula: statement, counterstatement and conclusion. The structure of the play is, as Bentley suggests, "simple" and "straightforward"—but for important reasons other than those his analysis proposes.
By the time of the writing of The Ghost Sonata, Strindberg was clearly beyond the realist conventions which informed such achievements as The Father, Miss Julie and The Bond—although he continued his intense concern with the problems of guilt and the class-sex struggle with which those and other plays dealt. By as early as the writing of Master Olof (1872-6), Strindberg was experimenting with his concept of polyphonic composition, which he considered "a symphony, in which all the voices were interwoven (major and minor characters were treated equally), and in which no one accompanied the soloist.’’ This concept of polyphonic composition was, early in Strindberg's dramatic career, expanded to embrace the functioning of the non-verbal ‘‘aesthetics of the theatre’’ in production. There is no lack of evidence to indicate the great care which Strindberg gave to the crucial substantive functions of the mise en scene. As Strindberg's vision reached beyond the more narrow restrictions of realism, elements in the mise en scene were orchestrated in strikingly new ways, and given additional vitality and dramatic purpose.
The most significant indication of this new vitality is the increased substantive role of the visual components of the mise en scene in To Damascus (1898-1904). The complex episodic form of this trilogy looks back to the sequential tableaux arrangement of medieval drama, to the literature of quest and pilgrimage generally (Piers Plowman, Pilgrim's Progress) to Romantic drama (Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, Goethe's Faust, Ibsen's Peer Gynt) and, perhaps more significantly, to Büchner' s Woyzeck which itself was influenced by the genre painting techniques of the Sturm and Drang movement. More importantly, the form of To Damascus looks forward to the basic principles of montage in the modern film (for instance in the work of Eisenstein, and in the juxtaposition of subjective and objective vision in Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Persona) as well as to the episodic structure of the plays of Brecht. Elements in To Damascus also appear to foreshadow the techniques of radical visual and auditory juxtaposition in such plays as Artaud's Jet of Blood, and Ghelderode's The Chronicles of Hell.
Strindberg was not unaware of the technical problems in the staging of To Damascus. Shortly before the composition of the first two parts of this play he had become interested in the drama of Josephin Peladan. What seems to have impressed him most was the carefully controlled visual simplicity of the outdoor productions of Péladan's tragedies in France. Similar techniques were employed by Emil Grandison in his production of To Damascus. Referring to Grandison's production, Strindberg notes the effective simplicity of the set which employed backgrounds not dissimilar to modern projected scenery. Such arrangement permitted uncluttered visual representation which would not interfere with language and gesture, which would unobtrusively (as in medieval stage practice) contribute symbolic visual reinforcement to the complex drama of a spiritual journey. Strindberg, in his relations with his designers Grandison, Karl Ludvig Grabow and August Falck, insisted upon the primacy of the spoken word over the "machinery" of visual display, and yet his varied notes on the production problems of To Damascus and A Dream Play give clear evidence of a desire to orchestrate an effective and meaningful balance of sight and sound. He did not sanction the more radical implications of, say, Gordon Craig's manifestoes in The Mask which championed an almost autonomous aesthetic of the theatre, an aesthetic foreseen by Hegel when he wrote, of developments in the arts of the theatre:
that which in the first instance had merely the force of an assistant and accompaniment, becomes an object on its own account, and receives the appearance in its own domain of an essentially independent beauty. Declamation passes into song, action into the mimic of the dance, and scenery in its splendor and pictorial fascination itself puts forward a claim to artistic perfection.... [Thus can develop a theatrical art which] liberates itself from the exclusive precedency of articulate poetry, and accepts as an independent end what was previously, to a more or less extent, a mere accompaniment or instrument, and elaborates the same on its own account.
Strindberg insisted that the visual components of the mise en scene exist to serve the dramatic dialogue with "the force of an assistant and accompaniment;’’ nonetheless, the visual dimensions of To Damascus challenged the resources of his small theatre, and led ultimately to the encouragement of a new theatre aesthetic wherein the visual could contribute more substantively.
The grotesque banquet scene at the beginning of To Damascus, Part One, Act Three, illustrates the brilliance of Strindberg's control and use of the visual. In this scene, there is a striking sense of bizarre incongruity between the assembled luminaries and the poor, an incongruity immediately registered in the visual details of opulence and ostentation on one hand and of squalor on the other. In the course of the scene, the candelabras, flowers, splendid platters of peacock, pheasant, lobster and melons are replaced by plain earthenware mugs; the ceremoniously attired dignitaries give place to grotesque ragged figures, ‘‘figures of the night, and disagreeable looking women.’’ Finally, after this visually managed transformation is completed, the scene dissolves first into complete darkness, then into a ‘‘conglomeration of scenery, representing landscapes, palaces, and interiors’’ from which there at last emerges a prison cell, illuminated by a solitary sun beam casting a white spot on a wall on which hangs a large crucifix. This gradual transition from bright colour to semi-darkness, from irradiated material magnificence to isolated austerity, from a scene containing about thirty people to the solitary presence of the Stranger and the semi-lit crucifix is a single movement, a complete pattern the rhythm of which unmistakably contributes to our immediate apprehension of the radical cadence of the Stranger's consciousness.
This cadence can perhaps best be described in terms of Schopenhauer's doctrine concerning the various stages in the objectification of the Will. In Thomas Mann's words, this Will
as the opposite pole of passive satisfaction, is naturally a fundamental unhappiness, it is unrest, a striving for something—it is want, craving, avidity, demand, suffering; and a world of will can be nothing else but a world of suffering. The will objectivating itself in all existing things, quite literally wreaks on the physical its metaphysical craving; satisfies that craving in the most frightful way in the world and through the world which it has brought forth, and which, born of greed and compulsion, turns out to be a thing to shudder at. In other words, will becoming world according to the principium individuationis, and being dispersed into a multiplicity of parts, forgets its original unity and although in all its divisions it remains essentially one, it becomes will a million times divided against itself. Thus it strives against itself, seeking its own well-being in each of the millions of its manifestations, its place in the sun at the expense of another.
As Mann goes on to say, ‘‘Plato's 'ideas' have in Schopenhauer become incurably gluttonous.’’ This "gluttonous" struggle of will and passion is most evident in Strindberg's handling of the Stranger's "pilgrimage" through the phenomenal world. In this banquet scene the bizarre juxtapositions of rich and poor, plenty and paucity, colour and darkness, underscore the turbulence and blindness of the Will's objectification, present us with the illusive ‘‘veil of Maya:’’ a world of appearances, a ‘‘thing to shudder at.’’
The scenic arrangement here is carefully contrived to augment the motifs of struggle and phenomenal complexity which the dialogue exhibits. In the theatre, the visual presentation reveals directly the controlling rhythm of the Stranger's consciousness: the physical details of the mise en scene are orchestrated with a degree of expressive fluidity permitting Strindberg's drama of the soul a more concrete realization than could be acquired through dialogue alone. It was in this way that new and meaningful vitality was given to the visual in production.
‘‘I propose, then, a theatre in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces.’’ Thus does Antonin Artaud proclaim for the theatre a radical function. The true vitality of the theatre, Artaud claims, "consists of everything that occupies the stage, everything that can be manifested and expressed materially on a stage and that is addressed first of all to the senses instead of being addressed primarily to the mind as is the language of words.''
It is most evidently in this direction that the plays from To Damascus on are tending, despite Strindberg's insistence upon the primacy of language. Indeed, the language itself is frequently, as Artaud advocated, "like a dissociative force exerted upon physical appearances.’’ That is, the language throughout many scenes in Strindberg's later plays (including the banquet scene just discussed) loses in the verbal complexities of speech its efficacy as a means of rational discourse but gains new expressiveness as mere sound, as "intonation." Artaud advocated the ''concrete value of intonation in the theatre... this faculty words have of creating a music in their own right according to the way they are pronounced, independently of their concrete meaning and even going counter to this meaning— of creating beneath language a subterranean current of impressions, correspondences, and analogies....’’ In this way, language becomes itself as ''physically" expressive as are the visual components of the mise en scene. For instance, in the banquet scene, speech is employed in such a way as to reinforce the transition from bright opulence to dark austerity. Rather than operating primarily as the sign or symbol of the psychology beneath (as, say, in the drama of Ibsen, or in Miss Julie) language is established as a spectacle in itself designed to act ‘‘physically’’ upon the spectator much as do the visual juxtapositions. The speeches delivered by the Professor, The Stranger, the Father and the Beggar come to occupy what Artaud termed theatrical "space," to function within the complex visual context as mere sound. The spectator clearly apprehends that the theatrical event is not being played out on the conventional level of discourse or "discussion,’’ that the speeches do not in themselves function as rational vehicles of dramatic action, as would be the case in Ibsen or Shaw. As the visual pattern gains a momentum culminating in a conglomeration of images, so does the language rapidly dissolve into a melange of voices, until both the visual and the auditory are silenced and stilled by a darkness which serves as a release from the multiplicity of divided and warring parts in a world born of the principium individuationis.
The Ghost Sonata is a much simpler, less theatrically ambitious work than To Damascus; however, the controlling rhythm and form of this work owes much to the sense of a revitalized mise en scene that we find in many parts of the earlier play. Both the visual aspects and the language of Ghost Sonata are orchestrated in such a fashion as to make theatrically lucid the underlying motifs and to establish on the sensory level alone an experience of extraordinary range and effectiveness. That is to say, the mise en scene operates meaningfully with ‘‘the force of an assistant and accompaniment,’’ helping to embody the rhythm of thought and feeling which the main action manifests; and the mise en scene, as a totality, possesses a certain sensual quality which, as sub-textual, autonomously elicits a response not unlike that demanded by music and painting.
For this reason, although Strindberg has carefully fused in this play "vision" and form, the structure of Ghost Sonata possesses a certain duality. On the one hand, there is the straightforward pattern of spiritual action: the Student's entrance into a house wherein he discovers first of all as an observer (in Scenes One and Two) and secondly as an active participant (in Scene Three through his relationship with the Girl) the "curse" which ‘‘lies over the whole of creation, over life itself.’’ This action is cadential, tending, as Susanne Langer puts it in her analysis of the tragic rhythm, ‘‘to an absolute close.’’ This "close" is the death of the Girl, and the Student's acquiescence to what is unmistakably a Schopenhauerian awareness of the hellishness of life. Again, in Thomas Mann's words, ‘‘every expression of the will to live has always something of the infernal about it, being itself a metaphysical stupidity, a frightful error, the sin.’’ The action of the play is, then, on this primary level of"idea'' entirely spiritual, and, as in the case of To Damascus, the controlling pattern is that of a quest. In Schopenhauer's terms, the first two scenes embody the principium individuationis with all its turmoil and divisions: here we are made to share the observing Student's apprehension of hell on earth. In the last scene, the Student fails to "save" the Girl, fails to effect through action in the phenomenal world any sort of redemption. However, in the last moments of the play, a kind of "elevation'' is manifested, not through action, but in "being." Schopenhauer describes the "Nirvana'' of his vision thus: ‘‘What lends to everything tragic, in whatever form it may appear, its peculiar impetus to elevation, is the dawning realization that the world, that life cannot grant any true satisfaction, and hence they do not deserve our attachment: in this consists the tragic spirit: hence it leads to resignation.’’
Such fearful resignation is the emotion informing the Student's concluding prayer to the Liberator death (considered as a sleep) and to the "wise and gentle Buddha,’’ as well as his total awareness of "this world of illusion, guilt, suffering and death, this world of endless change, disappointment, and pain.’’ If Schopenhauer's philosophy is of some assistance to the illumination of such spiritual action, likewise is the Oriental concept of the tension between the qualities of Samsara and Nirvana, a concept with which Strindberg was likely familiar, indeed, which is hinted at through the presence of the seated Buddha. Nirvana is a state reached"when a man becomes annihilated from his attributes'' and thus ‘‘attains to perfect subsistence.’’ Samsara, on the other hand, is the wheel of birth and death, the realm of ‘‘eternal succession and coincidence of evolution and involution.’’ The Student acquires through observation in Scene Two a growing awareness of the overpowering force of this realm, and, as expressed in the Vimala-kirti Sutra, rather than initially shrinking from experience, he ‘‘plunges himself into the ever rushing current of Samsara and sacrifices himself to save his fellow creatures from being eternally drowned in it.’’ His efforts, however, are futile, and his defeat is registered in a despair from which the concluding resignation springs.
Although this primary pattern of action is distinctly spiritual, the play, particularly in the first two scenes, and mainly through the appearance of the Cook in the third, is as fully expressive of the tensions of the material-social world as are the earlier realist plays by Strindberg. The spiritual action is lucidly portrayed through the gradual disappearance of the social context so evident in the opening scenes, especially in the complicated exposition by Hummel. As in Ibsen's late plays, the spiritual quest is firmly located in the familiar context of class and family strife, economics, and sex. And, as in such plays as The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken, this context is gradually transcended—largely because it represents the scene of personal choice and action which prove ineffectual as redemptive sources in the light of the appealing ‘‘metaphysical stupidity’’ of any expression of the will to live, that is, the will to choose and act. To a considerable extent, the three scenes depict this transcendence of the phenomenal world of action and choice by way of the gradual elimination of characters until only the Student and the Girl remain in a softly lit room visited occasionally by the vampire-like Cook.
Valency remarks that the ‘‘underlying narrative is fantastically complex. The relation of its three parts is neither close nor entirely apparent.’’ There is certainly no denying the truth of this first assertion if we centre upon the bizarre complications of Hummel, the Colonel, the Colonel's wife (‘‘White and shrivelled into a Mummy’’) and the Girl in the Hyacinth Room. These complications are related by Hummel to the Student in Scene One, and are revealed further in the ghostly gathering of Scene Two. Hummel admits the "fairy-tale'' quality of his narration to the Student, admits the near impossibility of disentangling the threads of earlier action and the current relationships among the characters. ‘‘My whole life's like a book of fairy stories, '' he says;"And although the stories are different, they are held together by one thread, and the main theme constantly occurs.’’ This main theme is the stultifying stagnation of lives buttressed by lies, deceit, crime, sin and sorrow—lives fettered in every direction by subjugation to the soul-destroying forces resulting from the principium individuationis and the world it has brought forth, ‘‘born of greed and compulsion ... a thing to shudder at.’’ The ‘‘underlying narrative’’ is complex in the telling, but perfectly lucid as the embodiment of this main theme. Like the Student, we are under no obligation to deliberately sort through the complications and arrive at a clear pattern of temporal action: we are meant, surely, to share his confusion, his admission to Hummel "I don't understand any of this.’’ In the theatre, the exposition by Hummel in the first scene and the more public admissions of crime and guilt in the second have a cumulative sensory effect; the complications become too involved for immediate rational comprehension and become, theatrically at one level, "mere sound.'' We are reminded of this use of language in the banquet scene of To Damascus, and, perhaps, of a similar use of language and complicated exposition in the plays of Ionesco.
Despite this grotesquely abstruse temporal level of action, the more important spiritual pattern of action is never lost sight of. This spiritual pattern is made evident through the gradual transcendence of the social context, and through the arrangement of the visual elements in the total mise en scene. Evidence of the movement from the familiar to the strange, from the temporal to the spiritual, is provided by the visual pattern which tends from the opening out-door, sun-lit scene with the façade of a house, a street complete with drinking fountain, bench and advertisement column, to the Round Room of Scene Two with familiar (though oddly juxtaposed—as in surrealist art) interior objects (a stove, pendulum clock, candelabra, cupboard) and the almost claustrophobic impression of enclosure, to, finally, the Hyacinth Room with its general ‘‘exotic and oriental’’ effect, its clusters of varicoloured hyacinths, and the dominating presence of a large seated Buddha.
In the course of this visual movement, the highly detailed and more overtly social context of the opening gives place to interior settings: first of all to the almost surreal Round Room, which, in a sense, functions like the single room setting of such plays as Miss Julie or Ibsen's Ghosts (that is, as a room which seems symbolically to portray the environmental dimensions and entrapment of modern man), and secondly, to another, but stranger interior which is far more ''cosmic'' in its symbolic implications. The sun-lit effects of Scene One, with shadows giving emphasis to the angular shapes produced by the house façade and the various street details (not to mention the array of objects seen within the house) give place to, first of all the darkly grim second scene, and then to the more subtly orchestrated harmony of coloured flowers and the striking effect of the Buddha from whose lap ''rises the stem of a shallot (Allium ascalonicum), bearing its globular cluster of white, starlike flowers.’’
If the first scene is reminiscent of the visual effects of such a realist painting as Degas' Cotton Market in New Orleans, the final scene is reminiscent of Gaugin's Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going? (1897)—a picture, incidentally, which seems to reflect something of the spiritual quest dimension of Ghost Sonata. In each of these scenes we never completely lose sight of the others. Scene One portrays vague interior details which become visually clearer in each of the following. In Scene Two, hints of the Hyacinth Room appear off to one side, where we see the Girl reading. In Scene Three, the door to the Round Room is lelt open, and we see the seated Colonel and Mummy, ‘‘inactive and silent,’’ and have a slight glimpse of the death-screen used for Hummel. Thus the transitions are not, visually, totally abrupt. Finally, all these visual presentations, which correspond so well to the general pattern of action described earlier, are made to dissolve into a single effect, which in a carefully devised production might pick up certain forms and colours already impressed upon our eyes. As the Student's last prayer is concluded, Böcklin's Isle of the Dead appears, the small solitary figures, gloomy shadows, isolated gold-lit temples of this painting displacing the varied impressions of both familiar and strange which the three scenes visually manifested.
In addition to such an overall visual pattern is the pattern of sound which likewise reinforces, ‘‘with the force of an assistant and accompaniment" the main action of the play. Apart from the wide range of voices (as sounds or intonations) throughout the play, this pattern is composed of the sound of bells, an organ, a clock, street noises, a harp, the loud pounding on a table. Like the visual details, these sounds are orchestrated to reflect the movement from the "familiar'' to the strange and spiritual. In the course of the play, the bells, organ and general street noises of Scene One give place to the more discordant sounds of Scene Two (produced mainly by the voices) and, finally, to the more lyrical sounds of Scene Three, which is framed by the harp-accompanied song, ‘‘I saw the sun.’’ The final sound is that of ‘‘music, soft, sweet, and melancholy’’ as the Böcklin picture slowly pervades the entire visual plane. Undoubtedly, Artaud is right in his production plans for this play in suggesting a considerable magnification of sound effects. For instance, to reinforce the steamship bells which are heard at the beginning (an image which, incidentally, is echoed in the small boat carrying passengers in Böcklin's painting) Artaud suggests that “'A constant noise of water will be heard, loud at times, to the point of obsession.’’ Artaud also suggests that the return of Hummel with the Beggars, in Scene One, should take place "in a great din. The old man will begin his invocations from very far off, and the beggars will answer him in several stages. At each call the crutches will be heard knocking rhythmically, sometimes on the ground, sometimes against the walls, in a very distinct cadence. Their vocal calls, and the beat of their crutches will be punctuated towards the end by a bizarre sound, as of a monstrous tongue violently knocking against a hole in the teeth.’’
The play affords many such instances when exaggerated sounds could be employed effectively. The close of Scene One is, perhaps, the most striking instance of an unnerving violence in the play. The relative calm of the opening dialogue in this scene rises rapidly into a crescendo of voices and excitement. The ghostly figures in the house rise and gesture, announcing their real presence, as Hummel stands in his wheel chair, drawn and followed by the beggars, screaming "Hail the noble youth!'' Such a crescendo is repeated twice more in the play. In Scene Two, the silence of the group is suddenly broken by Hummel as he begins to function more formidably as the exposer of lies and crimes. His speech is punctuated with silences of varying length, until he rises again—as in Scene One—to a crescendo augmented by the magnified sound of the clock (‘‘ticking like a deathwatch beetle in the wall’’), and by the horrendous striking of the table with one of his crutches. This crescendo is broken by the Mummy who stops the clock and in a normal voice proceeds to expose Hummel himself. The scene then subsides in intensity as Hummel gradually loses his forceful manner, and becomes, himself, a grotesque parrot. In Scene Three, after a most lyrical beginning, the disturbing sounds of Scene Two are echoed first of all by the Cook's presence and the Student's violent reaction to her, and secondly, the crescendo is apparent in the course of the Student's relation of the events of the earlier scene to the Girl.
Generally speaking, these deliberately spaced crescendo rhythms together with the various auditory juxtapositions (particularly of the lyrical and the dissonant) contribute to a total sound pattern of wide range and expressiveness; in addition, the overall pattern of sound functions as does the visual in the manner of an assistant and accompaniment to the main spiritual action. The auditory and the visual together constitute ‘‘beneath language,’’ as Artaud advocated, "a subterranean current of impressions, correspondences, and analogies.’’ As components of the mise en scene, they assist the main action, and they possess a certain sub-textual quality which elicits a response not unlike that demanded by music and painting. In no other single play by Strindberg is there such clear evidence of an advanced aesthetic to a considerable degree expressive of Ionesco's assertion that ‘‘The theatre is visual as much as it is auditory. It is not a series of images, like the cinema, but a construction, a moving architecture of scenic images.’’
Ionesco once wrote that
For me, a play does not consist in the description of the development of a story—that would be writing a novel or a film. A play is a structure that consists of a series of states of consciousness or situations, which become intensified, grow more and more dense, then get entangled, either to be disentangled again or to end in unbearable inextricability.... All my plays have their origin in two fundamental states of consciousness: now the one, now the other is predominant, and sometimes they are combined. These basic states of consciousness are an awareness of evanescence and of solidity, of emptiness and of too much presence, of the unreal transparency of the world and its opacity, of light and of thick darkness.
An account of a play's structure in such terms will first of all indicate the theatrical functioning of such auditory and visual components of the mise en scene as have been discussed; and secondly, will give clearer definition to that movement and rhythm of a play which operates in the theatre somewhat independently of the principle narrative thread or action. Frequently in Strindberg's plays, certainly in such a work as The Inferno, we can appreciate a sense of form based upon such a rhythm of "states of consciousness’’ as Ionesco describes. In The Ghost Sonata, the close of Scene One, the exposing of Hummel in Scene Two, and the Student's narration to the Girl in Scene Three are three significant instances of ''states of consciousness'' which ''become intensified, grow more and more dense, then get entangled, either to be disentangled again or to end in unbearable inextricability.’’ The exposition by Hummel in Scene One surely induces in the Student—and in the audience—a sense of ‘‘unbearable inextricability’’ not unlike the "expository" passages in Ionesco's The Bald Soprano or the accumulation of questions in The Lesson (where the Student responds physically to words which have become like solid objects enclosing her). The close of Scene One also possesses something of the gradual rhythm of intensification and relaxation of tension that we find in The Chairs. On this level, the form of The Ghost Sonata is a continuous modulation of sound and silence, of intensification and relaxation, of a sense of evanescence and ‘‘too much presence.’’ Such a modulation is theatrically orchestrated through tension and release which is related to, yet also independent of the more lucid and "straightforward" spiritual action of the play.
Source: Gerald Parker, ‘‘The Spectator Seized By the Theatre: Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata,’’ in Modern Drama, 1971, Vol. 14, pp. 373-86.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3842
Readers and audiences generally agree that August Strindberg' s The Ghost Sonata is a highly provocative play. It is assuredly one of his most popular. Yet, even the most thoughtful critics are hard pressed to explain exactly what this play is about, or to make much coherent sense of the action onstage. As fairly typical of present-day thinking, we may take this comment from an anthology widely-used in introductory literature classes:
The play is not, as far as reader or spectator can discover, based on any rational system of thought. It asserts, or, rather, it shows—it does not prove. On the other hand, that Strindberg has not philosophized his vision renders it immune to rational criticism.
But before we capitulate altogether to the irrational (encouraged as we are by current theatrical fashions), we might do well to examine The Ghost Sonata from a fresh point of view. That point of view is, as my title suggests, Biblical; and the results of the examination may alter our ideas about the presumed absurdity of The Ghost Sonata.
It is true that most efforts to devise a ''meaning'' for The Ghost Sonata have been—as perhaps such endeavors ought to be—vague and disappointing. We well know that when we reduce the play to an obvious homily on greed, or age, we have no more a paraphrase of The Ghost Sonata than of King Lear. Yet we persist in our habitual search for order, attempting to unite character and action into a significant whole, despite the fact that such a design does not readily appear in this play. We are naturally reluctant to accept the intricate web of human relationships which is such a conspicuous feature of The Ghost Sonata, as, finally, of no particular importance or relevance. Our expectations as an audience are properly outraged by such prodigal expense of character and dramatic situation, to no purpose.
We need not despair, however. There is a good deal more order in The Ghost Sonata than we may at first observe, for the play is anchored to a strong underlying structure. And that structure consists of a series of tightly interlocking allusions to incidents recorded in the Bible. Nothing is more probable than this, of course. Strindberg was, in his peculiar way, constantly preoccupied with all manner of religious literature and doctrine. His eclectic tastes in reading included not only the Bible, but also writings of theologians of every stripe—pre-eminent among whom was Emanuel Swedenborg. And from this rich background, Strindberg no doubt drew the materials which he has assembled to produce The Ghost Sonata. The clues are, to my mind, explicit and unmistakeable. And if they do not clarify all the dark sayings in the play (for that would demand a great deal more of them than is necessary to prove their presence), they do at least bring its main actions into a common focus, to offer us a coherent philosophical outlook.
As the play begins, we observe the Student asking the evanescent Milkmaid to give him a drink of water from the well. He then begs her to bathe his eyes with his handkerchief. When she does not respond to his request, the Student unwillingly reveals that he has just returned from an attempt to rescue persons trapped in a burning house. Consequently, his own hands are soiled from contact with wounds and corpses. At length, after he has drunk, the Student pleads: ‘‘Vill du vara den barmhartiga samaritanskan?'' To understand the Student's question, at this crucial early point in the play, as implying no more than ‘‘Will you be my Good Samaritan?’’—as English translations customarily render it—may be seriously misleading. For those particular words recall only the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, on the road to Jericho, whose great act of mercy was his rescue of the man who had been set upon by thieves (Luke X:30-37).
Yet there is another possible Biblical allusion embedded in this question, one which is of much greater ultimate pertinence to the play than the parable could be. Because of the absence of specifically feminine inflections in English, our term ''Good Samaritan'' neutralizes an ambiguity inherent in the Swedish "samaritanskan." That is, the Milkmaid cannot, strictly speaking, be a Samaritan at all—she is rather a Samaritan-ess. My purpose in raising this point is not simply to provide an exercise in comparative philology, but to lead to a further suggestion. We must remember that the Samaritan of the parable is by no means the only member of his tribe to figure prominently in the life and teachings of Christ. There remains yet another Samaritan—and this one is a woman—whom Christ himself met at Jacob's well. Several details of that meeting, the telling of which takes up the greater portion of a chapter in the Gospel According to St. John, are reflected to a striking degree in the opening lines of The Ghost Sonata.
In this Biblical story, we recall, Jesus has passed through Samaria while traveling from Judea to Galilee. In the city of Sichar, he pauses by the well. The narrative continues in this manner (I quote from the King James version):
There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.) Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou has nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (John IV:7-14).
Jesus remained with the Samaritans for two days afterwards, during which time he converted many: ‘‘And many more believed because of his own word; And said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world’
This, then, is our first Biblical allusion. Simply on the face of it, the opening scene of The Ghost Sonata—in both its action and its setting—has a far stronger affinity with this meeting at the Biblical Jacob's well, than with events which took place on the road to Jericho. But now let us look more closely at this well, which the Samaritan woman has identified as the gift of the father of Israel. It is surely no accident that both the Jewish patriarch, and the evil Hummel of The Ghost Sonata, bear the same name: Jacob. Hummel is, of course, the patriarch of the ‘‘Hummel family of vampires,’’ and it follows that the well from which the Student drank is as much ‘‘Jacob's well’’ as that from which Christ drank.
With this parallel in mind, we might search for further similarities between Jacob Hummel and his Biblical prototype:
1) The patriarch's first wife was named Lia. Hummel's first wife was Amalia.
2) The homely and "tender-eyed'' Lia (Genesis XXIX: 17) was put away by Jacob in favor of her sister Rachel. Hummel's abandoned natural-wife Amalia, now a grotesque mummy, is shut up in the closet because ‘‘her eyes can't stand the light.’’
3) Jacob was tricked into marrying Lia, whom he did not love, because it was necessary that she be wed before her younger sister. Hummel accuses Amalia of having falsified her birthdate, and accuses the Colonel of having stolen his true fiancee.
4) Jacob and Lia are parents of a single daughter (though of many sons), Dina, who is later ravished. Hummel and Amalia are parents of Adele, who expires in the final scene.
5) Jacob first unfairly gained from Esau his birthright, and then, by disguising himself as his brother, stole his paternal blessing. The Mummy says that Hummel's ‘‘whole life has been falsified, including his family tree.’’
6) In stealing Esau's paternal blessing, Jacob was to become master of all: ‘‘Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee'' (Genesis XXVII:29). Hummel, despite his wickedness, exerts incredible power over all others in the play, by keeping them in his debt.
7) Though Esau hates his brother for his deeds, he is told by Isaac that he must serve Jacob until"it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke off thy neck’’ (Genesis XXVII:40). Hummel is finally exposed by the servant Bengtsson, whose words precipitate his collapse: "Yes, I know him and he knows me. Life has its ups and downs, as we all know, and I have been in his service, and once he was in mine. To be exact, he was a sponger in my kitchen for two whole years.’’
8) Jacob was made lame by his wrestling with the angel of God, who ‘‘touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank’’ (Genesis XXXII:32). Hummel too is a cripple, who says of his condition, ‘‘... some say it's my own fault—others blame my parents—personally I blame it all on life itself....’’
I have no doubt that we could discover other ways in which the history of the Jewish patriarch is reflected in the activities of the Hummel family, for the lives of both Jacobs were extraordinarily eventful. I am not especially troubled by the fact that we find no ladders leading to heaven, or pillows of stone, in The Ghost Sonata. Nor that, on the other hand, there are no milkmaids, or parrots, or mummies (so far as I can tell) in Genesis. It is tempting, but unnecessary, to seek out a Biblical analogue for every detail of The Ghost Sonata. For example, could not the fact that Jacob stayed at home and ‘‘sod pottage’’—the pottage for which Esau gave up his birth-right—have some connection with Hummel's beginnings in Bengtsson's kitchen, as well as with that alter ego of Hummel, the Cook? But Strindberg certainly did not intend to write simply a paraphrase of the Biblical story. Moreover, we must make due allowance for the possibility of private symbols, such as would not readily translate into Biblical terms. (I suspect that the Milkmaid, for example, is one of these.) And indeed, the recurring motif of Buddha and hyacinths, in particular, should caution us against becoming overly-rigid in the application of the formula.
Of all the parallels between the two Jacobs, perhaps the most arresting—aside from the duplication of names—is the lameness of both men. It is interesting to observe the opinion of Swedenborg in this matter. As I have suggested, the writings of this Swedish theologian were seldom far from the mind of Strindberg, and citations from Swedenborg appear frequently in the works of the latter. It is not difficult to imagine (though it is, of course, unprovable) that Strindberg may have, at some time in his life, pondered Swedenborg's explanation of the ‘‘internal sense’’ of Jacob's injury:
... as this happened to Jacob, it is signified that this nature passed from him to his posterity, and thus was hereditary. That the nerve of that which was displaced signifies falsity, may be seen above; here falsity from hereditary evil.
A few paragraphs later, Swedenborg more fully describes the nature of ''hereditary evil'':
Hereditary evil derives its origin from every one's parents and parents' parents, or from grandparents and ancestors successively.... But what hereditary evil is, few know: it is believed to be doing evil; but it is willing and thence thinking evil.... That hereditary evil could not be eradicated from the posterity of Jacob by regeneration because they would not admit it, is likewise manifest from the historicals of the Word....
There remains a final aspect of these interconnecting allusions which we have not yet explored fully, though it may be the most important, so far as the "message" of The Ghost Sonata is concerned: the Student as a symbol of Christ. We gather that Hummel, who says he has "an infinitely long life behind me ...,’’ has been expecting the Student, and knows all about him and his heroism in the burning house, without having to be told. It was likewise Jacob the patriarch who first prophesied the coming of the Messiah: "The sceptre shall not be taken away from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be’’ (Genesis XLIX:10).
After he had struggled with the angel, Jacob's name was changed to "Israel,'' for his sons were to found the tribes of that nation. Appropriately, then, Jacob Hummel says to the Student: "Our destinies are tangled together through your father—and other things,’’ for Christ was of the house of David and literally descended from Jacob. In just those words does the prophet Isaiah predict the coming of the Messiah: ‘‘And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains ...’’ (Isaiah LXV:9). And much of the prophetic writing of Isaiah speaks of the coming of Christ as the salvation of Israel: ‘‘... thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob’’ (LX: 16).
The identification of "Christ-figures" in ostensibly secular literature has, of course, long been a favorite scholarly pastime, and the attendant danger of permitting one's zeal to overbalance one's judgment is notorious. But the early resemblance in The Ghost Sonata of the Student to Christ is confirmed, I think, by another mention of Christ—this time explicit and fully developed—at the very conclusion of the play. Here, the Student ponders that similarity:
There are poisons that seal the eyes and poisons that open them. I must have been born with the latter kind in my veins, because I cannot see what is ugly as beautiful and I cannot call what is evil good. I cannot. They say that Christ harrowed hell. What they really meant was that he descended to earth, to this penal colony, to this madhouse and morgue of a world. And the inmates crucified Him when He tried to free them. But the robber they let free.
These words forcibly remind us, once more, of the life of Christ, again in close conjunction with the life of the Student. And, if one cares to press the analogy with the sonata-form (for there is much evidence that Strindberg intended us to do so: the three-part structure of the play, or the final coda, in which the Student restates all of the events of the play), he may see a certain aptness in this return to the initial theme of the first scene. In this closing meditation of the Student, we are pointedly reminded that Christ's purpose in entering hell (ironically realized in his rejection as the Messiah come to earth) is to harrow that region and to liberate the souls of men imprisoned there. It is logical to consider these final words of the Student in the light of what has gone before: we may view the collapse of the house of Jacob Hummel (that is, the ‘‘Hummel family of vampires’’) as, in effect, apocalyptic. Just as the Student attempts to save the life of the daughter, so is Christ to redeem mankind in the last days.
But if this parallel is intended, there is something badly amiss in the Student's imitatio Christi: the daughter, instead of embracing her savior, droops and dies. Similarly, the Messiah was rejected by the house of Jacob, or Israel. Moreover, we recall that Christ is traditionally described by the prophets as the "Bridgegroom'' who comes to wed the lovely ‘‘daughter of Zion’’ (Isaiah LXII), a figure of speech which would appropriately describe the course of the Student's powerful, but unconsummated, longing for Hummel's daughter. Indeed, the Student's present inability to rescue anyone at all from the Colonel's house was forecast (perhaps "prefigured" is the better word) by his earlier experience in the burning house. As the Student tells Hummel: ‘‘The next moment the house collapsed. ... I escaped—but in my arms—where I thought I had the child—there wasn't anything....’’ Is not this to be precisely the fate of the Colonel's house? We mark the words of Johansson, Hummel's servant, as he explains to the Student that his master's method is one of ‘‘Eavesdropping on the poor. . . . Planting a word here and there, chipping away at one stone at a time—until the whole house falls—metaphorically speaking.’’
Metaphors within metaphors, we might rather say. But, call it what we will—the Colonel's house, the burning house, the house of Jacob Hummel, or the house of Jacob-who-is-Israel—the symbolic burden of this edifice is clear: the house which is collapsing is, in its largest sense, all of unredeemed mankind, bound together as a family by their common guilt and parasitism. One might detect in this formulation a doctrine of correspondences altogether Swedenborgian.
Thus do the actions of the Student, onstage and off, continually rehearse the long-awaited coming of Christ—but always in a manner oddly distorted and inverted. The significance of this tangle of events and allusions may be summarized by words of the Student:''It's remarkable how the same story can be told in two exactly opposite ways.'' Remarkable indeed! In the eyes of the believer, the betrayal of Christ may represent a triumph of God's mercy and a promise of hope to all mankind—but not so for the Student. He is a ‘‘Sunday child,’’ as we are often told, and is able to see what others cannot see: that the tragic sacrifice of Christ is in no way beautiful or noble.
Unquestionably, Strindberg has written much autobiography into The Ghost Sonata (the almost ludicrous vampirism of the Cook is commonly recognized as an echo of his own difficulties with domestics at the time). And to this extent, his technique accords with what we have come to regard as a characteristic practice of ''Expressionism": a systematic interpretation of all experience through the subjective filter of the Ego. But we are not wise to ascribe such practices to Strindberg without considerable hesitation. We often tend to pigeonhole Strindberg as a precursor of this movement; but Expressionism, as an aesthetic philosophy, was unknown to him, and it came to full flower long after his time. The great danger of this classification is, of course, that it encourages one to cultivate certain critical attitudes toward Strindberg's work, perhaps to the neglect of other, equally valid, view-points. Hence, if we can label Strindberg a card-carrying Expressionist, we then have no difficulty at all in believing The Ghost Sonata incapable of analysis. But, with due regard for these pitfalls, we would not go too far to suggest that in The Ghost Sonata Strindberg has turned inside-out the traditional meaning on the passion of Christ: he transforms it into an eternal image of the Student's bitter disillusionment. Instead of looking to Christ for release from his unhappy existence, the Student in fact redefines Christian salvation in his own terms. At the center he places not an abstract God, but the Self.
And thus it appears that Strindberg has presented us with nothing less than a modern-dress, thoroughly up-dated parable of redemption—but a redemption stripped of its Christian idealism and optimism. Though we recognize the fundamental similarity to Christ at Jacob's well when the play begins, we are soon aware of a profound departure from the model. Christ converted the Samaritans, but the Student saves no one. Yet we should not be startled by his failure: the Student has already warned us that the same story can be told in two exactly opposite ways. The ‘‘living water’’ which Christ offered to the Samaritans flows from a source which, so far as the universe of this drama is concerned, has run quite dry. The Student cannot reconcile himself to the fact that, although Christ revealed himself as the Messiah whom Jacob had foreseen, he was nonetheless sacrificed. The Student' s eyes are now opened to the truth—when he strikes the golden harp with the invocation ‘‘Sursum Corda,’’ the strings do not sound.
In a final irony, the Student, far from preserving any of the self-destructive and doomed "Hummel family of vampires,’’ is perhaps himself converted by them. He is, after all, of their seed; and their fleshly sins weigh on his soul as well. So does the Mummy accuse Hummel: ‘‘You have stolen the student, and shackled him with an imaginary debt of his father's, who never owed you a penny....’’ In the same way, the Student later comes to realize, was the Messiah destroyed by those whom he meant to save.
Even though the question is somewhat outside the boundaries of this study, we might now ask what purpose is served by those several conspicuous references to Buddha throughout The Ghost Sonata. They seem, at first glance, singularly out-of-place in a play so largely taken up with intramural debate over Judeo-Christian theology. But it may be that Buddha and the legend of the hyacinths are to provide a resolution of that debate. Strindberg seems to balance the values of an exhausted Western tradition, against the more inward-looking values of Eastern philosophy. It is no matter that Strindberg fails to offer a very definite idea of Buddhism, as it appears in the play. Rather, the mention of Buddha seems to serve in The Ghost Sonata chiefly as the antithesis of the deadly self-seeking which possesses the intimates of Jacob Hummel. It would be rash to infer that Strindberg is recommending mass conversion to Buddhism; yet he does seem to hold out the hope, not unusual among Western thinkers, that there is a solace to be found among the religions of the East, of a sort which is no longer possible in Western culture. It is clear that in the world inhabited by Jacob Hummel, the mystifications of Christianity are merely a cruel deception. The Student therefore concludes that the only possible liberator from the hell of life is death—whose features strangely resemble those of the ''pale Galilean'': ''Befriaren kommer! Valkommen, du bleka, milda!’’
Source: Stephen C. Bandy, ‘‘Strindberg's Biblical Sources for The Ghost Sonata,’’ in Scandinavian Studies, August, 1968, Vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 200-09.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2566
Despite a good deal of interest in Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata, critics, as Evert Sprinchorn puts it, ‘‘seem reluctant to declare that the play possesses any great coherence.’’ There has been, in fact, a marked willingness to take the dodge that"dreams needn't make sense’’: doubly specious, since plays are not dreams, however "dreamlike," and even dreams have, if not a logic, a psychologic. The many readers who find The Ghost Sonata one of the most exciting pieces in modern drama—however much avoided by pusillanimous directors—are surely correct. The play, that is to say, for all its admitted redundancies and even symbolic nonsequiturs, must have a thematic and symbolic coherence. The thesis here advanced—which by no means explains everything—is that The Ghost Sonata takes as its main structural mode the fairy tale, that it is in fact a parodied fairy tale of sorts, and that this form is the means of saying something about Original Sin.
Strindberg's was a basically religious consciousness, and a fascination with the concept of Original Sin would seem a natural corollary of his known obsessive fascination with guilt, especially marked in the chamber plays. The Burned House, which immediately precedes our play in the group, and is closely associated with it in the writing, turns on a question of the guilty past, and is full of allusions to the Garden, the Tree of Knowledge, and the loss of an (equivocal) childhood innocence. The Ghost Sonata, with that hallucinatory clarity peculiar to the surrealistic work, focuses on the universality and inescapability of guilt, bearing down on "innocent’’ and "sinful" alike in a debacle which seems fully as terrible as the pagan retribution rejected by the play—and this despite the concluding unction of the Student's words on patience and hope, accompanied by ‘‘a white light,’’ Bocklin, and ‘‘soft, sweet, melancholy’’ music.
Early in Scene I when the Old Man begins to open out the insanely complicated relationships binding the inmates of the Colonel's house, the Student says, ‘‘It's like a fairy story.’’ Hummel, in replying, ‘‘My whole life's like a book of fairy stories... held together by one thread, and the main theme constantly recurs,’’ seems to corroborate their genre and hints that his story—and our play— is about something specific. Seen in broad relief, The Ghost Sonata contains all the elements of the fairy story, and it is this which gives it a kind of structural cohesiveness not found in the other chamber plays, which seem to spill their symbols into a void. We have a poor but heroic youth, and one, moreover, especially blessed or singled out by destiny (a ‘‘Sunday child’’ with the gift of second sight). Our Student is enraptured of a beautiful and highborn maiden, who lives in a "castle'' imagined by the Student to enclose all his life's desires. He thinks his suit is hopeless, but a "fairy godfather'' with an aura of immense and mysterious powers appears and promises him an entrée to ‘‘doors and hearts.’’ In Scene II we discover, as we might have expected, that there are "ogres'' in the castle who have the maid in thrall; but the fairy godfather is prepared to do them battle. In the third scene we would further expect the fairy princess and hero to be united and ‘‘live happily ever after.’’ Just how true— and false—to the facts of the play this outline is should be apparent; yet in the play's relation to this submerged paradigm, I am suggesting, lies much of its meaning.
For the fairy tale, after all, is a projection of the return-to-Paradise wish. Whatever his ill fortune (symbolic of the fallen world), the hero's desert is always good (he is naturally good, an erect Adam), and the powers that be, somehow always recognizing this, return him and his Eve, the princess (who has suffered her trials as well), to Paradise, shutting the golden doors of"they lived happily ever after'' firmly before our inquisitive eyes. In The Ghost Sonata Strindberg uses parody and distortion of the fairy tale to make it say the opposite thing: that guilt is contagious, innocence non-existent, or, if in some sense real (the girl), it is "sick" and "doomed," ''suffering for no fault'' of its own. In Adam's fall, sinned we all. Nor is there any Paradise to be regained in the last act. The Student says of the girl's house: ‘‘I thought it was paradise itself that first time I saw you coming in here.’’ But the flowers in the "paradise'' are poisonous; it is in fact a place of ordeals, where no dreams come true. In sum, despite the vague appeal of the Student (who seems in these last moments of the play to have stepped out of the character of hero and into the function of raisonneur) to a "Liberator" who will waken the innocent girl to ‘‘a sun that does not burn, in a home without dust, by friends without stain, by a love without a flaw''—despite this perhaps rather sentimental gesture, the force of the play is compacted into a metaphor for Original Sin: it is expressive of the agony of"this world of illusion, guilt, suffering, and death .. . endless change, disappointment, and pain.’’
Strindberg's meaning in the play is put both abstractly and concretely: both in discursive "talk," such as we have rather too much of in the Student's last speeches, and in the most vivid symbols, such as the vampire cook—a disturbing contribution of paranoia to art. The Student says that ''The curse lies over the whole of creation, over life itself'; but this allusion to the fallen world is only effective because we have seen the "haunted'' old house, in which the very air is tainted,"charged with crime,'' so that its inmates, guilty and innocent alike, are withering away.
It has been said that ‘‘the fairy tale's miracles occur on the material plane; on the spiritual plane (affections; characters; justice; love) law abides.’’ The Ghost Sonata is a fairy tale parodied and distorted. We have not witnessed this play for long before getting a disturbing sense that nothing is quite right, that even a ‘‘spiritual logic’’ is being tampered with. Is the Old Man, Hummel, a benefactor, or a self-serving user of other people, after power—or what? That is, is he good fairy or wicked witch? There are abundant hints to shake our confidence in Hummel, the most startling of which is the first sounding of the vampire-motif when Hummel takes the Student's hand in his icy hand, and the Student struggles to free himself, saying, ''You are taking all my strength. You are freezing me.’’ Variations on this theme occur throughout the play, of course: "vampirism'' is a multiplex symbol for vicarious gratification (‘‘enjoy life so that I can watch, at least from a distance’’), for enslaving others by a knowledge of their guilty secrets (Johansson, the Colonel), or by a sense of obligation (the Student) or by usury. Hummel is a ‘‘bloodsucker" both metaphorically, on the surreal level of ‘‘sucking the marrow out of the house,’’ and economically (the debts of the Consul and the Colonel).
There is, if anything, a redundancy of suggestion of evil identity for the Student's ostensible benefactor: he is a pagan god in a chariot, a wizard, an ‘‘old devil.’’ Hummel's Mephistophelean character is underlined by his saying to the Student, ‘‘Serve me and you shall have power.’’
STUDENT. Is it a bargain? Am I to sell my soul?
And when the Student, after hearing something disturbing about Hummel from Johansson, his servant, decides to escape from him, the girl drops her bracelet out of the window, the Student returns it, and there is no more talk of escape. The girl serves Hummel's purpose in a sense as Gretchen does Mephisto' s. (And both women are destroyed, though I am not suggesting the parallel be taken any further.)
The question of the essential nature of Hummel remains a difficult one. He is clearly the most dynamic character in the play, the one who seems to make everything happen. With the Student as the ‘‘arm to do [his] will’’ Hummel will enter the Colonel's house and ‘‘expose the crimes’’ there so that the girl (his daughter by the Colonel's wife), withering away in the evil atmosphere, can live again in health with the Student. All is for the young couple; Hummel's cleansing revenge is to involve the "ghosts" only. But by Scene II we are as suspicious of Hummel's intention as is the Mummy. In any case, realistic criteria of character consistency and continuity of action are mostly irrelevant in this play. If we are unsure what Hummel's "real" purpose with regard to the "innocents'' is, we are no more sure how his defeat by the Mummy has influenced the outcome of the play in Scene III. Are the Mummy, the Colonel, and the others versus the Old Man two groups of equally evil figures who mutually destroy each other? This would seem to leave the field clear for the blossoming of young love, the ghost house purged. But before we can understand more fully why this is not the case, the Student must be considered.
The role of the Student in The Ghost Sonata also has its curious features. Does the play's conclusion leave him saved or damned? A survivor—the only one—or a victim? Or is he, by the conclusion of the play, not a protagonist at all, but dramatist's raisonneur, as suggested above? It seems to me that in his final speeches he does assume the function of authorial surrogate, but that there is a certain fitness to this: like Strindberg, the Student is an innocent trying to believe in an unfallen world in the face of the horrors of real existence. He is an Adam-figure, a ‘‘Sunday child,'' who, when he first saw the house of his beloved on Sunday morning—the "first day of creation’’—thought it was paradise. But he is a fairy tale hero ejected from his fairy tale world— and a cruelly parodied hero at that. His dream of bliss is all bourgeois: ''' Think of living up there in the top flat, with a beautiful young wife, two pretty little children and an income of twenty thousand crowns a year.'’’ The conclusion of Scene I is also parodistic, and splendid theater: Hummel, standing in his wheel chair which is drawn in by the beggars, cries: "Hail the noble youth who, at the risk of his own life, saved so many in yesterday's accident. Three cheers for Arkenholtz!’’ This scene is followed by a nice tableau of the beggars baring their heads, the girl waving her hankerchief, the old woman rising at her window, and the maid hoisting the flag. Strains of a bizarre slapstick are found throughout the play; the audience should laugh, but not over-confidently.
The girl and the Student—fairy tale hero and princess—do not figure in Scene II, where the ogres or witches fight. At least one consequence of Hummel's defeat follows the fairy tale pattern: Johansson, his servant, is "freed from slavery'' by his death, as the victims of the enchanter or wicked witch always are. Alone with his beloved in the Hyacinth Room in Scene III, the Student's expectations are clearly for speedy achievement of his heart's desire. ‘‘We are wedded,’’ he says; but his Eve must disillusion him. This place is not what it seems; it is no paradise, and no fairy-tale ‘‘ever-after,’’ but is "bewitched"—"bedeviled" we might more literally call the post-lapsarian world. Hummel—‘‘old Adam’’ as well as ‘‘old Nick’’?— may be dead (literally by his own hand, as Adam was in effect), but his influence lives on after him. "This room is called the room of ordeals,'' says the girl; ‘‘It looks beautiful, but it is full of defects.’’ We are placed on earth to work out our salvation; and earth's beauties are no end in themselves, but illusory, mutable (‘‘defective’’). The metaphor for this in The Ghost Sonata is domestic—if insane. The Student's "paradise" was domestic; his fate is the domestic demented; instead of ‘‘they lived happily ever after,’’ we see the fairy princess at the kitchen sink, in effect. It is not the real world, but the domestic-surreal, this house with servants who unclean, cooks who un-feed; but the surreal can be taken as measure of the recoil of the tender soul (Strindberg, the Student) from real life. As the Student says in closing, only in the imagination is there anything which fulfills its promise. The Student, rather like his creator, is Adam who refuses to accept his ejection, symbolically as well as psychologically the child who refuses to grow up. (‘‘Where are honor and faith? In fairy-tales and children's fancies.") "I asked you to become my wife in a home full of poetry and song and music. Then the Cook came ...’’ says the Student. ‘‘What have we to do with the kitchen?'' he asks the girl, who replies, "realistically," "We must eat.’’ The Student reflects Strindberg's neurotic fastidiousness, well known, toward the ‘‘lower functions’’; and eating, by the mechanism known to psychologists as "displacement," can represent the sexual function, also profoundly disturbing to Strindberg: "It is always in the kitchen quarters that the seed-leaves of the children are nipped, if it has not already happened in the bedroom.’’ The Student wants to live in a garden with his bride, but this garden is "poison'': ''You have poisoned me and I have given the poison back to you,’’ says the Student. But perhaps the "sickness" is in fact the ‘‘Student's’’: It is the recoil of a pathological romanticism upon itself which sees the earth as ‘‘this madhouse, this prison, this charnel house.’’ Strindberg, like his surrogate, the Student, desires the fairy-tale princess in a "home full of poetry and song and music’’—a home with no ‘‘kitchen quarters,’’ only conservatory. That this whole fairy-tale gone crazy is a projection of the Student's we may take as admitted in his saying that he is a man born with one of those "poisons that open the eyes''—or does it ‘‘destroy the sight’’?—‘‘for I cannot see what is ugly as beautiful, nor call evil good.’’
As the girl enumerates all the tasks which weigh her down, the Student cries out again and again for "Music!"—music to drown out the sounds of real life. But it is no more possible to do so than it is for Strindberg to ring in "soft, sweet, and melancholy" music at the end of his play in order to effect a resolution. The emotion we depart with is fear trembling on the brink of hysteria, the image that of the grinning vampire cook. No vague promises of a "Liberator,'' a waking to a"sun that does not burn, in a home without dust, by friends without stain, by a love without a flaw'' can salve over the fact, of which The Ghost Sonata is the gripping symbol, that "a curse lies over the whole of creation, over life itself.’’ Out of his own conflict between paradise and the fallen world, fairy-tale and reality, Strindberg has made stunning drama.
Source: Milton A. Mays,''Strindberg's Ghost Sonata: Parodied Fairy Tale on Original Sin,’’ in Modern Drama, 1967, Vol. 10, pp. 189-194.
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