Strindberg explored the themes of sleepwalking and psychic murder in such early works as Fröken Julie (pb. 1888, pr. 1905; Miss Julie, 1912) and Fadren (pr., pb. 1887; The Father, 1899). Later, he moved toward a more expressionist form of drama. The Pelican was written late in Strindberg’s career, after the psychological turmoil of his inferno period. In 1907, Strindberg opened the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm with The Pelican, one of a series of experimental dramas. These “chamber plays” were based on the interweaving of thematic movements rather than on linear plots. They displayed a series of theatrical images juxtaposed and intertwined as themes are in a piece of chamber music. The plays were short, with small casts and simple staging. They focused on a world of discord, sin, shame, guilt, retribution, and reconciliation. Their mood was somber and elegiac, their structure compressed. Combining realistic scenes with grotesque symbolic images, they enveloped the audience in a muted spectacle of sight and sound that was almost surrealistic.
Strindberg called these plays his “last sonatas.” The Pelican is, indeed, a last sonata, for it incorporates a number of themes Strindberg had already explored: the vampirish woman who drives a man to his death, the presence of a dominant father hovering over a cast of characters, the torments and hypocrisy of married life, the victimization of children in troubled marriages, the sacrificial death scene, and the hopelessness of living in a sinful world.
The Pelican was not only a culmination but also a new beginning, for the play bears characteristics that would become hallmarks of modern drama: a cast of mysterious characters haunted by vague anxieties; grotesque images interspersed with realistic dialogue; a confined setting from which there is no escape; language that conceals rather than reveals meaning; and a stark, apocalyptic ending. According to Eugene O’Neill, “Strindberg was the precursor of all modernity in our present theater.”