The Ghost Sonata

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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2000
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 9. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 42
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Ghost Sonata


The Ghost Sonata is one of August Strindberg’s “Chamber Plays,” a series of short, simple dramas he wrote for his 161-seat Intimate Theatre, which opened its doors in Stockholm, Sweden in 1907. The plays were inspired by the chamber music of composers like Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Strindberg created The Ghost Sonata with Beethoven’s Geistertrio, Opus 70, No. 1, in D Major in mind, and the play echoes the style of the music. It creates an atmosphere by repeating various themes, rather than developing a story through conventional portrayals of character and a linear plot. The themes of The Ghost Sonata mainly relate to secrets, illusions, and the disappointments and tragedies of life, and it is the revelation of these terrible details of the characters’ past lives that form the action of the play.

The Ghost Sonata does not take place in the real world; or at least not in a world most people would recognize as reality. Strindberg originally subtitled his play “Kama-Loka,” the name of a mystical dream world through which some mortals have to wander before reaching the kingdom of death in the afterlife. Accordingly, the characters in The Ghost Sonata speak, move and act as if they are part of a dream—or a nightmare. One sees glimpses of the future, another embodies tragedies from the past. There are literal ghosts and vampires in the play, as well as a mysterious woman known as the Mummy.

The world Strindberg created in The Ghost Sonata was one he found in his own tortured imagination. Page 128  |  Top of ArticleOn stage, his vision of an alternate reality was a forerunner to later twentieth century experiments in non-realistic dramatic literature, such as Expressionism, popular in Germany in the 1920s, and the Absurdist movement of the 1950s, made popular by writers like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet. When the play was originally staged at the Intimate Theatre in 1908, its strange, avant-garde style and grim view of the world made it unpopular with critics. It wasn’t until the famous director Max Reinhardt staged the play in Berlin in 1916, then toured it to Strindberg’s native Sweden in 1917, that it won acclaim from audiences and reviewers. Reinhardt’s production toured central Europe through the 1920s, and the play was produced by Eugene O’Neill’s Province-town Players in New York in 1924 and at the Globe and Strand Theatres in London in 1926. In 1930 it was turned into an opera with music by Julius Weissmann and performed in Munich, and the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a television production of The Ghost Sonata in 1962. Reviewer Maurice Richardson noted that, even though the television production was probably seen by fewer than a million people, “it was probably a larger audience than the total number of people who had ever seen it before.”


August Strindberg is now considered to be one of Sweden’s finest dramatists and among the most important contributors to the modern theatre. His life and career at the turn of the twentieth century, however, was a twisting path of minor successes and major public humiliations, of deep psychological and spiritual turmoil, and of a love-hate relationship with women that scarred his mind and inspired him to some of his best writing. Strindberg was an author whose life was an open book. Everything he experienced and felt, from unhappy memories of his childhood to marital strife and battles with madness and despair found its way into his many novels, short stories, poems, essays and plays.

Strindberg was born in Stockholm on January 22, 1849. He was the son of a steamship agent whose family was once part of Sweden’s wealthy aristocracy. His mother had been a waitress. His parents had three children—all sons—before they were married. They wed just before August was born, and had several more children, eight of whom survived. By his own admission, Strindberg felt the world was unjust toward him, that his birth into this once noble, now impoverished family was a mistake. In his autobiography The Son of a Servant (1886), he blames his father for marrying beneath him, reflects on the family’s bankruptcy, his mother’s tuberculosis and death, and the sexual conflicts he felt when his father later married the family’s housekeeper. These conflicts—an attraction toward motherly figures that might provide him with the affection he craved, and a repulsion from strong, domineering, sexual women—appear repeatedly in his later plays.

Although Strindberg studied at the Swedish University of Upsala on and off for several years, he constantly experienced financial troubles and was unable to complete a degree. Still, he managed to build a wide-ranging resume. As a young man in Stockholm he worked as a teacher, a journalist, and a librarian. He briefly studied chemistry in the hope of attending medical school, but upon failing his entrance examinations he decided to become an actor. After struggling in a minor part, someone advised Strindberg that he should train at the Dramatic Academy to improve his skills. Offended at the suggestion and frustrated by his lack of respect and success, Strindberg attempted suicide by swallowing an opium pill. Instead of dying, though, he awoke from the effects of the drug with vivid memories of his childhood, which he turned into his first three plays in 1869, The Freethinker, A Nameday Gift, and Hermione.

With this early work, Strindberg earned a little recognition as an artist, but no money to support himself. For a few years he worked at various jobs while continuing to write poetry and plays, then landed a position as an assistant librarian at the Royal Library of Stockholm. He spent eight years at the library, from 1874-1882, reading and writing constantly. During this time he met his first wife, Siri von Essen. She was married to Baron Wrangel, an older man, and already had a young daughter. Strindberg frequently visited the couple, and had begun to view them as parental figures, all the while falling in love with Siri. For her part, Siri was enchanted by romantic notions of the theatre and wanted to leave her dull family life and become Page 129  |  Top of Articlean actress. She divorced the Baron and married Strindberg in 1877, a scandalous move that was widely publicized.

Strindberg’s marriage to Siri lasted 15 years, during which time he produced a popular autobiographical novel, The Red Room (1879), and several historical works that drew sharp criticism for their attacks on Sweden’s establishment, causing the author to leave his country and spend the next six years in self-imposed exile, living in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Denmark. In 1884 he published Getting Married, a collection of scandalous short stories that drew charges of blasphemy back in Sweden. Strindberg faced a trial and was acquitted, but remained bitter about his treatment at the hands of his fellow countrymen.

While his relationship with Siri was deteriorating, and his bouts with mental illness growing more severe, Strindberg produced some of his best-known plays. The Father was staged in Denmark and Sweden in 1887, followed by Miss Julie in 1888. Strindberg divorced Siri in 1892 and married Austrian journalist Frida Uhl in the following year. He was forty-four and she was twenty-one. She left him within three months and, though she returned and they had one child together, their relationship ended permanently in 1895.

For the next few years Strindberg lived in Paris, traveled in artistic circles, and dabbled in science, the occult, and alchemy. He actually tried to discover a chemical secret for producing gold and, in the process, injured himself severely and spent several months in the hospital. In 1900 Strindberg met and married the Norwegian actress, Harriet Bosse, who was 29 years younger than him. During the year they were together, he wrote The Dance of Death (1900) and A Dream Play (1901). For the next few years Strindberg wrote nothing and many of his plays were ignored by Swedish theatres. Abroad, however, his work was being discovered by well-known authors like Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw.

In 1907 Strindberg founded his own Intimate Theatre in Stockholm. He wrote his four “chamber plays” for the small, 161-seat performance venue, including The Ghost Sonata (1907). None met with particular success, and for the last three years of his life Strindberg wrote only short articles about religion and politics. He died of stomach cancer on May 14, 1912, at the age of 63.

August Strindberg August Strindberg


Scene One

The Ghost Sonata begins the morning after a terrible disaster. A house collapsed in Stockholm, Sweden, where the action of the play is set, and a poor student, named Arkenholz, witnessed the tragedy and spent all night tending to the wounded and dying. He appears the next morning, filthy and rumpled, at a public drinking fountain outside of an expensive city apartment house.

The Student meets a milkmaid at the fountain and tells her about his experience of the night before. The Milkmaid, it turns out, is actually an apparition, seen only by the Student. She is the first of several “ghosts” in the play. Still, she listens to him and even hands him a cup of water and helps him rinse his face with a cloth. Not far away, Jacob Hummel, an old man in a wheelchair, watches the scene and listens to the Student speak, apparently, to thin air. The Old Man has been reading about the accident, and the Student’s heroics, in the newspaper, and recognizes the boy as the son of a man he once knew.

The Old Man approaches the Student and asks him questions about his life and family. The Student Page 130  |  Top of Articleconfesses that his father was, indeed, the merchant the Old Man remembers, though they each have a different story about the relationship the two men shared. The Student recalls his father as bankrupt and ruined, and remembers him blaming his misfortune on the Old Man. For his part, the Old Man insists it was the merchant himself who squandered his fortunes, then robbed him of his life savings. Confused about what to believe, the Student agrees to help the Old Man with “a few small services.” In exchange, the Old Man will help the Student take advantage of his heroic actions and become well-known, wealthy, and happy.

The first task the Old Man assigns the Student is to attend an opera performance of “The Valkyrie” in order to meet the Colonel and the Girl, who is allegedly the Colonel’s daughter. The Colonel and his daughter live in the beautiful house near the fountain—the very building the Student has been passing by each day and jealously admiring. He has had dreams of living in such a home, with a wife, two children, and a generous income. The Old Man, amused by the Student’s fantasies, tells him a little about the house and describes each of its inhabitants one by one as they appear.

There is a statue of a beautiful woman, seen through a window, that represents the Mummy who lives inside. Once a lovely, radiant young lady, the Mummy is now, according to the Old Man, a half-crazed recluse who lives in a closet and worships her own statue. Seated at the window of another room is the Fiancee, a white-haired old woman who was once engaged to the Old Man. Outside on the steps are the Lady in Black and the Caretaker’s Wife. The Lady in Black is the daughter of the Caretaker’s Wife and the Dead Man, a former government official whose ghost now haunts the house.

Because the Student is a “Sunday child,” the Old Man explains, he is able to see things others cannot. This supernatural ability allowed him to see into the future the night before, and save the inhabitants of the house that collapsed. With his second sight, he also saw the apparition of the Milkmaid at the fountain, and is now able to see the ghost of the Dead Man walk out of the house and around the corner to see how many people have come to pay their respects. The Dead Man, the Old Man explains, was a “charitable scoundrel” who gave generously to the poor in order to increase his own stature. Now the poor are lined up around the house, mourning his passing.

The house the Student so desperately wants to enter is filled with this odd collection of characters and one other figure who attracts his attention more than anyone else: the Girl. The Old Man and the Student watch as she returns from a morning of horseback riding and enters the house. The Student is struck to the soul by her beauty, and more determined than ever to do whatever the Old Man wants in order to meet her and enter her house.

The Old Man’s servant, Johansson, returns from an errand in time to wheel his master around the corner of the house to watch the beggars mourn the Dead Man. While the Old Man is entertaining himself in this macabre way, Johansson returns for a brief conversation with the Student, who tries to learn more about his new benefactor. Johansson compares the Old Man to the god Thor, riding in his wheelchair chariot, and says he has the power to build and destroy both homes and lives. It is no mere coincidence that the Old Man encountered the Student and has convinced him to do his bidding. The Student suspects the Old Man has some kind of sinister plan for the inhabitants of the mysterious beautiful house, and he is ready to walk away and leave it all behind him when the Girl suddenly drops a bracelet out of her window, once again drawing the Student’s rapt attention.

His mind once again occupied with thoughts of the Girl, the Student decides to stay and do whatever the Old Man asks. As if on cue, the Old Man returns, standing up in his wheelchair, which is being pulled along by a group of beggars. He shouts to the residents of the nearby homes to clap their hands, cheer and celebrate the deeds of the Student, who risked his life to save the lives of others in the accident of the day before. The Old Man boasts that, like a Sunday child, he too has the gifts of prophecy and healing. Once, he claims, he brought a drowned person back to life.

Suddenly, the Milkmaid reappears. She is making motions like a drowning person and only the Student and the Old Man can see her. Mysteriously, the Old Man is horrified at her appearance. He collapses and shouts at Johansson to quickly take him away.

Scene Two

That evening, inside the house, Bengtsson and the other servants are setting up for the inhabitants’ traditional “ghost supper.” Johansson has joined them as a waiter. Bengtsson explains to Johansson Page 131  |  Top of Articlethat they all call the event the “ghost supper” because everyone who attends looks like a ghost. They have been meeting for tea and biscuits in the same room, with the same people, sitting in silence or saying the same things for twenty years. No one ever says anything new, Bengtsson explains, for fear that their secrets will be discovered.

While revealing some of the mysteries of the house, Bengtsson introduces Johansson to the Colonel’s wife, who they call the “Mummy.” Once a beautiful young lady called Amelia, the Mummy has gone crazy and retreated to a closet, where she lives in the dark, hiding from the world. She cannot stand “cripples or sick people,” including her own daughter, and cackles like a parrot when she speaks.

Johansson quickly realizes that this mansion, the “paradise” that the Student so desperately wanted to enter, is really a house of horrors, filled with dreadful secrets and frightening people. It is too late, though: the Colonel and the Girl met the Student at the opera, just as the Old Man planned, and they invited him home for dinner.

The Old Man (out of his wheelchair and hobbling along on crutches) arrives uninvited and demands to be let in to see the Colonel. Bengtsson runs off to fetch his master, and the Old Man sends Johansson away, leaving himself alone in the room with the statue of Amelia as a young lady. As he stands admiring the shapely marble form, he is startled to hear the parrot-like voice of the Mummy, the older Amelia, calling him from the closet.

Amelia emerges from her hiding place and explains, in a normal voice, that she lives there to avoid life, to avoid “seeing and being seen.” Jacob, the Old Man, tells her he has come to see the Girl, Adele, who is actually their child from an affair they had years ago, and to take revenge on the Colonel who once stole his fiancee from him. Amelia warns Jacob that if he harms the Colonel, now the Girl’s father, he will die in that very room, behind a black Japanese death screen that is standing near a couch.

The Old Man does not fear his own death, however, and explains that he must complete his revenge. He has in mind that he will help the Student become rich, and that the Student will marry the Girl, and all he needs to carry out his plan is an invitation to the ghost supper being held that evening.

The Mummy leaves to join her daughter, the Girl, in the “Hyacinth Room” next door as the Colonel arrives to speak with the Old Man. It is the moment the Old Man has been waiting for. He explains to the Colonel that he has gone around and bought up all of his promissory notes—the debts the Colonel has accumulated in order to keep up his wealthy standard of living. Now, everything the Colonel owns belongs to the Old Man, and he plans to take control of the Colonel’s house.

Taking away his belongings, however, is only the beginning. One at a time, the Old Man strips the Colonel of everything he holds dear. He tells him his noble family name has actually been extinct for a century—that he is no longer a nobleman—and shows him a document of proof. He reveals that he is not actually a Colonel, since the American Volunteer Force in which he once served was disbanded and all its titles abolished. The Old Man even points out that the one-time Colonel wears a wig and false teeth and was actually once a kitchen lackey.

The Old Man’s revenge, however, is not complete. He orders the Colonel to allow the ghost dinner to go on as planned so he can tear apart the entire household. One-by-one the guests arrive—the Student; Miss Beatrice von Holsteinkrona, the Old Man’s former fiancee from upstairs; Baron Skanskorg, whom the Old Man recognizes as a jewel thief; and Amelia, the Mummy. When they are all seated in a circle, the Old Man reveals his plan: The Girl, his daughter, has been suffering from a mysterious illness, he explains. The sickness has actually been caused by the crimes in the air of the house, and once the crimes are exposed, and the criminals driven away, the Student and the Girl may marry and start a new life together in the house that he will give them. He tells them all their time will be up when the clock strikes.

Suddenly, the Mummy reaches up and stops the clock before it can chime. She has, symbolically, stopped time itself. Now it is she who takes control. She tells the Old Man that, in spite of their crimes, everyone in the house is good at heart, and better than him, because they regret their sins and have been long-suffering because of them. Jacob, on the other hand, denies his own crimes and pretends to be virtuous. Once, she says, he stole her heart with false promises, and they had a child together that he abandoned. Furthermore, she explains, he murdered the Consul, the Dead Man who was buried that day, Page 132  |  Top of Articleby piling him with debt, and he lied to the Student about his father’s debts in order to get him to do his bidding.

Bengtsson remembers the Old Man, too. Years ago the Jacob lived in Bengtsson’s house like a vampire. He ate all of the nourishing food and left Bengtsson’s family with watery broth, so that they nearly died of starvation. Later, he encountered the Old Man in Hamburg, where he had become a money-lender and was charged with the murder of a young girl, the Milkmaid. The Milkmaid had seen him commit a crime, and to prevent her from reporting it he had lured her out on thin ice, and she fell into the water and drowned.

Crushed by the weight of his crimes brought to light, the Old Man gives up. He hands over the Colonel’s promissory notes. The Mummy now strokes Jacob like a parrot, and he cackles as she once did. She directs him to crawl into the closet where she has spent the last twenty years repenting her sins, and hang himself by the rope he has so often used to strangle the life out of others. The Old Man does as he is told, Bengtsson drags the death screen in front of the closet door, and the group of “ghosts” pray as the Old Man dies.

Scene Three

The final scene of the play takes place a few days after the funeral of the Old Man. The Student and the Girl are again in the Hyacinth Room, where the Girl spends all of her time when she is not outdoors. There are hyacinths of every size and color in pots and vases all around the room. Still, though the room looks beautiful and perfect, it is called the “room of ordeals” because it is really full of defects. It is cold and drafty, and she cannot light a fire because the chimney smokes. There is a fine writing desk that wobbles, and a pen-holder that is constantly covered in ink.

The Girl explains all of this to the Student, who is amazed by the imperfections of the house he once thought was paradise. Worse yet, she explains, are the servants who tend to the family. The Cook is from “the Hummel family of vampires.” Like the Old Man when he lived with Bengtsson, the Cook boils all of the nourishment out of the family’s food before serving it to them. She drinks the soup stock herself and feeds the family watery broth. She drinks the coffee and leaves the family only grounds, and drinks the wine and fills the bottles with water. She refuses to leave, and is nearly starving the family to death.

The family also keeps a housemaid who dirties the house more than she cleans it. Every day, the Girl must tend to the stove, wash the dishes, remake the beds, wipe the chimneys and tend to the candle wicks, because the maid does such poor work. According to the Girl, the broken house and vampire servants, who sap the family’s strength and will to live, are the penalties they all pay for the sins they have committed.

The Student makes a desperate attempt to save the Girl from her poisonous environment. He asks her to become his wife, and tries to convince her that, together, they may yet find beauty and truth in the world. It is too late, though. The Student realizes that madness and suffering often lie behind beauty and the promise of life. As he laments what an awful, evil place the world is, the Girl collapses and begins to die.

Bengtsson brings the death screen from the other room and arranges it in front of the Girl while the Student welcomes the arrival of Death, who he calls the “Liberator,” and hopes the Girl finds peace in an afterlife that is not flawed like the mortal world of “illusion, guilt, suffering and death.” The lights fade, the room disappears, and an image of Arnold Bocklin’s painting “The Island of the Dead” appears, symbolically, in the distance.



Although the Colonel believes Adele is his daughter, she is actually the child of the affair Amelia had with Jacob Hummel. Along with the Student, Adele is one of the few “innocent” people in the play, but she must suffer along with all of her guilty family. She has a mysterious illness which saps all of her strength. When she goes out, which is rarely, she likes to go horseback riding. When she is home, she spends her time tending her flowers in the Hyacinth Room. As Hummel finally reveals, Adele’s sickness is caused by the lies and crimes of the people in the house that are polluting the air. If they Page 133  |  Top of Articlewere to confess all their sins and leave the house, she would be saved. It is too late, however. Despite Hummel’s attempts to drive everyone from the house, and the Student’s efforts at wooing her and trying to convince her there is beauty in the world, Adele collapses and dies at the end of the play.


Amelia is the Colonel’s wife. As a young lady, she was beautiful. Even at 35, she convinced the Colonel she was only 19, which is when he first married her. The Old Man tells the Student that Amelia once left the Colonel, that he beat her, and that she returned to marry him again. She went crazy and began to think she was a parrot. For twenty years she lived in a closet because her eyes could not stand the light, and her skin became pale and wrinkled, like a mummy’s. During the ghost supper, when the Old Man is prepared to reveal everyone’s secrets and run them out of the house, Amelia stops time by holding back the hands on the clock, and turns the tables on Hummel. Instead of allowing him to ruin them, she confronts him with all of his own crimes, and forces him to crawl into her closet where he hangs himself.

The Aristocrat

See Baron Skanskorg


Arkenholtz is a student and the son of a merchant. His father was ruined by Jacob Hummel while Arkenholtz was a very young boy. Initially, he is happy and idealistic, but by the end of the play he has learned some brutal lessons about life’s lies, disappointments and tragedies. He possesses special powers because he is a “Sunday child.” His supernatural birthright gives him glimpses into the future, and allows him to see ghosts where others see only empty air. This ability allowed him to save the inhabitants of an old house moments before it collapsed, and for his heroics Hummel claims he will make him a wealthy and famous man. Even more importantly, the Old Man convinces the Student he will get him introduced to the beautiful Girl, Adele, who lives inside the rich house Arkenholtz has been admiring.

Arnkenholtz is confused by Hummel, youthfully naive, and smitten with the Girl, so he agrees to help

Sidebar: HideShow


  • A television version of The Ghost Sonata, translated by Michael Myer and directed by Stuart Burge, was aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation on March 16, 1962. Afterward, the same production was broadcast in the United States and Australia.
  • In 1930 the play was turned into an opera, with music by Julius Weissmann, and performed in Munich. The operatic Ghost Sonata appeared in Duisburg and Dortmund in 1956.

the Old Man with his strange plans to get inside the house. He is in the Hyacinth Room with Adele when Hummel attempts to ruin the Colonel and his friends, so he does not hear about everyone’s crimes, or see Hummel’s undignified death. After the Old Man’s funeral, Arkenholtz returns to the house and tries to save Adele from her suffering and convince her to be his wife. She has been exposed to the foul air of the sinful house for too long, though, and even as he attempts to play music and sing for her, anything to break the mysterious spell that grips her, she grows weaker, and dies before him. In the end, Arkenholtz finally recognizes that the world is not always what it seems; that guilt, suffering and death often lie behind the doors of beautiful homes, and that paradise may only exist in a life after death.


The Colonel’s butler, Bengtsson, has seen many ups and downs in his life. He has been both master and servant to the Old Man. Once, the Old Man lived in Bengtsson’s house as a vampire who tried to starve Bengtsson’s family to death. Years later, Bengtsson encountered the Old Man in Hamburg, where he was a villainous money-lender who murdered the Milkmaid in order to prevent her from reporting a crime he had committed. It is Bengtsson’s testimony about the Old Man’s crimes at the ghost dinner that finally defeats him, and saves the inhabitants of the house from being revealed and evicted.

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The Caretaker’s Wife

The Caretaker’s Wife helps tend the house. She once had an affair with the Consul, the Dead Man who was buried on the day the play begins. Their child is the Dark Lady.

The Colonel

As a young man, the Colonel was actually a poor kitchen servant who stole Jacob Hummel’s fiancee from him. Since then, he has falsely acquired his military title and noble family name, and has borrowed large amounts of money in order to maintain a wealthy lifestyle. He married Amelia, the Mummy, when she was 35, thinking she was really a young girl. He believes the Girl is his daughter, though she is actually the child of Jacob Hummel, who had an affair with his wife, Amelia. Though he has built his entire life on a series of carefully constructed lies, he willingly and honestly admits his mistakes as the Old Man reveals them one at a time during the ghost supper.

The Cook

The Cook is somehow related to Jacob Hummel, the Old Man. As the Girl explains to the Student, she “belongs to the Hummel family of vampires.” The Cook is slowly starving the Girl and her family to death by feeding them only watery broth and meat boiled clean of all nourishment. Despite the family’s protests, the Cook refuses to leave, and the family is powerless and cannot drive her out. She is, the Girl claims, part of the price they all must pay for their past sins.

The Dark Lady

See The Lady in Black

The Dead Man

Described by the Old Man as “a benevolent scoundrel whose only aim in life was to have a magnificent funeral,” the Dead Man was a consul who loved the uniforms, ribbons, medals and ceremonies involved with his public life as a government official. He had an affair with the Caretaker’s Wife, and their daughter is the Dark Lady.

The Fiancee

See Miss Beatrice von Holsteinkrona

The Girl

See Adele

Jacob Hummel

Jacob Hummel is 80 years old and wheelchair-bound, but he has been many things in his lifetime. His servant, Johansson, describes him as “a horse-thief in the human market,” someone who “steals human beings in all sorts of different ways.” His main motivation in the play is revenge: Years ago the man who now calls himself the Colonel apparently stole Hummel’s fiancee from him. Later, Hummel had an affair with Amelia, the Colonel’s wife, and they had a daughter, Adele. Now Hummel has returned to exact his full revenge. His plan is to lie to the Student and use him to get inside the Colonel’s house. Once there, he will ruin the Colonel by revealing all of the lies he has built his life on—his wealth, his noble name, his military title, and the girl he believes is his daughter. He also plans to reveal all of the crimes committed by the people in the house, and chase them all away. In the end, he hopes, Arkenholtz will marry Adele and they will live in the newly purified house together.

What Hummel does not count on, however, is his own criminal past coming back to haunt him. First Amelia stands and accuses him of lying to her, of lying to Arkenholtz, and of murdering the Dead Man by piling him with debts he could not repay. Then Bengtsson recognizes him as the man who once tried to starve his family to death, and later murdered the Milkmaid to prevent her from revealing a crime he had committed. Finally, in defeat, Hummel crawls into the Mummy’s closet where he hangs himself.


Johansson is an educated man, a bookseller who committed some kind of crime, and would have gone to jail if he had been discovered. But the Old Man knew about his indiscretion, and instead of turning him over to the law, he has made a servant out of him. Johansson serves the Old Man in exchange for food and the small amount of freedom he is allowed.

The Lady in Black

The Dark Lady is the daughter of the Dead Man and the Caretaker’s Wife, and she is engaged to Baron Skanskorg.

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The Milkmaid

The Milkmaid is a silent character in the play. She is the ghost of a young girl murdered in Hamburg by Jacob Hummel. She witnessed a crime Hummel committed, and to avoid being caught he lured her out onto some thin ice, and she fell through and drowned. She appears from time to time throughout the play to terrify Hummel’s guilty conscience.

The Mummy

See Amelia

The Old Man

See Jacob Hummel

Baron Skanskorg

The Aristocrat, Baron Skanskorg, is the son-in-law of the Dead Man. He was once Amelia’s lover, and he is now engaged to the Lady in Black, though he is still married to a wealthy baroness. His wife is divorcing him and presenting him with a stone mansion just to get rid of him. When he arrives at the ghost supper, the Old Man recognizes him as a jewel thief.

The Student

See Arkenholtz

Miss Beatrice von Holsteinkrona

The Fiancee is introduced by the Colonel as Miss Beatrice von Holsteinkrona, a reasonably wealthy, and very religious woman who lives in one of the apartments above the house. As a young woman, she was engaged to Jacob Hummel, the Old Man. The Colonel apparently seduced her away from Hummel, and the Old Man has spent the rest of his life seeking revenge.


Illusion vs. Reality

Strindberg liked to view himself as a continual secker of truth, as an artist who could present the sin, suffering and degradation of the world on the stage and unmask all of the world’s liars, hypocrites and criminals. Several of his plays attempted to reveal what he felt were the hidden secrets of his society—its institutions and individuals. In a letter to his friend Emil Schering dating March 27, 1907, Strindberg wrote of The Ghost Sonata, “It is horrible, like life, when the veil falls from our eyes and we see things as they are. 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.”

The secrets of The Ghost Sonata are terrible indeed, and they are initially hidden behind an illusion of wealth, nobility and respect, inside the walls of a beautiful house. At the beginning of the play, the Student thinks the house is some kind of paradise. He tells the Old Man,“I often stop to look at it. I passed it yesterday when the sun was shining on the window panes, and I imagined all the beauty and luxury in there.” He is willing to do anything to get inside, and to meet the lovely young girl who dwells in the house’s Hyacinth Room. The Student also thinks he has found a generous benefactor in the Old Man.

What he doesn’t know, however, are the past indiscretions of the people in the house, and the terrible crimes committed by the Old Man, who is now intent only on revenge. The Colonel, it is revealed, actually has no claim to a noble family or to any military titles, and all of his apparent wealth is really a pile of tremendous debts he has amassed over the years. The Colonel’s wife, Amelia, was once young and beautiful, and she had an affair with the Old Man when he was a youth called Jacob Hummel. Their child was Adele, the Girl who lives in the Hyacinth Room, and thinks her father is the Colonel. The weight of Amelia’s sins overcame her, and she has spent the last twenty years living in a closet, becoming pale and wrinkled like a mummy. Everyone else in the house has a similar dark past to hide. The Dead Man, the Aristocrat, the Fiancee and even the Caretaker’s Wife all have built illusions to hide the dreadful reality of their lives.

It is the Old Man who tries to strip all of the illusions away and disclose the truths everyone has tried to hide, though he himself is the guiltiest of all. He seduced Amelia then abandoned her. He murdered the Dead Man by burdening him with debts he could not repay. He lied to the Student about his

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  • In literature, a symbol is something that represents something else, and is often used to communicate deeper levels of meaning. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel The Scarlet Letter, for example, the red letter “A” worn by Hester Prynne is a symbol not only of her supposed crime (adultery), but also of her neighbors’ bigotry and her own courageous pride. Strindberg incorporates many symbols into The Ghost Sonata in order to communicate deeper levels of meaning to his audiences. Consider the importance of the Old Man’s wheelchair, the Girl’s hyacinth flowers, and the pendulum clock as symbols in the play. What might each one represent? How are they viewed by different characters? How do they affect your understanding of the plot of the play? What are some of the play’s other important symbols and how are they used?
  • The form of The Ghost Sonata is modeled after a particular type of chamber music. A “sonata” is a three- or four-part composition that consists of independent movements that vary in key, mood and tempo. Typically the first section of a sonata is exposition, in which a theme is introduced, followed by a section that develops the theme, and ending in a recapitulation of the theme. Listen to one of Mozart’s many piano or violin sonatas, Haydn’s sonata number 19 in D-major, or Beethoven’s D-minor piano sonata and determine ways in which Strindberg’s play is constructed like this chamber music form. Consider the number of scenes and the flow of action in The Ghost Sonata, as well as the play’s themes and the way they are woven into the plot and “recapitulated” near the end.
  • A “motif” is a theme or an idea that occurs again and again in a work of art. In The Ghost Sonata, death seems to be a dominant motif. What are the many ways that death is discussed, or that images of death appear in the play? What message or messages regarding death do you suppose the playwright is trying to communicate to his audience?
  • Several characters in The Ghost Sonata are referred to simply by descriptive titles instead of proper names. Why do you suppose Strindberg chose to call some of the most important characters in the play “The Student,” “The Old Man,” “The Milkmaid,” “The Colonel,” and “The Girl,” instead of giving them individual names? How does this affect the way you view the characters? Would you prefer that they be called by proper names? Why/why not?
  • The Ghost Sonata has often been compared to absurdist plays of the mid-twentieth century. Read a play by the famous absurdist author Samuel Beckett, such as Waiting for Godot (1952) or Endgame (1958). How are the characters in each play alike? How does each play view serious subjects like human relationships and death? Can you find examples of humor appearing in unlikely places in both plays? What effect does this have?

father in order to get him to do his bidding. Worst of all, he once committed a crime and murdered the only witness, an innocent Milkmaid, to prevent her from reporting him. The Student is slow to learn all of these things, and slower still to apply them to the way he views the world. But by the end of the play his optimism and idealism have turned to cynicism, like the Old Man. He understands reality better, and refers to the world as a place of “illusion, guilt, suffering and death,” and now hopes only for a better place in the afterlife.


Several of the characters in The Ghost Sonata betray one another in some form. Years ago, the Colonel seduced Jacob Hummel’s fiancee away from him. In retribution, Hummel later had an affair Page 137  |  Top of Articlewith the Colonel’s wife, Amelia, that produced a daughter the Colonel believes is his. Then he betrayed Amelia, and left her behind to live with her sin. Even the minor characters of the play live on a merry-go-round of betrayal. The Caretaker’s Wife had an affair with the Dead Man that produced a daughter, the Lady in Black. Now the Lady in Black is engaged to Baron Skanskorg, an aristocrat who must first divorce his current wife before marrying his new love.

Coming of Age

One of the most significant changes in the play occurs with the Student, who begins as a heroic, optimistic, idealistic youth, and ends as cynical and disappointed as any of the actual sinners and criminals in the play. The dreams he has of finding paradise in a beautiful house, with a lovely wife, a generous income, and happy children, are dashed when he discovers that the real world is often filled with unexplainable rejection and disappointment, and he watches the girl he loves die in front of him. Still, like any responsible adult, he must formulate a new way of looking at the world and move on with his life. Mature now, he understands the world can be evil, and looks forward to a happier life after death.

Human Condition

One of the most important recognitions in the play is that no one is perfect—all people are flawed in some way or another. Part of being alive and being human is making mistakes—sometimes very big ones—then finding ways to learn from them and recover. Amelia, the Mummy, for example, made a large mistake when she fell for Jacob Hummel, had an affair with him and produced a daughter. She has felt guilty about her mistake ever since, and has locked herself away from the world in a closet where she dwells on her sins and becomes less and less human with each passing day. Jacob’s appearance in the house, however, sets her free from her prison. After twenty years she realizes she has paid enough for her mistake, which was really quite human, and now has the strength to turn the tables and accuse Jacob for the crimes he has committed.

Another, even more painful, aspect of the human condition revealed by The Ghost Sonata is the terrible suffering human beings must face in life. The play begins the night after a random disaster. A house collapsed, killing and seriously injuring many people. Though the Student, with his second sight, was able to save some of the inhabitants and tend to the wounds of others, he could not prevent Death from claiming the lives of a few. Everyone else in the play suffers eventually. Bengtsson, Johansson and the other servants suffer with their menial positions. The Colonel suffers all the lies he has told to create the illusion of a happy, prosperous life. The Milkmaid is a silent, suffering ghost who died innocent, and before her time. Hummel, the Old Man, ultimately must answer for his various crimes, and suffer a humiliating death in front of those he would have destroyed. Most tragic of all, the Girl suffers because of the sinners and criminals around her. They have fouled the air she breathes with their corruption and, in spite of the Student’s efforts to save her, she dies.



The form of The Ghost Sonata is modeled after a particular type of chamber music called a “sonata.” The sonata traces its roots to the fifteenth century, when it was used to describe a variety of selections of purely instrumental music for individual instruments, trios or ensembles. Its most recognizable form, however, began to take shape in the mid-eighteenth century. During the Enlightenment era, sonatas started to take the form of three- or four-part compositions, often for solo pianists or violinists.

The classic sonata consists of independent movements that vary in key, mood and tempo. Typically the first section of a sonata is exposition. The exposition establishes one musical theme in a principal key center, called the tonic, then produces another theme in a secondary key center, called the dominant. The two themes intermingle and bridge into the second section, known as the development portion of the sonata. During the development stage, the themes presented in the exposition are played in new ways, with new combinations and variations that may include minor keys not found in the exposition. Finally, in the recapitulation section, Page 138  |  Top of Articlethe themes are again played in their original order, but only in the tonic key.

Like the classic sonata musical form, Strind-berg’s The Ghost Sonata is divided into three distinct sections. In the first scene, the exposition stage of the sonata, he presents the beautiful house and all of the people in it as they seem to be, and he introduces his two major themes: the Student’s youthful idealism and love and longing for perfection, and the Old Man’s cynicism, hatred, and longing for revenge. In the second scene, the development phase, Strindberg moves inside the house, and these themes interweave as all of the masks and lies are stripped away from the people and the house is seen for what it really is: an abode for less-than-perfect people, sinners who have spent years paying for their crimes. In the third and final scene, the recapitulation, both of the themes presented in the exposition are proven faulty and destructive. The Student by himself, forming the tonic key, plays both through both themes and finally arrives at a sort of coda to the composition. A new, hopeful theme emerges: the faint hope for the final salvation of mankind in an afterlife free of the miseries and disappointments of the mortal world.


Strindberg is considered to be one of the most important influences on an avant-garde artistic movement called expressionism that became very popular in Germany in the 1920s. While writers of realism at the turn of the century tried to produce plots that mirrored real life events and characters who seemed to talk, move and act like real people, expressionist writers, like expressionist painters, tried to portray life as they saw it, altered by strong inner emotions, and modified and distorted by the artist’s vision of reality. As a result, expressionist plays are often disjointed, nightmarish scenes that bear little resemblance to the real world.

Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata contains many elements also found in later twentieth century ex-pressionistic dramas. For example, his characters are types, rather than individual people. They are known by labels, like “The Student” or “The Old Man,” rather than by names, and sometimes they do not even have distinct personalities. The play is filled with symbolic imagery, like that often associated with dreams. The pendulum clock, the Mummy, the “vampires,” the Old Man’s wheelchair, and the house itself, where the characters have their “ghost supper,” are all symbols representing abstract ideas like time, fear, guilt, shame, power and corruption.

Like a dream, the play does not follow a straight line of cause-and-effect actions. Time is ambiguous, and can even be stopped like the hands of a clock, and the characters act in strange, unpredictable ways. Perhaps most important of all, The Ghost Sonata projects the feelings and attitudes of its author through the words and actions of his characters. As a style, expressionism is meant to convey the inner workings of the artist’s mind. Strindberg’s own tortured psyche is on display throughout the play. He was, by his own admission, compulsively neat, and he required an orderly, clean environment. Little wonder, then, that the Girl in The Ghost Sonata is so dismayed by a housekeeper who dirties more than she cleans. Reportedly, Strindberg also feared cooks, and often suspected them of poisoning his food, which may explain the appearance of vampire-like kitchen servants in his play. And, given the dark, dismal entries he left behind in his journals and letters, there is little doubt he spoke through the Student at the end of the play when he mourned “this world of illusion, guilt, suffering and death, this world of endless change, disappointment, and pain. The lesson Arkenholtz learns—that the world can be a cold, cruel place—is one Strindberg seemed to live, and desperately wanted to express in The Ghost Sonata.


Dream Plays and Psychoanalysis

Strindberg began his successful literary career in the 1880s writing the kind of realistic dramas that were made popular by playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888) are both considered to be masterpieces of realism, depicting natural characters in mundane, ordinary surroundings. By the turn of the century, however, Strindberg was reshaping reality on the stage to correspond to his own tortured, nightmarish vision of life. In “dream plays” like To Damascus, a trilogy produced between 1898–1901, The Dream Play (1902), and The Ghost Sonata

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  • 1907: Gustav V becomes King of Sweden. During his 43-year rule the Social Democratic Party created many progressive reforms, including extension of voting rights, the introduction of an eight-hour workday, public child welfare, and state-subsidized housing.

    Today: A new Swedish Constitution in 1975 dissolved all of the powers of the king. Sweden is now governed by a Prime Minister and a Parliament, and, like many industrial nations, is in the process of deregulating the economy, privatizing formerly government-owned industries and businesses, and cutting government spending on welfare programs.

  • 1907 Many countries around the world, including the United States, do not allow women to vote, or to serve in public office.

    Today: In 1994, Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson led a Social Democratic Party government in which half of his cabinet, and 41 percent of the entire parliament, were women, the highest percentage of women lawmakers in any government in the world.

  • 1907 Marriage in most western cultures is viewed as a religious vow and a civil contract, and separations, or divorces, are hard to obtain. In Great Britain and the United States, for example, a separation decree could only be granted if one spouse could prove that the other had somehow caused injury, through such means as adultery, habitual drunkenness, impotence, committing a felony, abandonment, or severely abusive behavior. Men and women who divorced were often viewed as immoral, and treated as outcasts. Out of almost one million marriages conducted annually in the United States, fewer than 100,000 (less than 10%) end in divorce.

    Today: “No-fault” divorce laws in many states have made divorces much easier to obtain. “Irreconcilable differences” is a common, simple, and acceptable reason cited as the reason many spouses separate. Each year, 2.5 million people marry in the United States, and nearly half of those marriages are expected to end in divorce.

  • 1907 The early years of flight: On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright first flew a heavier-than-air craft under its own power for 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A year later, he and his brother, Wilbur, had constructed an “airplane” that could stay airborne, turn and bank.

    Today: The wartime uses for airplanes helped speed the development of the transportation technology. By the 1950s, more people were crossing the Atlantic Ocean in airplanes than on ships. In the 1970s, Britain and France developed the Concorde, a jet plane that allows travelers to fly faster than the speed of sound, and reach the United States from Europe in only a few hours. In 1995, airlines worldwide flew an estimated 1.26 billion passengers.

  • 1907 Although “penny arcades” had been showing short motion pictures to individual viewers since Thomas Edison demonstrated his “kinetoscope” in 1894, it wasn’t until photographer George Eastman and inventor Thomas Armat combined flexible film with a projector that mass audiences could sit in one room and watch “movies” together. The first movie theatre opened in 1905, and by 1909 there were 8,000, each seating about 100 people, offering short film attractions. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) proved that the new medium could compete with the style of realism popular in the live theatre, and soon the film industry surpassed the theatre as the world’s favorite form of entertainment.

    Today: Multimillion-dollar blockbuster films may now be purchased or rented, taken home, and viewed on a television with the help of a videocassette recorder (VCR) or digital video disc (DVD) player. Many films are made and released directly to the new tape or disc format, or aired on one of many cable television stations. The television is the late-twentieth century’s private kinestoscope, and fewer than 10% of the population attends live theatrical events.

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(1907), time and location are often vague and unpredictable. The characters are personality types rather than individuals, and they are mainly alienated, lost human beings struggling with the sins of the flesh while seeking some kind of spiritual fulfillment.

Strindberg’s accomplishments in these plays prefigure such major avant-garde literary movements as expressionism and the Theatre of the Absurd, and were generated, at least in part, by his own terrible relationships, bouts with mental illness, and spiritual crises. At the same time, however, a widespread interest in the human mind was developing in Europe, owed partly to the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905), Freud tried to describe the structure of the mind, analyze how it functioned, provide reasons for human behavior and suggest ways of dealing with mental illness. In his work, Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, a place where dreams may be interpreted as the key to understanding suppressed desires. At its root, Freud’s psychoanalytical theories are a prescription for seeing past the illusions to the realities beneath the surface—the single most common theme in Strindberg’s “dream plays.”

Women’s Rights

August Strindberg was married and divorced three times in a society that did not favor the rights of women, and held the vows of marriage sacred. Each time he was probably mismatched with his mate. Strindberg claimed to cherish domesticity and a “traditional” family life, but each woman he wed was outgoing and career-minded. He met Siri von Essen, his first wife, when she was married to a nobleman, Baron Wrangel. He viewed them as mother and father figures, but nevertheless fell in love with Siri and lured her away. In a highly publicized and scandalous move, she divorced the Baron, and married Strindberg in 1877. They spent fifteen years together, battling each other over his increasingly eccentric personality, while she tried to become a successful actress.

They divorced in 1891, and Strindberg married Frida Uhl, and Austrian journalist, in 1893. She was twenty-three years his junior. In the year that they were married, they actually only spent a few months together—just long enough to have one daughter together. After a stretch of a few years during which Strindberg scorned the company of women, he married for the last time in 1901. His relationship with Harriet Bosse, a famous Norwegian actress 29 years younger than him, lasted only a little longer than his time with Frida. They were married for three years, though they separated frequently, and they had one child together before divorcing in 1904.

Sweden, like most of the countries of the western world, did not allow women to vote in the nineteenth century. In fact, it was not until 1919—the year before American women were first allowed to cast ballots—that women in Sweden were granted suffrage. During Strindberg’s lifetime, the rights of women were restricted, and often given to them legally and socially through the marriage contract with their husbands. In many countries, women could not legally borrow money or even own property without their husbands’ permission. While the industrial age had brought many women out of the home and into the workplace, the jobs available to them were mainly unskilled, menial tasks that required long hours for little pay. Other than house-cleaning or repetitive, sometimes dangerous factory work, women might become teachers or clerical assistants, but not much else. The women Strindberg married—a journalist and two actresses—may have been considered adventurous, even improper, for their time.

Divorce was available (and Strindberg relied upon it frequently), but only if both parties agreed, and if there was a strong, just cause, such as infidelity, criminal activity, physical incapacity or insanity. In any event, divorcees were stigmatized by society, and relatively few couples opted to separate. More often, unhappy couples remained together in misery, true to their vows, but false to their hearts.


The Realism movement in the theatre that shaped Strindberg’s early writing owes a great debt to Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright who produced works like A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), and Hedda Gabler (1890). Like his fellow realists George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, Ibsen sought to portray characters, actions and the environment in a realistic way on the stage. Unlike the open, emblematic staging of Shakespeare’s plays during the Renaissance, or the painted, two-dimensional Page 141  |  Top of Article“realism” of the German Romantic theatre of the late eighteenth century, realist writers of the late-nineteenth century paid great attention to detail in an effort to reproduce the actual world for audiences. Playwrights and designers took great pains to describe and build complicated, three-dimensional rooms, complete with walls, doors, furniture, working lights, and even ceilings. Characters in realistic plays are affected by both heredity and environment, and respond in natural ways to psychological and physical conflict. Additionally, the themes employed by realist writers are common, everyday problems with significance to many people. Ibsen wrote about marital problems, disease, poverty, inter-class conflict and many other issues faced by his audiences in the 1880s and 1890s. Just after the turn of the century, facing competition from the novel new form of entertainment called “movies,” the theatre began to turn away from Realism and toward more experimental styles such as Symbolism and Expressionism.


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

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

Max Reinhardt’s production of the play in Berlin in 1916 was the first to meet with popular and critical success. Reinhardt toured the show to the Lorensberg Theatre in Gothenburg, Sweden, then

Jerome Willis and Linda Marlowe in Strindbergs Ghost Sonata. Jerome Willis and Linda Marlowe in Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata.

on to the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where Strindberg’s play finally received the acclaim from his countrymen he had so desperately sought. Afterward, Reinhardt’s production traveled to Munich, Vienna, and Frankfurt, and he mounted other productions in cities across Europe into the 1920s.

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

Over the years, The Ghost Sonata and a few of Strindberg’s other “dream plays” have appeared occasionally on the stages of universities and community theatres in Europe and the United States. By themselves, they have never achieved tremendous popularity, but as forerunners to some of the great Page 142  |  Top of Articleartistic movements of the twentieth century, and as models for some of the great modern dramatists to follow, they are now viewed as monumental turning points in the history of dramatic literature. Antonin Artaud, the famous French director and playwright, credited Strindberg’s work as an important precursor to his own “Theatre of Cruelty.” Randolph Goodman, in the introduction to his English version of the play in Drama on Stage, writes, “His [Strindberg’s] influence is clearly discernible in the work of Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, and Sean O’Casey, to name but a few of the masters. In more recent times such cynical social commentators as Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, and Genet have raised a superstructure of raucous laughter, of cabaret and farce, on the somber foundations laid down by August Strindberg.”

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


Lane A. Glenn

Lane A. Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature. In this essay he discusses the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg on August Strindberg’s life and work, and analyzes The Ghost Sonata in light of Swedenborg’s notions of life, death and the afterlife.

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,

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  • In a career spanning forty years, August Strindberg wrote 60 plays. Many were never very popular, and are no longer performed, even in the author’s native Sweden, but some have become classics of modern dramatic literature. Try reading The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1889), a short one-act play called The Stronger (1889), or his “dramatic lyrical-fantasy in fourteen scenes,” written partly in prose and partly in verse called A Dream Play (1901).
  • The Ghost Sonata is often considered an early form of twentieth century experimental drama like Expressionism or Absurdism. Consider reading The Emperor Jones (1920), an expression-istic drama by American playwright Eugene O’Neill, or Samuell Beckett’s 1952 absurdist play Waiting for Godot.
  • Like a handful of other great European writers during the last decades of the nineteenth century, Strindberg was profoundly affected by the movement toward Realism in drama. His Miss Julie (1889), for example, is a realistic drama, interwoven with symbolic imagery. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1880) and Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (1901) are two other examples of turn-of-the-century European Realism.
  • A dominant theme of The Ghost Sonata becomes the disappointment and pain the world causes, and the search for relief in the afterlife, an idea familiar to Existentialist thinkers and writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. To learn more about Existentialism and its effects on literature, try a critical history like Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1988) or go right to the source with Soren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread (1844) or Fear and Trembling (1846).
  • There is a Gothic horror quality to the characters and plot of The Ghost Sonata that resembles the work of the American short story author Edgar Allan Poe. Check out Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), two horror tales with creepy characters and unsettling stories.
  • Like many prolific and successful playwrights, Strindberg occasionally shared his insights on his craft in essays he wrote about the theatre and the art of playwriting. One such essay, “On Modern Drama and Modern Theatre” (1889), appears in Playwrights on Playwriting (1960), a compilation of essays by such notable dramatists as Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht, and Arthur Miller.

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.

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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, Page 145  |  Top of Articletwenty 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.

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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.

Jon M. Berry

In the following essay, Berry presents how Strindberg uses the dialogue and staging of The Ghost Sonata to develop his concept of reality as a “single and unified fabric consisting of a homogeneous blend of matter and mind.”

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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.

Gerald Parker

In the following essay, Parker discusses Strindberg’s use of the play’s visual components in a way comparable to his polyphonic or symphonic arrangement of the oral components.

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, Page 154  |  Top of Articleor 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(lS72-6), 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 Page 155  |  Top of Articleunobtrusively (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

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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, Page 156  |  Top of Articleunderscore 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 Page 157  |  Top of ArticleGirl, 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 Page 158  |  Top of Articlecomplications 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 facade 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 facade 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, Bocklin’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 Bocklin 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 Page 159  |  Top of Articlesuggests 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 Page 160  |  Top of Articleform 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.

Stephen C. Bandy

In the following essay, Bandy argues that “the play is anchored to a strong underlying structure,” which “consists of a series of tightly interlocking allusions to incidents recorded in the Bible.”

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 Page 161  |  Top of Articlephilology, 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” (IV:41-42).

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

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“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 XXVIL29). Page 162  |  Top of ArticleHummel, 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 Page 163  |  Top of Articlefavorite 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 Page 164  |  Top of Articlecard-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.

Milton A. Mays

In the following essay, Mays contends “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.”

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 Page 165  |  Top of ArticleSin 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 entree 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),

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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 Page 166  |  Top of Articlelies 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 Page 167  |  Top of Articleor 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.


Bandy, Stephen C. “Strindberg’s Biblical Sources for Ghost Sonata,” in Scandinavian Studies, August, 1968, Vol. 40, no. 3, p. 208.

Goodman, Randolph. Introduction to Drama on Stage [his English language version of The Ghost Sonata], Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978, pp. 428-437.

Hampton, Wilborn. A review of The Ghost Sonata, in the New York Times, May 9, 1995.

Lide, Barbara. A review of The Ghost Sonata, in Theatre Journal, March, 1992, p. 109-111.

Nicoll, Allardyce. World Drama: From Aeschylus to Anouilh, Harcourt, Brace and Company, rev. ed., 1976, p. 563.

Richardson, Maurice. A review of the BBC television production of The Ghost Sonata, in the London Observer, March 18, 1962, reprinted in Drama on Stage, edited by Randolph Goodman, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978, pp. 439-441.

Sinclair, Clive. A review of The Ghost Sonata, in the Times Literary Supplement, June 12, 1992, p. 18.

Page 168  |  Top of Article

Strindberg, August. Letter to Edvard Brandes, c. June 12, 1885, excerpted in File on Strindberg, edited by Michael Meyer, Methuen, 1986, p. 51.

Strindberg, August. Letter to Anders Eliasson, July 11,1896, excerpted in Strindberg, by Michael Meyer, Secker and Warburg, 1985, p. 341.


Meyer, Michael. Strindberg, Secker and Warburg, 1985.

A thorough biography of playwright August Strindberg, including a complete history of his childhood, his several marriages, his 1884 trial for blasphemy in Stockholm, his investigations into the occult, and his immense body of writing, including plays, novels, stories and essays. Also contains several pages of photographs and illustrations from Strindberg’s life and the production of his plays.

Meyer, Michael, ed. File on Strindberg, Methuen, 1986.

A collection of excerpted comments and criticism about Strindberg’s plays, taken largely from theatre reviews, letters from Strindberg’s friends and associates, and writings by the author himself. Also includes a chronology of Strindberg’s work and a bibliography of other research sources.

Nicoll, Allardyce. World Drama: From Aeschylus to Anouilh, Harcourt, Brace and Company, rev. ed., 1976.

In a book that describes trends in dramatic literature from the Ancient Greeks to the twentieth century, Nicoll places August Strindberg alongside Ibsen and his other Scandinavian contemporaries in an essay titled “Strindberg and the Play of the Subconscious.”

Strindberg, August. The Son of a Servant, translated by Claud Field, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913.

Strindberg’s autobiography, in which he details his unhappy childhood as one of eight surviving children born to a bankrupt father who was once part of an aristocratic family and a mother who was once a waitress.

Tornqvist, Egil. Strindbergian Drama: Themes and Structure, Humanities Press, 1982.

Tornqvist notes that several authors and critics have assembled biographies of August Strindberg, and attempted critical discussions of the ideas found in his plays and where he fits into late nineteenth century theatre history, but that little has been written about the actual structure of his plays, and how his formal style is different from that of his contemporaries. Strindbergian Drama examines ten of Strindberg’s plays, from The Father to A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata, and considers the importance of imagery, plot, language and borrowed forms to their creation.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693400017