Rhythm and Blues: Strindberg’s Chamber Plays
"I want to see with my outer eye first and then with
the inner eye."
-letter to T. Hedlund 15 February 1896
"Don't you think...that even behind the so-called
natural explanations there are others to be found? I
approve of the natural explanations as exoteric
accounts for the public, but behind these lie
-letter to A. Eliasson 28 October 1896
"What are you doing?" "Writing in the sand; still"
Swedish playwright August Strindberg, perhaps more than any other dramatist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was captivated by and attuned to the complex connection between rhythm and reality. He attempted to understand and interpret the manifold experience of human life through rhythm. It was the foundation, the framework upon which civilizations, societies, and individual lives were built. Though his early historical and pseudo naturalistic dramas were not obviously motivated by this idea, beneath the surface Strindberg showed careful attention to the subtle rhythms in character, theme, and plot. His attention to rhythm grew as his dramatic skills matured. He became enamored with music as the most sublime expression of rhythm fused with reality. Strindberg wanted theatre to possess this same musical quality. He wanted desperately to push the dramatic form past traditional conventions. The ideas, emotions, the inner life, the essential rhythm of a play was stifled by these constructs. The Chamber Plays, "Storm Weather", "The Burned House", The Ghost Sonata", and "The Pelican", reflect Strindberg' s commitment to the marriage of music and meaning in drama. As the title suggests, these plays were written "to transfer the idea of chamber music to the drama, an intimate approach, a significant theme” (Notes 207). Like music, the chamber plays were thematically and not structurally driven. Though often discounted as minor, insignificant, esoteric works of an aging madman, an examination of the history, evolution, and impact of the chamber plays will reveal the sight and genius of August Strindberg.
Before beginning a literary analysis, however, it is necessary to place both the plays and the playwright into a historical and biographical context. The European theatrical environment against which Strindberg reacted as well as specific events which shaped the course of his life are crucial to understanding the evolution of the chamber plays. The creation of the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm in 1907 and Strindberg's Inferno crisis are important factors to consider.
By 1906 Strindberg had returned to live out his remaining years in Sweden. His interest In theatre had waned. A young actor and director named August Falck would reawaken Strindberg's passion for drama and help him to realize one of his lifelong dreams; founding his own theatre (Sprinchorn vii). Falck had gained recognition from his touring production of "Miss Juliet'. The play was well received in Stockholm, the first time it had been performed in the capital city, and did much to revive Strindberg's dramatic reputation. Though his company lacked substantial reputation and talent, Falck approached Strindberg with the idea of starting a permanent theatre (Steene 105). Thus the Intimate theatre was born in 1907.
Following in the wake of Reinhardt's Kammerspielhaus, Strindberg looked toward Antoine's Theatre Libre of the 1880s for inspiration. He felt he was responding to a new demand from theatre going audiences, for smaller more intimate stages (Steenel05). "Throughout Germany theatres calling themselves Intimate Theatres have sprung up". Strindberg wrote his "Notes to Members of the Intimate Theatre" (207). He would continue this trend even further, reducing the size of the theatre as well as the length of each production. With 161 seats, the Intimate Theatre was roughly half the size of Reinhardt's Kammerspielhaus (Meyer 475). Possibly motivated by the renewed success of "Miss Julie" Strindberg wanted to revive shorter, more intense works of drama. In a letter of advice to Adolph Paul, an aspiring playwright, January 6, 1907 Strindberg articulates the parameters and goals for his own dramatic experimentation.
"Intimate in form, a simple theme treated with
thoroughness; few characters; vast perspectives,
freely imaginative, but built on observations,
experiences, carefully studied, simple, but not too
simple; no huge apparatus; no superfluous minor
parts, none of these "old machines" or five actors
built according to the rules; none of those drawn
out plays lasting all night. "Miss Julie" (without
an intermission) has...shown itself to be the kind
of drama demanded by the impatient man of today:
thorough but brief' (Sprinchorn viii).
The chamber play would grow from this model.
The repertoire of Falck's company may also have affected Strindberg's evolving conception of the chamber play. Though young and inexperienced as a traveling company, Falck's players performed several pieces by Maiterlinck called chamber plays including "The Uninvited Guest" and "The Blind". These plays rejected conventional plots and emotional expressions and stressed instead development of inner dialogue, an exploration of subtext "what Maiterlinck called la tragedie immobile and le theatre statique" (Meyer 475). Even Falck himself in his
own words helped to shaped the dramatic goals of the Intimate Theatre.
"The Intimate Theatre was to be the home of the art
of suggestion, to open up a perspective for the
imagination and so make the spectator participate in
the dramatic process" (Meyer 518).
Sharing Falck's artistic vision, Strindberg founded the Intimate Theatre. Falck was placed in control of daily operations of the theatre: the artistic duties as well as the mundane. Writing to Schering, Strindberg expressed confidence in Falck saying, "[Falck] is in every way the man for this enterprise; as a manager, director, and actor" (Meyer 492). Though some conflicts would arise in the future, the men worked very closely together and became fast friends.
The theatre itself was a renovated store in Stockholm (Sprinchorn vii). The building was leased on June 27, 1907 to Strindberg for an annual rent of 15000 crowns. Strindberg subsidized almost every expense of the theatre during its first year. He funneled most (if not all) of his newly acquired wealth from the sale of his other written works into the Intimate Theatre. Of the 32000 crowns he earned in 1907, 19000 were spent on the Intimate Theatre. In order to meet the health and building regulations an additional 450000 crowns were needed for further renovations. These fees were met by anonymous donations from Germany and Bonnier, but the added expense delayed the opening of the theatre until November (Meyer 490). Strindberg's commitment and frustration with the en tire enterprise can be assessed in his statement: "My economy is undermined by the Intimate Theatre. I must pay to be performed until others get paid" (Meyer 504).
When it finally opened on November 26 1907 audiences were treated to a carefully decorated 161 seat theatre. The auditorium was green and gold with pillars supporting each comer. A large bust of Strindberg himself greeted people as they entered through the foyer. The space was lit through a canopy of gold silk. The stage itself was extremely small, six meters long and four meters deep. Two large paintings hung on either side on the stage facing the audience: Bocklin's Island of the Living and Island of the Dead (Meyer 494). The latter painting figures heavily into "The Ghost Sonata”. The last image of the play described in the stage directions is the painting (Chamber 152). Strindberg was inspired to create an entire play based on the painting. It was never completed and “Toten- Insel", "The Isle of the Dead," exists only as a fragment (Dahlstrom 209). Using this single painting as an example it become readily apparent that the lighting, the decor, the ambiance of the Intimate Theatre contributed to the dramatic experience of the audience as a whole.
Strindberg was much more than a silent financial partner; he was the guiding intellectual and creative force behind the Intimate Theatre. Like the large bust that sat in the foyer, the influence of Strindberg was ever present. He visited the theatre often during Its renovation as well as attending many rehearsals and performances. He gave guidance to the company through business-like memoranda. He set down the ground rules for the theatre regarding mundane policies.
"1. No sale of intoxicants 2. No Sunday matinees 3.
Short performances 8-10 pm 4. No curtain calls
during the performance 5. No prompter 6. No
orchestra, only music on stage; text to be on sale
at the box office and in the foyer 7.Summer
performances..." (Meyer 490).
Strindberg wanted to maintain the highest commitment to the artistic goals of his theatre. He sent Falck numerous personal notes, copies of Gordon Craig's magazine "The Mask" and book On the Art of the Theatre, as well as books and clippings of Japanese Drama and poetry, all in support of his creative ideal (Meyer 518).
Strindberg also provided very specific artistic advice. In a long publication entitled "Notes to the Members of the Intimate Theatre" he describes the changes in performance techniques, in the approach to acting itself and its relationship to the new dramatic form he was creating. He claimed acting was essentially indefinable and yet went on to describe the most crucial elements of acting. Slow, clearly delivered, motivated speech in a tone realistic to the situation and character was paramount. "An audience will always listen to a good speaker, even if he is only a very average actor” (Notes 212). Ensemble acting was imperative in the Intimate Theatre; there was no room for stars (Notes 210). The process of acting was an intensely internal process, an expression of inner creation. Real acting does not even begin until the "part has passed beyond memorization to imaginative creation" (Notes 213). The performance is a shared experience, a unique act of creation between actors and audience. ,
Perhaps the experience moved Strindberg to write (perhaps compose is the more appropriate verb) his chamber plays. Not every performance most assuredly matched up to this lofty ideal. In fact the reputation of the Intimate Theatre suffered during its first year due to the limited experience and talent Falck's company. When it was successful in achieving Strindberg's goals as a playwright and a performer something wonderful was produced. Otto Borchsenius, a critic from Denmark, declared in an interview with a Swedish newspaper:
"The best memory of Swedish theatre that I shall
take back to Denmark is that of the Intimate
Theatre, I know...it is easy to point to defects in
their performance- they are all so young and lack
training...Nonetheless...in the end I forgot about
criticism and surrendered unconditionally to the
wizardry of Strindberg's genius" (Meyer 484).
Precisely because of such successes it is crucial to understand how the original environment, the Intimate Theatre, produced and shaped the chamber plays as they exist today.
The second mediating historical context that surrounds the evolution of the chamber plays was the Inferno crisis, a period in Strindberg's life from 1896 to 1897 marked by several mental breakdowns and ultimately conversion to Swedenborgian mysticism. Strindberg had been married and divorced three times by 1896. He carried with him an enormous burden of guilt for his inability to support his children and former wives. He moved to Paris in 1896 and withdrew into a world created by his own paranoia (Steene 73). "Naturalism pushed to its logical limit left Strindberg on the very edge of the abyss" (Gravier 85). He did not go mad, however, as some have suggested. He wandered desperately from medieval alchemy to French occultism trying to ascribe higher meaning to his life. Only when Strindberg discovered Emmanuel Swedenborg's metaphysical philosophy did the fires of the Inferno begin to fade. "It was Swedenborg who saved Strindberg from madness" (Stockenstrom 5). Swedenborg was a famous natural scientist who became a mystic later in life and recorded many other worldly experiences in graphic detail. He developed a theory of correspondences which related the natural world, the world of science, to a world beyond, the world of truth(Stockenstrom 3-4). Overwhelming evidence in letters and diaries suggests that Strindberg was able to reconcile his guilt and frustration, to once again find meaning in life, through the application of this theory of correspondences in some form (Stockenstrom 5).
Strindberg was touched by a sense of the eternal; in doing so he gained access to another level of existence, a spiritual memory which runs parallel to our common awareness of physical reality (Sprinchorn Dramatist 107). Rather than becoming lost in this realm of the supernatural, Strindberg ultimately used his newly acquired sense of mysticism to re-interpret reality. He united the mystical with the mundane.
His chamber plays reflect this union. They contain irrational elements but remain within our conception of reality.
"The world of ‘The Ghost Sonata’ is no mysterious
never-never land; it is a world of actual details
but abstracted...as are the images and landscapes
that appear to us in dreams" (Steene 76).
Strindberg wanted to reshape the audience's conception of reality by assaulting the notion of a completely reasonable universe. While he would not contend that the dramatic world he created were realistic in the naturalistic sense of the word, his chamber plays were ultimately connected to a deeper source of reality, the inner life, the soul of Strindberg himself. The plays try to articulate a part of reality outside and beyond the rational mechanized modem world.
Strindberg also abandons all traditional conception of character in favor of the term soul. Characters were comprehensible, objects on the stage, stagnant and dead. Strindberg wanted to capture the mutability, the transience, the sheer complexity of the fragmentary nature of human existence on stage in a performance; he wanted to create souls.
"With these words Strindberg's pickaxe smashes the
structure of the classical theatre...we can no
longer count on the stability of the human
character" (Gravier 80).
Strindberg acknowledges the fact that human beings are constantly evolving, that each soul is filled with irreconcilable paradoxes. The chamber plays are thus filled with souls but no characters. These souls first appear as generic titles but as the play progresses these souls acquire names, thoughts, emotions, desires; they become rhythmic They are not consistent, however. They must be in constant flux. The Gentleman in the first chamber play "Storm Weather" describes Strindberg's souls when asked by his ex- wife if he thinks she has aged. He replies:
"I don't know. They say that after three years not
an atom in the human body remains the same. After
five years everything is new, and that's why you who
are standing there is someone else than the person
who used to be suffering here. I can hardly bring
myself to call you by your first name -so much of a
stranger you seem to me. I imagine I would feel the
same way about my daughter" (Storm 33-34).
Strindberg and his souls felt pangs of estrangement and despair; yet something of the eternal remained. He never lost his fundamental commitment to the central idea of divine order at the core of all existence (Steene 76). The theme of death as a release, a final settling (ordering) of all accounts, recurs in each chamber play. Eternal order exists beneath the surface of all reality. Through Swedenborg, Strindberg discovered that the desire for meaning must be sought through introspection(Gravier 85). His thirst for the absolute drove him to write.
Strindberg emerged from his personal Inferno with a mystical revelation. In the ten years that followed before the birth of the Intimate Theatre and the creation of the chamber plays, Strindberg struggled to find the most sublime artistic expression of his inner journeys (Dahlstrom 201). Eventually he came to recognize the beauty of music and attempted to apply it metaphorically to drama. An amateur musician and composer himself, Strindberg admired greatly the virtuosity of Beethoven, particularly his last sonatas. Rather than mimicking Beethoven in some obvious and stilted manner, Strindberg learned the general musical tools Beethoven invoked, rhythm and theme, and used them likewise to "reveal an ambition or evoke a mood rather than develop a dramatic plot" (Steene 96). Like a great composer, Strindberg believed that a playwright "rejects all predetermined forms because the theme determines the form. Hence he has complete freedom in handling the theme as long as the unity and style of the original idea are not violated" (Notes 207). Many themes wind their way through and unify the chamber plays. I will abstain from sighting specific examples until I deal with each playas a separate entity. Death Is theatrically and thematically present in each. As mentioned earlier death is seen as a welcome release by some, but a final settling of accounts to all. Secrets are revealed; old deeds and painful memories return to haunt those responsible. False personas, masks, are removed, stripped away. The environment in each play is emphasized thematically. The action in each play centers around a house. The houses themselves, like people, "Harbor hidden evils" (Steene 107).
Strindberg interweaves these themes like different melodies sounded together in a symphony. The waxing and waning of themes, the contrapuntal musical construction, in souls, symbols, and dramatic action creates a rhythm unique to each play.
"He did his best to contain the cultural chaos in
his rhythmic creations, and in so doing he created a
kind of literature different from that of his
predecessors" (Dahlstrom xiv).
The rhythm of each play is not unified. As a conscious internal construction, rhythm expresses the fragmented nature of Strindberg's mind and the disjointed nature society and culture in general. "Each is a containment of a cultural clash" (Dahlstrom xv).
The first of the chamber plays marks Strindberg's move away from the pseudo naturalism of "Miss Julie" and toward a lyrical, more dream-like world. Written in February of 1907, the play is highly autobiographical. Strindberg attempts to deal with his failed marriage to 29 year old Harriet Bosse (Sprinchorn viii). In a letter to her Strindberg writes, "You are angry with me because of a play you saw at the Intimate Theatre. I had warned you about It! For it was a painful fable, with which I wanted to write you and our little one out of my heart! I wanted to take out in advance the agonies that awaited me" (Steene 108). The play centers around the Gentleman whose young ex wife and child have returned to his hometown and are living in the flat above him unbeknownst to him. Ironically her new husband attempts to run away with a young girl and the wife, Gerda, is forced to reveal her presence and ask her ex-husband for assistance. The gentleman refuses to help her and gradually withdraws from human con tact altogether, deciding ultimately to move out of his house. This final move is his last step toward death. The major themes are supported by visual and aural elements: the sentimental waltz playing in the background, the lightning flash at the end of the first scene, signifying the coming of the storm (Sprinchorn xi).Rather than acting, the people in the play react. They wait for a storm that never comes (Steene 109).
THE BURNED HOUSE
Written simultaneously with "The Ghost Sonata", the second opus deals most thoroughly with the discovery of secrets, of corruption from within, of deception. The people in the community known as "The Swamp" and their relations with each other are seen through their connection to a house which has recently burned down. No one is above reproach. Even the house itself contains secret rooms and walls, hiding the family smuggling operation from the Dyer and his brother. "We all hate each other- we're suspicious. Everyone gossips and torments his neighbor..." (Burned 54). Only the Stranger stands apart from the community and selves as an intermediary and objective interpreter between the residents of "The Swamp" and the audience. He is not completely divorced from the world of the burned house for his brother is the Dyer. Having discovered the truth about his family while abroad, he returns to his home and strips others of the false perceptions. Death is ever -present: the world of the play exists half between the village and the cemetery on the hill (Steene 110).
The essence of the play is contained in the Stranger's speech about the loom of fate. The original working title for this play was in fact "The World Weaver" (Sprinchorn xvii).
"When we were young we see the loom being set up-
parents, relatives, friends, acquaintances,
servants: that's the warp. Later on in life we're
aware of the weft and the shuttle of fate weaves
back and forth...and at last the pattern is there.
In old age, when the eye can finally see, we
discover that all the little curlicues form a
design, a monogram, an ornament...which only we can
read: this is life. The world weaver wove it"
The rhythm of life in the play will repeat itself into eternity; beyond deceit the insanity of life will continue.
THE GHOST SONATA
Undoubtedly the most famous and most successful of the chamber plays. Subtitled "Kama Loka: A Buddhist Drama", Strindberg seems to suggest a blending of Eastern and Western myths. Kama Loka itself has two possible interpretations. Literally it means realm of desire. This could refer to the Student's ardent wish to meet again with the hyacinth girl as well as Hummel's desire to enter the house of the Colonel, "an appropriate name for a house where the lives of its occupants are linked in a network of desire and deceit" (Carlson 192). The other interpretation of Kama Loka refers to a mythical world of ghosts and dreams "through which mortals, some mortals, have to wander before they enter the peace of death's kingdom" (Meyer 481). The world Strindberg has created seems to echo these mythical qualities. Several people during the course of the play end their wanderings and enter the kingdom beyond.
Fashioned after Beethoven's sonata in D minor (opus 31 no. 2), the action of the play follows the musical form A-B-A (Steene 113). The play moves inward, from the street, to the drawing room, to the hyacinth room, from the present to the past to the future (Carlson 191). Scenes one and three deal with the Student and his ability to survive on the outside and the inside, in the present and the future. Scene two resolves the long standing conflict between Hummel and his supposed victims. His fatal secret is reveled and he is left with no option but to hang himself.
A new theme appears in "The Ghost Sonata" which creates a dynamic conflict between Hummel and the Student. Vampirism seems to dominate the overall rhythm of the play. Hummel draws strength from other people, from his ability to manipulate, to strip them of their delusions, to feed off their fears (Steene 114). Hummel enters houses to destroy them; the Student rushes in to save people before houses collapse. They are diametrically opposed. Sunday's child, the Student is gifted with special sight; he can see the Milkmaid, a provider of nourishment, an ally. Ultimately, the Milkmaid is the key to Hummel's destruction( Sprinchorn xxi). The cook and even the hyacinth girl also exercise vampiric powers. The cook starves the Colonel and his family and grows demonically obese feeding on their food. The hyacinth girl unwittingly drains the Student by luring him in to her room with her beauty and weakness. The Student prevails but only at the expense of the young girl's life
In a letter to Schering on March 27 1907 Strindberg commented upon the significance of "The Ghost Sonata".
"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... What has saved me is my
religion (union with the beyond) The hope of a
better life to come, the firm conviction that we
live in a world of madness and delusion (illusion)
from which we must fight our way free" (Meyer 481).
Strindberg had not exhausted the theme of vampirism with "the Ghost Sonata". Carried to an even further extreme, the Mother in "the Pelican" starves her own children, robs them of strength, of sustenance to fuel her own vanity. Unlike the pelican whose young feed on its blood, the Mother destroys her young for her own personal gain; the supreme crime of an egomaniac. The Son is an alcoholic and the Daughter sleep walks through her days (Steene 116). All the characters seem to sleepwalk in the world of the play. Even in the fury of the fire, as the house bums around them, the somnambulists, brother and sister, do not awaken. They remain trapped in memories of past childhood days, enjoying the warmth as they bum.
* * *
In form and content August Strindberg pushed drama into the twentieth century. the chamber plays, once thought esoteric and unstageable, have had enormous impact upon modern drama. Playwrights such as O'Neill, Williams, Pinter, Ionesco, and Albee owe Strindberg a debt of artistic gratitude. They have gained the leverage to experiment freely with character, theme, and form through Strindberg's passionate commitment to the goals of his chamber plays. Ingmar Bergman has produced a trilogy of films inspired by the chamber plays. James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, may have also been greatly influenced by Strindberg's zeal to create new forms of artistic expression. True, the reality Strindberg presents in his chamber plays is distorted. "Their distorting vision provokes uncomfortable by salutary reassessment of one's self and life" (Rothwell 163). Perhaps because of their connection with the mystical, these plays have been discarded or discounted. Strindberg was able to compose rhythmic pieces of drama that contain both a modern sense of fragmentation and despair as well as an underlying and enduring hope for something beyond. In this manner his chamber plays continue to challenge and broaden our conception of reality even today.
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