Friday, April 12, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Strindberg As Absurdist" (on The Ghost Sonata)

strindberg as absurdist

August Strindberg The Ghost Sonata, in Michael Meyer, trans. The Plays of Strindberg, Volume 1
(New York: The Modern Library, 1966)

One of August Strindberg’s last significant works, The Ghost Sonata, of 1907, is also one of the author’s strangest works. Written five years before his death, the writing of this play, during which Strindberg was suffering from a skin disease, was so painful that the rub of the pen against hand caused him to bleed. The Ghost Sonata, as translator Michael Meyer remarks, represents “a return to that mood of cynicism and disillusionment with the world of the living which we find so often in his earlier work.”
     The play, moreover, is an odd mix of genres, including everything from naturalism (in his portrayal of a beautiful home on a lovely street), to symbolism (particularly in the last scene wherein the Daughter and Student discuss the meaning of the hyacinth, linking it to the room’s Buddha), Expressionism (particularly in the play’s various characters who represent aspects of human greed and selfishness), and even early Theatre of the Absurd (in its presentation of the Mummy—the Colonel’s wife—who lives and sleeps in a closet) and the Milkmaid (a character who haunts The Old Man’s vision, but can be seen only by the Student, A Sunday Child). While these various approaches to drama may each, in their own way, be interesting, together they create a somewhat bizarre series of tensions, which make it hard to know, at times, whether we are to see these abstractions as representations of “real” life or a comic exaggeration of life.  
      Strindberg’s major theme in this work, moreover—that there is no faith or honor, no love, joy or beauty to be found in human life, despite the Student’s intense disavowal of these facts—is a rather unbearable one, even if the play convincingly anatomizes each of these dead-living characters’ evil lives. Indeed, the interrelationships between the Mummy, the Old Man, the Colonel, the dead body upstairs, the Student, and the Daughter, as well as between the servants, Bengttson and Johansson—several of which have sexual liasons, business partnerships, and other previous activities—are quite preposterous.
     The Ghost Sonata is at its best, I might suggest, in its absurd elements, as when the Daughter describes the beautiful home in which lives as representing a series of tribulations, the cook boiling away the juices from the meats they eat:

 Oh yes. She cooks many dishes, but there is no nourishment in
 them. She boils the meat till it is nothing but sinews and water,
 while she drinks the juice from it. When she roasts she cooks
 the meat till the goodness is gone; she drinks the gray and the
 blood. Everything she touches loses its moisture, as though her
 eyes sucked in drink. She drinks the coffee and leaves us the
 dregs, she drinks the wine from the bottles and fills them with

When asked why they simply don’t fire the cook, the Daughter explains that the cook simply refuses to leave.
      Similarly the house is served by a maid after whom the Daughter must dust and clean up the
mess left behind. Describing a nearby desk, the Daughter explains:

…it won’t stand straight. Each day I put a cork disc under its
 leg, but the maid takes it away when she dusts, and I have to
 cut a new one. Every morning the pen is clogged with ink,
 and the inkwell too. I have to wash them after she’s gone, every
 day of my life.
A bit like the figures of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the elderly figures of Strindberg’s spook play, join each other at dinner in complete silence, having “nothing to say to each other, for neither will believe what the other says.”
     Even more ridiculous, are the insane actions of the Mummy, as she pops in an out of her closet, speaking like a parrot.
      While The Old Man’s evil machinations, however, may at first seem intriguing, as he invites the young hero-Student to attend The Valkyrie with him, in the end his intrigues gain him nothing. For just as he reveals all the lies, perversities, and even murder of the Colonel and his guests, so does the Mummy reveal even worse actions by The Old Man.
     In another room sits the “angel” of this work, required to die by Strindberg as a consequence of the world’s guilt, while the Student must embrace truths he has struggled not to believe:

 Unhappy child, born into this world of delusion, guilt, suffering
 and death, the world that is for ever changing, for ever erring, for
 ever in pain.

    In the end, accordingly, the very bleakness of the author’s vision delimits his play’s significance. Is it any wonder that there have been few major British or American productions of this “ghost” play over the years?             

Los Angeles, April 11, 2013

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