A Dream Play

by Pericles Lewis

Like Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author, the main figures in August Strindberg‘s A Dream Play (1902) are known by their social roles, rather than names: the Officer, the Lawyer, the Doorkeeper, the Poet. Like Strindberg’s other dream plays, which were inspired in part by Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and When We Dead Awaken, the play seems to announce the replacement of well-defined characters, the plays divide personality into multiple parts.[1]

In the play, the Daughter of Indra, the king of the gods in ancient Hinduism, comes down to earth to try to understand human suffering. She descends from a cloud to a castle built on a dung-heap and surmounted by a flower bud. The Daughter watches as the Officer has a vision of his dead mother and then waits, apparently for years, for his beloved, an actress, to come out the back door of a theater. (As in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the audience watches a character waiting for something that never happens, a premonition of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot). Without the curtain falling, the scene is changed, and Indra’s Daughter finds herself in the Lawyer’s office; later, she marries the Lawyer and has a baby, but then the scene switches to the back door of the theater again, where the Officer is still waiting for the actress. Suddenly the characters are transported to a quarantine island, where a schoolmaster asks the Officer, “Do you think that time and space exist?” The Daughter discusses Hinduism and Christianity with the Poet and explains the source of all experience in Maya (illusion): “the world, life and human beings are only an illusion, a phantom, a dream image.” She disappears into the castle, which burns, while the stage directions indicate that “the flower bud on the roof bursts into a giant chrysanthemum.”

The image of dung-heap, castle, and chrysanthemum suggests the close but tortured relation, in Strindberg’s vision, between art and bodily functions like sex and defecation. As the critic Robert Brustein has noted, A Dream Play seems to point to the mystery later expressed by Yeats in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” (1932): “But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.” Strindberg’s earlier misogyny has been transformed into worship of Indra’s daughter, but its roots in his fundamental disgust with the human body remain.

Strindberg’s dream plays involve transformations of both character and plot. As Strindberg wrote about A Dream Play and The Road to Damascus (1898-1901): “The Author has sought to imitate the disconnected but apparently logical form of a dream. Anything can happen, everything is possible and plausible. Time and space do not exist. Upon an insignificant background of real life events the imagination spins and weaves new patterns: a blend of memories, experiences, pure inventions, absurdities, and improvisations.” Where Aristotle demanded probability, Strindberg proclaimed that “everything is possible.” Similarly, Strindberg announced his revision of character: “The characters split, double, redouble, evaporate, condense, fragment, cohere. But one consciousness is superior to them all: that of the dreamer.”[2] Yet the dreamer is not strictly speaking a character in the play; rather, he is a figure for the author, and also for the audience members, who relive the author’s dreams while watching his play.[3]

  1. ↑ See Elinor Fuchs, The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), pp. 21-51.
  2. ↑ Strindberg: Five Plays, trans. Harry G. Carlson (University of California Press, 1983), p. 205.
  3. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 188-189.