December 01, 1988

Strindberg’s Flickering Tale

By the time this goes to print, August Strindberg’s A Dream Play, the State Theatre Company’s final production of the 1988 season will have opened in the Playhouse. The project began when John Gaden took a shine to the Australian Opera production of The Magic Flute and invited Swedish director Goran Jarvefelt and his collaborator Carl Friedrich Oberle to direct a theatre work for State. Part of the national “World to Australia” program, the production has received Bicentennial dollars, krona from the Swedish Government and even the Australian Submarine Corporation has sunk money in it.

There is no disputing Strindberg’s influence in modern theatre. Stylistically, works like A Dream Play and Ghost Sonata anticipate surrealism, and even the Theatre of the Absurd, and their obsessions, like Strindberg’s own, reach deep into· the murk of the fin de siecle unconscious. In a preface to the play Strindberg wrote:

“In this dream· play the author has attempted to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream. Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do. not exist on an insignificant basis of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns a fixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations.”

Goran Jarvefelt, in an interview with Rose Wilson, comments on the play:

“Strindberg wanted to break with the Swedish tradition and that’s why’ he. called it A Dream Play. I think he made it like that to have freeflow for his imagination and fancy. What he writes is an existential drama with deep questions about life, and of course, it’s the way he saw life. He questions everything and puts together his own memories, his own nightmares- his own fears, his own hopes. Each scene is quite realistic in itself, and based on existing persons, existing experiences and situations from Strindberg’s life.

“In that sense it is a totally realistic drama, but the unrealistic thing is the way he ·blends the scenes together and makes one scene overlap into another. That creates the dream quality and the irrational atmosphere. He was one of the first in drama to show human beings as we are, that we are not one character, but in each situation we are different people and that we are contradictory and vulnerable. You cannot grasp the human soul totally and he sought in his plays to show us as bits and pieces, that we are (fragments) of different people according to the situation and the relationship we are in. This was a-totally new psychological perception.

“Strindberg, himself, is quite explicit about this technique: The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble. But one consciousness rules over them all, that of the dreamer:· for him there are no secrets, illogicalities, no scruples, no laws. He neither acquits nor condemns, but merely relates; and, just as a dream is more often painful than happy, so an undertone of melancholy and of pity for all mortal beings accompanies this flickering tale:

“I think the play is fascinating in many ways. It has so many different levels. First of all I love Strindberg’s language. It is pure music, wonderful poetry. There is the dream quality. There is no time, there is no space, these barriers do not exist which has a deeper meaning, not just in a theatrical but in a metaphysical sense which Strindberg found in Indian philosophy.

“Am reading about the teachings of Indian religions,” Strindberg wrote in his journal (in between diatribes against his young wife, Harriet Bosse, for whom he wrote the lead role of Agnes daughter) of the Brahmin deity lndra):

“The whole world is but an illusion ( = Humbug or relative meaninglessness). The divine Primary Force let itself be seduced by Maya or the impulse of procreation. (Love is sin; that is why the pangs of love are the greatest hell that exists.) . . . The world exists only through sin, if it exists at all, for it is only a dream picture (hence my Dream Play is a picture of life), a phantom the destruction of which is the mission of the ascetic. But this mission conflicts with the instinct of love, and the sum of it all is a ceaseless wavering between sensuality and the pangs of remorse.”

You get the drift. And it is up to Agnes of God to negotiate all this. The play has a strong social, political force, observes arvefelt:

“Strindberg very rebelliously blames government, the school system, conventional marriage, traditions and the injustice of social life. There are also religious themes in the play – Christian and Buddhist beliefs intermingled to make us ask the essential questions. . . All these ideas he mixes together in A Dream Play and that makes it universal. He never gives an answer, and never wants to, which I also like, because there is no definite answer. That means you provoke the audience to fulfil the answers, to think further.”

“Strindberg’s Flickering Tale” (Preview of A Dream Play) The Sydney Review, No.8, January, 1989, pp. 21-2.

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