By Ponder Goddard, Actor in the Strindberg Cycle

A good friend of mine came to see Ghost Sonata on Saturday. He is a theater artist as well, in a different vein, but we share a love of live performance and fair amount of overlapping knowledge– so of course I was eager to hear about his experience. The conversation began in the usual way of friends: he congratulated me, I bragged about my unique and until-now underappreciated talent for air drowning. And then I insisted he tell me how it was for him.

He loved the production. He thought the cast was brilliant (they are), the costumes and set were beautiful (indubitably), and whoever did the sound is a genius (check and doublecheck). However…. and he hesitated.

Uh huh… what is it? Mmmm?

(Once I’ve clamped down on something I can’t open my jaws again.)

“It’s just I didn’t much care for the play, it wasn’t really to my taste”.

Oh? That’s so interesting, yeah it’s not for everyone I guess, but tell me more of what it was like for you.

(very subtle sounds of jaws, clamping.)

As I drew out his impressions, I began to understand at least a piece of what had left him feeling unsatisfied. Briefly, he seemed to say that while the performances were riveting, he found the story impossible to follow– and that the third act lost him completely. By then what there had been of a narrative seemed to utterly fall away, and he felt himself tune out. By the end he was left saying, “Yeah– I already know the world is full of crap, so what.” With the caveat that he was sure saying such things was new at the time, but it isn’t new now, and it didn’t do much for him.

It was of course sad to me that he didn’t have a more enjoyable evening feasting on our essentially ephemeral efforts, these sandcastles of the soul painstakingly and lovingly crafted to be gazed at once and then washed away into the waves, tides and depths of the subconscious. But his response made me realize something very strange: I have fallen in love, and it has perhaps heightened my senses.

I have fallen in love with these plays in a peculiar way. It might be a slow-drip form of Stockholm Syndrome, I really can’t say. I have fallen in love, though, with the torture and the uneasy virtue of these plays– the struggle to say what seems true, though the word itself may strangle you. The quest to unmask and to be in turn unmasked, and the equally high prices we pay for both sincerity and deceit. How Strindberg’s path to what we call madness seems to be a neurotic, compulsive peeling away of every membrane separating our eyes from that which they perceive, a desperate denial of any easy comfort and a clutching, ravenous hunger to see the crucible of life for what it is.  And what is left, then, when we see the world for what it is? A howl of despair, madness and torment, blindly running through thick and thorny woods, vengeful eviscerating of others for the lies they happily wallow in, the pigs enjoying the filth–

Or… a turning of that vision inward, a seeing of the Self with equal clarity, and the blessed honesty of death.

And, perhaps, then… and only then… new life. Rebirth, renewal. Restore, repair, become young again. To discover the power we have to make another happy, to burn away the old lies and dishonors and hungers and delusions, forsake the ashes of the past and sow again in new earth.

(I have fallen in love, even, with the bitter, miserable, sad and lonely old man who has brought me these thoughts. May he rest, and truly rest, in peace. )

The human voice has more nuance than any instrument or machine yet invented can imitate– more undertones and overtones naturally emanating from every single pure note we sing. These plays seem to me an undulating and almost bestial exploration of the range and tones of our shared but separate human condition– and I understand how it can sound atonal and unresolved. But I am in love, and my hearing is different. In the low moans of guilty suffering I hear the overtones of patience and hope; in the soaring cascades of our greatest joys I hear the rumbling warnings of decay and conceit; in the dying fall, the major lift. And in the uneasy middle I am pulled in both directions, torn by both the gravity of the world’s sorrows and our deepest, perpetual desire to ascend and uplift.

So fall in love, go mad, see yourself and die. Perhaps then, and only then, face the impossible ascent like a Sisyphus finding pleasure in the climb, solace in the view, and humor in the inevitable return to the beginning.

Perhaps this is the best that we can do.