By Amy Clare Tasker
Throughout the Chamber Plays, Strindberg rails against the restrictions and pretense of polite society, the falseness of friends, and the unjust punishment delivered to those who dare to assert their independence from the established system. Gerda articulates this best in The Pelican when she says, “Remember as children…people said you were bad if you told the truth…wicked little mind, they said. And all I did was tell the truth… so I learned to keep quiet…and everyone said, she’s so well behaved; and I learned to say things I didn’t mean and then I was ready to go out into life.” Her brother Fredrik echoes this idea later in the play, answering his mother’s question “why haven’t you spoken about this before?” with “You forget, I did and was beaten for gossiping, or lying, as you alternately called any true word you heard.”
In The Ghost Sonata, the student recounts the downfall of his father, which directly follows an outburst at a dinner party, in which he exposes all his so-called friends as crooks: “…One doesn’t usually tell people what one thinks of them, and [my father] didn’t either. Of course he knew how false they were deep down and how capable of treachery, but he was a prudent fellow and well brought up, so he was always polite. …If you keep quiet too long, stagnant water collects and things begin to rot.” Following this disastrously candid dinner party, the student’s father is committed to a madhouse where he later dies.
In Burned House, we see another version of what happens when characters disregard the niceties of polite society. The Stranger, Arvid, remembers an old woman’s late husband, first with fondness but as his widow fills in some gaps, Arvid realizes that the old man was “a lying cheat” and says so. Their encounter ends with the old woman chastising him: “Why did you have to go and say all that, when things were so clear before?” Between The Ghost Sonata and Burned House, we have two oppositely tragic consequences for telling the unvarnished truth: the destruction of the truth-teller’s sanity and the shattering of the carefully constructed world of comforting falsehoods.
In his last Chamber Play, The Black Glove, Strindberg enlists supernatural powers to fill the dangerous role of truth-teller. The young wife is shocked by the discovery of her own flaws: “Was I so wicked, then? No one knows what everyone knows – or everyone thinks they know! Everyone bowed to me and no one dared say how I ought to behave. Yes, the mirror dared, but it was a bad friend – its smooth glass spoke only niceties.” She is saved by the Angel and Tomte’s intervention, which teaches her to be kind. Perhaps by the end of his life, Strindberg had given up on human beings’ capacity for honesty and goodness, and imagined a world in which spirits could set things right.