By Susan Brantly
When August Strindberg died on May 14, 1912, it was from stomach cancer. This has lead many to wonder whether early symptoms of the disease might account for the high prevalence of references to food, or the lack of food, in the Chamber Plays written five years earlier. Although an intriguing thought, food, cooks, and especially kitchens also played a significant role in his earlier naturalistic plays.
Take Miss Julie/Fröken Julie (1888), for example, the entire action of which unfolds in a kitchen. On one hand, this makes a great deal of sociological sense. Kitchens were the realm of the servants (just think of Downton Abbey), and the play revolves around the seduction of a noble woman by a servant in the house. When Miss Julie trespasses into the servant’s realm of the kitchen, she is already crossing boundaries that she should not be crossing. This, of course, is taken even further when she has sex with Jean, the servant. Early in the play, Jean establishes some important things about his character when he praises the well-prepared kidney served to him by the cook, Kristen, and then produces a bottle of the Count’s wine, stolen from the cellar, to go with it. Despite his low station in life, he is a man of refined tastes, who is willing to break the rules to see them satisfied. Miss Julie, on the other had claims to be fond of beer, a peasant drink that she condescends to enjoy. This too, runs parallel to the action of the play: the high born lady lowers herself to have sex with a servant, and the servant aspires above his station to taste forbidden fruit. In this early stage of Strindberg’s career, kitchens represent places where mankind’s bodily appetites are satisfied, in this case, for both food and sex. A kitchen is a highly material location, a space where physical needs are met. This association is useful to recall, as one contemplates the food references in the Chamber Plays. Food, cooks, and kitchens still invoke our physical needs, but they have also been tied to our spiritual well being.
In the first of the Chamber Plays, Storm Weather/Oväder (1907), the basement, literally the foundation of the house, is taken up by the Confectioner’s kitchen. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly good foundation. The Confectioner is a poor businessman, on the brink of failing, but he will not look for a job or change his ways because “What good would it do?” He works downstairs making jam in a space overheated by ovens. The heat and ovens might hint at a somewhat infernal quality to the place. His difficulties are a trial and punishment that must be endured. He makes sweets: luxury items that are enjoyed, but not entirely nourishing. His wife is going blind, and wishes that she were also deaf. The Confectioner and his wife seem quite out of touch with the world and prefer it that way. The Confectioner mirrors some of the attitudes of the Old Gentleman who has also cut himself off from the world, but learns that this is risky. The peace of his old age is disrupted nonetheless. Agnes, the Confectioner’s daughter, runs off with the husband of the Old Gentleman’s ex-wife Gerda. Her parents’ inattentiveness has not served Agnes well. The dysfunctional kitchen in the basement is a hint that everything else in the house is flawed in similar ways.
The food connections may not be immediately obvious in The Burned House/Brända tomten (1907). A house has burned down leaving exposed a morass of family secrets. Where did the fire start? In the cook’s closet. The cook is someone we never meet, yet there is a certain aura of suspicion about her. She has had a fight with the Stonecutter and is considered a dragon who haggles about vegetables, thus, no doubt, annoying the Gardener. The cook borrowed a shoot of myrtle from the Dyer’s wife, but the myrtle was in turn stolen by Mrs. Vesterlund, the innkeeper. It is suggested that the student might be having an affair with the cook, making her someone who supplies both food and sex, those physical needs. Almost everyone has some connection to this mysterious cook, whose closet is the source of the revealing fire. All of the characters in the play are linked by blood or by crimes. The fuse that is lit in the cook’s closet comes to affect them all.
In these first two Chamber Plays, food and food preparers play a minor, yet significant role. This theme seems to have grown in Strindberg’s imagination as he wrote the next two chamber plays. The Ghost Sonata/Spöksonaten (1907) introduces the idea of the vampire, who feeds on others both materially and spiritually. Director Hummel seems to have spawned a “Hummel family of vampires,” which includes the sinister cook, who according to the young lady of the house, “devours us.” The cook is enormously fat, since she seems to have skimmed all the nutrients out of the family’s food and kept it for herself. As the Young Lady explains, “All the energy is gone from the food we get … She boils away the meat and gives us gristle and water while she drinks the gravy; and when she roasts, she cooks away the goodness, eats the sauce, and drinks the broth; everything she touches loses its taste.” The cook uses a type of soy food coloring to give the sauces the appearance of yummy goodness, but it is nothing but colored water. The student asks the cogent question of why the family still employs the cook. It appears that she is there as an ordeal, a punishment for the family’s sins. The Young Lady is quite literally wasting away, sick at the source of life. The entrance of the cook is the moment that makes the Student abandon his hopes and dreams of living a pleasant life in the house. This lack of food or nourishment is a sign of spiritual bankruptcy. The ghost suppers regularly held in the house are hollow rituals, where tea and sweet cakes, without much nutritional value, are consumed and the conversation is just as impoverished.
Director Hummel is certainly both a material and spiritual vampire. He has collected people’s secrets, blackmailed them, and gotten rich. He started his career as a sponger in Bengtsson’s family kitchen. There has been a revolution of sorts here, since Bengtsson is now the servant, obligated to serve Hummel at dinner. As the Colonel is unmasked by Hummel, he is also revealed to have been a servant who sponged in the kitchen, so this seems a weirdly common occupation. Those who gain power, start by robbing others of nourishment. Hummel was the cook’s boyfriend, and he is said to have consumed all the meat juices so that the family members became like skeletons. Hummel’s secret crime seems to have been the murder of a milkmaid, a provider of nourishment. The ghost of the milkmaid appears as a visible prod to what is left of Hummel’s conscience. He has murdered, cut off the source of life: food.
Many of these same themes can be found in The Pelican/Pelikanen (1907), only this time it is not the servants who drain the sustenance of those above stairs. Instead, it is the mother of the family herself who deprives her family of food. Margaret the cook has done what she could to shield the children of the family, but her efforts have not been enough. Elise, the mother, controls the kitchen, the source of her family’s well-being (or lack thereof). Margaret is the antithesis of the vampire cook in The Ghost Sonata, but Elise seems to take after the Hummel family of vampires. The title of the play is derived from the legend that the pelican feeds its young with its own heart’s blood, the reverse of vampirism. The title is darkly ironic, since Elise is anything but a self-sacrificing maternal role model. She did not even breast-feed her children, a mark of selfishness in Strindberg’s book. The bottled milk that replaced the mother’s milk had the cream skimmed off, so that both children have been undernourished since birth. Elise, who is not-at-all undernourished, in fact, quite plump, has taken the best pieces of food for herself. Quite irrationally, she has purchased the poorest food at the highest prices. She sends her children to school on only a roll and some coffee substitute. She too has learned the secret of soy food coloring, but adds to her concoctions cayenne pepper to deaden the palate and discourage the diner from eating. She is accused of serving spiced air. Gerda charges her mother with not preparing a grouse properly, so that it is overcooked and tastes only of air. And where is the gravy? Once again, the vampire cook, in this case Elise, sucks the juices from the food, so there is nothing left to nourish those who partake of it.
Gerda has much in common with the Young Lady of The Ghost Sonata. A lifetime of undernourishment has left her thin and infertile, unable to create new life. Food, in many ways, is life. As a child she was given a pacifier, the illusion of food. She tries to steal from the cupboard, but only finds rye bread and mustard, and when it burns her throat she drinks vinegar. Vinegar, of course, was the drink given to Christ on the cross when he complained of being thirsty, so this detail points to the children’s martyrdom. In the play, Gerda has now married, her father has died, and so she assumes the role of the lady of the house. She discovers that her mother’s cookbook is flawed and does not contain information about cooking times. When Elise tries to offer the family porridge, Gerda exerts her new authority by offering the men a sandwich and a steak, hearty fare unlike what they are used to. But this reversal has come too late. Fredrik has turned to alcohol to deaden his hunger, a hunger that is both physical and spiritual. If food is love, then both Fredrik and Gerda have had neither. In an act of revenge and despair, Fredrik sets fire to the apartment. Where does the fire start? In the kitchen, of course, the source of all the dysfunction in the family. Fredrik and Gerda perish in the purifying flames that seem to transport them ecstatically to a better life, but Elise leaps to her death from the window, seeking death in the form of earth, matter, the physical body that ruled her life.
The Black Glove/Svarta handsken (1909) is the last of the Chamber Plays. In this apartment building, the Old Man lives in the attic, his well-to-do daughter (unbeknownst to him) lives on one of the middle floors, and the Doorman lives in the basement. The problems of the play begin with “a storm in the kitchen.” The servants are being accused of stealing a ring that their mistress has lost. Ellen, the lady of the house, is a member of the idle rich. She has nothing to do, but spend her money, and seems to generate crises in order to have something to occupy her. The Christmas angel and the household sprite (tomte) conspire to teach her a lesson by magically removing her child, so that she can learn what real loss is like. Her pampered lifestyle has lead to a state of existential emptiness, expressed by lacking an appetite for food (ingen matlust). The Old Man has similarly given up food, a gesture of denying life and longing for death. In contrast, the Doorman in the basement has an astonishingly elaborate Christmas smorgåsbord set before him, given that he is only one man. The table is set with rolls and butter, a roasted pig’s head, lamb chops, a salmon filé, a smoked goose, and so forth, as the stage directions state. It would seem that Strindberg liked his proteins. This lavish table is a sign that only the Doorkeeper, the man who keeps things running in the building, is keeping Christmas properly. He has a Christmas tree and picture of Jesus in addition to all of this food, which is a traditional part of a Swedish Christmas. This house, therefore, has a solid foundation, which is why problems are solved with the help of the Christmas spirits.
It is somewhat odd to find a tomte living in an apartment building in a city. According to Swedish folklore, these beings were the guardian spirits of farms, who would look after the livestock and make sure all was well. The only payment they would receive is a bowl of porridge set out on Christmas Eve. If you failed to offer this gift of appreciation, then your cows might stop giving milk and your chickens might stop laying eggs. The Swedish name for Santa Claus is Jultomten, or Christmas sprite, and our tradition of leaving him cookies may very well spring from this Swedish superstition. Strindberg’s tomte certainly seems to know who is naughty and nice, and helps those who are good while correcting those who have fallen short. He does not complain about a lack of porridge, however, so perhaps he plans to help himself to the Doorkeeper’s table.
The Chamber Plays are thematically linked in a number of ways: the architectural symbolism, the repeated message that all is not what it seems, karmic justice, weddings and funerals, and, as shown here: food, cooks, and kitchens. If there is one thing you can say about Strindberg, it is that he always gives his audience plenty of food for thought.
Delblanc, Sven. “Kärlekens föda: Ett motiv i Strindbergs kammarspel.” In. Egil Törnqvist, ed. Drama och teater. Stockholm: Almqvist / Wiksell, 1968.
Ekman, Hans-Göran. Strindberg and the Five Senses: Studies in Strindberg’s Chamber Plays. New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.
Ward, John. The Social and Religious Plays of Strindberg. London: Athlone, 1980.