August Strindberg was an extraordinary human being.  If Leonardo da Vinci was the first Renaissance Man then August Strindberg was in many ways our last.  He, along with Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, is one of the three major pioneers of modern realism in the theater with his plays Miss Julie and The Father.  That in and of itself is an achievement worthy of his place in the canon.  In addition, he singlehandedly ushered in a new kind of drama that found its inspiration in dreams: A Dream Play, Ghost Sonata, To Damascus I, II, III, The Keys of Heaven, and The Great Highway.  These plays became the prototype for expressionist drama and later of absurdist theater.  It is hard to imagine the plays of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Georg Kaiser, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett without August Strindberg.

Strindberg’s talents, however, extended far beyond the plays for which he is best known.  He was an accomplished novelist.  His novel The Red Room has been described as the first modern Swedish novel and his autobiographical novels Inferno and Son of a Servant are considered precursors of the work of Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka.  He wrote short stories, essays, and poetry as well.  He was also a painter whose bold experiments make his paintings look more like abstract impressionism than they do the other paintings of his day.  In auction houses today, his paintings sell for millions of dollars.  Strindberg was a photographer who was experimenting even as the art of photography was being born.  Sometimes he used a broken lens because he liked the effect it had on his photographs.  He was a chemist and an alchemist whose scientific writings gained him access to the laboratories at the Sorbonne while he was in Paris.  He was also a botanist and a linguist.  Above all, he was a voracious reader and wrote feverishly in the margins of his books which remain in his extensive library at his “Blue Tower” apartment to this day.

This is a monumental artist who is deserving of our attention and study.  I am thrilled that one hundred years after his death, we have an excuse for celebrating a Strindberg Centennial and hope that it makes theaters, galleries and publishers realize that we need no excuse to delve into the work of Strindberg regardless of the year.  He still has so much to teach us and his influence is everywhere.

Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Rep at The Cutting Ball Theater

This book is the result of a dream translator Paul Walsh, Cutting Ball co-founder Paige Rogers and I have had for over a decade: a production of all five of Strindberg’s Chamber Plays in Rep. Paul, Paige and I have been Strindberg fans for many years.  Paul’s doctoral dissertation was on Strindberg’s early plays.  Paige’s undergraduate thesis was on Miss Julie and my graduate thesis was on his last play The Great Highway.  Before I met Paul at the American Conservatory Theater where he was head of dramaturgy and where I was an assistant director, I had read his excellent essay on The Pelican in a collection of writings called Strindberg’s Dramaturgy edited by Strindberg scholar Göran Stockenström and had seen a production of his translation of Strindberg’s Creditors at Classic Stage Company.  A love of Strindberg and a love of theater has been a strong bond for the three of us.

I’ve always been drawn to Strindberg’s Chamber Plays.  These are five short plays that Strindberg wrote at the end of his career.  At the end of Strindberg’s life, he moved back to Stockholm after many years in continental Europe.  He founded The Intimate Theater with artistic director August Falck.  The Intimate Theater had about 150 seats and had a stage that was 20 feet by 20 feet (about the same size as Cutting Ball’s stage) and was to be devoted to the works of Strindberg.  The Intimate Theater was created in opposition to the large houses that were common at the time which required a kind of declamatory acting style which Strindberg found unfit for his plays and the kind of intimate acting style that he sought.  He called the five plays he wrote specifically for this theater chamber plays as a way of relating them to chamber music.  If his other plays were symphonies, then these were to be chamber pieces.  He even took up the musical convention of giving a number to each opus: Storm – Opus 1, Burned House – Opus 2, The Ghost Sonata – Opus 3, The Pelican – Opus 4, The Black Glove – Opus 5.  Some scholars do not consider The Black Glove to be one of the Chamber Plays because it was written two years after the others and because it was never performed at the Intimate Theater.  For us, the fact that Strindberg calls it Opus 5 means that he considered it one of the Chamber Plays and unequivocally belongs with the others. [1]

These plays experiment with style in bold and exciting ways.  They make us question the convention of dividing Strindberg’s plays into naturalistic plays and expressionist plays.  The Chamber Plays float somewhere in between these two kinds of theater and each in its own particular way.  That is what makes them so ideal for Cutting Ball.  Our mission since our founding in 1999 has been to create productions of experimental new plays, re-envisioned classics and seminal avant garde works.  This means that every play we produce is experimenting with form, each play is redefining what theater should be.  We like to surprise and challenge our audience by presenting them with a new form of theater every time they walk through our doors.  As we have been working on these plays, our challenge has been to ask ourselves how each of the five plays defines its own notion of theater.  To reflect these differences, we want to allow the conventions and the styles to change for each play in the cycle.  Strindberg, along with Alfred Jarry (Ubu Roi), Georg Büchner (Woyzeck), and Maurice Maeterlinck (Pelleas and Melisande), is one of the fathers of avant garde theater.  For an experimental theater company he is the perfect writer to feature in a large-scale project.

Translator Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh, is the perfect translator for this project.  In addition to being an experienced Strindberg scholar and translator, he is a dramaturg and man of the theater who has worked with companies like the Théâtre de la Jeune Lune, the American Conservatory Theater and the New Harmony Project where he was Artistic Director, and has worked with writers such as Mac Wellman and Tom Stoppard.  He has a wonderful sense of the possibilities of theater and is in touch with the work that theater artists are creating today.  On one hand, he is deeply faithful to Strindberg’s words and is tireless in getting it right, on the other hand he has no preconceived notions about how the plays should be done and is endlessly encouraging our company to push our imagination further – beyond conventions and expectations.  He felt that we were the right company for this project partly because of our work on plays by Richard Foreman, Mac Wellman and Suzan-Lori Parks – something I am only starting to understand now at the early stages of our design and rehearsal process.

These translations are meant for the theater.  They are meant to be acted.  Paul has spent decades in rehearsals and has a deep sense of the actor’s process.  He loves being in rehearsal and listens well.  When the actors are rehearsing at the table, Paul often has one eye in the Swedish text and another eye on what the actor is doing.  He wants to help the actor when a line doesn’t quite roll off the tongue and at the same time, he challenges the actor to take on a linguistic challenge that Strindberg has placed in the text on purpose.  A favorite example of mine is Paul’s translation of the confectioner’s line in Storm when he calls the weather “rötmåndsvärme” which literally means “the rotting month’s warm” and is strange even in Swedish.  It is most likely a word invented by Strindberg.  Most translators change it to a more conventional “burning hot” but Paul loves the insight it gives into the character of the confectioner.  He describes the weather in terms that relate to him.  The hot weather rots the Confectioners fruits and makes it so he can’t make his jelly.  His frustration with the weather isn’t just that he is sweaty – he can’t do his job and he’s losing money.  While “burning hot” may be easier to say, Paul understands that “rotting warm” actually gives the actor more information and more to play.  Paul is always in tune with clues that a playwright gives an actor and works hard to retain those particular hints in his translation.  That is what makes these translations simultaneously faithful and actable – a real gift to theater makers and scholars everywhere.

A Dream Become a Reality

About eight years ago, I started a program called The Hidden Classics Reading Series – a program devoted to giving readings to worthy classics that are rarely seen on our stages.  Its name is a nod to Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata:

The sun I saw, or so it seemed

I gazed upon the Hidden One;

And all his work was human joy,

Blessed is he who goodness does.

Since wrathful deeds which you have done

Cannot be cured with hate and strife;

Comfort those you have distressed

And with your goodness have you healed.

No one fears who’s not done wrong;

Goodness is the innocent’s crown.

The plan was to do plays by a wide variety of authors but my commitment from the beginning was to do one Chamber Play each year and to commission Paul to translate the three plays he hadn’t yet translated (he had already translated The Pelican for his production in Toronto and The Ghost Sonata for a production in San Diego).  Then I thought that at the end we could somehow do a production of all five in rep.

Thanks to the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, we have the resources to not only do all five plays in rep but to do them right.  This is the first time that these plays will be performed in rep in any language, including Swedish.  This means that audiences have never before had the chance to experience the Chamber Plays’ interlocking themes and ideas first hand.  On November 10, 2012, we will be doing our first marathon of all five plays in order.  I can’t even describe my excitement for this day.  Seeing all five plays in a single sitting will be a deep look into Strindberg’s work unlike anything anyone has experienced before.  We at Cutting Ball are so grateful to Paul for these wonderful translations and to Mrs. Osher for the support to make them possible.

The Chamber Plays: Common Themes

All five of the Chamber Plays feature themes that obsessed Strindberg throughout his career as well as ideas that especially concerned him at the end of his life: jealousy, settling accounts, reconciling with life, clinging to memories and exacting revenge.  Another idea particular to Strindberg is the notion that there are testing powers all around us putting us through life’s trials and seeing whether we pass.  All the plays deal with the idea of language not as a means of communication but rather as a means of concealing true thoughts from one another.  A poignant motif going through The Chamber Plays is an old man longing to be reconnected to a child he hasn’t seen in years.  This is something that Strindberg was experiencing at the end of his life when his contact with the children of his three marriages was minimal.  Another important idea is the failure of justice in a system in which two false witnesses constitute full proof and one true witness is thrown out.  Strindberg seems to prefer personal vendettas and revenges to the legal system.  The goddess of divine retribution, Nemesis, seems to hover over all of the plays with each one working out the proper balance of vengeance, righteousness and justice.  At the same time, each one ends with a sense of transcendence and reconciliation.

There are character types that track through the five plays.  Each play but The Pelican features an old man at the center and in The Pelican – the family’s patriarch has just died and his portrait hangs on the mantle.  It is easy to read this as the same semi-autobiographical character from Strindberg’s autobiographical novels.  The plays all have a woman whose faithfulness is questioned.  There are young couples, idealistic students, wise old women, and a host of comical townspeople much like the characters Strindberg satirized in his novels.

Music is an important aspect of the plays with Strindberg often specifying the pieces that are being played during different parts of the drama.  All of the senses are evoked in Strindberg’s writing.  The plays are full of smells and tastes, sights and sounds.  Hans-Gorän Ekman’s excellent book Strindberg and the Five Senses gives great insights into how the senses contribute to these plays.  What is exciting for us has been seeing how these ideas play out differently in each play and how even the style from play to play is different.

Storm – Opus 1

Storm is a play about memory.  An old man who left his young wife and child five years ago has created a shrine to them on his mantle.  He wants to live out his last years in peace with treasured memories.  That peace is shattered when his wife and her new husband move upstairs and dragging the old man into their family drama and all the jealousy and strife that comes with dealing with people in the flesh.

The dramaturgy of Storm has a meandering, leisurely quality.  It has a beautiful, gentle flow but not a strong drive.  It feels like we are hearing snatches of everyday conversations without realizing their significance until they are all put together.  As in all the Chamber Plays, there are strange coincidences that feel like the characters’ destinies are being pulled by an unseen hand, but here the pull is gentle and the revelations are subtle.  The characters take strolls and play chess and the plot moves in a similar fashion.  The play is very much like the hot summer storm of the title – it blows in and then passes as quickly as it came.

Burned House – Opus 2

Burned House on the other hand is a play of utter destruction and revenge.  Unlike the troubled peace of the old man in Storm, here characters are ruined utterly – fortunes dashed, marriages ruined, reputations tarnished, and a young man lands in jail.  A Stranger comes back to his childhood home after being away for decades only to find it burned to the ground.  As the mystery of the burned house is being solved, terrible secrets about the old man’s family and the people in the town are brought to light in ways that mean that life will never be the same.

Here the play centers around the burned house.  The play moves in the same way the investigation into the rubble does, layers and layers get peeled back and dirty, ashen secrets are revealed.  The stories and coincidences in the play are shocking, wild and convoluted.  In Storm, the small apartment building in which the play takes place is called, “The Quiet House.”  In Burned House, the neighborhood in which the house burned is called “The Morass.”  These nicknames aptly sum up the different tones of the plays.

The Ghost Sonata – Opus 3

The three scenes of The Ghost Sonata have three distinctively different tones.  The first scene takes place on a street outside a beautiful apartment building.  The Student has just come from saving people from a burning house down the street (for our cycle of plays, a nice connection to Burned House which directly precedes The Ghost Sonata in the order of composition).  He gets drawn into the plot by an old man in a wheelchair and he follows a strange set of occurrences and opportunities that lead him closer to his object of desire in much the same way as in Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story (or the movie that the story inspired: Eyes Wide Shut).  This scene is like a mysterious trail, or Ariadne’s thread, following tiny details and odd coincidences from the past to gain access into the building.

The second scene features a “ghost supper” in the Round Room of the apartment featuring one of the strangest cast of characters assembled on a single stage: a mummy who thinks she’s a parrot, a rich noble Colonel who’s neither rich, noble, nor a Colonel, and a former fiancée who no longer recognizes her betrothed.  The action of the scene is a kind of vengeance exacted by stripping one’s enemy down in the most degrading and humiliating ways possible.  It is a nasty, mean, cold blooded scene that is just ruthless.

In stark contrast to the second scene, the third scene takes place in the Hyacinth Room which is full of flowers and has a beautiful young girl with a harp.  The student and the young girl speak in a kind of poetic language that we haven’t heard until now.  It is all about the language of flowers and shows Strindberg’s strong affinity to botany and the symbolisms of flowers.  It seems like paradise and many have interpreted the three scenes as Strindberg’s inferno, purgatorio, and paradiso, but this is Strindberg, not Dante, and here even paradise is corrupted.  As the Student and the Girl talk, the Student’s illusions are shattered and the scene ends with his tirade against the dishonesty of the world and then with her death.

The Ghost Sonata is a progress from outside on the street, to the room in the apartment where guests are received, to the inner sanctum of the apartment where the beautiful and fragrant hyacinths are meant to protect the girl from the offensive sights and smells from the outside.  It is a trip down the rabbit hole where nothing is as it seems.

The Pelican – Opus 4

The Pelican is a claustrophobic play that takes place in a sitting room with a desk, rocking chair, chaise lounge and the pungent smell of the corpse that has just been taken to the cemetery.  Unlike The Ghost Sonata, The Pelican stays in one place.  It is the kind of play most of us expect when we hear the term “chamber play” and feel that means it must take place in a single room – a chamber.  The Pelican is about a family that just lost its patriarch.  The father’s funeral was followed hard upon by the daughter’s wedding to the son-in-law.  It turns out that the Mother and the Son-in-Law have a secret alliance and are scheming to get the father’s inheritance away from his son and daughter.  Eventually the son and daughter wake up from their sleepwalking and realize the dishonesty that surrounds them and get their revenge.

The Pelican is a tightly wound drama.  It is in many ways the modern chamber version of Hamlet and Electra – a father murdered by the mother and her lover and the children needing to know where their loyalties lie and what revenge to take.  How Strindberg is able to encapsulate these two major dramas in an hour-long play in a tiny room is quite remarkable.  Like Burned House and Ghost Sonata, terrible secrets are reveled, but here it is less of a stripping away and more like a downward spiral.  The secrets are revealed in scraps and pieces, with slips of the tongue and half-told stories.  It takes time to piece it all together. What starts as the most ordinary of the five chamber plays (a mother and a maid in a sitting room), ends in the most extraordinarily dramatic way – with the house burning down.  This fire, however, is as purifying as destructive and it leads to the children’s reconciliation with the mother after death.

The Black Glove – Opus 5

The Black Glove is the most cheerful and redemptive of the five plays.  It takes place at Christmas and owes a simultaneous debt to Goethe’s Faust and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (only Strindberg could find a way to join these two disparate influences).  This play was written after Strindberg had moved into a new kind of apartment building that had many rooms and all kinds of newly developed modern conveniences –telephones, an elevator, and electric lights throughout the house.  Strindberg saw it as a modern Tower of Babel where disparate souls were joined under one roof who didn’t know each other but had connected destinies.

He sets the play in an apartment building and has five scenes in various locations: a vestibule, an entryway, the caretaker’s basement, the old man’s attic, and the child’s room on the third floor.   He seems to be tracking all the lives in the building at the same time: the vain young wife and her child, the caretaker, the scholarly old man, the wise old woman, the helpful caretaker, and the maids.  In addition to the real characters in the play, there are also a Christmas Angel and a Yule-Tomte (a kind of mischievous spirit charged with protecting a house who later became associated with Christmas).  The Angel and the Tomte are able to swoop from room to room and follow the destinies of the building’s inhabitants.

The play begins with the old man finding a black glove in the vestibule.  The glove contains a ring that Ellen has been accused of stealing.  As a punishment for this false accusation, the Angel instructs the Tomte to steal the Young Wife’s Child only to be returned to her on Christmas, to teach her an important lesson.  The Old Man gives the glove to the Caretaker who loses it, gets it back from the Old Woman, and then loses it again to the Tomte who gives it back to the Old Man who then ultimately gives it to Ellen the maid who finds the ring inside.  The passing of the glove from person to person highlights the many ways their destinies are interwoven.  The Old Man works tirelessly in the attic to find the meaning of life.  It’s a dark night of the soul in which the Tomte convinces him to burn all his papers and books.  The only thing he keeps is a box of memories which reminds him of the wife and daughter he has left behind.  It turns out that the young wife is his very daughter, whose glove he had found, but he dies before being able to reunite with her.  The young wife begs Ellen to forgive her for accusing her of stealing the ring and performs the final services on her long lost father in the attic.  For this she is rewarded with the return of her child and the Tomte blows her a kiss in the spirit of Chirstmas.

This strange and wonderful play has many different styles running through it.  Some scenes are in verse, some are mimed, others are simple, natural and humorous.  It is a far more contemplative play than the other Chamber Plays and is the most cheerful and redemptive.  It is a tour-de-force displaying all the different aspects of Strindberg’s dramaturgy he had developed over the years: realism, fantasy, dream-visions, sleepwalking, causal conversation, and beautiful poetry.  It is a fitting end to the chamber plays that together are such a magnificent demonstration of theatrical style and power.

The Road Ahead

I write this in the middle of our summer workshop in preparation for our fall full productions of these plays in repertory.  Finding a design strategy and performance style that both unifies these plays and highlights their extraordinary differences has been a remarkable challenge.  It reminds me of the challenge I took sixteen years ago of directing Strindberg’s last play, The Great Highway, which many considered to be unproduceable.  Whether it was a success or a failure, it started a lifelong love of Strindberg which I value most highly.

Likewise, whether our upcoming journey succeeds or fails, we have already gained one enormous success – these magnificent translations by Paul Walsh.  I hope you enjoy reading these plays that we prize enough to dedicate a healthy chunk of our lives to realizing.  They are extraordinary.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The demise of the Intimate Theater was brought on by a fight between Strindberg and Falck because the later had put on a production of a play by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Strindberg who was funding the theater with his own money and the money of his supporters felt that although he admired Maurice Maeterlinck, the Intimate Theater needed to stay devoted to Strindberg’s work.  Strindberg was famously easy to offend and what to Falck seemed like a minor disagreement resulted in the end of their partnership and friendship.