The of one person, rather than a distinct

The Ghost Sonata is one of August
Strindberg’s chamber plays, written near the end of his career. In 1907,
Strindberg opened the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm with a series of
experimental dramas. These chamber plays are based on thematic movements rather
than linear plots. They display a series of theatrical images juxtaposed and
intertwined like the themes in a piece of chamber music. The plays are short,
with small casts and simple staging; they focus on a world of discord, sin,
guilt, retribution, and reconciliation. Their mood is somber and elegiac, their
structure compressed. Combining realistic scenes with grotesque symbolic
images, they envelop the audience in a muted spectacle of sight and sound that
is almost surrealistic.

In The Ghost Sonata, Strindberg brings together many
of the features that were later to become the hallmark of expressionistic
drama. He subtly interweaves autobiographical material into dreamlike visions
in which time and space are shattered. His characters are types and symbols,
speaking in language that moves from the nonsensical to the poetic. His careful
interplay of light and sound create a ritualistic drama that is both mystic and

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The Ghost Sonata showcases clearly how
Strindberg’s work foreshadowed modern avant-garde theater. His drama is based
on a series of images, not on a linear plot. Motivation is often ambiguous, and
the nature of individual identity is questioned. In fact, Strindberg clarified
in prefatory material that The Ghost
Sonata is intended to be a glimpse into the shattered mind of one person,
rather than a distinct cast. Characters haunted by vague anxieties and
grotesque visions are trapped in confined worlds where it is impossible to
decipher the difference between truth and illusion. Language becomes an
ineffectual means of communication, and often silence is all that is left. A
relentless experimenter, Strindberg left a legacy that would influence
dramatists such as Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey, and Friedrich Durrenmatt, who
said, “Modern drama has come out of Strindberg: we have never gone beyond the
second scene of The Ghost Sonata.”

In a life charged with personal and
spiritual obsessions, August Strindberg wrote three dozen plays, seven novels,
six volumes of essays, three volumes of short stories, and a volume of poems.

Most of these works reflect his extensive reading of the Bible, mythology,
theosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Emanuel Swedenborg, as well as much else that
stimulated his creative impulses. The Ghost Sonata can
be grouped with Oväder (1907; Storm,
1913), Brända
tomten (1907; After the Fire,
1913), Pelikanen
(1907; The Pelican, 1962),
and Svarta
handsken (1909; The Black Glove,
1916) as the third in a quintet of what Strindberg called chamber plays. The
term “chamber play” was a reference to their analogies to musical forms, and
they were written for Strindberg’s Intimate Theater in Stockholm. He initially
thought The
Ghost Supper an appropriate title to evoke the central event
of the play, but switched to The Ghost Sonata as
more fitting for a play built around three scenes, as sonatas themselves have
three movements.

Strindberg preceded and influenced such playwrights as Eugene
O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Edward Albee in his exploitation of expressionist
techniques and in the use of settings, sound effects, and other devices to
suggest states of mind. The apparition of the Milkmaid, for instance, prompts a
reaction in Hummel that expresses his guilt over the events in Hamburg. For
Hummel, the Milkmaid functions much as the Furies do in Greek tragedy, guilty
consciences that drive their victims toward expiation. Other examples include
the Mummy and the Colonel. The Mummy hides in her closet, dehumanized and
reduced by the manipulative Old Man to a mere parrot of a person; the Colonel,
with his spurious military title, his wig, and his mustache, reveals himself as
a hollow man under Hummel’s ruthless attack on his inflated self. When the Old
Man himself is exposed, he succumbs to the Mummy’s parrot speech as a sign of his
own spiritual emptiness.

Vampirism and exploitation constitute the main theme of The
Ghost Sonata. Johansson says of the Old Man that “he’s like a horse
thief, only with people. He steals them, in all kinds of ways.” Hummel rides
around, Johansson says, “like the great god Thor,” destroying houses, killing
his enemies, and forgiving nothing. In his younger days, he had been a Don Juan
who was so clever that he got his women to leave when he had used them up.

Hummel knows everyone’s dark secrets, and his corrosive cynicism shows up in
his talk about them, as when he reveals the identity of the lady in black.

The Old Man explains at the ghost supper that “Nature itself
plants in human beings an instinct for hiding that which should be hidden” but
that “sometimes the opportunity presents itself to reveal the deepest of
secrets, to tear the mask off the imposter.” That is what he has chosen to do
at the ghost supper, “to pull up the weeds” and “settle the accounts” so that
the Student and the Young Lady can start afresh. It is too late, however, for Old
Man Hummel himself: The Mummy charms him into her parrot role and puts the
death screen around him.

Ironically, it was the folly of the Student’s father, to expose
everyone’s pretensions at a dinner party, that led to his incarceration in a
madhouse. The Student has clearly inherited his father’s inverted idealism and
his disgust for a world that cannot live up to his standards of honesty and
goodness. His tirade in the last minutes of the play condemns creation: “Why is
it that the most beautiful flowers are so poisonous, the most poisonous?
Damnation hangs over the whole of creation.” Students of Strindberg’s life see
autobiographical elements in the Student’s bitterness. Whatever its source in
the author’s creative impulses, The Ghost Sonata dramatizes
with great power the dark and apocalyptic side of existence.