August Strindberg wrote A Dream Play in 1902 after experiencing a serious nervous breakdown in Paris that led him to the brink of madness. Called the "Inferno crisis" after the intensely subjective memoir he later wrote about the experience, this was a period in which Strindberg's incipient paranoia had blossomed into full-blown persecution mania. Among his many curious delusions was the conviction that he was being tortured by feminist witches. He was convinced they were pumping gases into his body by means of an infernal electrical machine through the walls of his hotel room.
His recovery from this dark night of the soul, under the tender care of his mother-in-law, led to a radical transformation in his personality, his religious beliefs, and his approach to theater. Whereas Strindberg formerly believed, for example, that what passed for love between men and women was strife, a crude Darwinian struggle for supremacy resolved only through the victory of one sex over the other, by the time he writes A Dream Play he has abandoned his Naturalistic strategies and misogynistic dogmas and embraced a kind of rueful asceticism modeled on Eastern religions.
Strindberg's change in mood was further influenced by the dissolution of his third marriage, to the actress Harriet Bosse. Previously inclined, and on the slightest pretext, to accuse his female partners of infidelity, lesbianism, careerism, uncleanliness, sloppy bookkeeping, and trying to emasculate him (his model was Hercules, robbed of his club by Omphale and forced to do female tasks), Strindberg was beginning to concede that he might share some of the blame for the way his relationships had been unraveling. Trapped in a repetition compulsion, he recognized that he was producing the same neurotic patterns over and over again.
As a result, A Dream Play has a cyclical form rather than a linear one. Also as a result, Strindberg's central character in this play is no longer a raging, victimized male, as in his pre-Infemo writings. but rather a composite of bewildered men (called the Lawyer, the Officer, the Poet) on a quest for salvation. As for his traditional antagonist, the scheming or castrating female, she has been replaced by the tender and compassionate daughter of Indra, the Vedic ruler of the heavens and the god of storms. Indra sends the girl down to Earth through a suffocating atmosphere (Strindberg predicted the pollution over our major cities) to find out why people are so full of complaint. In order to learn this, she must first take on human form (her terrestial name is Agnes or Lamb of God) and become a kind of female Christ.
After witnessing countless instances of human suffering, and enduring a lot of suffering herself as the battered wife of the Lawyer in a household where the maid pastes out all the air, she returns to heaven, spent and exhausted, leaving her mortal remains in the purifying fire. Indra's daughter has concluded that life is a tragic contradiction, a struggle between irreconcilable opposites such as spirit and matter, love and hate, the male and female principles. These are the conflicts that split the human heart in two, forming the basis for her repeated perception that "Humankind is to be pitied."
But this moist, often self-pitying choral moral is not what is remarkable about the play. Nor is the work especially unique in its perception that we dream away our lives and wake only into death. Calderon framed this concept hundreds of years earlier in Life is a Dream ("What man is there alive who'd seek to reign/Since he must wake into the dream that's death?") and so did Shakespeare in The Tempest ("We are such stuff/As dreams are made on and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep"). No, the innovation of A Dream Play (and of To Damascus, the trilogy that preceded it) is its non-realistic form, later to be called Expressionism.
It is a form in which, in the playwright's words, "Anything can happen; everything is possible and probable; time and space do not exist ... imagination spins and waves new patterns made up of memories, experiences, unfettered fantasies, absurdities, and improvizations." Strindberg had not read Freud, though he was familiar with the writings of Charcot, whose experiments with hypnotism infiuenced Freud's early theories. Nevertheless, his method uses a kind of Freudian stream of consciousness, and his play is full of Freudian insights, including the notion that the unconscious observes "no secrets, no incongruities, no scruples, and no law." Since the work follows the episodic, fluid, and fragmented form of a dream, in which characters, in Strindberg's words, "are split, double and multiply ... evaporate, scatter, and converge," it has always been fearfully difficult to produce on stage. Aside from the fact that the work is all theme and virtually no action, an existential cry of pain, Strindberg calls for at least nine major changes of scene, and his final image is that of a burning castle topped by a flower bud that bursts into a giant chrysanthemum. Try that one on your scene shop and see what happens!
Since the ideal dream medium is the cinema, you would think that some avant-garde filmmaker might have turned A Dream Play into a surrealistic movie, on the order of Cocteau's Blood of a Poet or Bunuel's Andalusian Dog. Indeed, it would have been a perfect project for such an inventive cinema artist as Ingmar Bergman, many of whose fllm are Strindberg hommages. (Indeed, Wild Straw- berries borrows its academic procession scene from the one in A Dream Play.) But Bergman elected to produce this Strindberg work on stage rather than on screen, and in that intractable medium even Bergman was unable to make it work.
A Dream Play has, in fact, never succeeded in the theater, to my knowledge, until Robert Wilson decided to stage the play with the resident company of Stockholm's Stadsteater. Performed in its original language, Wilson's version was recently brought to Brooklyn for a brief run as part of the New Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it proved to be not only one ofthe most striking theatrical events of the season but also one of Wilson's most inventive productions. Wilson solves the insoluble problems of the play largely by ignoring them completely. There are, in this production, no Faustian prologues in heaven between Indra and his daughter, no contrasting views of Fairhaven and Foulstrand, no quarantine stations, no flaming castles flowering into chrysanthemums. Although the text (most of it preserved in this version) is displayed in supertitles above the stage, what transpires on stage is virtually another play, filled with Wilsonian inventions that are sometimes only vaguely connected to those of Strindberg. Wilson, in short, is not uniting with the play so much as running alongside it. It is as if he were dreaming A Dream Play, adapting its subterranean melodies to his own unheard music.
Although purists might object, these parallel works are fascinating to watch in tandem, especially for those familiar with the original, because Wilson's images bounce off Strindberg's text in an almost reverberant manner. Paradoxically, the production begins to flag only when Wilson's approach becomes illustrative rather than metaphorical, which is to say when he begins to observe the letter rather than the spirit ofthe text—in the disappointing opera scene, for example, in which Wilson fails to find a visual correlative for the Officer's ordeal of waiting for his beloved. The evening begins with an overture of Michael Galasso's shimmering, deeply amplified music as we study a painted drop curtain depicting a frame house, a yard, and two young girls in frocks standing beside their bicycles. The drop having been raised, we observe four workmen in white aprons mechanically wielding tools (a hammer, a plane, an awl) as a luminous short-haired young woman slowly descends down a ramp holding a shoe. This is the daughter of Indra (played by Jessica Liedberg with porcelain delicacy), and the shoe is a symbol of the earthly possessions that she, along with the others, will divest herself of in the final scene.
Liedberg, like the rest of this excellent company, has been trained within an inch of her life in Wilsonian choreography. And nowhere has the influence of George Balanchine on Wilson been more manifest than in the physical twists and turns of this production. (Wilson casts his actors not by determining how well they can read text, but by how accurately they can count time.) The result is a kind of painting in motion, with the dialogue functioning largely as another musical element—in keeping with Strindberg's desire to have his plays achieve the condition of music. Featuring a sequence of exquisite settings and lighting effects, and a costume palette where all but one character are dressed in shades of whites and blacks, the production offers an immense variety of vivid stage pictures and vibrant acoustical shocks. It is like listening to a guide explaining the paintings in a museum, except that here the pictures illuminate the guidebook instead of vice versa.
Although Wilson grows a bit repetitive in the second part of the evening, most of his exhibits are loaded with detail. The maid (Kajsa Reingardt) flirting with the Officer (Henrik Rafaelsen) by moving her body coquettishly while snapping her teeth. Three huge white cows being milked to the accompaniment of comic sound effects while men in riding habits stand witness to the action. A woman standing on a beach accompanied by a man bestriding an enormous nineteenth-century cannon. A three-dimensional perspective of the opening act curtain, with two maids standing near a well against the background of a leafless tree. A greenhouse constructed of large windows and skylights and filled with potted plants, near which a maid serves food from a lectern. A brick wall, a large barrel, a blackboard on which the Poet, wearing a one-piece bathing suit, writes.
I find it impossible to describe how these seemingly vagrant visual images charge the atmosphere and mood of the play. One can only experience them. Yet it is not just handsome designs that enhance the evening; it is also a wry comic tone. Wilson adds a great deal of humor to a work that might otherwise have seemed a little lugubrious and more than a little plaintive. And while he eventually runs out of ideas in the second part of the evening, there are enough fresh images to make this Dream Play, almost a hundred years after its composition, a major theatrical event with which to start the new century.
In the last scene, all the characters have their precious identifying props lifted into the flies instead of being burned in a purifying fire, and Agnes slowly ascends the ramp to rejoin her father. Here the production has managed to achieve the state of harmony and atonement with which Strindberg wished to leave the spectator. "Sleep, the liberator," he writes in his author's note, "often appears as a torturer, but when the pain is at its worst, the sufferer awakes—and is thus reconciled with reality."
"Everything is atoned for," Strindberg said on his deathbed while pressing a Bible to his breast. A Dream Play was designed to be an act of penitence and contrition for a badly-lived life. The Robert Wilson production—not perfect, but still the finest realization of the play that I have seen—catches the remorse of the writer without his self-dramatics, thus managing to raise Strindberg's pathological imagination to a new spiritual plateau.
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2011, issue of the magazine