“A Dream Play” is an expressionist play by Swedish playwright August Strindberg, written in 1901 and first performed in Stockholm in April 1907. Considered one of Strindberg’s most influential dramas and an early precursor to dramatic surrealism, it focuses on Agnes, the daughter of the Vedic god Indra. She descends to Earth to look in on the problems of ordinary human beings. Over the course of the play she meets about forty characters, although the focus is on a select few, and each character is designed to represent a clear symbol or condition in humanity, such as the ongoing debate between religion and reason. As she experiences the lives of humans, the play explores what she learns about humanity as she returns to the realm she came from. Exploring themes of human unhappiness, the meaningless of life, materialism, class struggle, the paradox of human existence, and the value of shallow things compared to true substance in human eyes, “A Dream Play” has been interpreted in many ways by critics and analysts since, and many consider it to have been influenced by Strindberg’s mental state. It was written in the time when he was recovering from a near-psychotic episode. He has described it as among his most personal works. After its original premiere at the Swedish Theater in 1907, it was directed by some of the most acclaimed directors in theater during the 20th century. It was revived in London’s National Theater in 2005, with a new adaptation by Emma Reay following in 2011 at Oxford Playhouse.
“A Dream Play” begins as Agnes, the daughter of Indra, descends to Earth in the form of a beautiful woman to find the roots of humanity’s discontent with their existence. Her journey is intended to reflect the story of Jesus, as she experiences the pain of being human. At first, she is hopeful that love and humanity will conquer all, but her experiences blunt her hopeful nature. The play features over forty characters, but focuses on three men - an officer, an attorney, and a poet. The officer is the first to appear, a high-ranking military officer and trainer. Although he begins the story as a young, energetic soldier who takes great pride in his work, he eventually turns into an aging, tired, sloppy man who never settles down with a woman and spends a lifetime waiting for his dream lover, opera singer Victoria, to love him back. He is full of self-pity and sees himself as the victim of a repetitive life that doesn’t give him what he wants. He believes that romantic love will cure all his problems. He meets Agnes while she is in the role of a maid and takes her to Fairhaven, a romantic paradise. However, along the way he is detained and winds up in Foulstrand, a terrible place that resembles hell. He constantly fails to find the idealized love he is seeking and represents the failure of romanticism.
The second major character is the attorney, who appears as a disgruntled and tired man. He spends his whole life advising the poor and helpless, and this gives him a constant familiarity with the cruel nature of humanity. He is a haggard, sick man, and he reaches an all-time low when he is denied a doctorate by an elitist academic institution. Agnes comes to see him as a martyr, a parallel to Jesus who suffers rejection because he champions the rejected. Unlike the officer, he is not an idealist - he is a realist
who sees humans as flawed creatures who are trapped between commitments to awful duties and their desire for something more. That something more often turns out to be carnal pleasures which result in recriminations. He meets Agnes and becomes close to her, and they eventually marry. He enlightens her on the awful nature of poverty, and of the conflicts of family life. When they have a child together, he is unfailingly devoted to his family despite his difficult life.
The final major character is the poet, an offbeat visionary who is an outcast because of his bizarre behavior. In particular, he likes to bathe in mud to come down from the highs of lofty, poetic thought, and immerse himself in the nitty-gritty of life. When he’s caked in mud, he’s protected from the flies surrounding him. He is a cynical person who maintains a certain level of idealism, believing that life’s injustices and hypocrisies aren’t the fault of humanity but rather of the Gods. Although he is stuck on earth as a human, he strives for spiritual reincarnation. Those around him tend to lose hope and abandon faith, but the poet believes that humanity’s redemption will only come through suffering and death. The play ends with Agnes realizing that humanity must be looked upon with compassion. She realizes that humanity may harbor spiritual hopes, but they will always be held back by human existence. As she ascends back up to heaven, she throws her shoes into the fire to leave her human existence behind.
August Strindberg was a noted naturalist playwright, novelist, poet, essayist, and painter. Known for his emotionally complex tragedies, he was a very prolific author, with his novel The Red Room
being considered the first modern Swedish novel. He is known as the father of modern Swedish literature. Writing hundreds of plays, novels, and collections in his life, several endure to this day, including Master Olof
and The Father
. A vocal advocate of naturalism, science, and socialism, and of such causes as women’s suffrage, he is widely honored in Sweden, with his house now serving as a museum to his life.