Influences Modern Theater and Drama Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata was a critical and commercial failure when first produced, but the play was later recognized as a masterpiece and had a strong effect on the development of modern drama.

Summary of Event

In 1907, the year in which he wrote and published his play Spöksonaten (The Ghost Sonata, 1916), fifty-eight-year-old August Strindberg was the preeminent Scandinavian dramatist alive; Henrik Ibsen had died the previous year. Strindberg’s plays, like Ibsen’s, had been recognized (although not unequivocally) as masterpieces by critics, but they were far from receiving equitable treatment in the theater. His early, fairly realistic plays had been produced with some success mostly in other countries—including Denmark, France, and Germany—but the plays he composed in the highly productive phase following his “Inferno” period (a period of mental breakdown between 1894 and 1897) were both more personal and theatrically more challenging. Till Damaskus, forsta delen (pb. 1898; To Damascus I, 1913) To Damascus I (Strindberg) had only one (unsatisfactory) staging in 1900, and the seminal Ett drömspel (pb. 1902; A Dream Play, 1912), Dream Play, A (Strindberg) which was considered unstageable, was not produced until 1907. Ghost Sonata, The (Strindberg) Theater;modern drama [kw]Ghost Sonata Influences Modern Theater and Drama, The (Jan. 21, 1908) [kw]Theater and Drama, The Ghost Sonata Influences Modern (Jan. 21, 1908) [kw]Drama, The Ghost Sonata Influences Modern Theater and (Jan. 21, 1908) Ghost Sonata, The (Strindberg) Theater;modern drama [g]Sweden;Jan. 21, 1908: The Ghost Sonata Influences Modern Theater and Drama[02060] [c]Theater;Jan. 21, 1908: The Ghost Sonata Influences Modern Theater and Drama[02060] Strindberg, August Falck, August

Inspired by a European movement toward smaller, more intimate playing spaces that had begun with André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris in 1887 and culminated in the opening of Max Reinhardt’s Kammerspiele (chamber theater) in Berlin in 1906, Strindberg was searching for a way to produce his plays independently. He began to develop a form of drama suited to such a confined environment: the chamber play. Chamber plays At the same time, the young actor August Falck had formed a touring company and given Strindberg’s controversial Fröken Julie (pb. 1888; Miss Julie, 1912) Miss Julie (Strindberg) its first successful Swedish production. When he brought the production to Stockholm, Falck discussed with Strindberg the possibility of creating a small theater dedicated to the playwright’s work.

In late 1907, the plans for the Intimate Theater Intimate Theater began to take shape. Falck rented a tiny space that had to be altered extensively. The theater was outfitted with 161 seats in fifteen rows and had a stage that measured approximately thirteen by twenty feet. The interior was appealingly decorated (with a large bust of Strindberg in the foyer), and the stage was framed by reproductions of Arnold Böcklin’s pictures The Island of the Living and The Island of the Dead, the latter of which would become the final image of The Ghost Sonata. Strindberg stipulated (against the conventions of the time) that the theater would have no bar and allow no smoking, that performances were to last less than two hours, and that the texts of plays performed were to be on sale at the theater. The theater’s original company was made up of about twenty actors, among them Anna Flygare, Manda Björling, and Helge Wahlgren (who played the lead role of the student in the production of The Ghost Sonata). The actors, although excited about their association with Sweden’s most famous author, were young and relatively inexperienced, as was Falck.

The Intimate Theater, the first small theater to concentrate exclusively on the works of one playwright, opened on November 26, 1907, with a production of Strindberg’s chamber play Pelikanen (pb. 1907; The Pelican, 1962). Pelican, The (Strindberg) The immediate response was less than enthusiastic, and Falck had to substitute a revival of Miss Julie when two other chamber plays were also ill received. On January 21, 1908, the Intimate Theater first presented The Ghost Sonata. Again, critics were baffled by the play, which they found highly eccentric and even suspected of being a practical joke on Strindberg’s part. A critical and commercial failure, it lasted a mere fourteen performances and was not staged again until 1916, when Max Reinhardt Reinhardt, Max proved, with a boldly expressionistic production in Berlin, that the play was not only highly theatrical but also one of the key plays of the modern canon.

In The Ghost Sonata, a young student, Arkenholz, who is gifted with “second sight” and is able to see apparitions hidden to others, falls in love from afar with a young lady named Adèle, who is the daughter of a respected colonel and who lives in a house in Stockholm. (The play is set in front of and inside two rooms of this house.) An old man, Hummel, wins the young man’s confidence and arranges his invitation to a supper at the colonel’s house, but it soon becomes clear that the inhabitants of the house—the colonel, an old spinster, a mummy who sits in a closet and babbles like a parrot, a recently dead consul, a manservant, and others—are mutually tied together by a web of hypocrisy and lies: They are “ghosts” of their own pasts.

As Hummel imposes himself on their “ghost supper” and proceeds to “strip” them of their self-deceptions, he himself is suddenly revealed to be not the benevolent crusader for truth he has pretended to be but instead a kind of monster, bloodsucking and murderous. Faced with his guilt, he is forced to commit suicide. In the final scene, Adèle and the student share a few moments of happiness, but they are interrupted by a vampiristic cook, who torments the family by depriving them of nourishment. Adèle finally succumbs to an illness, which is a reflection of the corruption surrounding her; as the student prays for her, she dies. The final image is of Böcklin’s Island of the Dead.

August Strindberg.

(Courtesy, D.C. Public Library)

The Ghost Sonata rests on a syncretistic philosophy informed by the mystical theology of Emanuel Swedenborg Swedenborg, Emanuel (who saw humans as passing through a series of unmaskings or “vastations” after death) but also by the concepts of Buddhism, particularly maya (the veil of illusion that masks life) and samsara (the wheel of eternal rebirth). This “spiritual” action of the play initiates the student into the pain and mystery of human existence and emphasizes Strindberg’s belief in the necessary reconciliation between life and death through the shedding of all illusions and guilty secrets.

Strindberg wrote The Ghost Sonata rapidly, in about two weeks in March of 1907. It is designated as “opus three” of the chamber plays, which he consciously modeled on Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas; The Ghost Sonata, accordingly, follows Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor. Indeed, the play’s three movements can be shown to possess a definite likeness, in mood, tempo, and thematic treatment, to the sonata scheme of exposition, execution, repetition, and coda. Following a musical logic and a kind of dreamlike associative technique liberated Strindberg from the customary considerations of intrigue, psychology, and plot, and he created a very complex and idiosyncratic texture of experience.


The failure of The Ghost Sonata in its first outing convinced directors that the play was unstageable. In spite of Reinhardt’s demonstrative rehabilitation of the work on that score, few professional productions have been undertaken since, and very few successful ones.

Despite its less-than-illustrious production history, The Ghost Sonata is one of the first truly modern dramas, and perhaps the quintessential modern play. It is not by chance coincident with other developments that shaped modernity: Sigmund Freud’s analysis of dreams and the unconscious, Pablo Picasso’s experiments with cubism, and Albert Einstein’s postulates for the general theory of relativity. In The Ghost Sonata, a host of unconscious motivations are brought to light and a kind of causal and temporal relativity that could be called “cubist” is at work. Strindberg had put it thus in his Öppna brev till Intima Teatern (1911-1912; Open Letters to the Intimate Theater, 1959): “No predetermined form is to limit the author, because the theme determines the form.” This statement nonchalantly refuted a century of well-made plays and opened the path for a drama of great formal freedom, a drama of images, moods, and symbols that follows a spiritual rather than an external pattern of truth.

What is more, the chamber plays seemed to anticipate the development of film long before it was recognized as a separate form or as an art. The Ghost Sonata is genuinely cinematic in its structure; acts 2 and 3 are set up like reverse-angle shots of each other, and the short, pointed scenes seem to anticipate film narrative. Accordingly, the Swedish film and theater director Ingmar Bergman has characterized The Ghost Sonata as the greatest Swedish play and one of the ten most important plays in dramatic literature; he himself has directed it three times.

Together with other Strindberg plays, such as To Damascus I and A Dream Play, The Ghost Sonata became a decisive precedent for the German expressionist theater movement between 1910 and 1925. The play’s subjective viewpoint, episodic structure, and concern with spiritual redemption closely align it with plays by Oskar Kokoschka, Georg Kaiser, and Ernst Toller. In its unmediated mixture of the trivial and the supernatural, the realistic and the fantastic, however, The Ghost Sonata also points toward the Surrealist theater (for example, the work of Guillaume Apollinaire). The great theater theorist and visionary Antonin Artaud considered The Ghost Sonata one of the few plays worthy of being produced at his short-lived Théâtre Alfred Jarry.

In the United States, Strindberg’s influence was unexpectedly profound. Eugene O’Neill O’Neill, Eugene was so impressed with Strindberg that many of his early plays are virtual paraphrases of Strindberg’s work; some of his later famous plays, such as The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920) and Desire Under the Elms (pr. 1924), are Strindbergian in tone or topic. O’Neill initiated the first American production of The Ghost Sonata in New York at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1924. He declared Strindberg “among the most modern of moderns,” and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1936, he credited Strindberg with inspiring his dramatic career. Even the plays of Tennessee Williams reflect Strindberg’s heritage more than Ibsen’s; Edward Albee’s work, too, is deeply indebted to Strindberg.

Although it may be said (as Martin Esslin has argued) that The Ghost Sonata represents a “direct source” for the plays of the Theater of the Absurd, Theater of the Absurd its metaphysical conclusion is altogether different. Read carefully, the play is not a manifesto of existential hopelessness and despair but rather an affirmation of a moral order and of spiritual transcendence. The two playwrights associated most closely with the Theater of the Absurd, Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, denied any influence from Strindberg. Strindberg, however, was highly esteemed by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, two French authors who were the originators of the existentialist philosophy that nurtured the Theater of the Absurd; Camus and Sartre, in fact, were founders of a Strindberg society. Yet it is in Harold Pinter’s drama, where the irrational and inexplicable lurk under the guise of the realistic, that one can locate the same insecurities of language and truth, the same dread notion that reality itself is inaccessible to casual perception, as one finds in Strindberg.

In spite of all overt and implied influence, The Ghost Sonata as such stands alone. Strindberg’s vision was too personal, his style and voice too distinctive, to find many direct imitators, yet modern drama is unthinkable without The Ghost Sonata. Ghost Sonata, The (Strindberg) Theater;modern drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryant-Bertail, Sarah. “The Tower of Babel: Space and Movement in The Ghost Sonata.” In Strindberg’s Dramaturgy, edited by Göran Stockenström. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Bryant-Bertail’s is the standout article among several in this scholarly collection that address the play. Not intended for the casual reader, but the article repays the effort needed to read it. Offers clear and persuasive insight into the sign systems and hidden meanings at work in The Ghost Sonata.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marker, Frederick J., and Lise-Lone Marker. Strindberg and Modernist Theatre: Post-Inferno Drama on the Stage. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Detailed critical analysis of the stagings of Strindberg’s major works written after his “Inferno” period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Michael. Strindberg. New York: Random House, 1985. By far the most carefully researched and exhaustive of all Strindberg biographies; considered the authoritative narrative of his life. Based largely on Strindberg’s voluminous output of letters, which are quoted at length. Sticks to facts and avoids speculation. Illustrations are sparse but sufficient; includes a brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Margery. August Strindberg. New York: Grove Press, 1985. A brief but competent overview of Strindberg’s life and work, best suited as introductory reading for those unfamiliar with him. Contains a solid ten-page discussion of The Ghost Sonata, its motifs, and its meanings. A good place to start before going on to the Meyer biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothwell, Brian. “The Chamber Plays.” In Strindberg: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Otto Reinert. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. One of the quintessential essays on all four of Strindberg’s chamber plays; puts The Ghost Sonata into the context of its less successful (but equally interesting) “sister” plays. Analyzes the themes of guilt and redemption and the mystic thinking that pervades Strindberg’s late plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stockenström, Göran. “’Journey from the Isle of Life to the Isle of Death’: The Idea of Reconciliation in The Ghost Sonata.” Scandinavian Studies 50 (Spring, 1978): 133-149. Made somewhat less than accessible only by the fact that the text is quoted in the Swedish original, this excellent essay provides a very convincing explanation of the religious and metaphysical motifs in The Ghost Sonata and gives an interpretation of the “spiritual” action of the play. Requires familiarity with the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strindberg, August. The Ghost Sonata. In Selected Plays. Translated by Evert Sprinchorn. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. One of several translations of The Ghost Sonata, Sprinchorn’s is both readily available and quite reliable—although the tone is perhaps too often colloquial, or Americanized, to satisfy philologists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Open Letters to the Intimate Theater. Translated by Walter Johnson. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966. These letters, memoranda that Strindberg sent to August Falck and the actors at the Intimate Theater because he disliked attending rehearsals, represent the author’s thinking on matters of acting, theater, and drama (his own and others) during the period of the chamber plays. Essential clues to Strindberg’s mind, art, and method.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Törnqvist, Egil. Strindbergian Drama: Themes and Structure. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982. Meticulous, scholarly analysis of themes and references in Strindberg’s work; succeeds in decoding the complex structure of The Ghost Sonata and making sense of some of its darker passages. A very interesting chapter compares and evaluates the nine existing translations of The Ghost Sonata, an important consideration for English-language readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata.” Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000. Examines various English translations of the play and then focuses on particularly memorable stagings by Reinhardt, Bergman, and others as well as radio and television productions. Includes a rehearsal diary from Bergman’s 1973 staging of the play and an annotated list of productions.

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