On an April evening in 1907, the elite of Stockholm society gathered at the Svenskan, as the old Swedish Theatre was called, for the world premiere of a highly anticipated play by one of the giants of Swedish literature, August Strindberg. A Dream Play was written six years earlier, but it took a gargantuan effort to turn this great piece of literature into a live production. The theatre in central Stockholm’s Blasieholmen peninsula had a capacity of 1,150 seats in its two stalls and four galleries, and was famous for staging the plays of William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen. The packed audience indeed had heavy expectations from the play that Strindberg called “the child of my greatest pain”.
And so the play began with a conversation between Indra, the king of Heaven and the Devas, and his daughter Agnes (played by Strindberg’s ex-wife Harriet Bosse). Agnes, who does not exist in any Hindu texts, is guided by the voice of Indra as she goes to Earth and is initially enamoured with its green forests, blue waters, white peaks and yellow fields.
The voice of Indra says:
“Yes, beautiful as all that Brahma made-
But still more beautiful it was of yore,
In the primal morn of ages. Then occurred
Some strange mishap; the orbit was disturbed;
Rebellion led to crime that called for check – ”
Agnes descends from a cloud to a castle built on a dung heap and surmounted by a yellow flower bud, and enters the planet to understand human beings.
“The conflict between man’s lower and higher natures and its integration on the spiritual level is represented in A Dream Play by a central symbol combining with it the yellow flower and several other alchemical and oriental symbols,” Vedanta scholar and Germanic languages professor Leta Jane Lewis wrote in the August 1963 edition of the Scandinavian Studies. “This central symbol consists of a growing castle fertilized by manure, surrounded by huge hollyhocks and aconite, and topped by a golden roof on which reposes a giant budding chrysanthemum.” The idea was to give a more Asian feel since the flora is indigenous to Asia.
In her time on the planet, Agnes meets almost 40 characters, some of them symbolic and goes through a whole series of human emotions. She marries and has a child and even ends up on a quarantine island. The emotions that Indra’s daughter has to endure in the physical realm are mostly negative. The play was written following a difficult period in the life of Strindberg, during which he had a near-psychotic experience.
Hindu and Christian beliefs
At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Russian philosopher and author Helena Blavatsky’s writings gained a large following across Europe, especially among the continent’s intellectual elite. It is probably after coming across her work that Strindberg developed an interest in Hindu and Buddhist thought.
The Swedish writer was magnetically attracted to the teachings of Adi Shankara who believed the ultimate goal of life was to rise above mundane limitations in order to know the real Self as unified spiritual consciousness.
“Strindberg, who suffered intensely from personal moral conflict, concluded in essential agreement with Shankara, that the soul’s identification with matter prevents it from manifesting itself as it actually is,” according to Professor Lewis. “Although he consciously willed himself to be gentle and considerate in human relationships, he frequently felt possessed by uncontrollable, almost fiendish impulses, which involved him in guilt and caused him intense suffering.”
In A Dream Play, we see a merging of Hindu and Christian elements. Agnes is very much a Christ-like figure who prays to her father – the king of Heaven – in a very Christian manner. The Christian God’s functions are shared in the play by Brahma and Indra. “Thus A Dream Play presents a fusion of Hindu and Christian elements which exemplifies Strindberg’s syncretistic religious philosophy and demonstrates his sympathy with Far Eastern doctrine, expounded by the Theosophists that equally valid representations of the one existent divinity are to be found in all religions,” Professor Lewis wrote.
Tribulations of Agnes
Agnes’s suffering begins from the moment she moves closer to Earth. She describes it to Indra:
“Now sinks the cloud – what sultriness – I choke!
I am not breathing air, but smoke and steam –
With heavy weight it drags me down,
And I can feel already how it rolls –
Indeed, the best of worlds is not the third.”
“The best I cannot call it, nor the worst.
Its name is Dust; and like them all, it rolls:
And therefore dizzy sometimes grows the race,
And seems to be half foolish and half mad –
Tale courage, child – a trial, that is all!”
In the play, humanity’s evil deeds are equated with dust and dirt. Strindberg believed the dust and dirt of human nature were what stopped a human being from manifesting his higher Self.
Poverty, cruelty and even the routines of family life increase Agnes’s suffering in this world. After spending time on Earth, the princess is in a state of despair and prays to Indra:
“Indra, Lord of the Heavens,
Hear our sighing!
Unclean is the earth;
Evil is life;
Neither good nor bad
Can men be deemed.
As they can, they live,
One day at a time.
Sons of dust, through dust they journey;
Born out of dust, to dust they return.
Given they were, for trudging,
Feet, not wings for flying.
Dusty they grow –
Lies the fault then with them,
Or with Thee?”
After everything she goes through, Agnes finally comes to an understanding that human beings are to be pitied.
In the original Swedish “Det är synd om människorna”, which translates as humans should be pitied, is Strindberg’s most famous quote. This sentence, however, has a deeper meaning in Swedish that is partly lost in translation, since the word “synd” is used for both pity and sin. Essentially, Agnes meant to say that there was sin all around human beings, for which they should be pitied.
So, before parting, she feels the greatest degree of empathy for human beings.
“Farewell! To all thy fellow-men make known
That where I go I shall forget them not;
And in thy name their grievance shall be placed
Before the throne. Farewell!”
Her return to Heaven corresponds to waking up from a dreamlike sequence of events.
In his preface, Strindberg wrote, “The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge. But one consciousness rules them all: the dreamer’s; for him there are no secrets, no inconsistencies, no scruples and no laws. He does not judge or acquit, he merely relates; and because a dream is usually painful rather than pleasant, a tone of melancholy and compassion for all living creatures permeates the rambling narrative.”
The play and its Hindu theme were widely appreciated by the Stockholm audience. Fourteen years after its premier in Stockholm, Austrian director Max Reinhardt directed a famous version of the play in the prestigious Deutsches Theatre in Berlin. The great Ingmar Bergman also staged the play a few times and filmed it for a TV production.
For over a century since it was first staged, A Dream Play has been adapted many times in English in Britain and the United States.
Strindberg’s experimentation and attempt to dramatise the workings of the unconscious mind and portray a reality beyond time and space along with his multiplication of characters helped make this his most famous play.
The Swedish playwright’s main aim was to present the conflict between spirit and matter as the greatest problem that confronts humanity. Leta Jane Lewis believed that Strindberg resolved this problem “by pointing to ultimate reality as a transcendental state of consciousness, which is unified and conflictless like the Vedantic ‘Brahman,’ the Buddhist ‘Sunyata’ and the Chinese ‘Tao,’ and can be represented by the unalloyed divine metal of alchemy”.
The success of the play led to an interest in Hindu philosophy in a country that has far fewer links to India than European countries that once ran powerful empires.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.