Vol. 30 | March 2022 | Modernist Dramaturgy: The Dream Play Technique of August Strindberg | Nisha M


Modernist literature instantly conjures the images of modernist fiction and poetry and the writers are usually British or American. Drama hardly finds a mention while discussing modernist literature. Dramatists of the later modernist period like Samuel Beckett and Luigi Pirandello have been discussed by critics. However, the attention to the dramatist of early modernism – the Swedish August Strindberg- has been scant. This paper discusses the playwright and his contribution to modernism. The most important technique developed by him- namely that of the dream play technique is discussed in this paper. Though he had used this in several plays like the To Damascus trilogy, The Ghost Sonata and The Dance of Death, the focus of this paper is A Dream Play. The radical changes that he affected in characterization, language, settings, utilization of stage space through the creation of a dream atmosphere is analysed in the paper. The direct or indirect influence on later dramatists is also discussed.   

Keywords: Strindberg, modernism, dream play, dream atmosphere


Studies in literary modernism have largely been related to fiction and poetry through writers like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. This privileging has led to the exclusion of other genres like drama and authors from regions other than England and America. Modern drama emerged in nations across Europe notably from France, the Scandinavian region, Italy and Germany. Four important dramatists to have emerged are that of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello and Samuel Beckett each of whom have initiated a unique signature style in theatre. Many English and American dramatists like Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Harold Pinter and Eugene O’Neill were influenced by their ideas. Dealing with all the ideas and techniques of these dramatists or even an individual dramatist to understand their contribution to modernism would require a large canvas. Hence this paper limits its focus to only the dramatist August Strindberg, paying attention to his dream play technique. The paper would proceed by analyzing the features of modern drama including Strindberg’s contribution to it, his development of the dream play technique with special reference to his play A Dream Play (1901) and his influence on later writers.

Features of Modern Drama

Modernist literature began to emerge in the 1880s and ran into the late 1930s. It is well known that modernist experience is characterized by an “increasing breakdown of faith in human reason and belief in the dignity of the human condition” (Innes and Marker xi). Literature produced during this period mapped the varied experiences through innovative forms, techniques and in a language suited to convey the spirit of the times. However, the literary output did not merely document the zeitgeist but also “offer[ed] modes of vision to supersede the old outdated certainties (Innes and Marker xi).  Non-linear narratives, free flowing interior monologues and multiple perspectives were employed in fiction and poetry through which time and space began to be reconceptualised. How could drama, which was dependent on structures that were comparatively rigid and offering very little fluidity, be revamped to “[make] way for an extension of both theme and subject matter into new and previously ‘forbidden’ areas” (Innes and Marker x)? To achieve these, the dramatists of this period offered unique and varied innovations in language, themes, stage space, characters and techniques.

Beginning from the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, theatre witnessed the staging of subjects which were not staged erstwhile or considered as taboo. The Woman’s Question which began to be increasingly voiced, had found its place in theatre as early as 1879 from the staging of A Doll’s House (1879). Through Ibsen’s plays (and Strindberg’s), the conservative society’s dominance was being questioned. In Strindberg’s play with the eponymous title Miss Julie and in A Dream Play, the gender roles in patriarchal society were questioned. Modern drama revolutionised characters on the stage. In 1908, Edward Gordon Craig wrote “The Actor and the Über-Marionette” in which he asserted “the actor must go, and in his place comes the inanimate figure -the Über-Marionette we may call him” (5). This was a concept of the puppet figure where the conventional actor who impersonated roles was no longer considered valuable. An early example of such revolution in characterisation was attempted by the French dramatist Alfred Jarry through his Ubu Roi (1896) and published in 1906. Another such example was Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author. If the stream-of-consciousness technique exteriorised the dissonance of the inner worlds of individuals, the same was done effectively through a technical revolution in the world of drama. The stage space was conceived in a novel fashion highlighting the “artifice in props” (Wallace 256); addressing the modern notions of time and space; and constructing a relationship between the audience and performance (Wallace 254-55). Experimentations at the level of characterization, stylization of language and technique in turn were congenial in producing the “‘absurd’ qualities of disjuncture, apparent randomness, and unresolved (and unresolvable) dissonance … in Beckett's dramaturgy” (Innes and Marker x-xi).

Innovation in the dramatic form has been an integral part of the rise of Modern drama. Both Ibsen and Strindberg had produced realistic plays in the early part of their careers. However, Strindberg moved on to naturalism and expressionism which influenced later playwrights. His discovery of an appropriate dramatic form is significant for the history of Modernist dramaturgy. He had declared that unlike the earlier rigid forms in drama practised throughout centuries, “form must be left fluid so that a theme may be allowed to find whatever form suits it best …. Fluid form!” (Bentley 204-205). The fluid form was thus his contribution to the modernist dramaturgy. 

Representing the fluid form can effortlessly be said than staged. Then how did he visualise the fluid inner world of the characters? It was manifested on the stage with combinations of several effects through the use of his dream play technique that included fluidity in speech patterns; characters who transformed into different roles; surrealistic settings and scene changes that conveyed fluid time and space. He thus became the fore runner of theatrical expressionism. His plays To Damascus trilogy (I, II: 1898, III: 1901) and A Dream Play were among the first plays to reject both classical causality and modern realistic devices in favour of a distorted reality presented by means of exaggeration, abstraction, non-linear and ritualised plot, and associatively evolving visual and aural patterns. By these new techniques Strindberg sought to externalise the inner world of the characters and dramatise the workings of the unconscious mind in ways similar to unfolding dream scenarios (Eszter 83).  

Dream Play Technique

The word “dream play” had existed in Swedish as well as in German before Strindberg used it. In the nineteenth century, it referred to a dream-like reality within a play. Strindberg was the first person who used the term to refer to a dramatic technique as it is known today. By this he meant to project “a reality that is partly dreamlike, a reality that temporarily has the atmosphere of a dream” (Bark 99).  Richard Bark also observes that “Strindberg has never depicted a ‘real’ sleeping dream in his plays .… It is always reality that he depicts as dreamlike” (99). The atmosphere of dream begins from a scene of reality which is gradually changed to a dream like reality which by the end of the play is reverted to the initial atmosphere of reality exuding the notion of return to the original state. 

Disruption of time and space which is a key feature of modernist writing is effectively communicated through the dream play technique. The spectator gets the notion of disruption of time and space when the dream like events occurs to the protagonist and he/she shifts effortlessly through the scenes in the play. The protagonist of the play often becomes a spectator watching mimes/tableaus/play-within-play. Within a single play, different levels appear to operate like a level of reality and a level that is dream like. The scenes are interspersed with each other creating the impression of temporal and spatial violation. For instance, in To Damascus, the character “Stranger” is shown to view reality in a progressively fearsome fashion. The “actor” Stranger becomes a “spectator” and views horrifying reality in the scenes like noticing the scar on the repulsive Beggar which is similar to the Stranger; identifying the pall bearers to be in “brown” costumes as against their insistence that the costume is “black” in colour; and the confrontation with Madman Caesar- the name the Stranger had at school. These uncanny experiences of viewing the Stranger as Beggar and Madman leave the audience to feel that they are simultaneously viewing reality and also looking into the soul of the Stranger. 

Similar instances can be found in Strindberg’s A Dream Play too. Here, God Indra’s Daughter descends to the earth on a cloud chariot. She represents reality in several scenes and is also a spectator like the Stranger in many others. She views the growing castle which is a violation of space and time, and then freezes to watch a tableau where the Officer is talking to his dead Mother. The Officer, referred to as Alfred, is initially a spectator who views the scene of his parents’ talking. From being a spectator, he enters the scene as the son and talks to the mother. While such scenes are common in the plays of later dramatists or even in films, for Strindberg’s audience, this was a novel experience. In the Promotion scene, the Daughter is both a spectator and also a character that performs the crowning of thorns on the Lawyer. In the scene enacting the hellish marriage, the people who are watching her- as Agnes, the wife of the Lawyer- are the spectators. The Daughter is a spectator in the Foul Strand scene, the Fair Haven scene, the School scene and the Coal Heavers’ scene. The play finishes with all the actors entering and offering different elements to fire. Here the Daughter and the Poet are the spectators and the Daughter finally enters into the fire signalling her ascend to heaven. The play thus returns to the original state. Bark notes that it is not an illusion of reality that is created on the stage. Instead, it is an illusion of “dreamlike reality” (106). And through this, characters and scenes flow effortlessly as in a dream. 

Experimentation in characterisation is evident in his plays. Strindberg was critical of the conventional “character.” He believed that stiff notions of the character only strengthened the sense of stability of the bourgeois society of the time (Eagleton 64). They were “an assemblage of fragments of personal and cultural memories and narratives … patched together” (Eszter 94).. He notes:

‘Character’ is ‘a role.’ ‘So, I have made my protagonists somewhat lacking in character.’ And have offered ‘no roles, no characters nor caricatures as it should be called.’ In Miss Julie, ‘my souls are agglomerations;’ in A Dream Play, ‘the persons split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble. (Quoted in Karnick 60)  

He thus broke the norms of the predictable ossified character on stage and instead created characters using a pastiche of qualities. The characters in his dream plays were largely nameless (except for Agnes or the never-appearing Victoria, the always pasting Christine and Plain Edith in A Dream Play) who could be misread as types. Yet distinct characters might be said to “be seen as three different sides of the same person” (Eszter 94).   The Officer, the Lawyer and the Poet may be three distinct characters in A Dream Play, but they could represent qualities in an individual.In To Damascus trilogy, the Stranger can be identified with several mythical characters. The movements of these characters are symbolic of the movement in the inner mental landscape. 

Metamorphosis of characters was a technique that effected the presentation of the dream like quality and fluidity of the play. In A Dream Play, metamorphoses of characters take place throughout the play. The Officer is at the same time a lover and a student, and the Lawyer becomes the husband. The Officer who waits for his lover Victoria is seen to grow older by the scene which marks him as a dream character. Similarly, the Promotion scene converts the Lawyer into a dream like character in a dream like condition. In the play, the Officer’s mother is Christine. So is the servant at the Lawyer’s house- perhaps making oblique references to Strindberg’s own mother who was a maid servant. 

The Daughter of Indra–initially a spectator in the play–metamorphoses into several actors in this play like Agnes, as the one who crowns the Officer, as the wife of the Lawyer and as the lover of the Poet. She also turns into the music of the organ in the Cathedral scene and through her, the sufferings of the human race is voiced. Strindberg was influenced by the concept of Maya or Illusion; Calderon’s play Life is a Dream (1635) and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) while composing his play (Eszter 97). His choice of a Goddess who transforms into many roles helped him maintain not merely illusions of a dream, but also transformed the play into one with “multiple mythical, philosophical, psychological, and literary narratives, [and created] a pastiche of allusions that produces a polyphonic text” (Eszter 97).

Fluidity in speech is an important feature of Modern drama. Speech patterns used in the realist or the later naturalist theatre was considered to be “contrived” by Strindberg (Eagleton 68) and which contributed to the artifice of the play. In his dream play technique, he insisted on the fluidity in speech. The metamorphic stage space and characterization necessitated the delivery of shifting points of view. So, instead of affected dialogues, the characters speak “irregularly…as…in real life” (Eagleton 69). The dialogues in the play shift from coherent speech and often abruptly slide in a perfectly normal fashion into words that take the audience into the dream atmosphere. The Portress, while telling the Daughter about people complaining to her, mentions, “In that shawl dear, lie hidden thirty years of my own and other people’s agonies” (40) referring to her shawl that gets heavier with time. Such language adds to the dream like quality of life depicted in the play. The Officer talks to his mother who has been dead for over ten years and wonders how in spite of moving homes over twenty times the brown wardrobe alone stays at the same place (38). Here the language conveys a surreal atmosphere that adds to the dream like quality of the play. A similar example is the repeated references to the door with the clover leaf and the curiosity of what lies beyond it.

Modern drama has repetition of similar dialogues as a key feature. An initial contributor to this technique can be traced to Strindberg. The repetition aided in creating a play that Strindberg believed was akin to a musical composition that was “coherent – a symphony, polyphonic, now and then in the manner of a fugue with a constantly recurring main theme,” (Eszter 95).  In A Dream Play, the scenes and broken speeches point to the main theme of pity towards humanity. Though the characters and scenes differ, dialogues with similar overtones are spoken throughout the play by the daughter, the Lawyer, Plain Edith, the Coal Heavers or the Poet. Each of their “[musical] notes” may appear discordant to the spectator initially. But by the end of the play, these disjointed notes create the symphony of meaning in the play. 

Realistic stage settings used during the age had created never-ending intermissions to change scenery between the scenes/Acts. Strindberg viewed this as an encumbrance in presenting the fluidity of an atmosphere which alternated in part dream and part dreamlike reality. His settings were a revolt to the realistic settings prevalent in the time. Here he had been influenced by Emilie Zola who wanted to dismantle “‘the decayed scaffoldings of the drama of yesterday,’ and mak[e] way for an extension of both theme and subject matter into new and previously ‘forbidden’ areas” (Innes and Marker x). Throughout Dream Play, though the play is staged before our eyes, the audience is made to feel that the stage is elsewhere: “No character in the play is allowed on the stage” (37). It is as if the actors are spectators waiting for a chance to enter a stage that is forever forbidden to them. Strindberg had added a Prologue to the play in 1906 and its settings are described thus: “The background represents cloud banks that resemble corroding slate cliffs with ruins of castles and fortresses. The constellations of Leo, Virgo and Libra are visible and from their midst the planet Jupiter is shining with a strong light” (25). This heavenly atmosphere is instantaneously converted to a realistic setting which gradually acquires a dream like quality. The scene shifts to the growing castle which grows out of dung. Such changes, which may appear illogical to a viewer was intended to create the milieu of dreams. 

Minimalist settings that can be interchangeably used throughout a play are a common feature of later drama. Such a marked shift in a predominantly realist world of drama was introduced by Strindberg. The settings also contribute to the fluidity of the atmosphere. Free standing set pieces are used interchangeably in the different scenes of the play. Like the characters transforming themselves into other characters, the same settings and props are transformed in consecutive scenes serving different functions. For instance, in A Dream Play, the tree in different scenes grows leaves, loses leaves; turns into a “hat tree” (44); which in turn functions as a “candelabrum” (47) in the next scene. With different scene changes the Officer’s bouquet of flowers appear fresh or wilted or without petals. Similarly, the bed with curtains in the house cum office of Agnes and the Lawyer is transformed into a “tent” when the scene is shifted to Italy. The bill board also serves various functions in different scenes. It is used for sticking bill posters in front of the opera house, to display legal notices and court decisions in the Lawyer’s scene (44) and to display hymn notes (47). The stage settings thus convey the jumble of a dream which may appear illogical but probable.

Strindberg attempts artistic experiments with the props and characters on stage. The burdens and sins of humanity are symbolically represented by the playwright through objects and persons. The shawl of the Portress is black with the burden of sin and feels heavy and filled with nettles. When the Daughter washes it, the white colour is restored – referring to the washing away of sins. The same is true of the Lawyer. His features are plain and “seem to reflect all the crimes and vices with which he has been forced by his profession…” (45). Like the shawl of the Portress, the Lawyer’s clothes stinks of the crimes of other people (45). The organ in the cathedral scene voices the complaints of humanity. When the Daughter plays it, plaintive human voices issue from them instead of musical notes. The organ subsequently transforms into Fingal’s Cave (50), which is the representation of God Indra’s ear. Thus, God directly receives the supplications of human beings.

Language and individual objects can be successfully utilized to convey the sense of disconnectedness. But Strindberg takes this even further to the level of scenery where several scenes are presented simultaneously. In the Foul strand scene, Strindberg uses three different levels of scenery:

To the right, in the foreground, are seen hills stripped of their trees by fire, and red heather growing between the blackened tree stumps... Beyond these, … apparatus for mechanical gymnastics, where sick persons are being treated on machines resembling instruments of torture. 
To the left, in the foreground, the quarantine station, consisting of open sheds, with ovens, furnaces, and pipe coils. In the middle distance, a narrow strait. The background shows a beautiful wooded shore… (58)

 The immediate scene right in front of the audience is unpleasant to look at. The Daughter arrives here mistaking it for Foulhaven. In the middle is a better scene of a strait and far behind on the stage is the “beautiful wooded shore.” As is evident from the above lines, three different levels are conveyed which appears improbable. This is similar to the scene where the summer is covered by snow and when the lime tree turns yellow or green intermittently. Yet this is Strindberg’s answer to the depiction of disruptive temporal and spatial order. 

In the case of A Dream Play, a part of the setting was one which the audience at Stockholm could identify with. Ingvar Holm in “Theories and Practices in Staging A Dream Play” observes that the actual landmarks in and around Stockholm had been created as the setting in this play which the spectators in 1935 Stockholm could relate to. Thus the “Stockholm opera house….[and] the Billposter with his dip net ‘with a green handle’ might be associated with the (green) fishing boats by Nybron next to the Opera (266).The stage is thus figuratively extended to the physical space outside the theatre which the audience in Stockholm could relate to. The connection between the castle growing out of dung, though improbable, was something that the audience could vaguely understand because they referred to the horse guards’ barracks which had the stables which were filled with horse dung.

Influence on Later Playwrights

Many plays and playwrights were influenced by Strindberg and his techniques in the theatre. His influence on modern drama can be understood from the following words:

(1) Strindberg influenced his contemporaries and successors directly…. (2) Strindberg's work has sent out impulses that appear even in the works of those who know nothing of these impulses’ origins. and (3) Prevalent tendencies of postclassical literature are evident in Strindberg's work, tendencies that were introduced (Stockenstrom 59)   

He had influenced his contemporaries like Ibsen directly who acknowledged the same during his lifetime. As a successor Ionesco confirmed this and so confessed it to be true. Fragmented characters or characters who transformed themselves into other characters; seemingly illogical and disjointed language; multiple usage of stage props; limited settings/scenery on the modern stage or surreal atmosphere owe their debt to the techniques developed by this Swedish genius. Influences can be noticed in dramatists like Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter and Eugene O’Neill to name a few. In 1924 Eugene O'Neill acknowledged his indebtedness to the Swede in these words:

Strindberg was the precursor of all modernity in our present theater…. Strindberg still remains among the most modern of moderns, the greatest interpreter in the theater of the characteristic spiritual conflicts which constitute the drama—the blood—of our lives today (Quoted in Bentley195-196). 

O’Neill, like Strindberg, projected the inner struggles of the human being on stage using the dream like or nightmarish atmosphere in his plays like The Hairy Ape. It would be a tribute to Strindberg if one can consciously trace that Waiting for Godot, Zoo Story, Amedee, Six Characters in Search of an Author or The Birthday Party owe much to the innovations in fluidity by August Strindberg.


This paper had traced the changes brought about on stage during the modern period and positioned Strindberg as an early experimenter on the modernist stage. His development of the dream play technique had revolutionized the stage. The dream atmosphere helped in visualizing the inner psyche of a person which was akin to a dream like reality. This technique was a milestone in drama and led to the revamping and redesigning of the stage space, direction, settings, characterization and language. These transformations were discussed using his A Dream Play. The technique had created an impact on several playwrights in the modernist period and this was also briefly discussed. 

Works Cited

Bark, Richard. “Strindberg’s Dream Play Technique.” Strindberg’s Dramaturgy, edited by Goran 
Stockenstrom, University of Minnesota Press, 1988. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/inflibnet-ebooks/detail.action?docID=310191.

Bentley, Eric. Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times, University of Minnesota 
Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/inflibnet-ebooks/detail.action?docID=635538.

Craig, Edward Gordon. “The Actor and the Über Marionette.” https://Bluemountain.princeton.edu/, 
Princeton University Library, 2012, https://bluemountain.princeton.edu/bluemtn/?a=d&d=bmtnaau190804-01&e=-------en-20--1--txt-txIN-------.

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism, University of California Press, 1976.

Holm, Ingvar. “Theories and Practice in Staging A Dream Play.” Strindberg’s Dramaturgy, edited 
by Goran Stockenstrom, University of Minnesota Press, 1988. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/inflibnet-ebooks/detail.action?docID=310191.

Karnick, Manfred. “Strindberg and the Tradition of Modernity: Structure of Drama and Experience.” 
Strindberg’s Dramaturgy, edited by Goran Stockenstrom, University of Minnesota Press, 1988. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/inflibnet-ebooks/detail.action?docID=310191.

Levenson, M. Modernism. ProQuest Ebook Central, 2011.

Modernism in European Drama: Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Beckett: Essays from Modern Drama
edited by Christopher Innes, and Frederick J. Marker, University of Toronto Press, 1998. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/in

“Plays by August Strindberg: A Dream Play, the Link, the Dance of Death, Part I, the Dance of Death, 
Part II; Strindberg, August, 1849-1912: Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1 Jan. 1970, https://archive.org/details/playsbyauguststr00stri/page/n7/mode/2up.

Szalczer, Eszter. August Strindberg, Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, 

Strindberg, August, and Sam E. Davidson. To Damascus; a Dream Trilogy. R.E. Badger, 1933.

Törnqvist, Egil. “Staging A Dream Play.” Strindberg’s Dramaturgy, edited by Goran Stockenstrom, 
University of Minnesota Press, 1988. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/inflibnet-ebooks/detail.action?docID=310191

Wallace, Jeff. Beginning Modernism. Manchester University Press, 2011.