Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
1849-1912 — Translations into English
Swedish drama — Translations into English
Plays by August Strindberg, Fourth Series
THE BRIDAL CROWN
THE SPOOK SONATA
THE FIRST WARNING
TRANSLATED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
THE BRIDAL CROWN
THE SPOOK SONATA
THE FIRST WARNING
MUSICAL APPENDIX TO “THE BRIDAL CROWN”
The province of Dalecarlia has often been called the heart of Sweden. It is a centrally located inland province, said to contain a sample of everything the country can offer in the way of natural beauty. For centuries it played a remarkable part in Swedish history, taking the leadership time and again in the long struggle to rid the nation of a perverted and abused union with Denmark and Norway. It has preserved the original stock, the original language, and the original customs of the race as no other province. The dialects used in Dalecarlia are among the most difficult to understand for outsiders and have an air of antiquity that irresistibly leads the thought back to old Norse. The picturesque costumes characteristic of the different parishes are still in use, and one of these—that of Rättvik—has almost become the national costume of Sweden.
The people are simple and shrewd, stem and kindly, energetic and obstinate, loyal and independent. They have much in common with the old New England stock, but possess, in spite of their unmistakably Puritanical outlook, a great store of spontaneous and pleasant joy in life. They are thinkers in their own humble way, but not morbid. In their attitude toward each other and toward the family they are distinctly and quaintly patriarchal, and in this respect, too, they preserve a quality that used to be characteristic of the whole Scandinavian north. It is impossible to read “The Bridal Crown,” with its typical Dalecarlian atmosphere and setting, without being struck at once by the extent to which the individual plays the part of a link in the unbroken chain of generations rather than of an isolated, all-important point of personality. And the same impression is obtained from Selma Lagerlöf’s contemporaneous novel, “Jerusalem.”
Always a very religious race, though not always good church-goers, the Dalecarlians have long had and still have the Puritanical closeness to the Bible as the book, and they talk naturally in quotations from that source. At the same time the old Norse stores of legend and homely wisdom survive among them to an extent that is perhaps paralleled only in Iceland. And when Strindberg in this play makes his characters quote the old poetic Edda he violates no law of probability, although it is doubtful whether the expression in question would actually come in just such a form from living lips. I mean that the sentiment of such a phrase as “Vagrant women make bread of mould for their men as only food” survives among the people, while it is likely to have gradually changed into a form more wholly their own.
No matter from where the inspiration of their utterances may come, the Dalecarlians are apt to express themselves picturesquely, and this inclination to lapse into rhyme and alliteration is noticeable—sometimes in quoting old saws dating back to heathen times and sometimes in improvising. Strindberg has used this tendency in both ways. When the old grandfather says to the bride that she is “comely as he is homely,” he is merely repeating a phrase dear to the heart of a people strongly bound up in traditions. When, on the other hand, he lets the fisherman in the last scene answer, “Krummedikke’s castle and Krummedikke’s lake, Krummedikke’s church, and soon it will break,” he is probably illustrating the tendency toward roughly rhymed improvisations.
A typical feature of Dalecarlian life has always been the sending of the cattle to upland pastures during the summer months in care of young men and women, who, in communication among themselves as well as with the people at the home farm, have availed themselves of the ancient alpenhorn, or lur, made out of wood and birch bark, as well as of the horn made out of the natural horn of the ox. And instinctively they have realised that melodious utterance carries farther than ordinary speech, and so they have come to sing or hum their communications. Furthermore, they have grown accustomed to use some song already familiar to the listener rather than what they might improvise, and have thus learned to pass on simple pieces of news, or a mere mood, perhaps, in what might be called a code.
Throughout Sweden such songs and snatches and tunes, made up in olden days by some more than usually audacious village genius, survived until far into the past century, and in Dalecarlia and a few neighbouring provinces they have survived to the present day in actual use. With the flaring up of a true historical interest that followed the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century came a recognition of the beauty and value of those old songs and tunes. The first man in Sweden to make a systematic collection of them was Richard Dybeck, who, during the years 1842-50 published a periodical for lovers of the old which he called Runa—”The Rune.” In 1846 the same man published a separate collection of the folk-material just referred to under the name of Svenska Vallvisor och Hornlåtar—”Swedish Herd-Songs and Horn-Melodies.”
Both this little volume and the issues of “The Rune” must have come under the attention of Strindberg at an early period, and to both he remained strongly attached throughout life. In the pages of those two Dybeck publications he found almost everything that makes “The Bridal Crown” what it is—a remarkable picture of the external life and internal spirit of the Dalecarlian people. The musical duet between Kersti and Mats in the first scene is the basis of the whole play. It is found in Dybeck’s work just as Strindberg has used it—both the music and the words. The legend has it that a young man and a young woman, herding cattle in adjoining pastures, fell in love with each other. The girl bore a child, which they nursed together as they best could, having tried to legitimise it by going through a simple wedding ceremony of their own improvisation. Once, when the girl could not get back to the pasture at night, she used her alpenhorn to communicate that fact to her lover and ask him to look after the baby. This legend is found all over Sweden in very slightly modified form.
To the old legend Strindberg has added the still more ancient Montecchi and Capuletti theme from “Romeo and Juliet,” making the two lovers the offspring of mutually jealous and hostile families, and thereby giving the play the tragical twist which his mood required. How he was turned in this direction I don’t know, but his work on the historical play, “Gustavus Vasa”—it was written in 1899, and “The Bridal Crown” seems to have been completed in the winter of 1900-1—had taken his mind to Dalecarlia, where its first act is laid. And the idea of a play built on Swedish folk-themes seems to have been long present in his mind.
For folk-colour as well as for local verisimilitude, he drew freely both on Dybeck and on other repositories of old Swedish lore and legend and superstition. One of the beauties of the play is that so many of the extranatural figures and elements introduced are common to the whole country. The Neck, or the Man of the Rapids, or the Brookman (Necken, Forskarlen, or Bäckamannen) exists in popular fancy wherever a peasant has put his plough into Swedish soil. He is a creature of the thousand rivers and brooks that beribbon the land from the arctic circle down to the fertile planes of Scania, and always he is associated with an unusual gift of music and with the fallen angel’s longing for the lost Paradise. From Norrland to Scania is told the anecdote of the tot who heard the Neck sing the song used by Strindberg—”I am hoping, I am hoping that my Redeemer still liveth”—and who called out to him: “There is no Redeemer for you.” On returning home, the child told his parents of what had happened and was ordered to go back with a less discouraging message to the wailing spirit of the waters.
The Midwife, half human, half extranatural, is another familiar figure, mostly called the Wood-Imp (Skogsrå). The queer snatches uttered by her from time to time are old Swedish riddles or “guess-rhymes,” which Strindberg also found in Dybeck’s work, and which he has employed very effectively as spells or incantations. That quaint dualistic revenant, which is called the Mewler as an apparition, and the Mocker as a bodiless voice, exists in the imagination of the people all over Sweden. It is a creation of the moral instinct, designed for the discouragement of poor maidens who have born a child “in hiding,” as the old phrase puts it, and who may be tempted into ridding themselves of such a burden—a crime that has figured too frequently in the criminal annals of the country.
The word Myling, which I have had to translate as Mewler, is said to come from a verb meaning to kill, to choke, to bury, or to cover up. It is related to mylla, mould, however, and when we find the same term, mylingar, Mewlings, applied to the relatives of Kersti, this characterises them not as “murtherlings,” as Strindberg’s German translator would have it, but as “mouldings,” as people delving in the soil. In the original text, the name applied both to the apparition of Kersti’s dead baby and to her relatives is the same. I have thought this too confusing for English-speaking readers, and have made two terms to get the needed dearness and distinction.
It remains finally to say a word about the keystone to the whole dramatic conflict in the play—the desire of Kersti to wear a crown at her wedding—to be a “crown-bride,” as the Swedish phrase and the name of the original text both have it. The chief ornaments of a Swedish bride have always been the crown, the wreath, and the veil—and so they are to this very day. The wreath is generally made out of myrtle. The crown is nowadays almost invariably made out of the same material. But it used to be of metal, richly ornamented, and kept ready for use in every country church throughout the land. It was another device meant to encourage morality, the convention being that only a chaste young woman could wear the crown at her wedding—only one “worthy” of it, as the old phrase had-it. To go to church without that ornament was, of course, a most humiliating confession, and tended to detract largely from the riotous joy of the festivity which the Swedish peasants have always placed above all others—the wedding. Originally the crown also served another purpose, however. It was, as I have already said, kept in the church and lent only with the sanction of the clergy. In other words, it was reserved for the bride whose relatives consented to have a church wedding at a time when the sacramental character of the ceremony had not yet become popularly recognised. For ages the Swedish wedding was wholly a secular ceremony based on the old custom of bride-barter, and it took the Catholic Church many centuries to turn it into a religious rite.
There are a few minor points that need some clearing up, too. The position of Kersti’s father, the Soldier, must be a puzzle to non-Swedish readers. The presence of the picture of King Charles XV on the wall of the Soldier’s cottage indicates that the action takes place in the eighteen-sixties, before the reorganisation of the Swedish army on the basis of universal conscription had been carried out. At that time each province had to furnish one or more regiments. The maintenance of this soldiery fell directly on the small landholders, and from two to ten of these formed a rote or “file” having to employ, equip, and maintain one soldier. Each soldier had a cottage and a small patch of soil furnished him by the men responsible for his up-keep. Under such circumstances the soldier would seem likely to fall into the position of a servant living under his masters, but that was not at all the case. The warlike qualities and traditions of the nation probably counteracted tendencies in that direction. Instead the soldier became one of the recognised honoratiores of his district, ranking next to the sexton and often filling the place of that functionary when the office was vacant.
The use of the name of Krummedikke in connection with the lake is a mystery I have not been able to clear up. The noble family of Krummedige or Krummedike belonged originally in the duchy of Holstein, but moved from there into Denmark and spread gradually into southern Sweden and Norway. During the period of Sweden’s union with Denmark and Norway two members of that family held the famous old fortress of Baahus (now Bohus) on behalf of the Danish king. Other members controlled fortified places in Småland and the province of Halland along the west coast of present Sweden. But there is no record of any Krummedike having a “castle” in the northern part of Sweden. Whether legends connected with this family have actually spread from southern Sweden to Dalecarlia or the name, simply happened to catch Strindberg’s fancy I cannot tell.
The play in its entirety is one of the most impersonal Strindberg ever wrote. Echoes of his private life are very rare—which is remarkable, considering how plentiful they are in such a work as the historical drama “Gustavus Vasa.” In this respect “The Bridal Crown” connects logically with Strindberg’s novels and stories from the islands outside of Stockholm: “The People at Hemsö,” “Fisher Folks,” and “At the Edge of the Sea.” It seems that nothing helped more to take him out of himself and his morbid introspection than a study of the life of the common people.
How successful he was in that study is indicated by the wide popularity of the novels and stories in question as well as by the stage history of “The Bridal Crown.” This play has been one of the most frequently produced of all his dramatic works. The first performance took place on September 14, 1907, at the Swedish Theatre, Stockholm, and since that time it has been played more than one hundred times in Stockholm alone—which is a great deal in Sweden.
The list of characters will suffice to indicate what a weird thing “The Spook Sonata” is. Rarely has Strindberg’s peculiar fancy carried him further without bringing him to outright disaster. Mingling extreme realism of portrayal with a symbolism that frequently borders on the extravagant and the impossible, he has nevertheless produced a work that bites into the consciousness of the reader and challenges his thought to an unusual degree. The best characterisation of the play as a whole might be to call it a symbolistic mosaic pieced together with fragments of real life.
Reminiscences of the author’s own life in all its periods recur constantly, and yet the play cannot be called autobiographical in any narrow sense. Not even its general tendency—if it can be said to have one—is particularly tied up with Strindberg’s view of his own fate. No, the play is in all its aspects a generalisation along the lines of “The Dream Play,” but brought nearer to the level and superficial appearance of every-day life.
One of its purposes is to illustrate the mysterious relationship between seemingly disconnected things and events which Strindberg during his latest period was so prone to discover everywhere.—When in this super-Swedenborgian mood, he was inclined to regard the slightest incident of daily life as a mere symbol meant to shadow or foreshadow vaster incidents on higher levels. It would be dangerous to accept his readings of life in this mood as so many formulations of truth, but, on the other hand, it would be unwise to discard them as meaningless. What must be remembered first and last in the study of Strindberg’s work is that he was primarily, if not wholly, a bearer of suggestions rather than of final truths. We cannot go to him for knowledge of what life actually is, but we may be sure of never reading one of his pages without finding some new angle of approach, the use of which will help our own thought to enlarge our knowledge of actual life. Those who demand predigested thought will always be lost in the mazes of his irresponsible fancy. Those who ask nothing more of literature than to be set thinking will always find him one of the most fruitful writers produced by modern times.
For this very reason it would be futile to attempt any explanatory analysis of “The Spook Sonata.” There must, in fact, be a separate analysis of that kind for every thinking reader. One may say, of course, that its name as well as the strange function which forms its central scene, points to an interpretation of all human life as a ghostly reflection of wasted and buried possibilities. But there is charity as well as bitterness in the play, and it seems to preach the lesson that we owe tolerance to every man but him who thinks himself better than the rest. It warns, too, against that interference with other lives which seems to have been one of the haunting spectres of Strindberg’s own existence. In other words, the play may be regarded as a final passionate expression of his will to live his own life in his own way and of his resentment against real or fancied efforts to balk I that will.
Dramatically this play is well worthy of study, It contains some points that, whether successful or no in this particular connection, should not be passed over by future playwrights. Such a point, for instance, is the continued presence on the stage of several dumb characters during almost the entire first scene. I do not know whether it will come home to readers of the play that, while the conversation is going on between the Student and Old Hummel, for example, the Janitress and the Dark Lady are all the time present in the background as living reminders of the secret threads of human life underlying the conflict between the two men that do the talking. And the idea of trying to render simultaneous portrayal of life within and without a human habitation has again been tried by Strindberg in this play with very remarkable and suggestive results.
There are several signs which indicate that Strindberg changed his plan of the play while he was writing it. There is one character present on the list of characters in the Swedish text that never appears—the Janitor. On the other hand, that list does not contain the name of the Cook, who plays such a strange part in the final scene—a sort of infernalised Greek chorus with a Japanese soy bottle for its Dionysian emblem. The arrangement of the stage directions in the Swedish original indicates, too, that he intended a single setting to serve for the whole play. He hoped probably to be able to let the action laid within the house be seen from the outside, but, warned by his strong sense of theatrical feasibility, he changed his plans unhesitatingly, and with them his scenery.
Several of the minor themes running through the play may to the reader seem not only minor but hopelessly trivial. I am thinking principally of the constantly recurring charge against servants that they take the nourishment out of food before serving it to their masters. This suspicion seems to have been one of Strindberg’s fixed ideas, occurring in almost every work where the relationship between masters and servants is at all mentioned. I think he has harped too much on this theme, both in “The Spook Sonata” and elsewhere. I think, too, that he is wrong in placing the responsibility with the servants. On the other hand, I think one of his services is that he works with modern science to bring us a better realisation of the dose interrelation between the material basis of our existences and the more important spiritual overtones.
“The Spook Sonata” was written and published in 1907. It was played for the first time on January 27, 1908, at the Intimate The