Voices and visions in fingal's cave: Plato and Strindberg

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A Dream Play (Ett Drömspel) was published in 1902, more than a year after it was completed, and first performed with some additions in 1906. It is undoubtedly one of August Strindberg's masterpieces. The play has become a landmark within European theater history, with every detail of its open and seemingly random composition falling into a larger integrated totality, both thematically and aesthetically. The play set the stage for the major trends within twentieth-century drama and theater history, serving as a source of inspiration for numerous playwrights-most notably perhaps Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter-but also for expressionism. It has been staged by major directors, including Max Reinhardt (1921) as well as more recently by Robert Lepage (1994) and Robert Wilson (2000). Ingmar Bergman, who integrated aspects of A Dream Play as an intertext in several of his films, directed the play itself several times, including as a TV film in 1963. For Strindberg himself, it was no doubt a deeply personal play, which, like most of what he wrote, grew out of private concerns and anxieties, in this particular case reflecting a religious conversion as well as a confrontation with a mental crisis. It was also the outcome of his profoundly ambivalent relationship to women. The role of Indra's Daughter/Agnes was written explicitly for the young actress Harriet Bosse to whom he was married, but not living with, while writing the play. It is even possible to trace the idea and the basic structure of A Dream Play to a much earlier private letter that Strindberg wrote to his first wife Siri von Essen-who was an actress as well-twenty-five years before beginning to write A Dream Play, in 1876. In this letter, Strindberg recounts a dream he had about von Essen that he actually partly invented to impress her (see my discussion in Rokem, Philosophers 104-9). At the same time, the play is steeped in a broad range of cultural references to contemporary figures like Richard Wagner, to Oriental and Indian literature and religion, and to philosophical and religious notions like the transmigration of souls, which implies a particular reference to Buddhism and Platonic philosophy. It also relates in innovative ways to new technological inventions, in particular to photography and film. As an extension of this complex intertextual web, A Dream Play engages central thematic and aesthetic concerns of the time when it was written. In the following, I draw attention to some of the broader issues of the international cultural debates at the time, focusing in particular on the multiple Platonic contexts of A Dream Play, which surprisingly have not received the attention they deserve by the play's critics. (Robinson's comprehensive An International Annotated Bibliography of Strindberg Studies does not mention a single item that deals directly with this subject.) The basic structure of the play as well as some of its concrete details, for one, draw directly on Plato's ideas of the transmigration of souls, which can also be found in several religious belief systems, but which in many cases-in particular in Christian belief-has deep roots in Neoplatonism. Throughout the chapter I address the intertextual references to Plato's philosophy within the larger weave of A Dream Play, with particular emphasis on the relation between the cave allegory in the beginning of book 7 in Plato's The Republic and the two scenes in A Dream Play that take place in Fingal's Cave. My reading compares the representations of the sensory experiences in these two caves by discussing the relations between Plato's philosophical arguments involving the cave, focusing on the sense of vision, and Strindberg's poetic extrapolation on Plato's philosophical discourse, which includes visual as well as auditory experiences. The philosopher's role in Plato's cave offers a relevant counterpart to that of the poet in Strindberg's. This comparison demonstrates the type of figure that each author favors, for as Plato's philosopher is the figure in the cave who can break the illusion to reach the outside and then return to teach the others, it is Strindberg's poet who has the agency in Fingal's Cave to help Indra's Daughter return home to heaven from where she entered her earthly existence in the prologue of the play. Plato's cave narrative begins inside the cave of illusions, while Strindberg's begins with a descent from heaven to the illusions and suffering of earthly existence, within which there is a cave. The comparison between the two caves draws attention to the complex relations between philosophy and poetry, a major issue within the classical Greek cultural context, in particular considering Plato's open hostility towards the arts, most prominently in The Republic itself, in which Socrates argues that the ideal state should banish the poets. In his play, Strindberg gives an interesting and complementary response to Plato by pointing at the redemptive role of the poet and creating an alternative scenario from Plato's exiling of the poets. Strindberg's figure of the poet in A Dream Play-as well as Strindberg himself, the poet who wrote this remarkable play and set the stage for some of the central cultural and critical agendas of the twentieth century-draws inspiration from world culture reverberating from far beyond the spatial borders of Sweden. The visual experience in Plato's cave is primarily an exercise in epistemology, whereas the multisensory experience in Strindberg's cave allows for a representation of the complexity of human experience. The intertextual weave that Strindberg has created between the two caves-the Platonic, philosophical cave that foregrounds the visual experience and Fingal's Cave, offering a poetic dramatic expression that is both visual and auditory-reveals the full complexity of the cave in A Dream Play. Therefore a comparison between the two caves also offers a unique opportunity to closely examine the complex relations between the discursive practices of philosophy and poetry. In order to discuss the complex relationship of the two caves, this chapter begins with the presentation of the play's greater international position in the tradition of the dramatic use of the deus ex machina. It then moves to a presentation of the play's structure and its relation to Plato's idea about the transmigration of souls. Subsequently, I move to a comparison of Plato's cave allegory in The Republic and Strindberg's presentation of Fingal's Cave in A Dream Play.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe International Strindberg
Subtitle of host publicationNew Critical Essays
PublisherNorthwestern University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9780810166295
ISBN (Print)9780810128507
StatePublished - 2012


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