There is a minor character in A Dream Play, the Billposter – you know, like theatrical posters – who is the first happy person the goddess meets on earth. “beside him is a fishing net with a green handle” – what could that mean?
DAUGHTER. You all complain, at least with your eyes and voices.
BILLPOSTER. I don’t complain that much… not now that I’ve got my net and a green fishing chest!
DAUGHTER. And that makes you happy?
BILLPOSTER. Oh yes, so happy, so… it was my childhood dream and it’s all come true, even though I am fifty now, of course…
DAUGHTER. Fifty years for a fishing net and chest…
BILLPOSTER. A green chest, a green one… (186)
All of those crazy ellipses are in the original. The only thing I omitted was an asterisk by the translator explaining that “green” might possibly be symbolic. This bit is not much in itself, but the follow-up is excellent.
OFFICER. It’s the Billposter, with his net… How was the fishing? Good?
BILLPOSTER. Oh yes! The summer was warm and rather long… the net was pretty good, but not quite as I’d imagined it!
[snip some stuff with the Officer and his girl trouble]
DAUGHTER. What was wrong with the net?
BILLPOSTER. Wrong? Well, there wasn’t anything wrong, not really… it just wasn’t as I’d imagined it, and so the pleasure wasn’t that great.
DAUGHTER. Just how had you imagined it?
BILLPOSTER. How? ––– I can’t really say…
DAUGHTER. Let me tell you! ––– You had imagined it a little differently! Green, yes, but not that green!
BILLPOSTER. You do know, don’t you! (191-2, S. went a little crazy with the !, didn’t he?)
The Billposter is not a character of any depth. This is it; you’ve seen it all. Yet Strindberg has given him an outstandingly human moment in the play, and one that contrasts with all of the passion and agony of most of the rest of A Dream Play, a moment worthy of Pascal.
But perhaps I just recognize myself in it. Many others, too. So often in the dream plays, I just recognize Strindberg, who is awfully interesting whether as a creative artist or a clinical case study. The central characters can be close to blanks, because they are needed to experience all of the successive steps of the dream journey and to express the Big Ideas of Strindberg, as when the Daughter jerks the play to a halt to deliver a lecture on Buddhism:
DAUGHTER. In the dawn of time before the sun shone, Brahma, the divine primal force, allowed Maya, the world mother, to seduce him, so that he might multiply himself. [etc.] The world , life, and mankind, are therefore only phantoms, an illusion, a dream image –––
POET. My dream!
DAUGHTER. A true dream! ––– [more Brahma] But this yearning for suffering conflicts with the desire for pleasure, or Love… do you understand what Love is yet, a supreme joy coupled to the most profound suffering, sweetest when it is most bitter? (243)
This is the tiresome Strindberg of the Age of Aquarius, crowding out his minor characters and original imagery for someone else’s predigested mix of Schopenhauer and Eastern religion. Pedro Calderón de la Barca spends his play working hard to earn the claim that life is a dream. Strindberg assumes it from the beginning and then treats it as a revelation, as if I had not been following along.
But this is the risk of Strindberg’s later technique, of his originality. A scene that surprises with its audacity is followed by, or mixed with, received twaddle; images that have lost some of their shock only because they have been stolen by so many films are accompanied by Strindberg’s own thefts from across two thousand years of theater.