ideas, review

Personhood in the Ghost Drama of Strindberg and Yuan Opera

The early 20th century Swedish society experienced a wave of Antirealist, supernatural and Expressionist practices in literature and theater. August Strindberg, inspired by new philosophies of Freud and Swedenborg, explored themes of human sufferings by means of dreams and fantasy. I chose A Dream Play and Ghost Sonata to analyze his depictions of protagonists who endure human sufferings and recognize the human world as a tragic hell-like space.

In these two plays, by delineating people and their disorienting fates, he questions the legitimacy of traditional social institutions such as family and marriage, and combines various states of confusion and struggling into each character. The two plays approach the mystery of human beings’ suffering through a dream logic of understanding.

Medieval China marked a mass scale of national ethnic integration and economic prosperity, which yielded more freedom to spiritual beliefs and thus a proliferation of literary and theatrical creativity. Yuan dynasty (yr. 1271-1368) and Ming dynasty (1368-1644) boast a huge repertoire of literature and drama that celebrate individual rights. Tang Xianzu’s Peony Pavilion (1598) and Guan Hanqing’s Injustice to Dou E are two plays that belong to the Yuan “zaju” category, miscellaneous drama or variety plays, which also have the marvelous novelty of “chuanqi” plays. They particularly uphold women’s agency by featuring female revenants who die prematurely because of injustice and return as ghosts to claim their rights. Both plays have folklore plotlines that challenge Confucian hierarchy and lead to individual liberation on stage.

The female characters in these two Strindberg plays are generally divided into two types: those of comforting motherly qualities and those “evil wanton women” (Brustein, 1962, p. 140). The milkmaid, for example, symbolizes a life-giving force. Ghost Sonata follows “the movements of a sonata:  allegro, largo, andante“, with a “bell” opening the act with the young man still full of hope for love and life, a “harp” and a “clock” striking Hummel’s death, and reference to Die Walkure marking the end of life for the Hyacinth Lady (Lawson, 102). So this is the music structure behind the title of the play.

The dream logic allows Strindberg to express major motifs such as “falseness and role-playing” and “sight and blindness” (Lawson, 101)Although the setting in Ghost Sonata is realistic, the space contains a “transposition of reality” (Lawson, 100). The house in the Young Student’s ideal imagination turns into Hell, a site of ruin that shatters his dream.

Mays identifies Ghost Sonata as a “Parodied Fairy Tale on Original Sin”. The Young Student is the only good-hearted figure, desires living in the house of “beauty and luxury” with “a beautiful young wife, two handsome children, and an income of 20,000…” (Strindberg, 1907, p. 198). The Student is interpreted by Mays as an Adam figure going through the fall of the Eden (Mays, 1967, p. 102). The scenes are the projections of his imagination. He is “Sunday Child” blessed on the first day of God’s creation (199), born with a special vision, yet he is still plagued by his blindness and is not able to tell good from evil throughout the whole play. He denies the fact that the vampires suck out his life, and instead says to Hummel, “you are freezing me”.

Strindberg presents a “world of opposites” in his plays, where the evil meshes with the good, and joy can turn into sorrow (Lawson, 97). As the Student says in the end of Ghost Sonata, “your flower poisoned me. The most beautiful flower can be poisonous, and must be a curse on life itself.” The Hyacinth Girl embodies maternal virtues that the Student desires. Forever sitting in the flower room, she is perceived with perfection, yet her true ghostly quality is revealed only after the young man’s interaction with her. She and her flowers eventually die with her imagined fine qualities. Her brain stuck out, in the ? production, she sheds her hyacinth-colored dress into blood-stained white rags, and is covered by the Japanese screen bearing the characters “eternality” and ”life”. She is no different from the other vampires of the house, and her beauty vanishes.

His depiction of two vastly different types of females has to do with his fantasy of erotic relations with women he encountered from childhood particularly starting with his mother to his wives. His failed romance resulted in his distaste for the sexual act and hatred of flesh (141). He longed for spiritual purity as he first saw in his mother, yet experienced disillusionment in getting to know his desired women. To Strindberg, sexual attraction is bad. It ultimately destroys personal happiness, and runs throughout life. In Dream Play, the Officer, after being freed from the Castle, is seen in the theater anxiously waiting for his love Victoria, who never comes. His disillusionment exacerbates as seen from his outer appearance as a young man to a withered old man.

Strindberg is obsessed with “human grossness” (Brustein, p. 165). He regards the sexual instinct as the animal physical function of human beings. The Castle in Dream Play is a phallic symbol (Lawson, 97) of the debased human spirit full of filth (169) as well as the House in Ghost Sonata. The flowers are symbols of beauty and life in contrast, (quote Arkenholtz’ poem) but are still destroyed in the end, speaking to Strindberg’s disbelief in the power of the good to conquer the evil. The Daughter asks “why do flowers grow out of the dirt?” and the Father/Glazier answers “They don’t thrive in dirt; they hurry as fast as they can up into the light to bloom and die!” (Strindberg, p. 23)

In Dream Play, the Officer’s mother’s shawl given by her husband is an object of maternal compassion, but when she gives it to a servant, her husband feels enraged and insulted. As it goes, “one good act is an evil act to another.” Indra’s Daughter bears witness to the filthiness of the mortal world, and repeats her line “human beings are to be pitied.” (Strindberg, p. 37) When the Daughter says “but love conquers all.” She is still filled with the illusive hope that the world is a good place after all.

Lawson identifies two philosophical sources to why Strindberg seeks the ultimate truth in the unconscious dream form. Strindberg follows Freud in believing the unconscious captures the soul’s inner struggle (95). Since not everything could be explained by 19th century science, mystery found its way to dramatic expressions of human being’s confusion. Strindberg was also inspired by Swedenborg in depicting the “cruelty of nature and fate” and “impotence of goodness (Larson, p. 96).” During the democratization of Swedish society, there was a growing emphasis on religious purity, also the source behind loathing physical love.

Similarly, dreams and theater are also interdependent in Chinese ghost operas. The examples consulted here pertain to two genres popularized in medieval China: Yuan dynasty miscellaneous drama (Tian) variety plays (Zeitlin) “zaju”, and plays of marvelous novelty “chuanqi”. Among the three core components of Yuan miscellaneous drama performance, it focuses more on “qu”, songs or tunes, than on “bai”, spoken proses, and “ke”, action. Tunes are usually saved for the protagonists. Therefore Yuan drama is often called “yuanqu” since it is sung. The “ke”, physical actions, of Yuan drama follow stereotypical patterns which derived from rituals (Tian, 406).

In Swatek’s review of Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan, two “chuanqi” plays, she points out the “chuanqi” genre texts and performances’ ability to express personal and political identities through word-play and disguise (528). The definition of human or personhood comes into question in medieval Chinese literature. A proliferation of printed texts allow the intellectuals to. In Peony Pavilion, Du Liniang embodies a set of “peculiar trios” of her living body/corpse, self-portrait, and ghost. Her conflicting identities in the eyes of the living characters add to the theatrical novelty of the play. Before death, she is the daughter of a Confucian family; in her dream state, she could not tell the reality with transparency, and is plagued by disease due to the disconnection between her soul and her body; in the underworld, her soul turns into a ghost because of unfulfilled wish; upon returning to life she departs from the former parent-child relationship to a marriage based on free will as a wife. The ultimate reunion of Du Liniang with Liu Mengmei constitutes a challenge against the Confucian patriarchal system which used to bind Liniang in the confines of a traditional family favoring the father.

“Qing” and “li” (emotions and reason) are much heavily debated among medieval Chinese intellectuals. In the case of love in Peony Pavilion, the feudal marriage system which the Du parents represent standards for the long-established Confucian stricture that dictates a woman’s destiny following the patriarchal hierarchy. The free love between a man and a woman against the traditional match-making, as in the one sought after by Liniang and Mengmei, is realized with the consideration of “qing” beyond said rules of “li” (Wei, 75). In supernatural drama, things do not necessarily follow reason, but could progress by virtue of love.

In Wei’s analysis of Tordov’ theory of the fantastic, there are three genres of the “fantastic” elements of supernatural drama: first, the “uncanny” is the known “products of (day) dreams”; second, the “marvelous” takes place when the characters encounter spectral beings by walking into the supernatural world; third, the “fantastic” captures a state of confusion and suspicion when one cannot tell the supernatural from the reality.

When Du Liniang’s dream is performed, it becomes an “outwardly exposed inner reality” where Liniang cannot distinguish the worlds she exists, thus making her dream scenes fantastic. When Liniang sneaks into the garden and falls into a dream, flower spirits interfere, dancing around her and Mengmei, her dream lover. Even when she wakes up, she wishes that the dream does not flee so that she can live in her fantasy despite not being able to find her true love. When Liniang returns to life, stage directions read that the helpers act to support her, indicating her transition from a soul occupying an empty shell to a full-fleshed human being. The scene of Mengmei holding her in his arms still strikes him as “fantastic” as he unbelievably feels the weight of her body (83). But as he later accepts her resurrection, he acknowledges his marvelous interaction with a former ghostly being.

Du Liniang is seen with her ghostly glides with dangling arms in long sleeves. In the Youth Version (2010), Liniang wears a white gown draping from her head to her back, which along with her hollow eyes and sorrowful look, dramatize her inner state in the infernal world.

The theatricality of plays with phantom heroines focuses on the creation of the mise-en-scene based on literary sources. Since the Yuan variety plays are based on rituals, stage directions are simple and brief enough for the performers to act them out on stage based on consensus. (Tian) The effectiveness of conveying brief stage directions depend on both the actors’ performance and the theater goers’ imagination (426).

Injustice to Dou E violent scenes and ghostly effects are vividly depicted in written form to be acted out on stage through speeches and songs (Tian, 412). For example, in the execution scene where Dou E asks the crowd to bear witness to the injustice by noticing the strange phenomenon of her blood splashing mid-air without shedding one drop on the ground, the executors cry out describing that her blood gushes out and flies to the white silk. Also noted, Dou E’s mother-in-law cries and loses consciousness, Dou E actually sings out loud how her tears flow (423).

The “xingke”, the act of walking or going, is important in indicating the change of space in Yuan drama. The important understanding by the audience of the mise-en-scene is achieved without elaborate props and settings as in Strindberg’s plays, “ke” actions on stage are highly symbolic. In Injustice to Dou E, Mistress Cai goes from Dou E’s house to Doctor Lu’s house just by traveling around the stage and singing how she makes turns on the street (420).

The mise-en-scene is also demonstrated by observing the natural phenomenon such as weather. Due to the lack of realistic stage effects, “qing and jing”, emotions and scenery, as in Chinese literary tradition, are inseparable elements in carrying out the storylines. These stage effects are also marked with “ke” to be performed by actors’ movements, speeches, and gestures. Before Dou E is beheaded, the stage direction asks the executioner to say “what a cold wind”, which expresses his sense of strange heavenly power before the injustice is done to Dou E. Similarly in productions of Peony Pavilion, wind “ke” is also acted out through articulation and performances on stage. In the scenes where Du Liniang makes entrances as a female ghost, her invisible ghostly existence is conveyed by her maid, Liu, or Madam Du, as experiencing unusual gusts of whirlwinds. These ghostly winds are usually characterized by the “yin“ force from the world of the dead, as opposed to “yang” of the living.

Phantom heroines represent the “yin” extreme of hyper-femininity (Zeitlin, 29). They are able to arouse pity among living men with their ethereal beauty in their ghostly form. Zeitlin links the loss and realization of life in the alternative form to the political nostalgia of the fall of Ming dynasty. The ghost tales about the alternative satisfaction of sexual desires against social repression has a political undertone of restoring the glory of a fallen dynasty.

Both Peony Pavilion (Mudan Ting) and Injustice to Dou E (Dou E Yuan) involve ghosts, the resurrection of ghosts, and winding plotlines. (Zeitlin, 132) The dramatic quality of the “chuanqi” play lies in its plotting. Peony Pavilion is one of the many plays that involve ghost-romance with strange and fantastic plots where the male and female protagonists realize their love through obstacles.

I want to see the personhood in Strindberg’s two plays through the disillusioned protagonists. Since Strindberg tends to portray the ugliness of human beings and the world they reside in, both the Daughter in Dream Play and the Student in Ghost Sonata are innocent beings with distinct visions of the human world, and put their lives through human sufferings only to corroborate the fact that the beautiful imaginary world is loathsome and that human beings are pitiful creatures plagued by tribulations of libidinal desires.

The two phantom heroines in Yuan drama embody the strong element of “qing”, or emotions, inherent in medieval Chinese theater, which conquers the injustice of Confucian hierarchical rules. Du Liniang in Peony Pavilion is a revolutionary adolescent who breaks rule and finds true love in dreamy guilty pleasures, and dies to continue her fantastic journey until she returns to life to rejoin her love against the opposition of her family. Dou E is typical example of a widowed woman of chastity who is framed by the villain and executed, but returns to life to restore justice with the help of the Infernal Judge.

Strindberg’s characters embodies despair while those in Yuan play delivers hope. The Yuan plays give the female protagonists autonomy which they would not enjoy in society at the time through theatrical renderings of medieval ghost folk tales. The phantom heroines are seen on stage in the form of revenants by means of the “yin” energy of the underworld to confront the patriarchal social order.




Work Cited

Brustein, Robert. “Male and Female in August Strindberg”. The Tulane Drama Review 7.2 (1962): 130–174. Web.

Guan, Hanqing, “Dou E Yuan”. Zheng, Zhenduo ed. A Collection of Ancient Drama Manuscripts (1954). Web.

Lawson, “Dream Play and Ghost Sonata”. Web.

Mays, Milton A. “Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata: Parodied Fairy Tale on Original Sin. “Modern Drama 2 (1967): 189. Project MUSE. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Strindberg, August. “A Dream Play (1901).” Johnson, Walter. A Dream Play and Four Chamber Plays. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 1973. 3-87. Print.

Strindberg, August. “Ghost Sonata (1907).” Johnson, Walter. A Dream Play and Four Chamber Plays. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 1973. 183-229. Print.

Swatek, Catherine. “Persons, Roles, and Minds: Identity in Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan by Tina Lu (review)” Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 63, No. 2 (2003): 524–535. Web.

Tang Xianzu. Peony Pavilion (1598). Beijing: People’s Literature Press, (1963). Web.

Tian, Min. “Stage Directions in the Performance of Yuan Drama”. Comparative Drama 39.3/4 (2005): 397–443. Web.

Wei, Shu-chu. “Reading “the Peony Pavilion” with Todorov’s “fantastic””. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 33 (2011): 75–97. Web.

Zeitlin, Judith T.. “My Year of Peonies”. Asian Theatre Journal 19.1 (2002): 124–133. Web.



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