Abstract Words: Expressionism, August Strindberg, and A Dream Play.


   This paper is reveals August Strindberg’s expressionistic point of view in his play A Dream Play by showing human agonies under the rule of capitalism and industrialism, each one of them aimed to dehumanize human being and made human beings to see the reality only in their dreams and dreaming to have a better life.

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   Also I want to find out the other reasons such as , materialism and the absence of God besides the capitalism and industrialism which can be also the cause of human’s misery and made them to feel their lost in the world. And to reveal realities which are hidden inside the unconscious mind that no one has seen it only formed as a dream.


Key Words: Expressionism, August Strindberg, and A Dream Play.










Subjects……………………………………………………….. Page

1- Introduction ………………………………………………….  4

2- Expressionism ……………………………………………….. 6

3- Expressionism in the theatre…………………………………. 7

4- A – August Strindberg as expressionist dramatist……………. 8

4- B- The elements of expressionism in A Dream Play…………. 9

5- Conclusion……………………………………………………. 15

















1- Introduction

   The late of the nineteenth-century and the early of the twentieth-century has been witnessed many cultural changes throughout the world under the industrialism and capitalism which increased human’s agony. As Matthew Arnold described that “the Old has passed away: but, alas, the New appears not its stead”. Science and technology developed rapidly during the late nineteenth-century, which they displaced religion and theological thinking among people. The scientists and philosophers developed their works against religious doctrine at that time.

   Philosophers began to ask Protestant or Roman Catholic, are we all to be sure, God was in his heaven and all was well on earth? As Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) Origin of Species (1859) was against biblical belief that Man created by God, but what Darwin says is that everything begin from earth and every species struggle  for survive there is no place for God. (Habbib, 2011)

    Fredrick Nietzsche (1844-1900) declared in 1872, God was dead. The situation was far worse, it is not only God was now dead but he was nonexistent, had never been, and could not be. Thus God was vanished away in the hearts of many educated Europeans only remained as a habit to go to church and worshiped Him because faith had lost its value. Before the nineteenth century, people believe that God is the Great Artificer or Lawgiver of the Universe but now they ask whether He exist or not, if he exist so why He does nothing dealing with human’s agony on earth under the rules of capitalism and industrialism? (Dahlström, 1962)


   Darwin’s and Nietzsche’s theory of the absence of God destroyed the psyche of most of people in general because, previously they thought that there is someone above them who can protect them and care about their sorrows. But now these beliefs turn to doubt. So the age needs a psychoanalyst to show their problems and how to deal with it. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) who was the influential figure in the late nineteenth-century until present day, he was being famous with publication of ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ (1900) According to Freud’s ideas, the outside world has the major role in creating or destroying human’s life especially affects the inner life of Man. (Bressler, 2011)

   Another side which affected writers is urbanization and industrialism.  After industrial revolution people immigrated to big industrial cities so as to work in the factories. This creates over population and mass of security. Also raised capitalism and social classes, which makes working class poorer and upper class richer because of having machines in the factories workers paid less than before.    

   So, with the development of human’s agony under industrialized society which devaluate individuals especially lower or working class and the influence of above theories make writers to have a response in their works and to appear a movement named Expressionism. August Strindberg’s play A Dream Play (1907) is about human agonies under industrialized society and the absence of God or the powerless of God to deal with it.



2- Expressionism as a movement

   Expressionism generally appeared in Europe in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century as a reaction against industrialized society which works with urbanization and capitalism to devaluate human beings. It reached the pick just before the World War I and after war in 1925. (Galens, 2002)

   The term was first appeared in Germany to describe these painters’ works which was free from using techniques of impressionists and they have their own experimental techniques, these techniques exist from their inner suppressed desires in the mind. They usually show individuals under the injustice lows of capitalistic societies. They deliver their message by using dreams, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy. (Yaganeh, 2006)

   Expressionists reject the forms and rules of writing for example imagery, syntax, punctuation and sometimes rules from grammar, they believe that these rules can be disjoined to suit the purpose. Also their writings can be considered as a reaction against realism because they want to show the inner psychological realities rather than outer this can be seen in Strindberg’s A Dream Play. (Cuddon, 2013)

   Frantz Kafka (1883-1924) as an example of Expressionist who influenced by Nietzsche and Strindberg; his works were famous by expressing the sense of alienation. Also August Strindberg (1849-1912) was known as a “Father of Expressionism”, in his plays he deals with humanity’s misery and search for meaning in life. And others like George Trakle, George Kaiser, and Eugene O’Neill.


3- Expressionism in theatre

   As expressionism first appeared in Germany, among the well-known German playwrights was George Kaiser, his plays such as From Morn to Midnight (1916) considered as an expressionist play because the play is symbolic story of the protagonist who searches for happiness through wealth but from the end he realizes that he had misguided, usually the protagonists in his plays search the meaning from life but they find nothing, so these characters often commit suicide.

   Expressionist Dramatists want to choose their characters from different types of human instead individualized characters, so as they can easily replace the plot for the sake of theme and express emotional states. In their style of writing usually they use fragmented style, and incoherent sentences or phrases. Also their language contains many repetitions and echoes. (Abrams, 1999)

   German expressionism techniques have influenced other writers throughout the world, for example, in America Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1923) in which the protagonist searches his identity because he is neglected by the society so he prefers to live with apes, Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923), and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). (Yeganeh, 2006)

   Thus, expressionism as a movement gave a new approach to the theatre, its aim was to reveal the inner psychology of the character who wants to finds him/ her (self) in the chaotic world, and it influences the emotional state of the audience and makes them to raise questions about the meaning of life in general.


4- A     August Strindberg as an expressionist dramatist

   August Strindberg (1849-1912) Swedish playwright, poet, essayist, novelist, and painter; was lived between two great historical events, he born before industrial revolution and died two years before the World War II. The period that he lived characterized by the progression in science and technology which they stand side by side against religion.  (Morgan, 1985)

   Strindberg’s childhood was marked by “emotional insecurity, poverty, religious fanaticism and neglect” as he showed in his autobiographical novel ‘A Son of Servant’. He faced struggle and poverty form his youth, his misogyny ideas about women  that they are only a link between father and children, leads to his  unsuccessfulness in three marriages; so he suffered a lot, that’s why  his plays are somewhat bewilderingly between  realist, naturalist, symbolist, expressionist, surrealist, existentialist, and absurdist.

  His financial difficulties and separating from Frida in 1894 leads him to his inferno struggle and suffer from feeling loneliness.  Before the Inferno crises, the protagonists in his plays are primarily in conflict with each other; The Father and Miss Julie belong to this period, which was closely connected with naturalism. After the Inferno crisis, the protagonists are more in conflict with themselves and with the supernatural than with each other; To Damascus I, A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata are the most famous plays in this period. As a playwright he always wished that his plays depict the inner reality of the character and to be performed on the stage. (Törnqvist and Steene, 2007)


4- B    The elements of expressionism in A Dream Play

   A Dream Play was first published in 1902, it is out-come of Strindberg’s personal crisis, his unsuccessful relationship with his third wife, Harriet leads him to physical pain and mental suffering. The play, called by Strindberg “the child of my greatest pain” and it explores the dark side of his mind. He reveals his agony mostly throughout the play by revealing the characters agony. The play endures all the themes and styles of expressionism, such as:

I- Abstraction: expressionists reject viewing the world from what people have seen through their senses but rather as they want to experience it emotionally and psychologically. In drama, abstraction means giving the play universality by using symbols in plot and allegorical characters. In A Dream play,  Strindberg introduces human agonies from different perspectives and talkes about all individuals’ problem in the society by using symbols and even use the allegorical names of the characters, for example, Blindman, doorkeeper, officer, poet, teacher, and coalheaver.

II- Setting and Characters: For expressionists time and place are not important because mostly they want to reveal the inner realities from unconscious mind which has not any time and place. Also the characters are not moving orderly with the action but what we see is chaotic. As Strindberg mentioned from the preface of the play that it is dream-like in the sense that, place and time do not appear for example The Daughter says: “To the gods the year is as a minute.” The Portress replies: “While to human beings a minute may be as long as a year.”  (A Dream Play, P. 40)


Also, “the characters split, double, multiply, vanish, solidify, blur, and clarify. But one consciousness reigns above them all that of the dreamer; and before it there are no secrets, no incongruities, no laws, there is neither judgment nor exoneration, but merely narration”.  There is no development in the play as no character develops; the lives of all of them in their striving to improve their conditions go from bad to worse because all of them were not satisfied and contented with their life. (Strindberg, 1913)

    III- The importance of unconscious mind to reveal reality:  If we look A Dream Play from Freud’s view, we discover that the writer uses unconscious mind to reveal the reality as Freud believes that “The Unconscious is the true reality of the psyche”. Toward the end of A Dream Play, the central character, Daughter, reveals about the reality of dreams: “Not reality, but more than reality. Not dreams, but waking dreams.” For Strindberg it is not simply a dream experienced during sleep but “a waking dream”. Strindberg also refers to Macbeth’s lines: “a tale told by an idiot” because idiots like children always saying truth by depending on their unconsciousness. (Ali Khan, 2017)

   So what Freud believes is opposite to the ancient sayings about dream that its source is divine not human, but what Freud says in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) that dreams “are the products of our own psychical activity” and “The dream is the (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed, repressed) wish.” we have suppressed desires we cannot express them from public because of the societies norms, so these desires changes to dream. (Freud, 1999)


IV- Alienation: from expressionists point of view alienation is happened when individuals do not accept by the state, society, and family as they are, but these institutions want individuals to behave as they want. Also when a worker is alienated from his/ her product is a true meaning of alienation according to Marx. We have these examples from the text; when the Coalheaver says “We who work the most get to eat the least; and the rich who don’t do anything have the most” (P.63). Or Edith, another character in the play, suffers from her ugliness which makes her so unattractive that no one likes her or at least try to dance with her, so she alienated herself from the society.

V- Human Conditions: The most important theme in the play is showing human conditions. Man is a central interest for expressionists; they often attempt to discover and reveal Man’s agonies in order to show them and try to solve them. In A Dream Play Strindberg is dealing with different sorts of humans with their problems that the reader or the audience can find in themselves.

   From very beginning of the play (page 27) when the Daughter (Agnes) talks with the Voice (symbolized God’s voice) and says I hear sounds below but not happy one:

 The Voice:  I say: but what you hear, it is their speech.                                    The Daughter: It sounds as if it has no happy ring!

When the daughter comes down to the earth, she sees and listen to humans agonies she feels pity for them. But when she practices with the earthly living by getting married with the Lawyer, she finds catastrophic life on earth. She wishes her previous life:


  The Daughter: “This is worse than I dreamed!”  “It is very difficult to be married it is more difficult than anything else. One has to be an angel, I think!” (p.56) that is why she asks God to listen to people’s sufferings and help them when she says “Eternal God, hear them! Life is evil! Human beings are to be pitied” 

   So the Lawyer and the Daughter (Indra’s daughter) lived in the humble and the old small, dirty house. They were very poor even they haven’t money to buy coals for heating when Kristin, the maid, tries pasting up cracks on the walls and windows to prevent entering the cold air into the house to keep it warm. This makes the daughter to feel choke and makes at the same time the lawyer satisfied pasting costs because he cannot afford heating due to his poverty.

Kristin: I paste! I paste!

Daughter: (pale and worn, is sitting by the stove): You’re shutting

out the air! I’m suffocating! …

Kristin: Now there’s only one little crack left!

Daughter: Air, air! I can’t breathe!

Kristin: I paste! I paste!

Lawyer: That’s right, Kristin! Heat is expensive.  (p. 52)

  When a couple are getting married they wish to have a baby to fill their life with happiness but here when the wife and her husband have a baby they suffer especially the lawyer who expresses sorrow over their newly-born baby when he says the baby is the cause of departing my clines, and their problem is that they have not money to buy a larger house:


The Lawyer:  Standing in the doorway, with a paper in his hand Is the child asleep?

The Daughter: Yes, at last.

The Lawyer: Gently All this crying scares away my clients.

The Daughter:. Pleasantly What can be done about it?

The Lawyer: Nothing.

The Daughter: We shall have to get a larger place.

The Lawyer: We have no money for it.      (p. 52)

   Moreover, because the Lawyer is poor, he cannot buy a flower for his wife; this creates a quarrel between them. The daughter believes that flowers are more important than food, but the Lawyer thinks that buying food is better than flowers:

The Lawyer: I know you are thinking of flowers and

especially of heliotropes but a plant costs half a dollar, which

will buy us six quarts of milk or a peck of potatoes.

The Daughter: I could gladly get along without food if

I could only have some flowers.  (p. 55)

   The theory of Darwinism can be seen clearly in the life of the Lawyer and the Daughter, Darwin in his book Origin of Species declares that heredity and environment are shape the existence of human beings and survival is for the fittest, So according to Darwin every creatures on the earth are in struggle for survive, but at end the fittest ill win to live. The Lawyer always thinks about how to bring food for the family, he wants to survive. (Abbott, 2004)



   The Officer, another character in the play, who is dissatisfied of his new job, is to look after the horses in a stable and to keep them clean. He also suffers as he is “unfairly punished for taking a coin that was later found” (p.26). The officer dreams to unify with his past beloved, since he waited her long ago but she did not appear. Or when he remembers the trivial conflict between his father and mother whom is always insulted by his father as she once, for example, wanted to do something “nice” to Lena, the maid, by giving her mantilla; her husband was extremely reacted as he claimed that it was a present from him.

The Mother: I’ll let you use my mantilla here.

Lena:  Oh, no, ma’am, that wouldn’t do!

The Mother: Why not? It is not likely that I’ll go to any more parties.

The Officer:  And what will father say ? It is a present from him

The Mother: What small minds.

The Father:Puts his head through the wall Are you

going to lend my present to the servant girl ? (p. 35)

  The Porterss suffers because she wastes thirty years of her age waiting for her fiancé to come but he never showed up, but she does not even blame her beloved for his unresponsive. Thus in her old age she is unhappy since she cannot find any hope:

The Daughter:  Going to THE PORTRESS Is the spread not done yet ?

The Portress:  No, dear. Twenty-six years on such a piece of work is not much.

The Daughter: And your lover never came back?

The Portress:  No, but it was not his fault. He had to

go poor thing! That was thirty years ago now.  (p. 36)


   The Blindman, in the play, suffers due to his blindness that he is unable to see with his own eyes and his suffering is increased as he expresses his grieve about his only son who travels abroad via the sea and he does not know whether he harmed or killed because the sea is full of dangers as he says:          

The Blindman:  I cannot see, but I hear. I hear the

anchor hill claw the clay  as when the hook is torn out

of a fish and brings up the heart with it through the neck

My snn, my only child, is going to journey across the wide

.sen to foreign hinds, and I can follow him only in my thought!  (p. 74)

   The Poet, a witty character in the play writes a poem about the humanity’s destiny when he painfully asks that: “Why are we born like beasts/ We who are divine and human”, he wants the Daughter to read his poem in which he is very indignant, expressing his pessimistic view about contradictory image of life when “Every joy which you enjoy/ Brings sorrow to all others”. For the poet, life is a puzzle and that “No one has yet solved the riddle of life”. The Poet also gives an example of the absurdity of life when ships named “Justice, Friendship, The Golden Peace, Hope” are sunk. After mentioning the shipwrecks, the poet offers an indirect appeal to Mighty God to elevate man’s inferior status as a human being to a superior:

THE DAUGHTER. Receives the roll, but reads without look-

g at it Well, by me it shall be spoken then:

Why like beasts should we be coming,

We of race divine and human ?    (p. 88)



4- Conclusion

   Strindberg wants to show characters who live in the meaninglessness of life as from the play depicts the real human conditions. Some of his characters do nothing to solve their problems but dreaming or waiting for someone who may show up and save them from their misery. This is due to their inability of taking right decisions to improve their lives. The Officer and the Portress are spending their time doing nothing only waiting. In general, all characters are tortured because they obsess themselves in dreaming and waiting and the process of waiting in itself is boring.

   Another side of the play is the reality of the domestic life between the Daughter and the Lawyer, they have a miserable life that full of problems because of their poverty even they have not time to show love for each other only quarrelling with each other. This is the aim of expressionists that showing Man as a victim under the rules of capitalism that they only struggling for survive.

   What I mostly depict from the play is that whenever you have a happy life remember that this is the product of another’s sorrow, as the lawyer and the poet believe that “a life of common suffering, then! One’s pleasure, the other one’s pain” ,on one hand and the main reason of human’s unhappiness is that they pay too much attention in materialistic things of life and they forget about spirituality and God as they are following Nietzsche’s speech ‘God is dead’ that is why they always feel loneliness and lack of support on the other hand.