This Swedish tragedy in three acts from the end of the nineteenth century is, of course, a literary classic. All three acts take place within the same, confined, setting, adding an element of claustrophobia to the narrow society depicted.
In its original Swedish, I suspect the language contains elements of poetic presentation that are lost in translation. Nevertheless, the dialogue is rich and complex, expressing a great range of emotions. The battle of the sexes that appears as the superficial theme of the play, is, of course, simply a literary device to carry the more contemporaneously dangerous theme of religious hypocrisy.
In the days before genetics was properly understood, the Father’s obsession with the question of paternity is understandable, vaguely pathetic but, at the same time, laudable. He wants what he perceives as the best for his child, but his motives are basically selfish, in that his reason for wanting her to be brought up with his beliefs is so that his own ‘spirit’ will have continued existence after his death. His concern, therefore, is not for his daughter, but for himself. Of course, this is the typical obsession of most religions: the safety of the supplicant’s soul being the driving force that’s supposed to make such followers into ‘good’ people.
A man of science, he’s plagued by doubts, and these uncertainties inevitably bleed into his faith. As more knowledge becomes available through scientific discovery, so the position of certainty that was previously held by the various churches rapidly becomes undermined. It’s within this world of change and its accompanying questioning of fundamental creeds that the play is set.
None of the characters in this play come out well. They are all driven by selfish motives and although love is recruited by the main players, it’s a false love, driven by selfish concerns rather than by care for those for whom it’s expressed.
Of its time in the way that women are considered less important than men, its employment of the Omphale myth demonstrates the Father’s ultimate feelings of emasculation by what he sees as his wife’s tricks.
This is tragedy in the true sense of the word; the flawed hero brought down by his inability to understand and modify his own character to deal with realities. Although not an entertainment, this is a play I would gladly see performed, were it ever produced at a theatre accessible to me.