A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 3 - Winter 2011/12

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ISSN 2045-1024


The Father reviewed by Bruce Bashford, State University of New York at Stony Brook

The Father by August Strindberg (1887). A staged reading by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at The Wild Project in New York City, October 11, 15, & 16, 2011.  These performances were the first in The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s series of staged readings of works by the “Mad Modern Master,” as the playbill describes Strindberg.  The Stronger and two other short works will be performed February 21, 25, & 26, 2012 and The Dance of Death May 1, 5, & 6, 2012.  I attended the last performance of The Father, a Sunday matinee on October 16th.

      Let me say immediately that I did so as a academic common reader, rather than a Strindberg scholar; I have no acquaintance with what must be a voluminous commentary on this play.  Like most of the audience, I found the performance powerful.

     Following the performance, the director, Amy Wagner, and the seven actors conducted a question & answer session for members of the audience who chose to remain.  The lively discussion ranged over a variety of topics, including the significance of the play’s allusions to Ibsen and Shakespeare and the actors’ conceptions of their characters.  It was an especially satisfying conclusion to the afternoon.  I assume these sessions regularly follow the company’s performances.

      In the discussion, Amy Wagner remarked that a staged reading, due to its minimal stage setting and costuming, keeps the focus on the text, and that was clearly true in this case.  Dr. Johnson, with fully staged plays in mind, claims in his Preface to Shakespeare that we attend the theater “to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and modulation”. A staged reading is this core act of “reciting,” supplemented by “gesture” that includes actors exploiting the stage space.  The strong tensions in the script were given vivid expression.

      My main, though minor, criticism of the performance also concerns the technique of a staged reading: the actors’ use of the scripts they carried.  One actor, Stella Heath as the daughter Bertha, never had a script with her, while the other actors consulted theirs to varying degrees. The problem wasn’t the disparity itself, but rather that occasionally as actors did consult their scripts, they seemed for a moment to be catching up with their parts, to be “reading” in an ordinary sense, one thinner than Johnson’s notion of “reciting”. 

     The Father depicts economically the last phase in a long, fierce contest of wills between the title character, Adolf, and his wife Laura.  The matter in contention at the moment is where Bertha is to be educated: Laura wants this done at home, Adolf at the school of a “free thinker” in town. As the play begins, the soldier Nöjd, confronted with the demand that he support a woman he’s possibly made pregnant, objects that a man, unlike a woman, can never know for sure who‘s the father of a child.  Adolf makes the mistake of repeating this maxim to Laura (in this play subtitled “A Tragedy in 3 Acts,” this is in Aristotle’s terms the hamartia, Adolf’s fatal error).  Laura then applies the maxim to the question of who Bertha’s father is so effectively that Adolf’s suspicions unhinge him mentally.  When he throws a lighted lamp at Laura’s face, she has him committed to an insane asylum, though he dies of a stroke while still at home.

      In a generally strong cast, three actors deserve special praise for dealing with the demands posed by the play’s economy and intensity.  John Lenartz as Adolf had to pass plausibly within a brief compass from a man of considerable self-command and intelligence--Adolf is both an army captain and a scientist of some accomplishment--to someone who’s largely lost  his mind.  Lenartz portrayed the transition convincingly.  Aja Houston as Laura had an equally difficult task.  Laura is a ruthless adversary who shows no remorse about the damage she does to Adolf.  Unless, however, the character is to dwindle into a pure villainess, Laura also has to be partially motivated by a legitimate right: that a mother have a say in the future of her child.  Houston’s Laura kept us aware of this right even as she relentlessly schemed.   Marlene May as Adolf’s Nurse since childhood also managed well a role pointing in two directions.  She has to show genuine concern for Adolf, while also, due to her obdurate religious beliefs and solidarity with other women, remaining, as Adolf says, in the camp of his “enemy”. 

     To return to an earlier remark, the performance was so faithful to the script that for this reader and viewer it reproduced an interpretive problem the script presents. Is this a “mimetic” or “didactic” work: a play in which we follow individuals with defined moral characters and intentions who come to certain fates?  Or a play designed to direct our attention finally to a set of ideas?  Why can’t it be both?  Because we respond differently to the two possibilities.  If it’s a mimetic work, we respond primarily to Adolf’s fate, and quite possibly feel the “pity and fear” that Aristotle believed mimetic tragedy evokes.  If it’s a “didactic” play, while we still register Adolf’s destruction, our response is more distanced as we subsume his fate to a larger analysis of the human situation. The performance followed the script by apparently beginning in a mimetic mode and then through Adolf’s extended, distraught reflections in Act 3 modulating into a didactic mode.  (Adolf’s late, painful insight that neither he nor Laura wanted things to turn out as they do anticipates Strindberg’s view in Inferno, written when he really was “mad,” that, “The earth is hell—a prison so constructed by a superior intelligence that I cannot take a single step in it without treading on the happiness of others, and in which my cell mates cannot remain happy without making me suffer”.)

     What’s unusual is that an interpretive ambiguity this fundamental doesn’t lessen our engagement either as readers or viewers of The Father.  It certainly didn’t detract from the power of this performance, one that bodes well for the company’s further presentations of Strindberg in the coming year.