a synopsis of the play by August Strindberg

This article was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 77-81.

THE FATHER is a well constructed play; it contains one idea which is clearly stated, logically and dramatically developed. The theme of the play is, a woman's driving her husband to insanity by making him doubt that he is the father of their child. The dramatist goes to work immediately, shows the man's ideas and habits, then the woman's, and proceeds to show how she accomplishes her purpose. He makes the husband a high-strung, nervous man, and his wife a fiendish abnormal woman; so that the dice are loaded to begin with. But, granted the characters, what they do is sufficiently natural to create the necessary illusion of reality.

The dialogue is economical and to the point; there are no long divagations, no unnecessary scenes of self-exposition -- as in the plays of Chekhov and Gorky -- conversation and action combine to reveal character.

As you read the play, notice how little is irrelevant, how each word adds to the totality of the effect, the unity of the piece.

The purpose of the play is twofold: to paint the picture of Laura, and to tell the story as stated above. A few deft touches, and Laura is before us in flesh and blood. In the first act, the following dialogue takes place:

LAURA: Then is it reasonable to think that one can see, by looking in a microscope, what is going on in another planet?
DOCTOR: Does he say he can do that?
LAURA: Yes, he says so.
DOCTOR: In a microscope?
LAURA: In a microscope, yes.
DOCTOR: This is serious, if it is so.
LAURA: If it is so! Then you have no belief in me, Doctor, and I am sitting here and confiding the family secret in you--

But when the Captain is questioned by the Doctor, it turns out that it was a spectroscope, not a microscope, he had been using. This is but one of the many instances of how character is built up. Find other examples of this in The Father, and see whether they advance the story at the same time, or are merely incidental.

The Father is a psychological play; that is, the action grows directly out of a mental struggle -- in this case, it is a struggle or duel of the sexes. The climax therefore is reached when one of the two contending minds, so to speak, dominates the other. This happens at the end of the second act, where Laura tells her husband that she has the means of putting him "under control," in order that she may educate their child "without listening to his advice"; she has "his own letter to the doctor declaring himself to be insane." The Captain "looks at her in silence," while she tells him: "Now you have fulfilled your function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner. You are not needed any longer and you must go. You must go since you have realized that my intellect is as strong as my will, and since you will not stay and acknowledge it." Then "The Captain goes to the table, takes the lighted lamp and throws it at Laura, who escapes backward through the door." She has conquered, by driving her husband to insanity.

The last act shows the results of Laura's "duel," and carries to a fitting conclusion her inhuman work.

You have doubtless noticed in reading the play that you are impressed by its appalling people and what they do; you are not touched or led to pity any of the characters, unless it be the little daughter. The father, though he ought to be an object of compassion, is so brutal, so uncompromising -- whatever the reason -- that we can have little sympathy for him. We feel more horror than pity, and that is because Strindberg has made his characters almost incarnations of their bad qualities; they are for the most part abnormal and neurasthenic, and as such do not appeal to us as average, healthy beings would. There is a certain relief when the Captain is taken away; we are sure he will be better off away from his wife -- indeed, it is rather disappointing that Laura is not sent to a sanitarium. Had Strindberg drawn here a more sympathetic victim, his play would have been much more effective, more terrible, and less purely horrible.


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