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Strindbergs dramatiska bildspråk (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 138-142 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0007

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For over forty years Egil Törnqvist has been a leading Strindberg scholar with extensive contributions in the fields of drama, theater, film, and media studies. Many of his works explore questions of signification, translation, and transposition from language to language, from culture to culture, and from page to stage to the silver screen and television. Strindbergs dramatiska bildspråk is no different in that it investigates the imagery of Strindbergian drama both as a property of the drama-text accessible to the reader and its physicalization in the theater for the benefit of the spectator. Törnqvist's methodology draws primarily on the critical traditions of structuralism and semiotics. The choice of Swedish as vehicle for the present volume is justified by the subject matter: the study of images implicit in language, as the Swedish word for textual imagery (bildspråk) succinctly indicates.

An introductory chapter clarifies some important distinctions when dealing with texts written for the stage, most notably between the language of signs and the language of images. On the stage everything is a sign, in that objects and bodies represent something other than what they actually are. In addition to functioning as a sign, says Törnqvist, an image must be endowed with some extra symbolic value. While a set piece in the theater, such as a house constructed of cardboard, might be perceived by the audience as representing a real house, it turns into a dramatic image only when the characters' actions and speeches elaborate its symbolic function: whatever makes it "more" than a house (13). For the purposes of his study Törnqvist divides "dramatic imagery" into two main categories: images implied in the stage directions, here termed "det auktorala bildspråket" [authorial imagery], and images embedded in the dialogue, termed "det firgurala bildspråket" (10) [figural imagery]. Within the context of each examined play, he then sets out to explore "who uses imagery, when, where, how, and to whom" (16) and considers how images are distributed throughout the text among the characters, among acts and scenes, and among the different textual elements of the play. The typology of poetic tropes provides another context for investigating dramatic imagery as linguistic constructs, including metonymy, allegory, parable, personification, synesthesia, synecdoche, and others. Intertextual references, frequently occurring in Strindberg's drama, constitute a special category of imagery in that they connect the textual world of the play with texts outside that world thus expanding a tightly constructed signifying system.

Törnqvist consults previous studies of dramatic imagery and finds that Shakespeare is a privileged subject of such inquiries. Not surprisingly, he finds Strindberg a modern Shakespeare when it comes to the frequency and complexity of his use of imagery, but while Shakespeare's blank verse accommodates imagery "naturally," Strindberg's prose dialogue must conform to what gives it an illusion of natural speech (23). Within Strindberg scholarship, Törnqvist finds an engagement with dramatic imagery lacking. He cites Karl-Åke Kärnell's 1962 study of imagery in Strindberg's prose fiction, but finds no comprehensive critical study of images in the plays. Strindbergs dramatiska bildspråk aims to fill that gap by showing the uniqueness, evolution, and novelty of Strindberg's dramatic imagery via close readings of Fadren, Fröken Julie, Fordringsägare, Till Damaskus I, Påsk, Karl XII, Dödsdansen I, Ett drömspel, Oväder, Brända tomten, Spöksonaten, and Pelikanen. The decision to select twelve representative Strindberg plays—each devoted a separate chapter—was made to ensure an in-depth understanding of Strindberg's use of images through the lens of works that stretch over his entire dramatic oeuvre. By the conclusion of his analyses Törnqvist not only identifies typically Strindbergian patterns of imagery, but also traces the steps in the evolution of his artistic approach and creative methods. It becomes increasingly clear that Strindberg avails himself of dramatic imagery already in the so-called naturalistic plays, such as Fadren and Fröken Julie, but the overall use of images in general and that of the authorial imagery in particular, increases in the late plays. In other words, the early pieces show more use of figural imagery implied in the...

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