Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Child's Play: The Cradle Song in Strindberg's 'Fadren.' (August Strindberg)

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Child's Play: The Cradle Song in Strindberg's 'Fadren.' (August Strindberg)

Article excerpt


FADREN HAS LONG BEEN SEEN as predominantly a war between the sexes, and it is hard not to view the role of the child, Bertha, as something of a pawn. As is well known, the play revolves around the power struggle as to who will finally control the fate of the child, and this nineteenth century custody battle finishes with Laura's triumphal cry, "Mitt Barn! Mitt eget Barn!" (98) ["My child! My own child!" (49)], leaving little doubt as to the central issues of the text: ownership, control.

But does the child herself have a voice?

This question is not irrelevant. The first time we meet her, she bursts into the room where the Captain and the Pastor are speaking, and she cries for protection against the spirits, spirits who turn out to be disturbingly (and invasively) lingual in nature. The child's seances with the Grandmother, we understand, turn crucially on issues of language and voice, or--more pointedly--the very origins of language and voice. The human child holds the pen over the paper, but the spirits are to do the writing; and they corral speech as well, since even to mention them orally is to invite revenge: "for mormor sager att andarne hamnas om man talar om" (39) ["Grandma says the spirits get revenge if you tell" (17)].(1) This night Grandmother is furious, however, because the child's writing turns out to be suspiciously recognizable, "cribbed" from elsewhere: "Och i kvall, sa tror jag att jag skrev bra, men sa sa mormor att det var ur Stagnelius, och att jag narrat henne" (39) ["And tonight I thought I was writing well, but then Grandma said I got it out of a book, and that I had tricked her" (17)]. Strindberg is already hinting, here, at the scandal of textuality, the impossibility of being original in an always/already discursive world, a preformed network that precedes the human subject and governs both utterance and gesture. We shall see the full force of this view again, at the end of the play, when the Captain cites chapter and verse on the key topic of cuckoldry and the enigma of paternity, enlisting himself in a sort of serial parade of undone fathers. But what most strikes us in this initial scene is the riddling of the child's "own" voice, the presentation of the child as a mute stage for warring, alien voices, be they from Stagnelius or other spirits.

Later, in the second act, we encounter again the issue of a child's voice, only this time the spirits have taken over entirely:

Bertha: Jag tors inte sitta ensam daruppe, for jag tror att det spokar.

Amman: Se dar, vad sa jag! Ja, ni ska fa sanna mina ord, i det har huset ar

ingen god tomte. Vad horde Bertha for slag?

Bertha: Ah, vet du jag horde en som sjong uppe pa vind.

Amman: Pa vind! Sa har dags!

Bertha: Ja det var en sa sorglig, sa sorglig sang, som jag aldrig hort. Och

          den lat som om den kom fran vindskontoret, dar vaggan star, du
          vet till vanster. (56)

(Bertha: I don't dare sit up there alone. I think it's haunted.

Margret: I knew it! I knew it! Yes, take my word for it, it's not

          Christmas elves that are watching over this house. What
          happened? Did you see something?

Bertha: No, but I heard someone singing up in the attic.

Margret: In the attic? At this time of night?

Bertha: Yes, and it was so sad, the saddest song I ever heard. It

          sounded like it came from the store room, you know, to the
          left, where the cradle is. [25])

This sad song from the cradle--unlike any lullaby or vaggsang--may be understood as the very voice of the disenfranchised child, a kind of originary language of infancy that precedes the work of culture or the designs of the grandmother.(2) Coming to us as primitive music, it may be thought of as the Ursprache of Strindberg's play, a disembodied plaint that speaks of its severance and noises its hurt in ways that are hard to decipher and hard to ignore. …

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