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Scenographic Dialogues: Staging Carl Grabow’s 1907 Designs for A Dream Play (Part 1)

Magazine article
Authors Astrid von Rosen
Eszter Szalczer
Published in Dokumenterat
Issue 51
Pages 4-42
ISSN 1404-9899
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Cultural Sciences
Pages 4-42
Language en
Keywords Scenography, designs, performance archive, A Dream Play, Carl Grabow
Subject categories Arts, Performing Arts, Visual Arts, Art History, Performing Art Studies


In a series of articles we, an art historian – von Rosen – and a theatre historian – Szalczer –, set out to reassess Carl Grabow’s 1907 designs for the world premiere of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play at the Swedish Theatre (Svenska Teatern) in Stockholm. By doing so, we challenge the persistently negative narrative on Grabow’s work with the production, to be found both in Swedish and international theatre and art history. The first article in the series focuses on Grabow’s color designs for the production, kept at the Swedish Museum of Performing Arts (Scenkonstmuseet) in Stockholm, and are made digitally accessible for the first time here in Dokumenterat. Within the broader field of scenography research designs have been proven to have agency beyond their realization on stage, and can also be used to access visual, spatial and multimodal resources of past performances. Our goal is to probe into how a scenographic approach to Grabow’s designs, understood as vital parts of the performance archive, may contribute to developing new historiographic methods while yielding new insights on the production history of A Dream Play. Throughout our first scenographic journey with Grabow’s designs we tested iconography as a method to explore and experience the world created by them. As we shall see in the next article, the testimonies of reviewers and illustrators indicate that Grabow’s collaboration with the production team resulted in different solutions than the perhaps early ideas envisioned in these designs. What is significant for us, however, is that regardless of its stage realization, the design-series manifests an autonomy, a unified artistic vision, conveyed by the succession of images as a painterly and multi-sensory reflection of the world of the play. What became apparent is that far from being haphazard superficial sketches, Grabow’s designs present a consistent interpretation of A Dream Play, with strong occult-spiritual overtones and attempts at painterly dematerialization, which counteract the realism and the materialization of the dream he was accused of by critics ever since. In our next article, we will further explore Grabow’s designs, including drawn and written information on their backsides, in the context of contemporary critical and pictorial response to the actual stage production. By staging a dialogue between the designs and the performance within its cultural milieu, we not only hope to learn more about Grabow’s craft and working process, but also about the constructive use of the scenographic approach in archival research.

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