The Mystery of the Tobacco Shed by August Strindberg
Listen to the story of a young opera-singer who was so beautiful
that the people in the street turned round to stare at her when she
passed. And she was not only very beautiful, but she had a better voice
than most singers.
The conductor of the orchestra, who was also a composer, came and
laid his heart and all his possessions at her feet. She took his
possessions, but left his heart lying in the dust.
Now she was famous, more famous than any other singer; she drove
through the streets in her elegant victoria, and nodded to her
portrait, which greeted her from all the stationers' and booksellers'
And as her fame grew, her picture appeared on post-cards, soap and
cigar boxes. Finally her portrait was hung up in the foyer of the
theatre, amongst all the dead immortals; and as a result her head began
One day she was standing on a pier, the sea was very rough and there
was a strong current. The conductor, of course, stood by her side, and
a great many young men were present, paying her court. The beauty was
playing with a rose; all the cavaliers coveted the flower, but she said
that it should become the property of him who knew how to earn it, and
she flung it far out into the sea. The cavaliers looked at it with
longing glances, but the conductor jumped off the pier without a
moment's hesitation, swam like a sea-gull on the crests of the waves
and soon held the flower between his lips.
The cavaliers cheered, and the swimmer could read the promise of
love in his lady's eyes. But when he struck out for the shore, he found
that he could not move from the spot. He had been caught in the
current. The singer on the pier did not realise his danger, but merely
thought he was fooling, and therefore she laughed. But the conductor,
who saw death staring him in the face, misunderstood her laughter; a
bitter pang shot through his heart, and then his love for her was dead.
However, he came ashore at last, with bleeding hands, for he had cut
them at the pier in many places.
“I will marry you,” said the beauty.
“No, thank you,” replied the conductor; turned, and walked away.
This was an offence for which she swore that she would be revenged.
Only the people connected with the theatre, who understand these
things, know how it happened that the conductor lost his post. He had
been firmly established, and it took two years to get rid of him.
But he was got rid of; she watched the downfall of her benefactor
and triumphed, and her head swelled still more, in fact it swelled so
much that everybody noticed it. The public, who realised that the heart
underneath the beautiful form was wicked, ceased to be touched by her
singing, and no longer believed in her smiles and tears.
She soon became aware of it, and it embittered her. But she
continued ruling at the theatre, suppressed all young talents, and used
her influence with the press to ruin their careers.
She lost the love and respect of her audiences, but she did not mind
that as long as she remained in power; and as she was wealthy,
influential, and contented, she throve and prospered.
Now, when people are prosperous, they do not lose flesh; on the
contrary, they are inclined to grow stout; and she really began to grow
corpulent. It came so gradually that she had no idea of it until it was
too late. Bang! The downhill journey is ever a fast journey, and in her
case it was accom-plished with startling rapidity. She tried every
remedy—in vain! She kept the best table in the whole town, but she
starved herself, and the more she starved, the stouter she grew.
One more year, and she was no longer a great star, and her pay was
reduced. Two more years and she was half forgotten, and her place was
filled by others. After the third year she was not re-engaged, and she
went and rented an attic.
“She is suffering from an unnatural corpulency,” said the
stage-manager to the prompter.
“It's not corpulency at all,” replied the prompter, “she's just
puffed up with pride.”
Now she lived in the attic and looked out on a large plantation. In
the middle of this plantation stood a tobacco shed, which pleased her,
because it had no windows behind which curious people could sit and
stare at her. Sparrows had built their nests under the eaves, but the
shed was no longer used for drying or storing tobacco, which was not,
now, grown on the plantation.
There she lived during the summer, looking at the shed and wondering
what purpose it could possibly serve, for the doors were locked with
large padlocks, padlocks, and nobody ever went in or out.
She knew that it contained secrets, and what these secrets were, she
was to learn sooner than she expected.
A few little shreds of her great reputation, to which she clung
desperately, and which helped her to bear her life, were still left:
the memory of her best parts, Carmen and Aida, for which no successor
had yet been found; the public still remembered her impersonation of
these parts, which had been beyond praise.
Very well, August came; the street lamps were again lighted in the
evenings, and the theatres were reopened.
The singer sat at her window and looked at the tobacco shed, which
had been painted a bright red, and, moreover, had just received a new
A man walked across the potato field; he carried a large rusty key,
with which he opened the shed and went in.
Then two other men arrived; two men whom she thought she had seen
before; and they, too, disappeared in the shed.
It began to be interesting.
After a while the three men reappeared, carrying large, strange
objects, which looked like the bottom of a bed or a big screen.
When they had passed the gate, they turned the screens round and
leaned them against the wall; one of them represented a badly painted
tiled stove, another the door of a country cottage, perhaps a
forester's cottage. Others a wood, a window, and a library.
She understood. It was the scenery of a play. And after a while she
recognised the rose tree from Faust.
The shed was used by the theatre for storing scenes and stage
properties; she herself had more than once stood by the side of the
rose tree, singing “Gentle flowers in the dew.”
The thought that they were going to play Faust wrung her heart, but
she had one little comfort: she had never sung the principal part in
it, for the principal part is Margaret's.
“I don't mind Faust; but I shall die if they play Carmen or Aida.”
And she sat and watched the change in the repertoire. She knew a
fortnight before the papers what was going to be played next. It was
amusing in a way. She knew when the Freischuetz was going to be played,
for she saw the wolves' den being brought out; she knew when they were
going to put on the Flying Dutchman, for the ship and the sea came out
of the shed; and Tannhaeuser, and Lohengrin, and many others.
But the inevitable day dawned—for the inevitable must happen. The
men had again gone into the shed (she remembered that the name of one
of them was Lindquist, and that it was his business to look after the
pulleys), and presently reappeared with a Spanish market-place. The
scene was not standing straight up, so that she could not see at once
what it was, but one of the men turned it slowly over, and when he
stood it up on its side she could see the back, which is always very
ugly. And one after the other, slowly, as if they warded to prolong the
torture, huge, black letters appeared: CARMEN. It was Carmen!
“I shall die,” said the singer.
But she did not die, not even when they played Aida. But her name
was blotted out from the memory of the public, her picture disappeared
from the stationers' windows, and from the post-cards; finally her
portrait was removed from the foyer of the theatre by an unknown hand.
She could not understand how men could forget so quickly. It was
quite inexplicable! But she mourned for herself as if she were mourning
a friend who had died; and wasn't it true, that the singer, the famous
singer, was dead?
One evening she was strolling through a deserted street. At one end
of the street was a rubbish shoot. Without knowing why, she stood
still, and then she had an object lesson on the futility of all earthly
things. For on the rubbish heap lay a post-card, and on the post-card
was her picture in the part of Carmen.
She walked away quickly, suppressing her tears. She came to a little
side street, and stopped before a stationer's shop. It had been her
custom to look at the shop windows to see whether her portrait was
exhibited. But it was not exhibited here; instead of that her eyes fell
on a text and she read it, unconsciously:
“The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the
remembrance of them from the earth.”
Them that do evil! That was the reason why her memory was blotted
out. That was the explanation of the forgetfulness of men.
“But is it not possible to undo the wrong I have done?” she moaned.
“Have I not been sufficiently punished?”
And she wandered in the direction of the wood, where she was not
likely to meet anybody. And as she was walking along, crushed,
humiliated, her heart full of despair, she met another lonely being,
who stopped her as she was going to pass him. His eyes begged
permission to speak to her.
It was the conductor. But his eyes did not reproach her, nor did
they pity her, they only expressed admiration, admiration and
“How beautiful and slender you have grown, Hannah,” he said.
She looked at herself, and she could not help admitting that he was
right. Grief had burnt all her superfluous fat and she was more
beautiful than she had ever been.
“And you look as young as ever! Younger!”
It was the first kind word which she had heard for many a day; and
since it had been spoken by him whom she had wronged, she realised what
a splendid character he had, and said so.
“I hope you haven't lost your voice?” asked the conductor, who could
not bear flattery.
“I don't know,” she sobbed.
“Come to me to-morrow ... yes, come to the Opera-house, and then we
shall see. I am conducting there. ...”
The singer went, not once or twice, but many times, and regained her
The public had forgiven and forgotten all the evil she had done. And
she became greater and more famous than she had been before.
Isn't that an edifying story?