Article abstract: Sweden’s Strindberg stands, with the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, as Scandinavia’s greatest dramatist. He introduced both naturalism and expressionism to the modern European stage; considered to be the father of Swedish literature, with dozens of novels, essays, and scientific treatises as well as more than fifty plays to his credit, he never received that country’s Nobel Prize but permanently influenced the shape of twentieth century world theater.
Born into a successful merchant family, the third son of Carl Oscar Strindberg and Ulrika Eleonora Norling, Johan August Strindberg enjoyed an orderly, if emotionally undemonstrative, childhood, until his mother’s death when he was only thirteen. His father’s coldness and hasty marriage to Strindberg’s governess were, according to some biographers, the precipitating factors in Strindberg’s lifelong anxieties about his place in society and his ambivalent relationships with the women in his life. His teen years became a series of explorations into literature, the occult, and science, always motivated by the emptiness he felt from the loss of his mother. He attended several schools, finally seeking a medical education at the university at Uppsala, but dropped out suddenly in 1872.
A prolific letter-writer, Strindberg chronicled his own early life in correspondence to his brothers and friends and wrote a fictionalized autobiography entitled Tjänstekvinnans son: En själs utvecklingshistoria (4 volumes, 1886; The Son of a Servant: The Story of the Evolution of a Human Being, 1966, first volume only), from which many of the details of his youth are taken. Contact with the Royal Theater of Stockholm, first as a bit-part actor and then as a playwright, began his interest in drama; his first production was of his play, I Rom (1870). His early writing included journalistic essays on contemporary political topics, a combative habit that was to continue throughout his life.
Although not his first commercial work, Strindberg’s play Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie, 1912) first brought him international recognition as a playwright in the new naturalistic vein, a trend in theater owing its popularity in large part to the independent theater movement advocated in France by André Antoine, in Germany by Otto Brahm, and in England by Jacob Thomas Grein. This one-act play (with a balletic interlude), not only a model of naturalistic pyschological characterization but also a miniature portrait of Strindberg’s subsequent thematic preoccupations, was performed throughout Europe whenever the independent theater’s repertory needed a new play. In this first wave of mature creativity, Strindberg fed the new theater (again alongside Henrik Ibsen) with Fadren (1887; The Father, 1899) and, after a period of instability (his “Inferno”), two other plays on the battle of marriage, Dödsdansen första delen (1901; The Dance of Death I, 1912), and Dödsdansen, andra delen (1901; The Dance of Death II, 1912), while at the same time publishing several novels, most notably the autobiographical Inferno (1897; English translation, 1912), in which he describes this most tumultuous period of his life.
The explosive and egoistic personality of Strindberg was often combined with his exaggerated sense of self-righteousness to produce a public image of a fiery, tyrannical man of letters; in private life he was shy, insecure, and constantly enthralled by his affection for others, first fantasizing about love affairs, next perceiving slights to his honor, and finally living in a dream construction made of his own psychological delusions. His behavior, typically artistic in that he always walked a fine line between creativity and madness, became erratic enough in the years from 1892 to 1898, especially 1895-1896, that scholars divide his life work at that point, referring to pre-and post-Inferno outlooks and styles. These years, often called the “Inferno Crisis,” marked a change in Strindberg’s dramatic style; whether his new attitude reflected a conversion or a regression is a matter of contention, but he clearly altered his view of stage language, if not his major themes.
He emerged from that period with even greater creative powers, turning out the three-part play Till Damaskus (1898-1904; To Damascus, 1913), Ett drömspel (1902; A Dream Play, 1912), and several other works in the first few years of the twentieth century. His dramatic style during this outburst was markedly different from the earlier naturalism: Now Strindberg moved almost cinematically from scene to scene, dealing with personal and universal symbols in great sweeps of ideas, depicting historical and archetypal characters, trying out a fragmented, internalized communication of character, theme, and plot that eventually earned the name “expressionism” and became the major framework of German drama between the world wars.
In addition to his literary contributions to the theater, Strindberg established the “intimate” theatrical style, in which a small audience experienced plays in “chamber”-sized settings. Strindberg, along with August Falck, an actor and producer who had toured Miss Julie to great acclaim in 1906, founded the Intimate Theater in...
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