Because August Strindberg’s drama falls into two distinct periods, separated by the years of his personal Inferno, it is easy to generalize about his work. The pre-Inferno plays are naturalistic in form and are insistently concerned with sexual and class struggles bringing to the philosophy of naturalism a psychological realism that validates his characters as among the most excitingly credible in modern drama. The post-Inferno plays reflect Strindberg’s experience with mysticism and a variety of religions, along with his preoccupation in later life with guilt, expiation, and reconciliation. These plays are important especially for the ways in which they extend the boundaries of dramatic form, introducing expressionism and Symbolism into the mainstream of world drama.
Strindberg’s early plays reflect the literary preoccupation of the time with the philosophy of naturalism, which holds forces beyond the control of the individual will responsible for human behavior yet also poses the question of individual choice. The resulting complexity of character allowed Strindberg to approach with renewed intensity the two conflicts that for him both personally and artistically were never resolved.
Though Strindberg’s work was published as early as 1869, The Father, produced and published in 1887, is considered the first of his great naturalistic plays. In that play, as in a number of others that followed, Strindberg dramatizes a major concern of his life and work: the eternal power struggle between men and women. Laura stands as a prototypical Strindbergian woman: immensely powerful and in control yet perhaps not so by design. The play does not clarify whether Laura’s triumph over her husband is the consequence of malevolent cunning or of an innocent but nevertheless destructive wielding of a natural female power. That same power is evident in the relationship between Miss Julie and Jean in Miss Julie, in which the sexual encounter between mistress and servant is initiated through Julie’s aggression, though here the male ultimately achieves superiority as Julie endures postcoital humiliation and finally commits suicide. A concurrent struggle in Miss Julie, which is a second preoccupation of Strindberg, is that between the classes. Julie may be seduced to her death by Jean, but she reestablishes class honor, whereas the intimidated servant reverts to subservience.
Strindberg’s personal conflicts were to expand during the Inferno period and were reflected in the religious and historical plays produced between 1897 and 1901. In those years, the playwright turned to mysticism and allegory, as in the Damascus trilogy. During this period, he also devoted considerable attention to Swedish history, dramatizing the lives of its people and several of its kings in such plays as The Saga of the Folkungs, Gustav Vasa, Gustav Adolf, and Carl XII. In The Dance of Death I and The Dance of Death II, he confirmed that his obsession with the battle of the sexes was still alive.
Strindberg’s most interesting work, however, comes with his later plays, which attempt to capture the dream form in drama. In both A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata, his two most successful efforts, the playwright violates the laws of causality and logic, creating a fluid and subjective sequence of events that is dominated by the vision of an implied dreamer. In A Dream Play, the Daughter of Indra visits Earth and both observes and participates in the activities of those she encounters. In The Ghost Sonata, a young student passes through several rooms in a symbolic house en route to an encounter with a symbolic hyacinth girl. In the earlier play, the recurrent lament of the Daughter of Indra is, “Humankind is to be pitied,” reflecting the deep sadness of the playwright, who had been through several religious conversions and had himself seen the condition of humankind. In The Ghost Sonata, a similar pessimism prevails but is redeemed in that play by a final tone of reconciliation. A statue of Buddha in the inner room suggests the religious preoccupation and the need to reconcile good and evil that characterizes Strindberg’s post-Inferno plays.
Strindberg once remarked that he did not know whether The Father was an invention or a reflection of his own life. The play, in which a man is driven mad by doubts concerning his parenthood, was written at a time when Strindberg’s marriage to Siri von Essen was near collapse. Like the Captain in The Father, Strindberg was haunted by the knowledge that a man can never know with certainty that he is his child’s father, as his suspicions of Siri developed into an obsession with whether he had fathered their first child, born two months after the wedding.
The sexual power struggle that takes place between husband and wife when the two disagree on the future of their daughter, Bertha, forms the dramatic center of the play. Determined to have her way, Laura, the Captain’s wife, devises ways of undermining her husband’s credibility and confidence. Her goal is to have the Captain certified insane so that he loses his legal claim to their daughter. Her method is psychological torment: Only she, not he, can know whether Bertha is his natural child. Made suspicious by her suggestion, the Captain becomes obsessed with the need to know, devising biological, experiential, and literary tests to affirm his paternity, only to be driven to madness by the impossibility of knowing. In the final tableau, the straitjacketed Captain, surrounded by the women in the household, lies helpless at the nurse’s breast, repudiating his child, then falling in a fatal stroke; his wife, embracing Bertha, cries, “My child! My own child!”
Laura’s manipulations are not less effective than those of an Iago, and she emerges as uncontested champion in this domestic duel of wills. Yet the play—and she herself—question how conscious her manipulations have been. Moments before the Captain’s defeat, Laura claims that she never meant for any of this to happen, that she never thought through her behavior to its consequence. Allusions throughout the play to Omphale and to other women in classical literature suggest that for Strindberg, Laura represents a prototypical evil, a curiously innocent power that is uniquely and naturally feminine. Laura achieves control less by design than by instinct.
In a letter to Friedrich Nietzsche, Strindberg reported the reaction to the production of his play: One woman died, another miscarried, and most of the audience ran from the theater, bellowing. Strindberg’s hyperbole, though obviously intended to be frivolous, nevertheless reflects the excitement generated by this highly personal but powerful portrayal of women and of marriage.
The best known of Strindberg’s plays, Miss Julie takes place on a midsummer eve in Sweden. In the absence of her father, a nobleman, the twenty-five-year-old Julie, a member of Strindberg’s degenerate, emancipated “third sex,” initiates a psychological battle with Jean, the valet, that culminates in his sexual triumph. The battle, however, is a social conflict as well, and, in a dramatic suicide-seduction scene, Julie regains her social honor, leaving Jean to tremble at the return of her father, the count. Throughout their encounter, the sexual and social lines separating the two shift, as each lives out the respective dreams of rising and falling that unify the work’s images and give dramatic design to the play.
Jean’s dream is one of aspiration: He is lying under a tree in a thick and darkened wood; he wants to climb to...
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