Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2233
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 Stockholm, contributing play after play to its repertory. In its first few seasons, Maurice Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse (1890; The Intruder, 1891) was the only non-Strindberg play in the repertory.
Part of Strindberg’s fascination with the theater included his love of actresses, three of whom he married: Siri von Essen (married to Strindberg from 1877 to 1892), Frida Uhl (1893-1897), and Harriet Bosse (1901-1904). His major female roles (usually in combat with a Strindbergian alter-ego) were invariably written with one or another actress specifically in mind, and today modern actresses are challenged to bring these characters to life in Strindberg’s conception.
Strindberg retired to apartments in Stockholm, which he referred to as “The Blue Tower,” during the last years of his life (1908-1912), and he was cared for in an ambiguous relationship with Fanny Falkner, also a young actress. There, too, his output was prodigious, but none of these works, possibly excepting one of his last plays, Stora landsvägen (1909; The Great Highway, 1954), enjoyed the same notoriety as his earlier work. The disappointment of being rejected for the Nobel Prize (probably political in motivation) was greatly relieved by the spontaneous homage paid to him on his sixtieth birthday by the workers of Stockholm, who saw Strindberg as a champion of the working class. Strindberg referred to this acclamation as the “anti-Nobel” prize.
After one last politically explosive series of his journal articles was published in Stockholm, Strindberg succumbed to stomach cancer in 1912, leaving behind a vast canon of fiction, drama, and essays as well as private correspondence that would become multivolume editions after his death. In his obsessive, almost paranoiac behavior, his unrealistic view of the secret power of women against men, and his tyrannical condescension to his peers, Strindberg never gained during his lifetime the respect afforded him after his death.
Among the great names in modern theater, August Strindberg is known for his psychological insight into the workings not only of women but also of the men they dominate in his dramas. While his naturalistic plays are still performed with regularity, the more expressionistic plays are neglected, partly because of the financially exhausting demands of the multiple stage sets and large casts and partly because the matrices of symbols the plays present have lost their universality and stageability in the light of modern aesthetic sensibilities. Strindberg has become more interesting to critics and scholars employing a psychological approach to literature than he has to theater practitioners, and his unequivocal condemnation of the feminine mystique has weakened his contemporary currency. Nevertheless, theater and drama from World War I to the present day have taken shape largely through the influence of Strindberg on his followers, in the areas of naturalistic characterization and in the free-form, subjectively presented, “theatrical” styles of contemporary auteur directors. Anticipating the filmic language of cuts, zooms, segues, and similar cinematic syntax, Strindberg broke the mold he himself had helped to create. Subsequent playwrights have seen in Strindberg’s life itself the raw material for dramatic presentation—Friedrich Dürrenmatt, with Play Strindberg: Totentanz nach August Strindberg (1969; Play Strindberg: The Dance of Death, 1971), and Michael Meyer (a Strindberg scholar), with Lunatic and Lover (1981), are examples.
Brandell, Gunnar. Strindberg in Inferno. Translated by Barry Jacobs. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. A psychoanalytical study of Strindberg’s turbulent middle life, illuminating the substance and power of his later writing. Brandell, considered Sweden’s leading Strindberg expert, traces the playwright’s path both into and out of the crisis, adding a valuable description of the works generated from 1893 to 1898. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index of names.
Johannesson, Eric O. The Novels of August Strindberg: A Study in Theme and Structure. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A good introduction to the prose work, which in turn informs the plays. Discusses fourteen novels available in English, examining the metaphoric language and the techniques of the novels’ construction, noting Strindberg’s difficulties with muddling “illusion and reality.” Includes a bibliography and index of proper names.
Johnson, Walter. Strindberg and the Historical Drama. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963. Literary analysis of Strindberg’s neglected (in the United States) history plays, especially those written after the Inferno period, that casts light on Strindberg’s erudition, craft, and nationalistic zeal. Johnson finds lasting literary merit in at least twelve of the “dynamic” historical plays. Includes bibliographic and other notes and an index.
Lagercrantz, Olof. August Strindberg. Translated by Anselm Hollo. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984. Strindberg’s life described as a series of psychological explanations for his creative output. Oddly sparse, even cavalier, regarding the details of Strindberg’s theatrical and dramatic activity. Includes sixty-three illustrations throughout the text, biographical notes on figures mentioned in the text, a select bibliography of Strindberg editions, and an index.
Lamm, Martin. August Strindberg. Translated and edited by Harry G. Carlson. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971. Written in the classic literary biography form, the two parts of this thorough study—“Before the Inferno Crisis” and “After the Conversion”—anticipate the major division of all subsequent Strindberg scholarship. Lamm analyzes the work from a literary rather than a theatrical viewpoint but adds some interesting details concerning the Scandinavian Experimental Theater of Denmark (Strindberg lived in Copenhagen from 1887 to 1889) and the Intimate Theater of his later years. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Morgan, Margery. August Strindberg. New York: Grove Press, 1985. Part of the Modern Dramatists series. A brief biography followed by a thorough critical overview of Strindberg’s work as theatrical script, not merely as literature. A full description of the canon (concentrating on the dramas), with contemporary interpretation, plus a valuable section on Strindberg as director of the Intimate Theater. Contains fifteen illustrations, including a photographic self-portrait with his daughters, an appendix, notes, a valuable bibliography, and an index.
Mortensen, Brita M. E., and Brian Downs. Strindberg: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1949. A centenary introduction to the man and his work, divided into four periods and four genres—plays, novels, short stories, and autobiographical writings—with an added chapter on miscellaneous works. Includes a good conclusion, a select bibliography, and an index.
Ollén, Gunnar. August Strindberg. Translated by Peter Tirner. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972. Part of the World Dramatists series. Bracketed by a brief biography and an overview of Strindberg’s stage work, a capsule description of each of the plays in almost encyclopedic form, in the order of their composition, is presented. This is a useful quick reference to specific titles. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.
Reinert, Otto, ed. Strindberg: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. An introduction by the editor, followed by twelve articles in three sections: “The Divided Self,” “A New Theater,” and “Some Major Plays.” A good overview of how scholars discuss Strindberg’s work, ranging from Robert Brustein’s study of The Father to Brian Rothwell’s essay on the chamber plays. Includes a chronology of important dates, notes on the editor and contributors, and a selected bibliography.
Steene, Birgitta. The Greatest Fire: A Study of August Strindberg. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973. This study moves away from the common psychological (and therefore “sour”) approach to Strindberg, concentrating instead on the innovations and craft in his work and its importance in studying modern playwrights such as Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, even Tennessee Williams. Includes notes, a selected bibliography, and an index.
Strindberg, August. Inferno, Alone, and Other Writings. Edited by Evert Sprinchorn. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. An accessible selection of Strindberg’s autobiographical work, which alters facts into a fiction more true than the original. A substantial introduction defends Strindberg’s genius.
Strindberg, August. Letters of Strindberg to Harriet Bosse. Edited and translated by Arvid Paulson. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1959. A collection of letters to his third wife, written from 1900 (before their marriage in 1901) to 1908, when she remarried. Her personal comments and ten letters to Strindberg, are included. A frighteningly personal entry into Strindberg’s mentality. Includes a brief introduction, a biographical note on Harriet Bosse, notes, and an index.
Valency, Maurice. The Flower and the Castle: An Introduction to Modern Drama. New York: Macmillan, 1963. On Ibsen and Strindberg, this important critical discussion of the sweeping changes in theater history from Eugène Scribe’s “well-made play” to realism is a central study for both authors and for the period. Of Strindberg’s neurotic predilections he remarks, “At bottom the subject matter of his plays is almost invariably the same.” Of his style, it “is at the opposite pole from that of Ibsen.” Includes notes, an extensive bibliography, and an index.