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...
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- Critical Essays