Strindberg was a prolific writer. He wrote plays, short stories, novels, poems, autobiographies, literary criticism, histories, works on folklore, political tracts, studies on Chinese language and culture, treatises on chemistry, and reams of letters and journals. He is best known, however, for his work as a dramatist. His dramatic canon has an incredible range. He wrote compact one-act dramas focusing on intense conflicts between several characters as well as massive epics covering vast territories and significant lapses in time. He wrote sardonic comedies, historical dramas, fantasies based on fairy tales, family dramas portraying volatile conflicts between husbands and wives, pilgrimage plays that follow one character’s odyssey through life, and symbolic dramas with ghostlike characters. Most of Strindberg’s dramas are intensely autobiographical works in which characters caught in the grip of powerful forces engage in the psychological torment of themselves and others.
One recurring theme in Strindberg’s dramas is the theme of sexual warfare. Since primitive times, male fantasy has projected the dual image of woman as either good mother or evil seductress, an image that Strindberg adopted. The maternal ideal for Strindberg is seen in a caring and nurturing woman, but this ideal is perverted by the Strindbergian woman’s quest for power and dominance. His women are subtle destroyers of men, driving them to insanity or killing them slowly through various means of psychological torment. Even children are used as pawns in a deadly battle to the death. Laura in The Father drives the Captain insane and robs him of his paternal power. Julie is both repulsed by and attracted to men and always tries to exert her dominance over them. The mother in Pelikanen (pr., pb., 1907; The Pelican, 1962) takes on a lover and drives the father to his death with her infidelity.
The male hero in Strindberg’s plays is a prototype of the alienated heroes of modern drama. Caught in a world of perpetual doubt and suspicion, he finds himself a victim in a cruel world. He often experiences a paralysis of the will and is controlled by overpowering forces that consciously or unconsciously manipulate his life. In his quest for an ideal, he finds himself thwarted at every turn by the complexities of the world order. He may search hopelessly for a mother figure, as do the Captain in The Father and the Unknown in To Damascus I. He may try to break the bond of a stratified social order, as Jean does in Miss Julie, or he may seek for an ideal love that transcends the world of social stigmas and existential guilt. Yet no matter how hard he seeks to find a way out of his entrapment, he is left defeated and completely incapacitated.
Many critics consider Strindberg as a subjective dramatist more concerned with his own personal struggles than with social issues. Yet Strindberg is interested in class warfare. In Miss Julie and Spöksonaten (pb. 1907, pr. 1908; The Ghost Sonata, 1916), he shows how flimsy is the base of aristocratic power. A miller prostitutes his wife to purchase a title from the king. Thus originates the aristocratic bloodline of Miss Julie. In The Ghost Sonata, the Colonel is a fake aristocrat who has gained his military title from an honorary position in the American volunteer service. The power structure is always questioned in Strindberg. The new monied aristocracy, of which Jean is now a part, is as shallow as the old aristocracy. Jean is like Hummel, the capitalist entrepreneur in The Ghost Sonata who turns out to be a vampire destroying human lives.
Strindberg also stands at the forefront of modern drama when he focuses on the theme of doubt and uncertainty in a world where truth is impossible to discern. The world of Strindberg’s drama is wrapped in lies and deceptions. Fathers do not know that their children are their...
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- Critical Essays