August Strindberg 1849-1912
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Härved Ulf) Swedish playwright, novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and journalist.
Strindberg is considered one of the most important and influential dramatists in modern literature. With the plays Fadren (1887; The Father, ) and Fröken Julie (1889; Miss Julie), he proved himself an innovative exponent of Naturalism, while the later plays Ett drömspel(1907; The Dream Play) and the trilogy Till Damaskus (1898-1904; To Damascus) are recognized as forerunners of Expressionism, Surrealism, and the Theater of the Absurd.
Strindberg was born in Stockholm. Although he portrayed himself in his autobiographical novel Tjänstekvinnans son (1886; The Son of a Servant) as the unwanted product of a union between an impoverished aristocrat and a former servant, recent biographers have constructed a more favorable picture of the circumstances of his birth. His father was involved in the shipping trade, and although his mother had worked as a maid for a short time, she was the daughter of a tailor. Life in the Strindberg home was by all objective accounts rather comfortable, but Strindberg was an extremely shy and sensitive child who held an excessively negative perception of his own circumstances. He was educated first at the local primary school, then at the Stockholm Lyceum, a progressive private school, where he was an average student. In 1867 Strindberg enrolled at the University of Uppsala. While at the university, he wrote his first play; the endeavor afforded him such satisfaction that he resolved to make playwriting his profession. During 1869 he wrote three more plays, two of which were accepted for production by the prestigious Royal Theater in Stockholm. However, these plays were not financially successful, and Strindberg was obliged to write stories and articles for periodicals in order to earn a living, a practice he considered degrading. It was not until the publication of his novel Röda rummet (The Red Room) in 1879 that Strindberg became a highly respected and nationally recognized author.
Essential material for Strindberg's subsequent works was provided by his three tempestuous marriages. The first and longest, to Sigrid von Essen, was the basis for a novel, two collections of short stories, and several plays. The story collections, titled Giftas (1884-86; Married, Parts I and II) contained irreverent passages that caused Strindberg and his publisher to be charged with blasphemy. Following the breakup of his second marriage in 1891, Strindberg experienced a period of deep depression and hallucinations that he called his Inferno Crisis, because it occurred while he was writing the novel Inferno (1897; The Inferno). While his behavior had always been slightly bizarre, during this period he appears to have suffered a complete psychological break with reality. Severely paranoiac, he moved from lodging to lodging, convinced that his enemies were trying to murder him with electrical currents and lethal gases. Further manifestations of Strindberg's breakdown are observed in his abandonment of his literary career in order to devote himself to alchemical experiments and in the radical alteration of his religious thinking from agnostic to traditionally Christian. Believing that his affliction had been decreed by God as punishment for his sins, Strindberg sought a reconciliation with the deity as a possible cure, becoming fascinated with the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg, a Christian mystic.
Strindberg's eventual recovery from his psychosis was accompanied by a surge of creative activity. He returned to the theater to transform the horrors of the Inferno Crisis and his new-found religious mysticism into dramatic images. Strindberg's final years were relatively peaceful and productive, and he was revered by the Swedish people, who staged an enormous celebration in honor of his sixtieth birthday. He continued to write until he became incapacitated by illness. He died in 1912.
Critics divide Strindberg's work into two phases, citing the Inferno Crisis as the fulcrum of the playwright's career. The historical drama Mäster Olof (1881; Master Olof) and the naturalistic plays The Father and Miss Julie are the most significant examples of his pre-Inferno writings. Master Olof, Strindberg's first theatrical success, is also first in a cycle of twelve chronicle plays concerning Swedish historical figures. As Shakespeare had done, Strindberg dramatized a series of historic events that embodied the social and political issues of his own day. Although Master Olof introduced Strindberg as an important playwright, The Father and Miss Julie established his reputation as a brilliant innovator of theatrical form. In these works Strindberg developed a new, intense form of Naturalism. Influenced by the French novelist Emile Zola, Strindberg depicted his characters and their lives with scientific objectivity. However, he furthered this concept by focusing solely on the “moment of struggle,” the immediate conflict or crisis affecting his characters. Dialogue and incidents not pertaining to this moment were eliminated. Thematically, The Father, Miss Julie, and Strindberg's other Naturalist plays are rooted in Friedrich Nietzsche's conception of life as a succession of contests between stronger and weaker wills. Strindberg applied this theory to his recurring subject of to the conflict between the sexes for psychological supremacy. The female characters of his Naturalist dramas are typically diabolic usurpers of the “naturally” dominant role of males in society: with infinite cunning and cruelty, they eventually shatter the male characters' “superior” psyches and drain their creative and intellectual powers.
The stylistic experiments of Strindberg's post-Inferno period proved a turning point in modern drama. From his studies, Strindberg concluded that earthly life is a hell which men and women are forced to endure, a nightmare in which they suffer for sins committed in a previous existence. To Damascus, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata are based on this premise, presenting a fragmented and highly subjective view of reality. To achieve this effect, Strindberg employed symbolism and structure of dreams, creating a grotesque and ludicrous world that is both believable and frighteningly unreal: individuals appear and disappear at random; scenes and images change at the slightest provocation; and characters encounter their worst fears and fantasies. With To Damascus and The Dream Play Strindberg prefigured the major dramatic movements of the twentieth century, and his influence can be seen in the work of playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene O'Neill, and Eugène Ionesco.
Early reaction to Strindberg's plays was often highly mixed. Because Strindberg was an intensely autobiographical and self-analytical writer, some early critics dismissed his plays as self-absorbed and overly confessional. His early Naturalist plays, while successful, were often controversial, particularly for the anti-feminist and unorthodox religious views they presented. The plays from the period after the Inferno Crisis, with their highly subjective interpretations of experience and nightmarish effects, often confounded Strindberg's contemporaries, to whom the playwright appeared to have lost touch with reality. Modern critical evaluations, however, have been much more favorable. Harry G. Carlson, for example, while conceding that Strindberg was “a diligent journalist, plundering the details of his own life for copy,” asserted that he was also “a developing author, restlessly experimenting with new forms of expression in drama and fiction” and “an eloquent mythopoeic artist, constantly searching for ways to anchor the present more firmly in the past.” Modern commentators almost universally agree that Strindberg's later work initiated, in both content and form, the dramatic methods of modern theater. Pär Lagerkvist, a younger contemporary of Strindberg and himself an influential dramatic innovator, shortly after Strindberg's death praised the elder playwright's “distinctly new creative work in the drama”: “If one wishes to understand the direction in which the modern theatre is actually striving and the line of development it will probably follow, it is certainly wise to turn to [Strindberg] first of all.” Similarly, in a remark, cited approvingly by several critics, O'Neill declared that Strindberg “was the precursor of all modernity in our present theatre.”