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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1810

First produced: 1888

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First published: 1888

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comic realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: Paris

Principal Characters:

Axel, an artist

Bertha, his wife, also an artist

Abel, her woman friend, an ardent feminist

Willmer, a dandified author

Dr. Ostermark, a doctor, Axel's friend

Mrs. Hall, his divorced wife

Carl Starck, a happily married army officer

Critique:

The problem of marriage—the responsibilities of each of the parties, the proper relationship between them, the respective rights, duties, and privileges of each—concerned the thrice-divorced Strindberg, both as a person and as an artist, throughout his adult life. Along with this problem, the complications introduced into it by the feminist movement strongly concerned him also. While his Scandinavian contemporaries, Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson, were defending the rights of women in their plays, Strindberg was pleading the cause of masculine supremacy. His relatively early play COMRADES is an example of his attempt to deal with this problem through comic means. Here he is illustrating the impossibility of a marriage based on equal rights and, along with it, the shallowness, meanness, and actual viciousness of those females who aspire to masculine prerogatives. However, though they obviously have Strindberg's sympathy, the triumphant males here seem little better than the conniving females whom they defeat. The play, inferior to the best of Strindberg, is an excellent example of his early work and interests.

The Story:

When Dr. Ostermark visited his painter friend Axel, he found that Axel was married to a young feminist named Bertha, herself an aspiring artist. Axel explained the conditions of his marriage: the two were to live, not as husband and wife, but as comrades, each with equal rights, each free to achieve artistic expression in his own way. Dr. Ostermark, a widower who, earlier in life, had been divorced, was dubious about the whole thing.

While they were talking, a male model arrived. Axel explained that the model was hired for Bertha and that he, forced to paint commercially to pay for Bertha's art lessons, could not afford one. Carl Starck, a Swedish army officer, and his wife joined the company. They were shocked that the model posed in the nude and that Bertha was left alone with him.

After the company had gone, Bertha returned. There was a slight altercation over finances, but Bertha kept the argument subdued because she had a favor to ask of Axel. Both had submitted paintings to an important show. It seemed certain that Axel's would be accepted by the jury, but there was much doubt about Bertha's. She begged Axel to use his influence—especially on the wife of the jury's chairman—to have her painting accepted. At first Axel claimed that to do so would be unsporting, but Bertha and her two friends, the masculine female, Abel, and the effeminate male, Willmer, finally convinced him to make the attempt. They even talked him into wearing the ribbon to a Russian decoration which he had vowed never to wear.

Axel carried out his wife's mission, returned, and then left again as the result of an argument. During his absence Abel arrived with the news that Axel's own painting had been rejected by the jury. A subsequent letter confirmed her statement. Bertha was triumphant. She and Abel gloated over the downfall of the male.

After Abel had gone, Bertha was visited by a Mrs. Hall, who explained that she was the divorced wife of Dr. Ostermark. The doctor, she claimed, had left her penniless with two young daughters twenty years before. Hearing that Dr. Ostermark was in Paris and that Bertha was a leading feminist, she had come to Bertha for help in devising a plan of vengeance. Bertha promised that she would present Mrs. Hall and her two daughters to the unsuspecting doctor at a masquerade party which she and Axel were to give the following evening.

Bertha planned that the party was also to further Axel's humiliation: she had ordered a dancing girl's costume for him to wear. When Axel returned, the quarrel over finances was resumed. Bertha taunted Axel with the charge that he was quibbling because her painting had been accepted and his had not. This charge angered him. When he saw his costume for the masquerade, he left again, completely enraged.

Abel and Bertha devised still another humiliation for Axel: they planned to arrange for the rejected painting to be brought home during the party. While they were contemplating their success, Willmer arrived with liquor and tobacco which they had ordered as supplies for a pseudo-masculine orgy. Willmer agreed to see that the painting was brought in at the right time. When he tried to make love to Bertha, she slapped and insulted him. As he left, Abel warned Bertha that it was dangerous to turn a friend into an enemy.

Bertha waited hours that night for Axel to come home. When he finally did come in, she attempted to placate him with genuinely feminine wiles, but he informed her that it was too late for her to become feminine; he had regarded her as a comrade for too long. Besides, he had just been with a woman who was truly a woman. His intentions were to divorce her. Also, having learned from Willmer that she had mismanaged his finances, he intended to demand financial reparations as well. Bertha was reduced to purely female pleading, but Axel was adamant. His only concession was to hold off the proceeding until after the party.

At the party, everything went wrong for Bertha. Axel refused to wear the effeminate costume. Starck recognized Mrs. Hall's daughters as a pair of prostitutes who had once accosted him and a fellow officer. Then Dr. Ostermark, confronted by Mrs. Hall, who by that time was too drunk to stand, revealed that he had divorced the woman twenty years before because she was a confirmed dipsomaniac and that the two daughters were not his at all but the results of a subsequent marriage or liaison.

Bertha's final blow was the return of the rejected painting, not Axel's, but Bertha's. Axel confessed that, like a good comrade, he had switched numbers on the paintings so that Bertha's might have the advantage of his name. The advantage had not been enough, it proved, to overcome the poor workmanship. When Willmer admitted arranging for its return during the party, Axel threw him out bodily.

Bertha now resorted to taunts inspired by jealousy. Axel was getting rid of her, she claimed, because he was in love with Abel. Axel assured her that the notion was preposterous—no more feminists for him. He had, he admitted, a womanly woman to take her place.

Defeated, Bertha begged to be allowed to see him again. He would see her, he agreed, but in the place where one ought to see comrades, in the cafe. At home he would see his wife.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

No author has dramatized the "battle of the sexes" more starkly and brutally than August Strindberg in his plays, novels, and autobiographical writings. To Strindberg, at least in the early part of his career, the sexual conflict was primal and constant, rooted in the nature of the species, and resolved only by victory or mutually destructive stalemate. However distorted and extreme such an attitude may seem, it accounts for much of the dramatic intensity and ferocity of his most famous sexual duels, THE FATHER (1887), MISS JULIE (1888), and THE DANCE OF DEATH (1901). COMRADES, completed shortly before THE FATHER, is his first treatment of the subject and, although it lacks the depth or impact of these others, it is the one play in which Strindberg confronts the issue of feminism in its social context.

Strindberg's message in COMRADES is that the movement for female equality is, in fact, a strategy for primacy. A marriage, such as the one proposed for Axel and Bertha "to be as two comrades," is basically impossible, because every couple must have its dominant figure. The illusion of comradeship, however, allows Bertha to claim equality wherever Axel has the edge, but to retain her female prerogatives whenever she wants to. Axel, being naive and taking the agreement at face value, encourages her painting, subsidizes her schooling, and pays for her model by neglecting his own work, and even enters his own painting under Bertha's name to gain recognition for her. On her side, Bertha abuses him, demeans his efforts, takes presents from Willmer, a male admirer, pockets the household money while juggling the budget books, and reacts with petulance to criticism of her work and glee at rejection of his. Her goal is not equality or independence or even superiority; it is total control of Axel. "I would like to humiliate him," she admits, "so deeply that he would come crawling to me." In short, Strindberg considers men superior intellectually, morally, and aesthetically and quite deserving of their higher social and cultural position. The female, however, because of her larger, hungrier ego, her possessiveness, her ruthlessness, and her deviousness, is more likely to win the sexual battle unless the male comes to understand his opponent and, like Axel, takes charge. Carl Starck is the only "happily married" man in the play because he has absolute domination over his wife.

However, since Strindberg considered sexual combat to be basic to the human experience, the specifically social issue of feminism probably weakens the play. Or perhaps COMRADES is inferior because Strindberg had not yet perfected the realistic technique that characterizes his best early plays. Although he no doubt intended a naturalistic treatment, Strindberg was still strongly influenced by the contemporary French theatre, and COMRADES has many elements of the "piece bien faite ("well made play"): the plot is contrived, the characters are superficial, and the emphasis is on long, tedious explanations." The dramatic problem is a thin one (whose picture really won the prize?) and remains largely in the background. Axel's insight into Bertha's motives actually occurs near the end of the first act when, having learned that his picture has been rejected, he becomes aware of Bertha's pleasure at his failure.

From that point on there are no real surprises left in the play. The characters discuss their feelings and ideas at great length and from all conceivable angles, but the play has little forward movement. A George Bernard Shaw might have been able to utilize such a situation, but Strindberg lacked the wit, intellectual subtlety, and sheer rhetorical power necessary for sophisticated idea comedies. Consequently, although there are some biting exchanges, COMRADES is neither clever enough for comedy nor realistic enough for straight drama. Strindberg was a playwright of passions, not ideas, and in this play he only touches the surface of his tormented souls. Thus, COMRADES remains a provocative preview of intense and profound dramatic struggles to come.

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