Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656
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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