Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1838

The plays of August Strindberg have exerted a powerful and pervasive influence on modern drama in both Europe and America. His insights into naturalism, in such early plays as The Father and Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie , 1912), were central in the shaping of that dramatic movement, while his...

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The plays of August Strindberg have exerted a powerful and pervasive influence on modern drama in both Europe and America. His insights into naturalism, in such early plays as The Father and Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie, 1912), were central in the shaping of that dramatic movement, while his later experiments with expressionism, in such works as Spöksonaten (1907; The Ghost Sonata, 1916), Ett drömspel(1902; A Dream Play, 1912), and the Till Damaskus trilogy(1898-1904; To Damascus, 1913), have profoundly effected nonrealistic approaches to the modern stage. It is virtually impossible to separate Strindberg’s life from his works, and this is particularly true in the case of The Father. Even Strindberg recognized the close alliance between the two when on November 12, 1887, he wrote to Axel Lundegard: “It is to me as if I were walking in my sleep—as if creation and life were mingled. I do not know whether The Father is a creative work, or whether that was my real life.”

The relationship between Strindberg’s reality and his writing becomes apparent in an examination of Le Plaidoyer d’un fou(1893; A Madman’s Defense, 1912), an autobiographical novel that contains many references essential to an understanding of The Father. Written between 1887 and 1888, it chronicles fourteen years of Strindberg’s life, including his fateful meeting and marriage to Siri Von Essen. Strindberg intended the work as an exposé of Siri’s attempts to confine him for mental treatment, but in reality it presents a clear picture of developing paranoia and acute mental instability.

Strindberg’s first-person narrator names his wife Maria and portrays her as suspicious of her husband’s sanity from the beginning of their marriage. (Indeed, in 1886 Siri consulted a Swiss doctor about Strindberg’s instability, confirming his suspicion that she suspected mental imbalance in him all along and desired to obtain his insurance money or marry again.) Based on her conviction, Maria attempts to provoke behavior from the narrator that can be used as evidence to justify confinement. When she sides with the critics of her husband’s book, he calls her a traitor who is responsible for starting rumors about his sanity. When he escapes to Paris to seek comradeship with friends, she follows him and insists on a retreat in Switzerland. Once there, she convinces the doctor, guests, proprietor, and servants that he is, indeed, insane.

Beginning to doubt his own sanity and feeling a persecution mania, the narrator turns his suspicions and hostility on his wife. He studies her behavior and comes to believe that she is an adulteress trying to cover her wrongdoings and gain his insurance money and writings by proving him mentally incompetent. He looks for evidence to prove his theory by rifling through her letters and subjecting her to strenuous cross-examinations. Neither her denials nor the confessions he believes he extracts provide him with convincing answers, but they intensify his agitation and instability. The reader of A Madman’s Defense cannot help but see the parallels between this autobiographical account and the basic plot of The Father, as well as the similarity between the narrator in the novel and the captain in the play. The Father becomes almost an adaptation of A Madman’s Defense.

Along with the fictionalization of the growing paranoia in A Madman’s Defense, Strindberg’s account closely parallels the events that surrounded the publication and subsequent blasphemy trial of Giftas I (1884), the first volume of his Getting Married (1973). This collection of short stories deals with the relationship between husbands and wives, drawing for some of the material on Strindberg’s early married life and The Father. The most important contribution from that collection to The Father is in the portrayal of women. Strindberg is scornful toward the “emancipated” woman in marriage, feeling that such a woman wants not equality with her mate but domination over him. The ideal role for the woman, Strindberg believes, is that of wife and mother—anything else can only be destructive.

This view of women had its origins in Strindberg’s own background, for he had cause to believe in the evil nature of his mother. Having been unwanted at birth and rejected as a child, Strindberg grew up a stranger in his own home. What Strindberg sought in a mate (he went through three stormy marriages) was not only a wife but also a substitute mother, a confusion of roles that greatly exacerbated his experiences of marriage. Strindberg describes Siri after first meeting her as “a deliciously girlish mother.” Even during their trial separation, Strindberg stated that he felt “like an embryo prematurely detached from the umbilical cord.” This attitude is echoed by the characters in The Father, when Laura tells the captain: “I loved you as if you were my child. But you know, you must have felt it, when your sexual desires were aroused, and you came forward as my lover, I was reluctant, and the joy I felt in your embrace was followed by such revulsion that my very blood knew shame. The son became the lover—oh!”

Strindberg’s confusion and disillusion led him naturally into bitter antifeminism, although he was hardly unusual in this respect. His philosophy paralleled that of many contemporaries, particularly those in France—a country he frequented during his exile periods—where the literary atmosphere in the 1870’s was extremely misogynistic. The theater had become particularly receptive to the movement, as is especially evident in the character of the femme fatale as popularized by such actors as Sarah Bernhardt. It was felt at the time that people of talent and intellect—particularly men, since they were the more imaginative and talented sex—were being exploited. The female was seen as a parasitic being who lived off the productivity of the male. As Laura states to the captain: “The mother was your friend, look you, but the woman was your enemy,—for sexual love is strife; and don’t imagine that I gave myself; I gave nothing, I only took—what I meant to have.”

The source for the question of paternity that is so central to The Father is provided by yet another biographical reference. When Strindberg married Siri she was pregnant and had, not long before their marriage, shared the company of her first husband, Baron Wrangel. After Strindberg became actively paranoid, his remembrance of that situation provoked him to harbor active doubts about the paternity of his children. That the suspicion was in his mind was confirmed by his reaction to Henrik Ibsen’s play Vildanden (1884; The Wild Duck, 1891). After its appearance, Strindberg considered suing Ibsen for slander on the grounds that Ibsen had used him as a model for Hjalmar Ekdal, the central character of the play, who doubts the paternity of his child. Strindberg and Siri were also at odds about the future occupations of their two daughters. Siri wished them to become actors, while Strindberg wanted them to be trained as midwives. These two personal conflicts became central issues in The Father.

Although Strindberg’s own experiences provided the major inspiration for The Father, he was also deeply influenced by the literary and cultural milieu of his time. The novels of the Goncourt brothers, with their emphasis on the physiological and psychological approach in human character analysis, and particularly Chérie (1884), which was Edmond de Goncourt’s last novel, may have directly affected the play. A naturalistic play with the same analytical emphasis, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1873), may also have provided Strindberg with some insight. Before he began writing The Father, he studied popular contemporary theories in psychiatric and hypnotic literature, and after finishing The Father, he articulated the results of these researches in an essay series entitled Vivisektioner(1887, Vivisections). From their titles alone, two of the essays reveal their influence on The Father: “The Battle of the Brains” and “Psychic Murder.”

These influences, coupled with “the battle of the brains” and the “psychic murder,” connect The Father with the school of naturalism. The battle of the brains between Laura and the captain is actually a Darwinian struggle for power, with survival going to the fittest—a central concept in the naturalist school of thought. The captain states that the battle with his wife is “to eat or to be eaten.” At one point, the discussion becomes overtly Darwinistic:

Captain: I feel in this battle one of us must succumb.Laura: Who?Captain: The weaker, of course.Laura: And the stronger is right?Captain: He is always right because he has the power.Laura: Then I am right.

The amorality of action—with the end justifying the means—the detached scientific tone, the emphasis on the psychological, and the playwright’s objectivity strengthen the play’s naturalist tendencies.

It was Zola, however, the founder of naturalism in the novel, who saw the yet undeveloped aspect of Strindberg’s attempt to bring naturalism into the drama. Despite his extremely adequate psychological emphasis and scientific attitude, Strindberg, as Zola pointed out, failed to give the play a “social setting”—that is, he had failed to emphasize the importance of heredity and environment in his characterization. Although attributing the captain’s weakness to his feelings of being unwanted when born and to the upbringing given him by a “bad” mother, Strindberg went no further in demonstrating the power of environmental influences on his characters. Despite this weakness, Zola apparently saw Strindberg as his potential dramatic counterpart and encouraged him in his pursuits. After his crucial beginning in The Father, Strindberg presented perhaps the first important naturalist drama with his next play, Miss Julie. The vital naturalist factors of heredity and milieu are even more explicitly emphasized in this powerful play, which dramatizes the destruction of a willful aristocratic female by her father’s brazen valet.

At the time he wrote The Father, Strindberg was a man of mental and emotional complexity who stood on the brink of developing one of the most important movements in modern dramatic literature—naturalism. In the third section of his autobiography, covering the period around 1886, Strindberg expresses an awareness of his position in the development of the modern drama. He saw himself as spanning the gap between romanticism and naturalism and being “like the blindworm, which retains rudimentary lizard feet inside its skin.” This dependence on his background and his “rudimentary lizard feet” was, however, no detriment to his dramatic career.

Rather than holding him back, these autobiographical reliances controlled, polished, and became the driving force in his naturalistic writings and, in a different way, were to become the substance of his later experiments with expressionism. His influence was felt throughout Europe as well as in the United States, and he was noted by Eugene O’Neill in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature as one of O’Neill’s foremost literary inspirations. Certainly since that time, Strindberg has been generally regarded, along with Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, as one of the three giants most responsible for the shape, direction, and power of twentieth century theater.

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