World Literature

August Strindberg

 

BORN: 1849, Stockholm, Sweden

DIED: 1912, Stockholm, Sweden

NATIONALITY: Swedish

GENRE: Drama, fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Master Olof (1881)

The Father (1887)

Miss Julie (1888)

Inferno (1897)

To Damascus (1898-1904)

 

 

August Strindberg. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Overview

August Strindberg is considered one of the most important Swedish writers of the modern era. His drama Miss Julie (1888) has proven to be a classic, and several of his later plays, such as The Dream Play (1907) and the trilogy To Damascus (1898-1904), are recognized as forerunners of expressionism and the theater of the absurd. His psychologically astute plays, exposing the hidden roots of human conflicts, strongly influenced twentieth-century European literature.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Distressing Childhood in Stockholm. Johan August Strindberg was born in Stockholm on January 22, 1849. His father was a steamship agent; his mother, Nora, had at one time been a waitress in a tavern and later became the housekeeper of her future husband. In his autobiographical novel The Son of a Servant (1886), Strindberg underlines the class difference between his parents as one source of the conflict in his nature and worldview. The Strindbergs were devout Christians, and their family life was patriarchal. As a boy Strindberg was unhappy. His mother died when he was thirteen, and less than a year later, his father married the children’s governess—a woman thirty years younger than his father. Strindberg’s lifelong mental anguish can be attributed in part to his unhappy childhood.

Failing Chemistry and Turning to the Stage. An average student, Strindberg graduated high school in 1867 and enrolled in the University of Uppsala to study medicine. He failed his qualifying examination in chemistry, and left academia without a degree. His interest turned to the theater, but here, too, he failed to qualify; after an unsuccessful acting audition, he started writing plays. He completed his first three in 1869, at the age of twenty. In the summer of 1872 Strindberg completed Master Olof (1881), the first of his many historical dramas and his first important literary work. It concerns the sixteenth-century religious reformer Olaus Petri, a disciple of Martin Luther who helped free the Church of Sweden from Rome’s domination. He wrote several versions of the play, in prose and verse, before it was staged in Stockholm in 1881.

During his early career, Strindberg supported himself partly as a journalist and translator. In 1874, he found more permanent employment as an assistant librarian. In the spring of 1875 he met his future wife, Siri von Essen. She was married to a baron, but her husband had amorous interests outside his marriage. Strindberg encouraged her aspirations to a theatrical career, and the two fell in love. Siri divorced her husband amicably, debuted as an actress in 1877, and married Strindberg that December.

Controversy and Exile. Strindberg’s breakthrough as a prose writer—and the breakthrough of realism in modern Swedish literature—came with The Red Room (1879), a collection of satirical short stories about bohemian life in Stockholm. The title comes from a room at the popular Berns Salonger restaurant, where a coterie of young artists gathered regularly. The book was an overnight success, and put its author in the limelight. He followed this up with Old Stockholm (1880), a popular history of daily life in the city.

Commissioned in 1881 to write a major cultural history of Sweden, Strindberg produced a thousand-page volume that concentrated on the life of the common people, rather than the kings whose exploits traditionally fill the pages of history books. Criticized by professional scholars, Strindberg responded by publishing a scathing attack on Sweden’s social and political establishment, The New Kingdom (1882). The book gave Strindberg new and powerful enemies, and its negative reception was probably the catalyst for Strindberg’s decision to leave Sweden, which both ruined his marriage and was extremely productive for his work: he published more than twenty volumes of writing in the ensuing six years.

Strindberg soon provoked further controversy with his story collection Married (1884). In this work’s preface, Strindberg brings up the so-called woman question—a hotly debated issue among the European intelligentsia at the time—and presents a program for gender equality that seems progressive even to many contemporary readers. The story ‘‘Virtue’s Reward,’’ which starkly depicts the social repression of adolescent sexuality, led Swedish authorities to confiscate the books and charge the author with blasphemy. Strindberg returned to Sweden to stand trial; he spoke eloquently in his own defense and was acquitted of all charges.

Lifelike Art or Artlike Life? Strindberg’s views on women soon darkened considerably, however; the second volume of Married (1886) is more bitter and resentful. The theme of male-female relationships seen as a battle of the sexes also surfaces in many Strindberg dramas, including some of his most celebrated ones. During this period, Strindberg became increasingly preoccupied by new discoveries in psychology. He now wanted to construct psychological case studies for the stage. The style he adopted for this venture was that of naturalism. His first great drama of psychic combat was The Father (1887), and he found the material for it in his own marriage: he suspected Siri of being unfaithful and questioned the paternity of his children. He transformed this anguish into a taut drama in which an unscrupulous wife provokes her husband to doubt his fatherhood, and drives him to a mental and physical collapse. Strindberg’s marriage deteriorated rapidly after he wrote The Father, and the play was a great success, gaining Strindberg general European recognition (and leading some to question art’s role as a vampiric force in Strindberg’s life). The following year, he relayed the story of his marriage in The Confessions of a Fool (1888). This autobiographical novel has been called one of the great love stories in Swedish literature, though it contains a ruthless and even hateful depiction of his wife.

Surprisingly, just as his marriage was growing brittle, Strindberg began writing one of his sunniest novels, The People of Hemso (1887), about a farmhand who seduces a widow and tries to persuade her to marry him and sign over the farm. The novel has become a Swedish classic and mandatory reading for Swedish high school students.

In the summer of 1888, Strindberg composed his best-known drama, Miss Julie. The story is simple. During a midsummer night’s celebration, a high-strung young noblewoman is seduced by her father’s good-looking, social-climbing butler. Afterward she kills herself out of shame and desperation. Strindberg, the ‘‘son of a servant,’’ undoubtedly drew upon his own marriage to an aristocratic woman for the play’s undercurrent of class struggle.

Berlin and Paris. Strindberg moved to Berlin in 1892, and found there a following of artists and writers, as well as directors eager to stage his plays. He met his second wife there, a twenty-one-year-old journalist named Frida Uhl. The marriage lasted a year and a half; their parting became the opening scene of his pivotal novel, Inferno (1897). Strindberg then turned his hopes to Paris, where he tried hard to market himself and had a victory with a Paris production of The Father.

In Paris, Strindberg underwent a spiritual crisis. Reading the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic, convinced him that he had gone through a hell on earth; that his sufferings were actually administered by a merciful higher power who intended to destroy his arrogance and make him a better person. This line of thinking is the essence of Inferno, which became one of Strindberg’s best-known prose works.

A Return to Sweden. Strindberg’s new religious framework helped structure his ‘‘pilgrimage’’ trilogy, To Damascus (1898-1904). Invoking the New Testament story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Strindberg focused on a character called ‘‘the Stranger,’’ who moves from despair to acceptance of the divine. After finishing To Damascus in 1898, Strindberg left Paris for good and returned to Sweden.

In the next five years, he wrote twenty-two plays, including one of his masterpieces, The Dance of Death (1900). Coming home after many years abroad, Strindberg negotiated the tensions of his return by composing a remarkable series of historical dramas. The eleven plays he wrote between 1899 and 1908, together with Master Olof from 1872, form a cycle dramatizing seven centuries of Swedish history. His model for this enormous project was Shakespeare. The best-known plays of the cycle portray leading Swedish figures such as Gustav Vasa (1899), the nation’s founding father, and Erik XIV (1899), the psychopathic king who proposed to Queen Elizabeth of England and was rejected.

Revolutions in Word and World. Strindberg had previously attempted to open his own theater, without success. In 1907, he succeeded, founding the Intimate Theatre with a young producer named August Falk. For this stage, Strindberg wrote a series of ‘‘chamber plays’’— plays composed like chamber music, with theme and development rather than plot and character. The chamber plays are usually set in a house that quickly assumes metaphorical significance: its respectable exterior hides the lies and deceits in the rooms within. The chamber plays culminate in the extraordinary Ghost Sonata (1908), with a peculiar blend of occult, fantastic, and surreal elements.

Alongside these plays that emphasize theme over plot, Strindberg also wrote a scathing, thinly fictionalized portrayal of several of his contemporaries titled Black Banners (1907). In 1910, inspired in part by the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, in which socialist workers and members of the military unsuccessfully sought to dismantle the Russian monarchy, he penned a series of polemics in a left-wing newspaper. These pieces, highly critical of the monarchy and the military, stirred up a lively national debate, later called the ‘‘Strindberg feud.’’ Strindberg died of stomach cancer in May of 1912.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Strindberg's famous contemporaries include:

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906): A Norwegian playwright and, along with Strindberg, one of the founders of modern drama.

Mark Twain (1835-1910): An American novelist and humorist and the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Emile Zola (1840-1902): A French novelist and playwright and a leading proponent of literary naturalism.

William James (1842-1910): An American psychologist and philosopher and the author of the influential textbook Principles of Psychology.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950): An Irish-English playwright and lifelong socialist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925.

Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940): A Swedish novelist who in 1909 became the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

Works in Literary Context

August Strindberg’s career was remarkable in the stages of its development. At every turn, he departed from literary conventions and customary dramatic norms. Many of his plays, particularly Master Olofand his later historical cycle, follow a Shakespearean model of stagecraft, but he absorbed numerous other artistic and philosophical influences along the way and innovated freely. As a young man, he studied the natural philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. By the mid-1880s, however, he had become an admirer of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Gendered Struggles of the Will. Two aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy are readily apparent in Strindberg’s writing: his conception of life as a succession of contests between stronger and weaker wills, and his emphasis on the refined superiority of the male intellect. If conflict is the driving force of Strindberg’s mature plays, his principal theme is the battle of wills, especially as applied in the battle between the sexes for intellectual and psychological supremacy. Strindberg’s attitude toward women was more ambivalent than negative. He was acutely aware of the problems facing women in the patriarchal societies of nineteenth-century Europe. Henrik Ibsen had fueled the debate in 1879 with his play A Doll’s House, and Strindberg was one of many to respond to that important drama. Strindberg initially advocated an egalitarian relationship between the sexes. In his plays, though, female characters often appear as diabolical usurpers of man’s ‘‘naturally’’ dominant role, cruelly shattering his psyche and draining his intellect.

Naturalism. Strindberg’s efforts to portray psychic combat on stage went hand in glove with his conception of naturalism, an attempt to explore in literature the terrain of the new social sciences. In a preface to the published script of Miss Julie, Strindberg outlines the theatrical and philosophical principles of naturalistic drama: nothing should appear theatrical; there should be no intermissions, which might break the illusion of reality for the audience; characters are determined by their heredity and environment. This manifesto for naturalism is often considered as important for modern drama as Miss Julie itself. The play also adheres to the naturalist rule that a work of fiction should demonstrate a law of nature, in this case the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest. Strindberg’s naturalism focuses on the ‘‘moment of struggle,’’ the immediate conflict affecting his characters, and eliminates any extraneous incidents or dialogue, creating a spare, intense theatrical effect.

Forerunner of Modern Drama. To Damascus, The Dance of Death, The Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata employ dream symbolism to translate Strindberg’s mystical visions into the language of drama. Highly abstracted characters appear and disappear in stylized settings; scenes and images change unexpectedly; and profound fears and ghastly fantasies materialize. By breaking with the realistic traditions of drama in his later career, Strindberg opened up new possibilities, prefiguring such major dramatic movements of the twentieth century as expressionism and exerting a powerful influence on dramatists such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, and Eugene Ionesco.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Strindberg was long a proponent of naturalism—a literary genre that attempts to represent human behavior with scientific detachment. Here are some well-known examples of the genre, which tends to be skeptical about the experience of freedom of choice, emphasizing instead hereditary, social, and evolutionary factors as determinants of human decisions.

Therese Raquin (1867), a novel by Emile Zola. Zola described this novel of adultery, murder, and guilt as akin to a scientific study of human temperaments.

Hedda Gabler (1890), a play by Henrik Ibsen. This landmark psychological play features one of the most highly regarded female roles in world theater.

Sister Carrie (1900), a novel by Theodore Dreiser. This classic American naturalist novel portrays the moral fall and material rise of a young woman in the big city.

The Lower Depths (1902), a play by Maksim Gorky. This work is a dark study in self-deception, first produced by the Moscow Arts Theatre and directed by the famous dramaturge Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Native Son (1940), a novel by Richard Wright. The first successful African American protest novel, Native Son portrays its protagonist's violence as an inevitable consequence of poverty and racial discrimination.

 

Works in Critical Context

During his lifetime, August Strindberg frequently courted controversy and deliberately outraged the establishment. It is no wonder that reaction to his creative work was often mixed. The first few years of his career were marked by his unconventional, grassroots approach to Swedish history; his outspoken assault on powerful leaders and institutions in The New Kingdom; and his 1884 blasphemy trial. Even the greatest triumphs of his naturalist period, The Father and Miss Julie, were clouded by personal scandal and controversy over his perspective on gender issues. His later plays, with their spooky effects and outlandish sensibility, bewildered his contemporaries still further. At the end of his iconoclastic life, the polemical ‘‘Strindberg feud’’ cast his legacy in the light of his role as social critic and political firebrand.

Despite or because of these recurrent controversies, Strindberg achieved lasting popularity in his home country. The whole city of Stockholm turned out to celebrate his sixtieth birthday in 1909. When he was passed over for the Nobel Prize in Literature that year—in favor of fellow Swede Selma Lagerlof, the first woman to receive the prize—a nationwide appeal went out to present Strindberg with a special award, including forty-five thousand crowns raised largely from small donations. At the time of his death, Strindberg was a national treasure and a respected name among the European intelligentsia.

Miss Julie. In the United States, Strindberg’s best- known work is probably the gender play Miss Julie. His strongest champion in American theater was certainly Eugene O’Neill, who called him ‘‘the greatest genius of all modern dramatists,’’ but he has also garnered much praise from other corners. Recent responses to Miss Julie have often focused on issues of gender and class, with neo-Marxist critics like Evert Sprinchorn arguing that ‘‘when Miss Julie kills herself, we understand that one social class is being replaced by another one.’’ From the gender studies perspective, literary scholar Robert Gordon has observed that ‘‘for all its ambiguities Miss Julie is possibly the first nineteenth-century play by a male writer to have conceived the woman’s role as subject of the drama, her point of view being as fully explored as the man’s.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. August Strindberg championed naturalism in his early career, and then later rejected it and pursued more expressionistic theatrics. Write about the uses and limits of naturalism in his plays, citing examples from his early and late work.

2. Explore the theories of the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who influenced many famous writers. How do Strindberg’s post-Inferno writings reflect Swedenborgian ideas?

3. Write about the theme of power as expressed in Strindberg’s work. How do his characters acquire, display, and use power?

4. Many scholars have written about the bitter relations between men and women in Strindberg’s dramas. Do you think his is a sexist point of view? Explain your position using detailed analysis of passages from Strindberg’s writing.

5. How would you characterize Strindberg’s beliefs about human nature?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bellquist, John Eric. Strindberg as a Modern Poet: A Critical and Comparative Study. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Carlson, Harry G. Out of Inferno: Strindberg’s Reawakening as an Artist. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

Kvam, Kela, ed. Strindberg’s Post-Inferno Plays. Copenhagen: Munksgaard/Rosinante, 1994.

McGill, Vivian. August Strindberg: The Bedeviled Viking. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.

Meyer, Michael. Strindberg: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1985.

Mortensen, Brita, and Brian Downs. Strindberg: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949.

Robinson, Michael. Studies in Strindberg. Norwich, U.K.: Norvik, 1998.

Robinson, Michael, and Sven Rossel, eds. Strindberg and Expressionism. Vienna: Praesens, 1999.

Steene, Brigitta. Strindberg and History. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1992.

Tornqvist, Egil. Strindbergian Drama. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1982.

Valency, Maurice. The Flower and the Castle. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1963.

Ward, John. The Social and Religious Plays of Strindberg. London: Athlone, 1980.