Strindberg, August

Strindberg, August
   A Swedish dramatist, novelist, short story writer, and poet, Strindberg is Sweden's best-known man of letters. Although he is known internationally chiefly for his dramas, he was an early practitioner of the modern psychological novel as well as a great literary artist whose career reflects most of the intellectual currents of his day. Together with Henrik Ibsen he stands as a father of modern drama, but he was a man of controversy his entire life. Strindberg's career got its start with two historical plays, Hermione (1869) and Den fredlose (1871; tr. The Outlaw, 1969), which were performed at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. Strindberg's next play, the prose version of Mäster Olof (1872; tr. Master Olof, 1915), was rejected, however. Strindberg was no doubt too critical of his subject, the Lutheran reformer Olaus Petri, a religious icon in Sweden, and this bit of adversity caused Strindberg to turn away from drama for a time.
   For several years Strindberg made a living as a journalist and assistant at Stockholm's Royal Library. After marrying Siri von Essen, he had his breakthrough as a writer of fiction with the novel Roda rum-met (1879; tr. The Red Room, 1967), a panoramic novel about life among artists, intellectuals, and government employees in Stockholm. He then moved with his family to France, from which he returned briefly in 1884 in order to stand trial on the charge of blasphemy. He had published a volume of short stories about the relationship between the sexes entitled Giftas (1884; tr., with a second volume, as Married, 1913; also as Getting Married, 1972), and one of these stories had attracted the attention of the authorities. He was acquitted, and a second volume of Giftas stories was published in 1886.
   At this time he also published the first two volumes of a somewhat fictionalized autobiography, Tjanstekvinnans son: En sjals utvecklingshistoria (1886-1909; tr. The Son of a Servant: The Story of the Evolution of a Human Being, 1966). The title reflected the fact that Strindberg's mother had been a servant before she became his father's second wife. Strindberg could not claim to have come from the lower classes, however, as his father was reasonably well to do and solidly middle class.
   Returning to Scandinavia in 1887, Strindberg published his most popular novel, Hemsoborna (1887; tr. The Natives ofHemso, 1965), which is set in the Stockholm archipelago. But his main reason for coming back was that he had gotten back to writing plays, and his first modern drama, Fadren (1887; tr. The Father, 1899), was to be staged in Copenhagen. Ideologically, Fadren is both a descendant of the traditional bourgeois tragedy (Trauerspiel) and influenced by the radical naturalistic ideas of Emile Zola (1840-1902). Strindberg wants to show that there is a perpetual war between men and women, and the female protagonist, Laura, is ruthless in her drive to destroy her husband by causing him to be declared insane. Her chief weapon is to get him to doubt that he is the biological father of their child, and the resulting "psychic murder," as Strindberg calls it, is truly a tragedy because he is a highly gifted man, much more so than his wife, who will henceforth be able to raise their child as she alone sees fit.
   The following year Strindberg published the naturalistic drama Fröken Julie (1888; tr. Miss Julie, 1912), which adheres closely to Zola's ideas. Julie, a young noblewoman, is seduced by her father's valet Jean, who is more fit for survival than she. Julie consequently commits suicide at the end of the drama. Another play, Fordringsaä-gare (1888; tr. Creditors, 1914), follows Zola's naturalism even more closely.
   After starting a short-lived experimental theater, Strindberg focused on fiction writing for a few years. His marriage to Siri von Essen was deteriorating, and he had written a novel about it in French, Le plaidoyer d'un fou (1888; tr. The Confessions of a Fool, 1912). He also wrote several more prose works, the most important of which is the novel I havsbandet (1890; tr. By the Open Sea, 1913 and 1984), in which he paid homage to the idea of the superman promulgated by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The protagonist in I havsbandet deteriorates mentally to the point that he commits suicide, and this slide into depression and psychosis is carefully charted by the narrator.
   Strindberg's marriage to Siri von Essen was dissolved in 1891. He met the Austrian Frida Uhl in 1893, and they were married the next year. They soon separated, however, and Strindberg went to live in Paris again, with the ambition ofbecoming a scientist. He carried out chemical and alchemical experiments, looking for a way to make gold from baser elements, but he suffered from a case ofpainful psoriasis that was probably aggravated by the chemicals he touched. He was also psychically unstable; he believed that some of his enemies were out to get him, and that they were somehow reaching him with electric currents. He interpreted everyday occurrences as signs from higher powers, and believed that these powers (maktarna) were deliberately tormenting him. Strindberg had by now departed from the science-based worldview of the 1880s and had adopted a very personal form of spirituality. Aided by the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, he had a religious breakthrough that he termed his personal Inferno, which he regarded as an expiation of and cleansing from his earlier way of life.
   The immediate artistic result of these experiences was the autobiographical novel Inferno (1897; tr. 1968) and the narratives Legender (1898; tr. Legends, 1912) and Jakob brottas (1899; tr, Jacob Wrestles). Inferno detailed his very difficult life while in Paris, and it is hard to determine if he was truly psychotic or if he was in part playing with his ideas and moods in order to have material for his art. It is quite clear, however, that he was not entirely well, and that he suffered both physically and mentally. Strindberg's new outlook on life manifested itself in such plays as the conversion trilogy Till Damaskus (1898-1904; tr. To Damascus, 1913), Dodsdansen (1901; tr. The Dance ofDeath, 1912), and Ett droämspel (1902; tr. A Dream Play, 1929). In Ett dromspel, Indra's daughter comes to earth as a human being in order to experience the joys and pains of the human condition. This is a far cry from Strindberg's naturalism in Froäken Julie.
   Strindberg's literary productivity increased dramatically after the Inferno crisis, and he published almost half of his literary works during the years 1897-1909. Some of these were such chamber plays as Ovaäder (1906; tr. Storm Weather, 1962), Spoäksonaten (1907; tr. The Ghost Sonata, 1962), and Pelikanen (1908; tr. The Pelican). Others were Kronbruden (1902; tr. The Crown Bride), which drew on Swedish folklore, and such history plays as Gustav Vasa (1899; tr. 1959) and Erik XIV (1899; tr. 1959), two of his approximately 20 historical plays.
   Prose narratives were also produced during these years. Goätiska rummen (1904; The Gothic Rooms) was thought of as a counterpart to his early novel Roäda rummet. The satirical novel Svarta fanor (1907; tr. Black Banners, 1981) was a thinly veiled attack on his Swedish contemporaries. This book was a manifestation of his strident nature, which was probably one reason Strindberg never received the Nobel Prize in literature. When in 1910 a suggestion was made that he should be given an equivalent sum of money by the Swedish people, a series of newspaper articles set off the final conflict in his life, the "Strindberg Feud." He died from stomach cancer on 14 May 1912.
   See also Theater.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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