A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

August Strindberg

Johan August Strindberg, the foremost Swedish playwright and a major influence on modern drama, was born in Stockholm on January 22, 1840, the son of a shipping merchant and his former servant.  His father died when the boy was four, and his mother when he was thirteen.  He entered Upsala University to study medicine, but after failing an intermediate exam, became an actor at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm.  A failure at acting, he turned to writing, returning to Upsala to study modern languages and political science.  In 1870 his fourth play, a one-act, “In Rome” was performed at the Royal Theater.  Leaving the university, he became a journalist and then, for eight years, a librarian at the Royal Library in Stockholm.

While in this post, he met Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel and his wife, Finnish actress Siri von Essen.  Siri and Strindberg fell in love and married in 1877.  Although successful as a novelist, Strindberg continued to struggle as a playwright, with his works rejected by producers or, if staged, by critics.  He and his family then lived abroad for six years, while he continued to write, not plays, but short stories, novels, and poems.  His collection of short stories titled “Marriage” led to his prosecution for blasphemy in 1884. At his trial in Sweden he was acquitted, but the theme of marriage continued to dominate his most successful and best-known plays which followed: “The Father” and “The Dance of Death.”

Rejected by theaters in Sweden, “The Father” premiered in Copenhagen in  November 1887, at which time the author’s troubled marriage was on the rocks.  He was enraged at the plays of his successful contemporary, Ibsen, who took up the feminist cause in “A Doll’s House ‘ in 1881.  To the Danish translator, he wrote of the Captain in ”The Father,” to suggest “that the Captain . . . conscious of his superiority, goes loftily and cynically, almost joyfully to meet his fate, wrapping himself in death as in a spider’s web which he is impotent to tear asunder. . . .”He symbolizes for me a masculinity which people have tried to pound or wheedle out of us and transfer to the third sex!  It is only when he is with the woman [his wife, Laura] that he is unmanly, because that is how she wants him, and the law of adaptation forces us to play the role that our sexual partner demands.”

The play was praised by the critics, and Strindberg unexpectedly found himself declared a genius and invited to present the play in Stockholm.  He wrote to the Swedish director, “Act the play as Lindberg [a leading actor] acted Ibsen, i.e. not tragedy, not comedy, but somewhere midway between.”

In “The Father,” Laura inadvertently leads her husband, the Captain, to believe that he is not the father of their daughter, Bertha.  As the Captain is unwell (Laura has suggested to the doctor that her husband is not in his right mind) he breaks down and weeps despite her swearing that he is the father.  He asks for her pity: “I who, in the barracks among the soldiers, issued commands, was, with you, the one who obeyed; I grew up at your side, looked up to you as though to a superior being, listened to you as though I was your innocent child.”

When Laura replies, “I loved you as my child,” the Captain confesses: “I thought you despised my lack of masculinity, and I wanted to win you as a woman by being a man.”  Laura says,  “That was where you made your mistake.  The mother was your friend, you see, but the woman was your enemy.  Love between man and woman is war.”

The Captain, after threatening to shoot Bertha, is placed in a straitjacket brought by the doctor.  As he suffers a stroke, Bertha runs to her mother, crying, “Mother, mother!” The play ends with Laura saying, “My child! My  child.”

In “Miss Julie,” the man is the dominant character in the sexual liaison between an aristocratic young woman and her father’s valet, Jean.  On midsummer night, celebrated by the servants with romancing, dancing, and singing (heard offstage), Miss Julie wanders into the kitchen of her father, the Count, to encounter Jean, and the banter between them, in which she flirts with him and orders him about, soon becomes serious and erotic. When they withdraw to consummate a sexual encounter, the ballet of peasants dances in, singing a suggestive song.

As Julie and Jean re-enter, the relationship has changed; Jean takes charge.  They will elope and open a hotel – if she can find the money.  But she has none. Shamed, Julie now begs Jean to take her away, becomes increasingly hysterical as he refuses, puts on her traveling outfit to run away, bringing her canary, which Jean kills.  “I can’t repent, can’t run away, can’t stay, can’t live—can’t die.  Help me!  Order me and I’ll obey you,” she cries.  He whispers to her, gives her a razor, she departs to the barn as the Count rings the bell for Jean, who “cringes, then straightens himself up:  ‘It’s horrible.  But it’s the only possible ending.  Go!’”

By the time he wrote “The Dance of Death,”  Strindberg was married to his second wife, Harriet Bosse, and the theme is similar to that of “The Father,” the misery of marriage. To this is added the theme of facing death, to which Edgar responds with fierce denial.  Here the characterization is much more assured than that of the earlier play, and the themes strike home more sharply.  Strindberg’s married couple --  Captain Edgar and former actress Alice are stage creations irresistible to  leading actors, and most recently, on  Broadway,  Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren proved that this classic work is great universal theater.

Living on a remote island outpost on the coast of Sweden, the Captain and his wife, self-isolated from the other inhabitants because of Edgar’s nasty temper, are at war with each other, as they have been for twenty-five years of bickering, insulting parry-and-thrust.  Even a card game is a combat, as Edgar enters the score in a notebook filled with tallies of the past.  When not at cards, each delights in scoring verbally: “I suppose you’re attractive – to other people,” says Mr. McKellen, adding with perfect timing: “when it suits you.”  When the last of a long line of servants walks out on them, Ms. Mirren pointedly describes her husband: “You are a despot with the character of a slave.” 

Like Albee’s George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” a play greatly influenced by Strindberg (a debt Albee acknowledges), Edgar and Alice thrive on conflict.  They have sent their children away to school, ostensibly because of the harmful atmosphere of the tower (a former prison) in which they live, giving them “an ashen inmate look,” but probably because they want the arena of combat to themselves.  For this production, Santo Loquasto designed an impressive setting – the curved brick of the dark fortress tower thrusting onto the stage.  Playwright Richard Greenberg’s translation was taut and colloquial.

When Alice’s cousin Kurt arrives as the newly-appointed quarantine officer, it is not long before he is drawn into the battle, forced to take one side and then the other, as Edgar and Alice present opposing views of the other half.  Kurt also provides an audience for former actress Alice, costuming herself for conquest of the new arrival, whom she proceeds to seduce.   Believing Kurt to be on her side, Edgar goes into town, returning to announce that as he is dying and has changed his will to exclude Alice, who meanwhile has been charging him with embezzlement of the regiment’s funds and hoping for his court martial.   Except for the dying, his report is untrue. 

The most memorable of many such scenes takes place when Mr. McKellen as the Captain performs for Kurt his dance of the boyars while Alice plays the piano.  It is indeed a “dance of death,” a heroic defiance of the end that he knows awaits, yet a determination to fight against it as long as he can. There is a Part Two to this play, which is seldom performed.  It involves Kurt’s son Allan and the Captain’s beloved daughter Judith.

“The Stronger” is the most popular of Strindberg’s one-act plays, written in 1889 for his projected Experiment Theater in Copenhagen, based on Antoine’s Theatre Libre in Paris, where many of Strindberg’s plays, considered experimental in their day, were performed.  At the time of composing the work, he was having an affair with  seventeen-year-old Martha Hansen, plus other relationships with  at least two actresses.  His wife Siri stood by him as he returned to her after each affair.  He offered her the character of Madam X, which she turned down at first but then accepted. Obviously, he considered Siri the “stronger” in real life.

The two characters in the play are Madam X, a married actress, and Mademoiselle Y, an unmarried actress.  Only Madam X speaks.  The two meet in a café.  Madam X enters and greets Mademoiselle Y, who is seated at a table with a bottle of beer, reading a magazine: “Why Amelia darling!  Fancy seeing you here!  All alone on Christmas Eve, like a poor old bachelor!”

Madam X continues her monologue, advising Y that she should have married a year ago, and displaying from the basket she carries the toys she has bought for her  children.  She speaks of her own marriage, recalling how Y had come to their home, how she became suspicious of Y, finally revealing that she knew of the affair between her husband and Y: “I hate you, hate you, hate you!  But you – you just sit there, silent, calm, not caring—not caring whether it’s night or day, summer or winter, whether other people are happy or miserable—unable to hate and unable to love—motionless like a stork over a rat-hole.”

At the end, Madam X thanks her protagonist, “Thank you, Amelia, for all the good lessons you’ve taught me.  Thank you for teaching my husband to love!  Now I am going home, to love him.” She goes.

When they were written in 1907-08, “The Ghost Sonata” and “A Dream Play” were considered experimental works, although they have had had commercial success since.  At the time Strindberg was living alone in a suburb of Stockholm in the apartment he had previously shared with Harriet Bosse and their daughter, Anne-Marie.  He was suffering from the skin disease psoriasis and from the first symptoms of the stomach cancer from which he would die in five years.  Writing of the former work to his German translator, Strindberg describes it as having ”the wisdom that comes with age, as our knowledge increases and we learn to understand.  This is how ‘The Weaver’ weaves men’s destinies: secrets like these are to be found in every home.  People are too proud to admit it; most of them boast of their imagined luck, and hide their misery.”

Of  “The Dream Play,” he wrote that he “attempted to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream.  Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable….The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble.  But one consciousness rules over them all, that of the dreamer.”

Strindberg wrote seven more plays after these two, his last being “The Great Highway.”  In 1910 his experimental Intimate Theater failed, after which he spent the last three years of his life writing pamphlets on politics, sociology, and philology.  He died of cancer on May 14, 1912, at the age of sixty-three.

Strindberg wrote sixty-two plays.  These, together with his novels, essays, short stories, memoirs, poems, and theses on science, philosophy and philology fill over fifty volumes.  He wrote both expressionistic works, like “The Dream Play,” and naturalistic plays like “Miss Julie”.  In the latter, considered experimental in his day, he perfected a type of dialogue that was far from realistic, being terse and fragmentary, colloquial prose that could also be poetic and symbolic.  In plumbing the psychological depths of his characters, he was a forerunner of  modern drama. Eugene O’Neill, whose “Long Day’s Journey into Night” had its world premiere at Sweden’s Royal Theatre, acknowledged Strindberg’s influence, as did  Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.