August Strindberg


by Pericles Lewis

The Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) was the great rival of Henrik Ibsen in the Scandinavian theater. Their enmity began with Strindberg’s negative reaction to A Doll’s House, which he, disapprovingly, considered feminist. A noted misogynist, Strindberg wrote two highly accomplished naturalist plays, The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888), about the struggle between the sexes. Then, for six years in the mid-1890s, Strindberg struggled with madness. He wrote no plays but kept a detailed journal of his crisis, which he later used as the basis for a novel, Inferno (1897). After his recovery, his intellectual interests turned from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to magic, the occult, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the mystical eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg. He wrote more than thirty plays in the last dozen years of his life. Although some of these pieces dealt with Swedish history or with the themes of his earlier naturalist plays, his most influential later works were dream plays, in which he explored the unconscious mind. Strindberg’s late plays dismantle traditional notions of character, just as the late plays of Anton Chekhov dismantle plot.

In his theoretical writings, Strindberg emphasized the shift from the conventional plot of the well-made play toward a new attention to character, and explained that, in Miss Julie, he had concentrated on the passionate relationship between the two main characters, a feminist aristocrat and her father’s valet, rather than any formally structured plot because he believed that “people of today are most interested in the psychological process. Our inquisitive souls are not satisfied just to see something happen; we want to know how it happened. We want to see the strings, the machinery, examine the double-bottomed box, feel for the seam in the magic ring, look at the cards to see how they are marked.”[1] For Strindberg, psychological plays are more realistic than those with well-formed plots. Strindberg prefigures the struggle against illusionism, represented by the paraphernalia of the magician, that would, in different ways, motivate both the naturalist and the anti-naturalist traditions in modern theater. The naturalists rejected “magic” because they wanted to show life as it really was. Emile Zola had complained that the theater was “the last fortress of conventionality”; the naturalist plays of Strindberg and the realist plays of Ibsen seek to storm this fortress and to create a new, truer theatre.[2] Yet, in their last plays, both Ibsen and Strindberg turned towards symbolism, dreams, ghosts, and even the supernatural. In these works, two founders of modern theater celebrate its magical possibilities and call attention to the very illusion upon which theater is based.

Strindberg’s dream plays, inspired in part by Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and When We Dead Awaken, seem to announce the “death of character” that Elinor Fuchs has diagnosed in modern and postmodern drama.[3] In place of well-defined characters, the plays divide personality into multiple parts. Like Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author, the main figures in A Dream Play (1902) are known by their social roles, rather than names: the Officer, the Lawyer, the Doorkeeper, the Poet. The dream plays involve transformations of plot as well as character. As Strindberg wrote about A Dream Play and The Road to Damascus (1898-1901): “The Author has sought to imitate the disconnected but apparently logical form of a dream. Anything can happen, everything is possible and plausible. Time and space do not exist. Upon an insignificant background of real life events the imagination spins and weaves new patterns: a blend of memories, experiences, pure inventions, absurdities, and improvisations.” Where Aristotle demanded probability, Strindberg proclaimed that “everything is possible.” Similarly, Strindberg announced his revision of character: “The characters split, double, redouble, evaporate, condense, fragment, cohere. But one consciousness is superior to them all: that of the dreamer.”[4] Yet the dreamer is not strictly speaking a character in the play; rather, he is a figure for the author, and also for the audience members, who relive the author’s dreams while watching his play.

Strindberg influenced a number of German expressionist playwrights, including Reinhard Sorge, Georg Kaiser, the Austrian Oscar Kokoschka, and (slightly later) Ernest Toller, in a series of episodic plays known as Stationendramen, after the stations of the cross, the fourteen incidents in Christ’s crucifixion that were the centerpiece of medieval representations of the passion. Inspired by Strindberg’s The Road to Damascus, these plays focused on a single character, like Strindberg’s dreamer, who encountered a series of allegorical figures; they tended to show character disintegrating over time.[5] Strindberg’s influence would pass indirectly (via the German expressionists) to the most influential playwright of the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht.[6]

  1. ↑ Strindberg: Five Plays, trans. Harry G. Carlson (University of California Press, 1983), p. 71.
  2. ↑ In Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidoe (Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 171.
  3. ↑ Elinor Fuchs, The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), pp. 21-51.
  4. ↑ Strindberg: Five Plays, p. 205.
  5. ↑ On German expressionist theater, see Martin Esslin, “Modernist Drama: Wedekind to Brecht,” in Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (London: Penguin, 1976), pp. 527-560. Also, Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R. Findlay, Century of Innovation (Prentice Hall, 1973), pp. 269-83.
  6. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 187-189.