August Strindberg’s plays shocked society, dazzled audiences and revolutionized drama. A century after his death, Strindberg, with his powerful, timeless themes, is celebrated around the world.
French actors Nicolas Bouchaud (left) Juliette Binoche (right) performing a scene of August Strindberg's play Mademoiselle Julie (Miss Julie). Photo: Gerard Julien/Scanpix
One of August Strindberg’s most famous works is Miss Julie, a play about an aristocratic woman driven to suicide by a cunning servant. London has two productions of Miss Julie scheduled for 2012, one of them as part of the Olympic celebrations. It stars French actress Juliette Binoche and will be performed at the Barbican in French with English subtitles.
Binoche told The Guardian newspaper: “[Strindberg] is a nihilist as well as a mystic, a scientist as well as a writer. And he's very chauvinistic, as well as sometimes absolutely loving women. It’s the same with the characters. They say something at the beginning, and at the end it’s the total opposite. Emotions are very much like this; they’re not facts.”
Contradictions like these help explain our fascination with Strindberg. Another reason for his enduring popularity could be that he touches on themes that remain powerful today: sexual politics, class warfare and the dangers of madness.
Sex and class
The other Miss Julie production in London being staged at the Royal Exchange is a new adaptation by David Eldridge.
Eldridge explains what a play set in 19th-century Sweden has to say to 21st-century audiences: “The potent mix of sex and class makes the play pretty timeless,” he says. “Miss Julie asks an audience to consider how far their sexuality is constructed and shaped by their class background and how far the pursuit of sexual intimacy is part game, part raw physical attraction.
“I think Miss Julie is very compelling as it’s driven neither by love nor lust, but by erotic obsession.”
Swedish literary titan Strindberg has had a great impact on drama. Photo: Strindbergsmuseet
Leonardo Lisi, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the United States, believes Strindberg’s The Red Room was the first modern Swedish novel and greatly influenced other authors.
“Precisely because he is such a protean figure who participated in so many different literary movements and who never restricted himself to a single form or artistic agenda, he was able to leave his trace on almost any artist working at that time,” Lisi says.
“The American dramatist Eugene O'Neil called Strindberg ‘the most modern of moderns,’ while the Irish author James Joyce could likely not have written the famous ‘Circe’ chapter in his novel Ulysses without Strindberg. It’s written as a dream play, which is a dramatic form that Strindberg developed, most famously in his trilogy To Damascus and then in A Dream Play.
“Part of the ‘logic’ to the dream play form is the rejection of all traditional notions of time, space and character identities,” Lisi says, “so that different places, times and people merge, and are fragmented and transformed without following the rules that govern our normal ‘waking’ life―as well as our traditional forms of drama.”
Men versus women
The battle between the sexes was a common theme for Strindberg. He’s often seen as a misogynist and in this regard is quite unlike Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is about the inequality of marriage. Strindberg criticized the play and had a literary feud with Ibsen.
Strindberg’s opposition to women’s rights was so strong that it became a Woody Allen joke. In the film Manhattan, the lead character, Ike, declares: “When it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg Award.”
The famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman directed 30 of Strindberg’s plays. Interviewed in 2003, Bergman recalled discovering Strindberg when he was 14 years old. “It wasn’t that I understood what the plays were about but I understood the tone, I understood the aggression, I understood the rage.”
Bergman added that he had anxious dreams about meeting the playwright and mispronouncing his first name. (Strindberg insisted it was pronounced Oh-gust, not Ah-gust.): “I love him like music,” Bergman says. “His way of treating the Swedish language is unequalled.”
Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, the United States (where he directed a production of Strindberg’s The Father), and Professor Emeritus of English at Harvard University, believes Strindberg’s continued relevance is linked to his experience of madness.
“Strindberg continues to engage us because he was just mad enough to be in close touch with the psychosis of the Western world without losing the capacity to communicate this in feverish and luminous dramatic actions,” Brustein says.
Strindberg's plays are staged all over the world. Posters from Malmö Stadsteater (photo by Ricardo Navarro/Getty Images); The Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco; Teatro Eter Neo, Madrid, Spanien (illustrated by Luis Mayorga); BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn (illustrated by Adam Hitt); and Teatro del Terror, Santiago, Chile.
Ahead of his time
In 2012, the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco is presenting five of Strindberg’s chamber plays using translations by Paul Walsh, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama.
“Today a new generation is encountering Strindberg for the first time and they find him fascinating,” Walsh says. “He’s like an eccentric grandfather: surprising in his depth and breadth of experience, shocking in the intimacy of his revelations, startling in the reach of his imagination. The new generation finds Strindberg daring, outlandish and also familiar and sometimes magical.
“It’s this strange ability to be constantly remade by the world, which he tried so desperately to understand, that makes Strindberg seem always of our time and maybe a step ahead of us.”
Stephen Whitlock is a British journalist who moved to Stockholm in 2002 after a decade working in New York City. He has written for magazines including Condé Nast Traveller, Bon Appetit, O, The Oprah Magazine, Wallpaper and Out. He’s also the author of the Hedonist’s Guide to Stockholm.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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