Strindberg's first serious venture into writing dates from 1869, after he had failed in his ambition to become an actor. On the very day of his unsuccessful audition, he began to write his first drama. He soon finished half a dozen plays, among them I Rom ("In Rome"), which was accepted by the Royal Dramatic Theatre. I Rom was followed by Den fredloese (The Outlaw), set in Iceland and inspired by his membership in the Runa Society. Although this play won Strindberg a short-lived stipend from the Swedish king, the young writer remained largely unknown.
In the summer of 1872 Strindberg settled down on the small island of Kymmendo in the Stockholm archipelago, a place that would provide the setting for his most popular novel, Hemsoeborna (The People of Hemso, 1887). During his stay he finished Maester Olof (Master Olof), a five-act drama in prose about the Swedish sixteenth-century religious reformer Olaus Petri, a disciple of Martin Luther who helped free the Church of Sweden from Rome's domination. The play, which was rejected by the Royal Dramatic Theatre, was rewritten several times over the next decade. Deliberately choosing to seek recognition in the most popular dramatic genre of the day, the historical drama, Strindberg made himself an easy target for the conservative literary establishment by departing drastically from accepted dramatic norms. He boldly followed his main guide and master, William Shakespeare, in telescoping time and space, thus rearranging events and flouting historical accuracy; he also introduced realistic and colloquial speech, which violated the widely held belief that historical drama should be delivered in stately poetic language. But his critics' most serious accusations centered on Strindberg's inclusion of new moral and psychological principles based on his readings of British philosopher Thomas Buckle, Danish critic Georg Brandes, and American theologian Thomas Parker, readings that resulted in Strindberg's reevaluation of prominent personages in Swedish history.
Two crucial events occurred in Strindberg's life during the 1870s: he joined a coterie of young artists who gathered regularly in the Red Room at Berns' Restaurant in Stockholm, and he met Siri von Essen, a married baroness, who was to become his first wife in 1877. After his marriage Strindberg settled down to write Roeda rummet (The Red Room). Published in 1879, it marks the breakthrough of realism in modern Swedish literature. The novel, based on Strindberg's bohemian experiences prior to his marriage, revolves around an idealistic journalist, Arvid Falk, who is exposed to various levels of contemporary Swedish society, ranging from economic upstarts and swindlers to radical artists and revolutionaries. The late 1870s were a time of growing social and political unrest in Sweden, not unlike the atmosphere recreated in The Red Room. But the literary climate was still ultraconservative, with its proponents prescribing a purely aesthetic role for belles lettres, a romantically obsolete credo that Strindberg rejected in The Red Room. As in the case of Master Olof, he had produced a work that went against the mainstream of Swedish literary thinking.
But the climax of Strindberg's anti-establishment reputation was yet to come. In the early 1880s he set out to write a two-volume survey of the cultural history of Sweden, to which he added a fictional companion piece, Svenska oeden och aefventyr ("Swedish Destinies and Adventures"). Originally called "The Chronicle of the People," it was intended to challenge the traditional view among Swedish historians that the history of Sweden is the history of her kings. Criticized by professional scholars, Strindberg responded by publishing a scathing attack on the contemporary social and political establishment entitled Det nya riket ("The New Kingdom," 1882). Its negative reception was probably the catalyst for Strindberg's leaving Sweden, although his correspondence indicates that he had planned to do so for some time.
Strindberg's exile was based not only on his personal disenchantment with Swedish society; it was also very much in keeping with the life-style then in vogue among Scandinavian writers and artists, for whom central and southern Europe offered creative stimulus and inspiration. Arriving with his family in Switzerland in the fall of 1883, Strindberg did not return to live in Sweden until six years later. During that time he and his family--Siri gave birth to three girls, one of which died shortly after birth, and a boy--resided in some twenty different places. Their foreign travels prevented Siri from pursuing her ambition as an actress, but the period proved extremely productive for Strindberg; he published more than twenty volumes of plays, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays.
One of the most hotly debated issues among the Scandinavian intelligentsia in the early 1880s was the role of women in contemporary society. Henrik Ibsen had fueled the debate with his playEt dukkehjem (A Doll's House, 1879), and Bjornstjerne Bjornson had expressed feminist views in his drama En handske (A Glove, 1883). Strindberg offered his thoughts on the matter in a collection of short stories titled Giftas (Married, 1884) in which he advocated an egalitarian relationship between men and women, though maintaining a traditional view of the sex roles. Emphasizing the sensual aspect of married life, he objected to the bourgeois custom of arranged marriages. Married caused a scandal and necessitated Strindberg's brief return to Sweden to stand trial on charges of blasphemy. Though acquitted, Strindberg suspected that he was being victimized by Swedish feminists, among them the queen herself. In bitterness he published in 1885 a second, less genial volume of Married, presenting marriage as a form of mental and emotional extortion in which women, by nature parasites, have the upper hand. Such a misogynous view was to color a great many of the male-female relationships depicted by Strindberg in a long series of dramas focusing on the battle of the sexes or on the theme of vampirism, among them: Fadren (The Father, 1887),Froeken Julie (Miss Julie, 1888), Fordringsaegare (The Creditor, 1888), Doedsdansen (The Dance of Death, 1901-05), Spoeksonaten (The Ghost Sonata, 1907), and Pelikanen (The Pelican, 1907).
The issue that brought Strindberg to trial forced him to reexamine his religious views, leading him to the conclusion that he had left his childhood Lutheranism behind and had, after a brief period as a deist, become an atheist. But Strindberg could not live without a credo of some kind. He found one momentarily in the nature worship of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose philosophy he had already studied as a student. By 1886, however, he had moved on to German soil, where he fell into admiration of Chancellor Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck's Prussia and the status of the officer corps. He quickly grew critical of Rousseau and turned his attention to aspects of the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche that emphasized the refined superiority of the male intellect. His brief enchantment with Rousseau can be seen in a study of agricultural socialism, Bland franska bonder ("Among French Peasants," 1889), and can also be traced in Strindberg's juxtaposition of country and city people in the novel The People of Hemso; his Nietzschean views color such plays as Paria (1890) and The Creditor and such novels as Le Plaidoyer d'un fou (The Confession of a Fool, 1888), Tschandala (1888), and I hafsbandet (On the Seaboard, 1890).
The Married trial convinced Strindberg that he should pursue a scientific rather than literary career, and he began publishing articles on nonliterary subjects. In this scientific-oriented spirit he set out, in 1886, to write his autobiography, which he intended to be a social and psychological document. Strindberg was only thirty-seven when he began writing Tjaenstekvinnans son (The Son of a Servant), a book in four parts, of which the first ends in 1867, the year he left home for the University of Uppsala. The second part tells of his youth up to the year 1872. Part three, subtitled "In the Red Room," depicts him as a journalist and poet and ends with his meeting Siri von Essen. The fourth part, refused by his Swedish publishers, deals with the years 1877 to 1886 and did not appear until after his death. Omitted from the autobiography are the years from 1875 to 1877, during which time Strindberg wooed Siri von Essen and prepared for his marriage. Strindberg had planned to treat these years by printing letters exchanged between him and his future wife, but this correspondence, called Han och Hon ("He and She"), was not published until 1919.
The Son of a Servant is not a straightforward memoir but is instead an interpretation of the past in light of Strindberg's mood and philosophical stance in the 1880s. Though containing, in the tradition of the "confessions" of St. Augustine and Rousseau, passages of moral self-probing and histrionic self-exposure, The Son of a Servant is also a philosophical autobiography in the tradition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's writings. It has been argued by Eric O. Johanneson in The Novels of August Strindberg: A Study in Theme and Structure that because The Son of a Servant is told in the third person, the work might be considered a novel. Clearly, however, the book reflects Strindberg's personal position in 1886 and 1887 as much as it depicts him as a child and young man; his growing anti-feminism, for example, tends to color his portrait of his parents. But his primary approach to his own background was through class-consciousness, as reflected in the book's title. To the end of his life he stressed this view of himself as a social outcast. Thus in his final play, Stora landsvaegen (The Great Highway, 1909), he identified his alter-ego, the Hunter, with the biblical Ishmael, who was driven into the desert by Sara, Abraham's wife.
The second half of the 1880s, which marks one of the peaks in Strindberg's literary activity, coincided with his discovery of naturalism. Abandoning historical drama, he now wanted to construct contemporary psychological case studies for the stage, using as philosophical keys to his characters the deterministic forces of heredity and environment and providing verisimilitude of place, time, and action. Having finished The Father in a matter of weeks in 1887, he sent a copy of the play to Emile Zola, the father of French naturalism, for his approval. Though Zola's response was tepid, it is easy to see why Strindberg would consider this drama a bold departure from earlier plays of his such as Master Olof, Herr Bengt's hustru ("Sir Bengt's Wife," 1882), and Lycko-Pers resa (Lucky Pehr, 1881), which were historical or fantasy plays employing a Shakespearean panoramic stage, a multiplicity of characters, and a great number of scenes. In contrast, The Father is taut in structure, employs only one setting--the family study/living-room--and uses only a few characters, all of whom have a direct bearing on the main action of the drama, a husband's struggle to survive despite the machinations of his ignorant, devious wife. The plot is simple and revolves around the conflict between the Captain, a father, husband, and scientist, and his wife, Laura, over the education of their only child, a fourteen-year-old daughter named Berta. Through unscrupulous tactics, Laura gets the Captain to doubt his fatherhood until he suffers a mental and physical collapse.
When Strindberg sat down to write The Father he was experiencing doubts as to the paternity of his own children. His marriage was in crisis, and he also suspected that his arch-rival Ibsen had used him as a model for the pathetic, cuckolded husband Hjalmar Ekdal in the play The Wild Duck. Strindberg, however, transcended his own possible situation as a wronged and ridiculed husband by turning it into an archetypal vision of the irrevocable sexual warfare between man and woman. As Martin Lamm suggested inAugust Strindberg, the writer's intellectual springboard may have been an article about Euripides's play The Oresteia by French sociologist Paul Lafargue, who interpreted the classical Greek work as a dramatization of the birth of matriarchy and saw a similar struggle emerging in contemporary society. Matriarchy was not a benevolent concept to Strindberg, for to him it meant a world ruled by women who had abandoned their function as caring maternal beings in order to exercise power through the use of their irrational and possessive psyches. How this might be done and what the result could be is what Strindberg described in The Father.
Strindberg had set forth his ideas a year earlier in an important essay titled "Om sjaelamord" ("On Psychic Murder"), in which he referred to the psychological theories of the French School of Nancy, where doctors advocated the use of hypnosis. Strindberg became convinced that sexual warfare depended not on erotic power but on unmitigated will. The winning party was the person with the strongest and most unscrupulous mind, someone who like a hypnotist could drive a more sensitive psyche to its destruction. Remnants of this concept of psychological power struggles appear in such dramas as The Creditor, Den starkare (The Stronger, 1889), AndPariah. In The Creditor, a triangle play involving a man (Adolf), his wife (Tekla), and her former husband (Gustav), Strindberg presented the psychic murder concept in vampire or cannibalism motifs. Tekla is a devourer of souls; like Laura in The Father she has sucked the life force out of her husband. Gustav is depicted as a Nietzschean superman who controls others through his superior intellect. While Tekla instinctively feeds on people close to her, Gustav dissects them and sets the destructive interpersonal machinery in motion. In Pariah, another theatrical piece of human vivisection, the psychological power game takes place between an intellectual man and a subservient but ruthless criminal who is unmasked through a cunning strategy. In The Stronger, a one-act tour-de-force, Strindberg depicted the vampire or homunculus motif in the guise of a meeting between two women, one married, the other the former mistress of the first woman's husband.
Prior to writing The Creditor and his psychological one-act plays, Strindberg had completed Miss Julie, which was to become one of his best-known and most frequently produced dramas. The play was written with an avant-garde Parisian stage in mind, the Theatre Libre, started in 1887 by Andre Antoine, a former gas works clerk who produced naturalist one-act pieces called quart d'heures, using no curtain drops. Miss Julie is a full-length drama without act divisions; interludes such as a peasant dance and a pantomime replace conventional intermissions. Strindberg also attempted in this play to adhere to the naturalist dictum that a play demonstrate a law of nature, in this case the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest. The plot of Miss Julie depicts a twenty- five-year-old noblewoman who has a brief love affair with her father's valet, Jean, on the family estate. Hereditary and circumstantial elements determine the destinies of Jean and Julie. The former is a social climber portrayed by Strindberg as a man of the future to whom Julie, the degenerate aristocrat, must succumb. In his famous preface to the play, Strindberg attempted to disassociate himself from his characters and assume the analytical role of a naturalist playwright, but the play itself is vibrant with his emotional engagement in his dramatis personae. If the social situation in Miss Julie now seems somewhat obsolete, the play survives because of the psychological dynamics through which Jean and Julie transcend their roles as stereotypes in a social class struggle and become what Strindberg termed "characterless characters"--ambivalent and complex personages whose actions are based on a multitude of motives. Challenging earlier playwrights, Strindberg ultimately wished to avoid defining a character in terms of one dominant personality trait.
Strindberg, the "son of a servant," undoubtedly relied for his conception of Miss Julie on his own marriage to an aristocratic woman. By the time he composed the play, his family life had entered a tumultuous stage and his once passionate love for Siri von Essen had changed to jealousy and hatred. A divorce seemed inevitable. However, in 1888 a reconciliation of sorts occurred. Strindberg was now intent upon opening in Copenhagen, Denmark, a Scandinavian Experimental Theatre, whose manager was to be Siri von Essen. But both the new stage venture and the marital reconciliation were short-lived. Less than a year later Strindberg left Denmark and returned to Sweden, where he lived through the final phase of his divorce from Siri, who moved back to her native Finland with their children. Strindberg was later to make use of this unhappy phase in his life in Bandet (The Bond, 1893), a dramatized recollection of the divorce proceedings.
Though there was a hiatus of almost three years in Strindberg's career as a playwright after the collapse of the experimental Copenhagen theatre, in 1889 he published an important essay on the subject, "Om modern drama och modern teater" ("On Modern Drama and the Modern Theatre"), in which he parted company with naturalism, equating it with petty and unimaginative realism. At the same time his interest in the Nietzschean superman concept of the battle of brains was on the wane, as was his atheism of the 1880s. Strindberg was approaching his so-called Inferno Period, marked by a series of psychological and religious upheavals that would have a profound impact on his writing, shifting much of its emphasis from a psychological to a metaphysical perspective.
Strindberg's disenchantment with naturalism and his growing interest in transcendental matters was only in part dictated by events in his private life; his development also mirrored contemporary trends in European and Swedish culture. On the continent the literary movement known as symbolism--an attempt to communicate personal feelings through a complex system of imagistic associations and metaphors--had taken root, while in Sweden Strindberg's contemporaries Verner von Heidenstam and Ola Hanson had attacked naturalism or, as they called it, "shoemaker realism," for its simplistic rendering of human experience. Ironically, his compatriots' new program probably stalled Strindberg's literary development at this point. For while he insisted with some justification that he had anticipated their literary position, he found himself forced through a sense of rivalry to defend naturalism even though he had already exhausted its creative potential. During 1892 he persevered in writing a series of plays in the old naturalist vein, none of which belong among his outstanding works: Debit och kredit (Debit and Credit), Foersta varningen (The First Warning), Infoer doeden (Facing Death), and Moderskaerlek (Motherlove). He also completed one of his few comedies, Leka med elden (Playing with Fire), and a play inspired by the loss of his children through his divorce, Himmelrikets nycklar (The Keys of Heaven). In its panoramic, morality-play design, inspired by the medieval dramatic prototype, The Keys of Heaven anticipates Strindberg's religious post-Inferno trilogy for the stage, Till Damaskus (The Road to Damascus, 1898-1904).
By September 1892 Strindberg found himself at an artistic dead end. Since he lived on his writing, his creative decline reduced his income, which in turn sent him into a depression for being unable to fulfill his financial obligations to his children and former wife. As his plight became known to his friends, a fund was established for him through an appeal in a German magazine. The money enabled him to leave Sweden and settle in artistic circles in Berlin, Germany. Here his spirits improved momentarily; his break with his past reminded him of his youthful bachelor days some twenty years earlier when he had broken with bourgeois society and joined the coterie of artists in the Red Room in Stockholm. Now his meeting place was a Berlin tavern that he named The Black Porker. There he made the acquaintance of a lively and diverse group of Scandinavian, Polish, and German artists. His attention soon began to focus on a young Austrian journalist by the name of Frida Uhl, who, twenty-three years his junior, became his wife in May 1893. The couple, to whom a daughter, Kerstin, was born a year later, soon separated, though their marriage was not formally dissolved until 1897. But Frida's family, especially her mother, was to have a crucial impact on Strindberg. A pious Catholic, Maria Uhl responded to her son-in-law's religious gropings, and in July 1894 the former atheist declared in a letter: "I feel the hand of our Lord resting over me."
However, Strindberg's religious conversion took place over a prolonged period of time and coincided with a series of psychic crises, the nature of which is still being debated. Some critics believe that he suffered throughout the mid-1890s from such severe paranoia that he became, at least temporarily, insane; others, most notably Evert Sprinchorn and Olof Lagercrantz, think he deliberately turned himself into his own guinea pig through psychological and drug-induced self-experimentation. What has not always been recognized is that the Inferno years, which were spent in Paris, France, were also productive years for Strindberg. They began in scientific or pseudo-scientific explorations of such fields as botany, chemistry, and optics and ended in Strindberg's return to literature with the publication of his edited journals, Legender and Jakob brottas (Legends and Jacob Wrestling, both 1898), in which he recorded the impact of his discovery of eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Strindberg continued to keep such diaries until 1908; parts of them were published in his so-called blue books, beginning with En blaa bok (Zones of the Spirit, 1907), and in the posthumously published Ur ockulta dagboken (From an Occult Diary, 1963).
Central to these works was Strindberg's belief that his physical and mental suffering was imposed upon him by an outside force, the Powers, whose function it was to bring retribution to humankind for past human malfeasance. Borrowing Swedenborgian terminology, Strindberg divided the Powers into angelic agents who inhabited the bodies of the pure and innocent, and corrective agents who brought chastisement to guilt-ridden but not yet humbled people. Like a number of other writers, among them William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Honore de Balzac, and William Butler Yeats, Strindberg was drawn to Swedenborg's mystical visions, with their Christian morality and concrete depictions of a spiritual landscape. For the rest of his life Strindberg regarded the relationship between the transcendental and the real world as a series of "correspondences" revealing themselves in everyday happenings that the initiated like himself could learn to interpret as messages from above. Strindberg now saw his many tribulations as expiations for past misdeeds. Because of the enormity of his suffering, Strindberg also felt that he was a person chosen by Providence to atone for the moral failings of others. Having once looked upon himself as a proud rebel against God, he now thought of himself as a satisfactio vicaria, an inspired vicarious sufferer. The former disciple of Nietzsche had become a superman in reverse: a unique man singling himself out as a Christ analogue.
Strindberg, however, did not rest with ease in his newfound faith. The keys to his personality remained strife and ambivalence. Moments of acquiescence under the visionary guidance of the Powers were to alternate with periods of bitter accusation against all of creation. This dynamic struggle underlies most of his post-Inferno writings and constitutes their unique energy as metaphysical and existential testimonies. But more importantly, Strindberg's religious framework allowed him to transform his personal experiences into the life and destiny of Everyman. Such a viewpoint led him to a renewed interest in the medieval morality play, or station drama, and helped structure his "pilgrimage" trilogy To Damascus. Using the New Testament's story of the conversion of Saul on his journey to Damascus as his reference, Strindberg focused on the religious testing of a writer, simply called the Stranger, who moves from a state of deep despair to a reluctant acceptance of the divine Powers. The progression of the Stranger's spiritual journey colors the mood of each part of the trilogy. Part I becomes a drama of uneasy doubt climaxing in the Stranger's nightmarish vision, cast in an asylum and projected as images emanating from a feverish and sick mind; Part II depicts the Stranger's disillusioning struggle to gain recognition and status among men by establishing himself as a gold maker; Part III ends the Stranger's journey in a mood of quiet meditation. The Stranger's struggle includes the collapse of his second marriage, in which everything turns out to be a repetition of life experienced with his first wife. This repetitive marital pattern is a reflection of an inevitable existential dilemma that is now given religious overtones: the Stranger learns that strife between the sexes and its ensuing sense of guilt must be traced back to the Fall of Man. Thus absolved of individual responsibility for the origin of his tribulations, the Stranger can feel exonerated. But having relegated guilt to a metaphysical rather than psychological level, Strindberg's protagonist cannot immerse himself in life again without risking another encounter with the same
interpersonal problems or social spurning that marred his previous experiences. Hence his final station is withdrawal from the world to a confessionless cloister, a spiritual haven of rest.
The Inferno, Legends, Jacob Wrestling, and theTo Damascus trilogy reveal a psychological rationalization process that ultimately undermines the artistic impact of these works. The Inferno and the first part of To Damascus are much more dynamic in their depiction of an inner agonizing conflict than their sequels, which reveal an intellectualized point of view. The same trend can be discerned in the drama The Dance of Death and in Advent and Brott och brott (There Are Crimes and Crimes), two plays that Strindberg wrote in the winter of 1898 and 1899 and published under the common title Vid hoegre raett ("At a Higher Court"). In There Are Crimes and Crimes the author's moralistic zeal fills the play with frequent undramatic lectures and cant. On the other hand, the ghoulish setting, macabre props, and abstract conception of character in Advent signal the beginnings of expressionist drama--a form of theater aiming at projecting the inner state of a single consciousness whose fears and aspirations materialize in visionary or hallucinatory scenes. Yet, although Advent's projection of life as an evil dream foreshadows the structure of Ett droemspel (The Dream Play, 1901), its philosophical core, fusing Swedenborgian corrective spirits with New Testament Christian atonement, is closer to Strindberg's conventionally Christian dramas, Paask (Easter, 1901) and Kronbruden (The Bridal Crown, 1901).
In Easter the Christ figure expands beyond a stage metaphor and materializes in the main character, the "Easter Girl," Eleonora Heyst, who returns home to her family from an asylum. Being also a Swedenborgian angelic spirit, Eleonora is juxtaposed to another visitor to the Heyst family, the creditor Lindqvist, who is assigned the role of corrective spirit. Together these two bring about chastisement in Elis, Eleonora's proud brother, who has never accepted his father's imprisonment for embezzlement. Eleonora expresses Strindberg's belief that an individual can voluntarily atone for the sins of others by realizing that punishment is a sign of God's grace. Like Easter, The Bridal Crown dramatizes the redemptive power of a vicarious sufferer, this time through the destiny of young Kersti, whose atonement brings about a reconciliation of two farming families. But Kersti's fate is more personalized than Eleonora's, for she acts also on her own moral behalf: her acts are prompted by a sense of guilt for having murdered her illegitimate baby. In keeping with this internalization of the atonement theme, Strindberg returned in The Bridal Crown to the expressionist technique of Advent and projected Kersti's moral agony through materialized visions of specters and mythical figures from the stark world of folk legend.
In the famous note that precedes The Dream Play Strindberg drew attention to his former drama To Damascus. Both plays follow the pattern of the station drama with constantly shifting scenes and a thematic grouping of characters; both plays move between the sublime and the prosaic, between metaphysical concerns and marital squabbles. But the Stranger in To Damascus remains rooted in human predicaments, whereas Indra's daughter, the main character inThe Dream Play, is of heavenly origin and has greater affinity to the esoteric Eleonora of Easter. The loosely constructed plot of The Dream Play tells of the descent of Indra's daughter to earth to learn of the plights of humanity. Her journey through life can be conceived of as a dream; hence Strindberg's attempt to present the events in the play in the associative pattern of the nocturnal psyche, where all time is a prolonged now and specific locations are transmutable because no spatial restrictions exist in a dream. During her kaleidoscopic travels Indra's daughter encounters an Officer imprisoned in a growing castle; she marries a Lawyer who takes upon himself the suffering of his clients; she sees social injustice and the sorrows of rejected lovers and outcasts; and she listens to the Poet's plaintive assessment of human life in Fingal's Cave. Carrying with her the lament of the people on earth--summed up in the line that echoes throughout the play, "Mankind is to be pitied"--she finally ascends to heaven through the Growing Castle that bursts into flames.
At the end of his preface to The Dream Play, in which he outlined the mood and the fluid, associative structure of his drama, Strindberg drew an analogy between dramatic form and musical composition. This notion remains central in his so-called chamber plays, which he wrote for his own Intimate Theatre in 1907 and 1908. Modeled on the German director Max Reinhardt's Kammerspielhaus in Berlin, which had opened a year earlier, Strindberg's Intimate was also a revival of Antoine's Theatre Libre in Paris, with its emphasis on plays written for an intimate stage and a harking back to Strindberg and Siri von Essen's Experimental Theatre in Copenhagen some twenty years earlier. A successful Swedish revival of Miss Julie in 1905 may also have had a bearing on Strindberg's decision to write a series of new plays focusing, as he put it in a letter to Arvid Paul, on "a small theme dealt with in detail, few characters, ... no big apparatus, no superfluous minor characters." Strindberg wished to transpose "the idea of chamber music to drama," perhaps by bringing to his plays the antiphonal quality and thematic parallelism of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven's sonatas. Ovaeder (The Thunderstorm, 1907), Braenda tomten (The Burned House, 1907), The Ghost Sonata, The Pelican, AndSvarta handsken ("The Black Glove," 1909) evoke a mood or trace a major theme rather than developing a dramatic plot. Their setting is often a house that quickly assumes metaphorical significance as a microcosm of life. Its facade hides the lies and deceits existing in the rooms inside. Upon entering this house the intruder, be it the spectator or a character in the play, discovers the hypocritical camouflages set up by the people living there. A process of unmasking begins, leading either to a mood of resignation tantamount to death or to vicious denunciations of humankind, in which Strindberg's voice reaches the level of Swiftian misanthropy. Thus in The Burned House his spokesman, the Stranger, offers the following acrimonious summary of "the whole family of man: It's a terrible family: ugly, sweaty, stinking, dirty linen, filthy socks with holes, sores, bunions, ugh!... One must be a pig to feel at home in this mush."
Beginning with To Damascus in 1898, a ruminating and meditative mood breaks into Strindberg's traditionally dynamic material, and lyrical passages interrupt the dramatic action. The Great Highway, often referred to as his literary testament, is a drama composed almost entirely of lyrical soliloquies spoken by the Hunter, a protagonist who functions both as Strindberg's alter ego and as an Everyman figure. Setting out on a circular journey designed as avia dolorosa ("road of sorrow"), the Hunter passes the seven stations of Golgotha, where Jesus Christ was crucified; yet because he functions not as a Christ figure but as a representative of humankind, his attained vision is a mixture of defiance and mellow resignation. The Great Highway is a stylized drama with highly abstracted characters, a further sign of Strindberg's continuous reaction against a realistic stagecraft. Shakespeare, for whom all is make- believe on the stage, rather than Zola, the advocate of a nineteenth-century form of kitchen-sink realism, remains his master, an influence that is also clear in the impressive cycle of historical dramas composed by Strindberg in the early 1900s.
A number of reasons prompted Strindberg to go back to the historical drama after his return to Sweden in 1899. Master Olof, which had been produced successfully in Stockholm in 1897, was staged again two years later to honor Strindberg on his fiftieth birthday. The literary vogue in both Sweden and abroad favored a return to the past. After his homecoming from many years abroad Strindberg had ambitions to be acknowledged as his country's national poet, and he felt that the surest way to achieve this goal was to render dramatically the history of his country. Though his grandiose plan of covering seven hundred years of Swedish history through the destinies of several royal families was never completed, Strindberg's undertaking resulted in a remarkable corpus of historical dramas, written between 1899 and 1909, which deserve to be better known outside of Sweden.
As he returned to historical writing, Strindberg followed his old habit of handling his sources very freely. Regarding dramatic expediency as more important than facts, he did not hesitate to alter past events, telescope chronology, and change biographical information. Though Strindberg claimed he was depicting the past "realistically," his historical plays are as imbued with his subjective ideas as are his other writings. His governing philosophical principle is expressed in the essay "Vaerldshistoriens mystik" ("The Mystique of World History," 1901) and in his collection Oeppna brev till Intima Teatern (Open Letters to the Intimate Theatre, 1903), in which he saw historical events as ultimately governed by Providence and not by psychological or political laws. Apparently arbitrary happenings result, in fact, from inscrutable mysterious forces aimed at teaching humankind the lessons of expiation and atonement, Strindberg contended; these forces strike high and low alike, but the playwright's protagonists react to their destinies with a wide range of responses, from the passive acceptance of fate by King Magnus inFolkungasagan (The Saga of the Folkungs, 1899) to the defiance of the strong ruler and title figure in Gustaf Vasa (Gustavus Vasa, 1899). These two plays, together with Erik XIV (1899), form the so-called Vasa Trilogy and have remained Strindberg's most popular works in the historical genre.
In the fall of 1903 Strindberg began planning a grand cycle of plays based on world history. The idea soon evaporated, leaving behind minor plays about Martin Luther, Plato, Moses, Christ, and Socrates. Five years later, however, Strindberg returned once more to the historical drama, this time in response to a desire expressed by the Royal Dramatic Theatre to celebrate his sixtieth birthday with a new play. The result was yet another group of stage works set in the Swedish past: Bjaelbo-Jarlen (Earl Birger of Bjalbo, 1909), Sista riddaren (The Last of the Knights, 1908), and Riksfoerestaandaren (The Regents, 1909). Though revealing the high craftsmanship that Strindberg had achieved in the historical play, these dramas nevertheless convey the impression of a playwright who has lost personal interest in the genre.
Strindberg remained productive and active up to the last few months before his death of stomach cancer in May 1912. In addition to his plays, his work during the last decade of his life included short stories, fairy tales, novels, and novellas. He also participated vigorously in public debate, contributing a great number of polemical articles to the Swedish press (the so-called Strindberg feud). Though his later prose works never attained the popular status of earlier novels such as The Red Room and The People of Hemso, they are no longer looked upon as mere confessional tracts or revengeful diatribes on adversaries. In retrospect it is clear that novellas like Ensam (Days of Loneliness, 1903), Taklagsoel (The Roofing Ceremony, 1907), and Syndabocken (The Scapegoat, 1907), and novels like Goetiska rummen ("The Gothic Rooms," 1904) and Svarta fanor ("Black Banners," 1907), as well as the earlier novel written in French, The Confession of a Fool, advance the fiction genre in Swedish literature beyond the realistic trend of the nineteenth century and foreshadow the modernist fiction of Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka.
Yet to most of his contemporaries Strindberg appeared to have lost touch with reality in his post-Inferno literary work. To Damascus, The Dream Play, and the chamber plays, which today are recognized as his greatest contributions to the modern theater, were viewed with much skepticism in his own time. As a result of the polemical nature of the "Strindberg feud," Strindberg's reputation during the last years of his life came to rest on his role as social critic and political firebrand, an image that was resurrected in the tumultuous 1960s by Swedish author Jan Myrdal. By contrast, today's assessment of Strindberg places as much emphasis on his literary achievement during his post-Inferno years as on the realistic fiction and naturalist drama of the 1880s. Beyond dispute Strindberg has become the overshadowing giant of Swedish literature. No writer before or after him has displayed the same degree of creative versatility, linguistic ebullience, and acute sensitivity to new modes of literary expression. In addition, Strindberg incorporated into his works--albeit in a very eclectic way--many of the major philosophical trends of his time. He was not a pioneer thinker like Rousseau, Charles Darwin, Soeren Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche, nor was it his ambition to break virgin intellectual ground, for he remained faithful to his metier as a maker of literature, as someone who creatively molds the temper of his life and times into artistic form. He himself defined his aim--and his achievement--in his preface toMiss Julie: "I see the [writer] as a lay preacher peddling ideas of his time in popular form.... I have not tried to do anything new, for this cannot be done, but only to modernize the form.... To this end I have chosen themes which ... have been and will be of lasting interest."
From: "(Johan) August Strindberg." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.