Wednesday, January 22, 2014

This Day in Theater History (August Strindberg, Influential Swedish Playwright, Born)

January 22, 1849—August Strindberg, born in Stockholm, Sweden, grew up in a household marked by parental differences over class and temperament, leaving the hypersensitive youngster scarred for life, possibly insane at points, and in such need of expunging his feelings about the war between the sexes that he poured it out into 62 plays, along with novels, essays, short stories, memoirs, poems, and theses on science, philosophy and philology—collected works amounting to 50 volumes.

Biographer Olof Lagercrantz has questioned just how dire the future playwright’s birth and upbringing were. While his mother was, for a time, a servant, she and her husband, a businessman, had become members of the medium-income bourgeoisie in his youth. But his mother’s death when he was 13 subsequently colored his feelings about growing up, to the point that he later lamented having been born under the sign of Ram, destined to be butchered, with “Every success a consequence of suffering, every trace of happiness tainted by dirt; every encouragement a mockery, every good deed punished by crucifixion.” If nothing else, he came to have a world-class temperament for raising every minor annoyance of life into Greek tragedy.

In a prior post, I discussed Strindberg’s similarities with Eugene O’Neill, an American acolyte who also suffered childhood traumas related to a mother, attempted suicide in youth, battled with loss of religious belief, and experienced problematic productions of his plays during his lifetime. But O’Neill wasn’t the only playwright influenced by the melancholy, mad Swede; you only have to look to the works of Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee to see how his path-breaking concern with the psyche entered into the DNA of the modern drama.

Two major film auteurs also harked back to Strindberg. Ingmar Bergman, who was familiar with the other great Scandinavian’s work at the tender age of 12, thereafter regarded him as his “companion for life,” according to an essay by Egil Tornqvist, professor emeritus of Scandinavian studies at the University of Amsterdam. Indeed, Bergman would be responsible for 28 Strindberg productions for stage, television and radio throughout his lifetime. Even a screenplay of his own, Persona, features a plot point borrowed from Strindberg’s one-act The Stronger: an actress who suddenly stops talking.

Yet another figure looking back to Strindberg is Woody Allen. Isaac Davis, the principal figure of his 1979 film, Manhattan, remarks, “When it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg Award.” It’s a comic summary of a character who struggles with relationships with a lesbian ex-wife who exposes his shortcomings as lover and husband in a bestselling tell-all, Marriage, Divorce and Selfhood; with the mistress of his married best friend; and with a 17-year-old high-school student. And, for a screenwriter famous for writing so many great roles for women, Allen’s own offscreen relationships mirror Strindberg’s in their turbulence. 

(Even before the two-decade tabloid war with ex-lover Mia Farrow, Allen was sued several years after their divorce by first wife Harlene Rosen, who understandably took exception to being made the centerpiece of his nightclub act with jokes such as this: “My first wife lives on the Upper West Side and I read in the paper the other day that she was violated on her way home—knowing my first wife, it was not a moving violation.”)

As might be expected from one of the most wildly misogynistic creative artists of all time, Strindberg persistently depicted men at bay. The principal male figures in two of his most frequently performed plays, The Father and The Dance of Death, collapse with strokes, a kind of psychological unmanning at the hands of a gender that, he believed, held the mental upper hand in any relationship and therefore did not require the reforms urged by the feminist movement. This was all par for the course for someone who regarded women as an “army of whores and would-be whores—professional whores with abnormal inclinations.”

Well, as for “abnormal inclinations,” it takes one to know one, I guess. This is a fellow with three wives whom he ended up divorcing, one woman to whom he was engaged for 24 hours, numerous other mistresses, and a sister, Anna von Philp, for whom, biographer Michael Meyer believes, he harbored a strong physical attraction. (That didn’t prevent him from tossing her out of the house when she took pity after listening to his ceaseless complaints about his terrible cooks and came to help for a week.)

Strindberg fascinates me for another reason: he might have been the most unlikely writer to work in a job I held for two decades: librarian. Journalism did not appeal to him, and he came to feel that university life at Uppsala represented “a nest of owls.” But, at least for a while—eight years—he found a congenial home, at age 25, in a position procured for him by friends: Sweden’s Royal Library. It not only provided him with the income to marry his first wife (which, admittedly, the two of them might have eventually regarded as a mixed blessing), but with much-needed intellectual subsistence. He became especially interested in anthropology and, as a result of learning Chinese to aid in cataloguing, the Far East, inspiring his A Dream Play.

Influenced by the head of the library, the mystic Gustav Klemming, Strindberg also first became interested in the occult. Nearly two decades later, the playwright gave full vent to this interest in what has become known as his Occult Diary, a 12-year record of his dreams, coincidences, correspondences between seemingly unlike things, and events that could not be explained by rational means. Even at the start of this psychological exploration, the playwright, used to controversy by this time, wrote: “This diary must never be printed!” (A fascinating post on the Yale Books Blog discusses what this meant for his art.)

The dramatist of instability and altered states, Strindberg broke free of the tradition of the well-made play in a manner that even his great Scandinavian theater rival, Henrik Ibsen, couldn’t approach. His plays offer actors the opportunity to play complicated characters with larger-than-life but still recognizable dimensions, as in the production of The Dance of Death I saw at Broadway’s Broadhurst theater in the fall of 2001 starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren.

Strindberg departed from the poetic, historical epic dramas characteristic of the Scandinavian theater world of his time in favor of forays into naturalism, symbolism and even hints of expressionism. In particular, Miss Julie, his 1888 psychosexual drama of a wild fling between an aristocratic young woman and her servant, has proven quite a touchstone for contemporary class-conscious playwrights, with two adaptations that translated its setting into later times. I reviewed the Roundabout Theatre’s 2009 production of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie (set on the night when Conservative Winston Churchill lost to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party) here, and two months ago Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company staged Yael Farber’s Mies Julie (set on a South African estate after apartheid).

(The accompanying photographic self-portrait, done around 1892, captures the dark, haunted nature of Strindberg better than any other image I can think of.)

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