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Strindberg’s Radical Aesthetics

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 359-372 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0032

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Radicalism Is Both Political and Aesthetic, but it is never a constant quality. The attitude of an individual may remain much the same, yet radicalism shifts its shape from period to period by changing rhetoric and developing new stylistic values and structural forms. Strindberg—who was arraigned for blasphemy, was a political outcast and sometime exile from his homeland, experimented with chemistry and photography, and entitled his first play (written under a pseudonym) Fritänkaren (1869; The Freethinker)—classifies as a radical on numerous levels. However, his most significant influence has been as a playwright; I will therefore focus on his role as an aesthetic radical.

In the 1870s, at the opening of the modern era, the artistic form radicalism took was naturalism. Linked to the representation of working-class or ordinary people, attacking the bourgeoisie, and establishing new literary principles of scientific objectivity, naturalism challenged and outraged the ruling classes of the time—as the English reaction to Ibsen showed—set up new moral criteria, and opposed the pictorial as well as melodramatic standards of theater at the time. Circa 1896–1900, radical self-definition had taken on a new theatrical form while naturalistic drama, having won social respectability, continued as the default performance style of mainstream English, American, and European theater for much of the twentieth century.

While one line of radical innovation was initiated by Alfred Jarry’s infamously provocative Ubu roi (1896), August Strindberg was responsible for developing the principles that formed the basis of theatrical modernism, which were more deeply, if less obviously, an attack on the economic, political, and cultural status quo of the European social establishment. Jarry was taken on by Antonin Artaud in the 1920s, and Artaud’s interpretations led during the 1950s to a “College of Pataphysics” that subsequently fueled the American and French avant-garde movements of the late 1960s. By contrast, Strindberg’s influence was immediate and more deeply subversive in informing the new artistic movements that dominated the radical agenda, particularly in Germany and America as well as Scandinavia, up to the 1930s. Indeed, throughout his life Strindberg had defined himself in radical terms. When naturalism was seen as subversive, he wrote naturalistic drama; and as naturalism gradually became acceptable, he started to develop new forms. As such, whereas earlier Strindberg had been following, even if in radical terms surpassing, Ibsen and Zola he became a leader of the new modernist artistic movement that was to influence the next half century.

In 1879 Nora’s slamming of the street door on her way out of Et Dukkehjem (A Doll’s House) echoed throughout Europe by challenging the patriarchal infantilizing of women. Strindberg’s first response was Röda rummet (1879; The Red Room), a naturalistic attack on the hypocrisy of Swedish society, its art, and journalists, which has been labeled the first modern Swedish novel (Meyer 79). Indeed its depiction of Swedish culture was so challenging that the novel also initiated the Swedish critics’ ongoing demonization of Strindberg, who found himself classified as plebeian, immoral, subjective, and therefore dangerous as well as mentally disturbed. While the relationship between Ibsen and his younger contemporary, Strindberg, has been previously explored, it still needs to be briefly marked in this context because it graphically demonstrates how Strindberg’s radical attitude led him to associate with the leading radical movement of the time and then move through and beyond it.

Like Ibsen, Strindberg began his career as playwright with a mix of contemporary and historical drama. Among these are student pieces such as Fritänkaren (which while never staged, has sometimes been taken as an autobiographical self-labeling) and Den fredlöse (Ungdomsdramer) (1881; The Outlaw, based on Icelandic sagas), or Mäster Olof (1872; Master Olof, first staged in 1881). This last play is similar to Ibsen’s Kejser og Galilæer (1873; Emperor and Galilean) in focusing on religious issues, though in different historical epochs. However, Strindberg’s Gillets hemlighet (Tidiga 80-talsdramer) (1880; The Secret of the Guild), while still historical, is clearly a reaction to the standard nationalist mythologies (including his own earlier work) in presenting history from a working-class perspective. It can be seen as an...

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