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The Intimate Theatre: Shakespeare Teaches Strindberg Theatrical Modernism

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 50, Number 2, May 1998
pp. 165-174 | 10.1353/tj.1998.0041

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Theatre Journal 50.2 (1998) 165-174

To be "his own contemporary" is the aim of the artist
who is ever growing, ever renewing himself.

--August Strindberg, "Julius Caesar"

This is a paper about some ways in which Shakespeare helped Strindberg to be "his own contemporary." If it is more about Strindberg than about Shakespeare, it is because Strindberg -- I argue -- presents us with a model of how grappling with Shakespeare could affect the development of theatrical modernism generally. By "modernism," in this context, I mean the movement to replace an outworn naturalism: to find dramatic forms and modes of theatrical expression for an age that had moved out of what Strindberg called the "zoological" period of Darwinism and Positivism (136).

The title of my paper may seem misleading, since no Shakespeare play was ever staged at the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm during its short life, from November 1907 to December 1910. Though a wider repertoire had originally been envisaged, the Intimate Theatre became in the end strictly a stage for the plays of August Strindberg -- twenty-five of them were given in altogether over a thousand performances -- until the decision of August Falck, the young actor-manager, to mount Maeterlinck's L'Intruse put the final nail in the coffin of his often-fraught collaboration with Strindberg, and of the theatre itself. But what justifies my title is the centrality of Shakespeare to Strindberg's thinking about drama and theatre in the Intimate Theatre years. Strindberg was formally involved as a regisseur only for a short while in the autumn of 1908, but throughout he was intensely concerned with the practical details of the staging and acting of his plays and bombarded Falck with notes and letters. Simultaneously he was planning to write a book on Shakespeare. It never materialized, beyond the essays, fifteen in all, that went into four of the pamphlets which he dedicated to the Intimate Theatre and which are now known under the title of the fifth of these, as Open Letters to the Intimate Theatre. In these, his various obsessions interact: he is scholar, critic, theatre historian and dramatist, all in one. Often, general thoughts about drama in performance flow out of analyses of specific Shakespeare plays. So, for example, the essay entitled "Julius Caesar" begins with a lengthy discussion of the structure, characters and politics of that play, comments in passing on the Sonnets and homosexuality, and goes on to describe how "Shakespeare's way, in the play of Caesar, of presenting historical persons, even heroes, at home, intimately" (123) became the model for his own first major historical play, Master Olof (1872). From there, the essay launches into a critique of drama critics, followed by an analysis of what makes good and bad acting, and of the democratic working methods -- no authoritarian director and no star system -- of the Intimate Theatre. This, finally, leads up to the section from which the epigraph to this paper is taken: on the importance of the theatre being, both in its repertoire and in its forms of staging and acting, in tune with its age. Here he returns to Shakespeare: in an age which, according to Strindberg, is "skeptical, unsentimental and democratic," the plays must be understood and performed accordingly. "Lear comes over as simply unruly and we feel no sympathy for Timon when he is abandoned by bought flatterers" (135-36).

Few theatre historians would dispute that the work of Strindberg is central in the formation of theatrical modernism. It was not just the German Expressionists who saw him as their founding father. Indeed, just as he himself was a polymath, so from his works there radiated out impulses into all the arts: Munch drew him and drew on him; Schoenberg had twenty-eight volumes of Strindberg (in German translation) on his shelves; and Thomas Mann sums it all up when referring to his works as "an indispensable element of the Bildung of the time of my youth."

So where then does Shakespeare come in? My argument is that just as the art of Strindberg was indispensable to European modernism, so Shakespeare was indispensable to the development of that art. The pattern we are dealing...


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