- August Strindberg
In her new book on the great Swedish theatrical innovator August Strindberg, Eszter Szalczer observes that, despite his prodigious influence on modern drama and theatre, “Strindberg remains a theatre artist whose image persistently overshadows our perception of his work” (1). As she notes, Strindberg’s misogynistic pronouncements have repeatedly gotten in the way of a deeper understanding and appreciation of who he was and how he evolved as both a man and an artist. Szalczer makes no apology for Strindberg’s misogyny, although she provides the historical and psychological context for a more nuanced and complex understanding of his views on women. In her insightful and incisive analysis of his work, she presents a portrait of Strindberg that shows him to be a quintessential modernist and man of the theatre.
Szalczer argues that Strindberg sought to give theatrical expression to the phenomenal changes that were taking in place in Europe by casting himself “as a metamorphic character in his own ubiquitous play” (2), “dramatising the experience of modernity by turning a life he knew best—his own—into theatre” (3). Through this approach, Szalczer finds continuity between the pre-Inferno “Naturalistic” plays and the highly experimental works of the post-Inferno period. She argues, for example, that the “torn, vacillating souls in The Father and Miss Julie, the experimentation with internal conflict, the rapid shifting of extreme emotional states, and the erratic dialogue, though they seem ‘natural’ and realistic, in fact anticipate the utterly fragmented characters and the abandonment of rational discourse and causal plot in later plays such as the Damascus trilogy or A Dream Play” (83).
The book is divided into four parts. In the first part, “Versions of a Life,” Szalczer provides biographical information about Strindberg, but she also shows how the varied perceptions of him over the last hundred years have influenced the criticism of [End Page 310] his work. The second part, “A Life in the Theatre,” looks at Strindberg as a theatre practitioner and founder of two theatre companies: the very short-lived Scandinavian Experimental Theatre in 1887, modeled on Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris, and the much more successful Intimate Theatre almost twenty years later. Szalczer notes that while Strindberg and his wife Siri von Essen, the artistic director of the Scandinavian Experimental Theatre, modeled their theatre artistically on Antoine’s, they failed to take the precautions against censorship that were taken at the Théâtre-Libre and were forced to close almost immediately.
The Intimate Theatre, founded by Strindberg and August Falck in 1907, remains, Szalczer intimates, one of the most important and interesting theatrical ventures in theatre history. Modeled this time on Max Reinhardt’s Kleines Theater and Kammerspiel-Haus, it was here that Strindberg and Falck attempted to give theatrical expression to Strindberg’s concept of text and performance as a piece of music. Strindberg’s influences now included Georg Fuchs’s Theatre of the Future (1905), Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, and Edward Gordon Craig—although unlike Craig, he valued most highly the text and the actors’ performances and “envisioned a theatre where the harmony of the performance unfolded from the tones, rhythms, motifs, and movements of the script as if in a polyphonic musical composition” (66). The Intimate Theatre opened with The Pelican, one of five “chamber plays” that Strindberg wrote for the new venture. Szalczer also notes that the theatre was located within a working-class neighborhood and that Strindberg and Falck offered discounted tickets to laborers. During its three years, the Intimate Theatre produced twenty-four of Strindberg’s plays in over a thousand performances.
In this second part of the book Szalczer emphasizes Strindberg’s importance to the independent theatre movement in Europe. It was The Father that opened Otto Brahm’s Freie Bühne and it was Antoine’s production of Miss Julie that catapulted Strindberg to international fame. And, as Szalczer observes, despite its reputation for producing symbolist drama, Lugné-Poë’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre found that its most successful production was Strindberg’s more realistic The Father...