- Trauma, Radicalism, and Dramatic Form in Till Damaskus I
Nothing Could be More Appropriate than using “radicalism” as a lens to view the work of a dramatic writer since the term denotes change of an arresting sort and drama is the literary mode most directly occupied with depicting human life in its aspect of change. August Strindberg was radical in his thought, his art, and his life—a life lived in a ferment of dynamic historical and social change. Transformational times require revolutionary vocabulary, and it was in the last decade of the nineteenth century that the word “trauma” began to be used to describe psychological “wounds” in addition to its earlier denotation of physical injury. As the twentieth century progressed, specific clinical vocabulary and practice developed to deal with the psychological experiences of Strindberg’s contemporaries, particularly those who had served in the military. The specific phenomenon of psychological trauma suffered by the veterans of World War I served as the genesis of a medical, scientific, and literary exploration that continues today. Strindberg’s radicalism responded to the wrenching change of his era. His sharp observation of the developing instabilities in his society and in his own mind provided the raw material and the stimulus to his writing. This essay proposes to consider Strindberg’s radicalism as part of the turn of the twentieth century phenomenon of intellectual integration of multiple psychosocial traumas and to explore the usefulness of the subsequent study of trauma as a lens to understand Strindberg’s work better.
Attempts to assess Strindberg’s radicalism have been relentless since he came to public attention—attempts characterized by sharp polarization [End Page 395] and emotionally charged language. Contemporary intimates like Stanisław Przybyszewski and Ola Hansson turned against him and wrote unflatteringly while later scholars like Michael Meyer balanced limited appreciation for his innovations with faint praise for his craft: “The occasional eloquent phrase only throws into relief the general woolliness of the verse surrounding it” (578). Unlike that of his contemporaries, Strindberg’s radicalism is still not safely contained by the distance of history. Today, at least in the world of American theatrical production, where one imagines Strindberg might be most pleased to be a subject of continued interest, his work is still sometimes seen as puzzling, unconventional, politically incorrect, unpopular, or, in a word, radical. That is to say, in an art form where popular acceptance defines the institution of a style, reader and audience reception seeks familiar naturalistic patterns and is not yet cognitively attuned to the innovations in Strindberg’s storytelling. Jean Piaget, among others, has explored the structures or “schema” the brain uses to organize experience into story form. Naturalism in drama (particularly in the form of Ibsen’s version of the well-made play) is still the dominant schema in the American psyche.
During three decades of teaching, I have observed the gradual permeation of the innovative schema of major modern dramatists into my students’ consciousness and the resulting increase in their understanding of texts. In the case of Ibsen and Chekhov, for example, character transactions that seemed opaque two decades ago are today grasped immediately by students familiar with the same patterns from film and television presentations that have absorbed and exploited these tropes. This does not seem to be the case with Strindberg, whose sense of alienation was more acute than his contemporaries and whose radical and constantly mutating artistic representations of interior life still baffle us frequently enough that we resort to biographical criticism in our attempts to comprehend his work. Theater is often slower than other art forms to register changes in the schema that define dramatic form because its audience must accept these innovations as a communal act. For many readers and audience members, Strindberg is as radical today as he was over a century ago. Strindberg’s literary radicalism may be described as fundamentally transforming the pattern of naturalistic dramatic storytelling.
The understanding of trauma is useful to our consideration of Strindberg’s experience and work for multiple reasons. Clinicians note [End Page 396] the obsessive and repeated attempts of trauma victims to recount the events of traumatic incidents (telling the story...