- Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux, and: August Strindberg: Selected Plays ed. by Ann-Charlotte Gavel Adams and Anna Westerståhl Stenport
Modern genius was often accompanied by eccentricity. Beethoven, van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Nietzsche, Kleist, and other benchmark modernists frequently suffered from mental anguish or were known for tumultuous behavior. August Strindberg (1849–1912) belongs squarely in this group; perhaps more than any genius flying too close to the sun, he exploited the interconnection between his copious talents and fraught mental condition. He occupied center stage among emerging vanguard global modernists not least because he took his madness—identifying it as his “inferno” period—as grist for his creative mill. Strindberg’s prolific output includes approximately sixty plays (if you count the fragments), novels, essays, paintings, photography, and scientific experiments, and, although as a dramatist he is remembered primarily for Miss Julie, many of his other plays are also frequently translated, studied, and produced.
The University of Minnesota Press has gathered together a dozen of Strindberg’s most representative plays in two volumes, translated by the well-respected Strindberg scholar Evert Sprinchorn. This collection illustrates Strindberg’s revolutionary influence on modernism in dramaturgy, staging, dialogue, character, theatricality, and performance. According to editors Ann-Charlotte Gavel Adams and Anna Westerståhl Stenport, Strindberg changed drama in multiple ways. He substituted Aristotle’s longstanding classical emphasis on drama as plot-driven with the prima facie of character; for Strindberg, character drives dramatic action rather than plot because character is, in Adams and Stenport’s paraphrase, a “fickle, inconclusive, contradictory, and dynamic concept” (x) worthy of dramatic exploration. Theatre for Strindberg “should be the primary vehicle to challenge our assumptions of human rationality and social convention” by virtue of stressing “the consciousness of modern individuals in a complex world” (xi). Strindberg opposed Enlightenment-based rationality as one-dimensional and antithetical to the protean condition of modernity; character in the modern world is multidimensional, structured in fatalistic fragments and mixed patterns, combining extreme subjectivity with external contingencies—in short, a patchwork quilt of competing influences. As such, Strindberg can be construed as a forerunner to postmodernism even as he is a bona fide modernist. Indeed, the editors assert, in Sweden, “Strindberg is known as the writer who modernized, if not revolutionized, the Swedish language” (xvii).
The two-volume anthology demonstrates varying epochs of Strindberg’s career. The phases range from social criticism, naturalism, realism, expressionism, and surrealistic, dream-like theatre that can be said to have influenced everyone and everything from the German expressionists Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser, to the realist and experimentalist Eugene O’Neill, to the postmodernist Richard Foreman. Strindberg’s Dance of Death preceded Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Miss Julie has been produced in various venues and adapted to suit contemporary situations (a recent South African production/adaptation by Yael Farber serves as one of many examples). The editors also attempt to rehabilitate Strindberg from the perception that he was “a rather unpleasant eccentric at best, a misogynistic madman at worst, an antifeminist pamphleteer with some genuine insight into human behavior, and a mentally unbalanced artist capable of some strokes of genius” (7). Adams and Stenport defend Strindberg’s genius convincingly, occasionally succumbing to hyperbole when they identify his harshest critics in the early twentieth [End Page 605] century as “Fascists and Nazis, while those who had sided with Strindberg came out as supporters of the democracies and the free world” (8). There is no need for defensiveness; Strindberg’s superlative work and influence are self-evident. He theatricalized drama, working collaboratively with actors, directors, and designers; he rebelled against the restrictive formal conventions of melodrama, discovering innovative dramaturgical approaches; and his emphasis on subjectivity “was instrumental in forging the dramatic means to engage with the interiority of consciousness” (xii). The editors succeed when they compare Strindberg’s plays to Joyce’s Ulysses or...