August Strindberg (1849-1912) is considered Sweden's greatest author. Although his reputation outside Sweden rests on his plays, in Sweden he is equally important for his stories, novels, poetry, and autobiographical works.
August Strindberg was born on Jan. 22, 1849, in Stockholm. His father, although poor, came from a good family; his mother had been a servant. Family life was disharmonic; Strindberg felt he had been an unwanted child, and he suffered as well from the class distinction between his parents. He began writing plays while a student at Uppsala University. His first mature play, Master Olof (1872), written when he was 23 years old, is considered Sweden's first great drama. It was rejected by the Royal Dramatic Theater because of its "irreverent"—that is, realistic—treatment of Swedish national heroes and because it was written in prose, unthinkable for tragedy at the time. The play gives an excellent picture of Strindberg's radical intellectual interests then: Jean Jacques Rousseau, Søren Kierkegaard, Henrik Ibsen, the Danish literary reformer George Brandes, and the English historian Henry Buckle.
During these years Strindberg led an unruly life with a circle of young bohemians and earned his living as a private tutor, insurance agent, journalist, translator (of, among others, Mark Twain and Bret Harte), and assistant in the Royal Library. He married Siri von Essen in 1877; this marriage was the longest and most decisive of his three marriages, which all ended in divorce.
In spite of Master Olof and other, lesser works, Strindberg was unknown when, in 1879, he published the novel The Red Room. This work was Sweden's first realistic novel, a robust satire on just about everything Strindberg had observed in the Stockholm of the 1870s. The novel was a scandal and made him famous overnight.
In the early 1880s Strindberg's work reflected the happy years of his marriage to Siri and his growing confidence as a writer. His most successful play of the time, Lucky Per's Journey (1882), was written for his actress-wife. However, he began to make enemies, especially when he ventured into history-writing from a then radical point of view. He responded, typically, with another social satire, The New Kingdom (1882), much more bitter and personal than The Red Room, which stirred up more hostility. He fled Sweden with his family in 1883, but before leaving he published a collection of angry poems which, in form and style, were completely new in Swedish literature.
In 1884 appeared a collection of stories, Married (the second, harsher collection appeared in 1886), which reflected in their bold treatment of sexual matters the influence of French naturalism. However, what outraged the public was the first clear evidence in the stories of Strindberg's lifelong hatred of the feminist movement and the emancipated woman. In his views on these questions, Strindberg stood alone among major Scandinavian authors. A man who three times married ambitious, career-minded women, he insisted that a woman's place is in the home. Thus he lost the support of many liberal friends.
Strindberg's enemies—their ranks now greatly increased—found a trivial occasion to bring a charge of blasphemy against him. To save his publishers, he returned to Sweden, stood trial, and was acquitted. The strain, however, was too much, and the trial marked the acceleration of the persecution complex that led, a decade later, to a period of nearly total madness.
In spite of the damage caused by the trial, the strain of trying to support a growing family by his pen, and even, for a time, a total boycott of his work in Sweden, Strindberg produced many of his greatest works in the last half of the 1880s. These include the plays upon which his European reputation was first based—the naturalistic dramas The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and Creditors (1889)—and the autobiographical novels The Son of a Servant and The Confession of a Fool (the latter a ruthlessly one-sided account of his marriage to Siri von Essen). Characteristically, in the midst of his growing personal troubles, he wrote one of his happiest, freshest novels, The People of Hemsö (1887).
Strindberg's European reputation grew, and his plays created sensations when they were performed in private theaters (to escape police censorship) in Denmark, Germany, and France. However, overwork and the nightmarish breakup of his first marriage led to further deterioration of his mental health, and he rejected the offers of producers and turned to science (believing he could synthesize elements) and then to alchemy (to make the gold he sorely needed), and finally he began to study the occult and write for occult journals.
In studying mysticism, theosophy, and especially the works of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, Strindberg felt he had found an answer to why he (and mankind generally) suffered so much. In finding an answer, he recovered his sanity, and a new, perhaps the greatest, period of his authorship began.
From the "Inferno" crisis—named for the remarkable account he wrote of the years of near madness, Inferno (1897)—until his death in 1912, Strindberg wrote 29 plays, a volume of poetry, and about 15 volumes of prose. The most important plays of his last period, the expressionistic period, are To Damascus I-III (1898-1904), There Are Crimes and Crimes (1899), Easter (1901), The Dance of Death (1901), Crown Bride (1902), A Dream Play (1902), and the "chamber plays" he wrote for his own theater in 1907. He also wrote a number of historical dramas, the best of which is Gustaf Vasa, and a final, autobiographical play, The Great Highway (1909). Of his prose work, mention should be made of the gripping, personal novels Alone (1903) and The Scapegoat (1907) and the remarkable diary Blå böcker (1907-1912; Blue Books).
Strindberg's last years were comparatively calm, broken only by the "feud" occasioned by the novel Svarta fanor (1907; Black Banners), a final, savage attack on his enemies, real and imagined, all readily identifiable in the book. He died alone, as he had lived, on May 14, 1912, in Stockholm.
Strindberg's contribution to world drama was in two areas—naturalism and expressionism. The naturalistic works, including such plays as The Father and Miss Julie, follow the example of Émile Zola and other French writers in striving to present as scientific and objective a picture of life as possible. However, as a playwright, Strindberg was superior to Zola and most other naturalists. His superiority lies just in his refusal to burden his plays with the mass of natural scientific documentation naturalism demanded. He was forced by his own restless, impatient nature—and his great dramatic sense—to seek daring shortcuts to what he wanted to express. Furthermore, Strindberg became increasingly interested in "inner states," especially the "battle of wills," and in the power of mental suggestion, from his readings of pre-Freudian psychologists, criminologists, and authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Friedrich Nietzsche. Finally, the problems his plays dealt with—often the battle between the sexes—were too personal for him to always achieve naturalistic objectivity. His woman figures are often "vampires" (Tekla in Creditors, for example), and their victims are often recognizable as Strindberg himself. For these reasons, many of Strindberg's naturalistic plays threaten constantly to break out of their naturalistic mold, and in their savagery, their heightened realism, they point ahead to the expressionistic plays which follow the "Inferno" crisis.
The expressionistic plays—such as To Damascus, The Dance of Death, and The Ghost Sonata—depart, at their most extreme, from the naturalistic plays in that Strindberg attempts to dramatize directly his emotions and view of life, neglecting almost totally a logically developed plot, psychological motivation, and realism in stage setting. Strindberg came to believe that life is a hideous dream and, in a number of these later plays, dramatizes this view. There is a kind of "realism" in even the most extreme of these plays, however—they are none of them like the moody, vague, symbolist plays of Maurice Maeterlinck, for example—but it is the aching, sharp-edged, hallucinatory realism of nightmare, not of our waking life.
The themes of the later plays are the same as in Strindberg's earlier work: life's pervasive, incomprehensible cruelty and the battle of wills in which the weaker is mercilessly destroyed. But now there is a much more overt metaphysical perspective: life is a kind of hell, or purgatory, from which we will someday be released; there are "powers" that punish us for our sins; and "mankind is to be pitied."
Strindberg's influence on world drama continues to be considerable. European expressionism around World War I owed much to his later plays, Pär Lagerkvist in Sweden and Eugene O'Neill in America believed him to be the portal figure in 20th-century drama, and the seeds of much recent experimental drama can be traced back to Strindberg too.
Further Reading on August Strindberg
Useful accounts in English of Strindberg's life are Elizabeth Sprigge, The Strange Life of August Strindberg (1949), and Brita M. E. Mortensen and Brian W. Downs, Strindberg: An Introduction to His Life and Work (1949). The older and still sound biography by V. J. McGill, August Strindberg: The Bedeviled Viking (1930), slights the latter half of Strindberg's life and has not been revised to accommodate the findings of more recent scholarship.
Critical works dealing with Strindberg's drama include Martin Lamm, Modern Drama (trans. 1952); Walter Gilbert Johnson, Strindberg and the Historical Drama (1963); Maurice Jacques Valency, The Flower and the Castle: An Introduction to Modern Drama (1963); and Carl Enoch William Leonard Dahlstrom, Strindberg's Dramatic Expressionism (2d ed. 1965). For Strindberg's contribution to the novel see the excellent work by Eric O. Johannesson, The Novels of August Strindberg: A Study in Themes and Structure (1968). Alrik Gustafson, A History of Swedish Literature (1961), contains a critical bibliography of sources on Strindberg's life and work in Swedish and English.
Additional Biography Sources
Dittmann, Reidar, Eros and psyche: Strindberg and Munch in the 1890s, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982.
Lagercrantz, Olof Gustaf Hugo, August Strindberg, New York:Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.
Meyer, Michael Leverson, Strindberg, New York: Random House, 1985.
Strindberg, August, Inferno and From an occult diary, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York: Penguin Books, 1979.