This is where I spend a week writing about an author about whom I knew close to nothing a month, or let’s say a year ago, and now I’m some kinda expert. It’s August Strindberg week! This’ll be fun! He was nuts!
He really was somethin’ else. I will do my best to avoid anything biographical, because that really is all secondhand for me, and at least I did read some of the plays for myself, but I understand the temptation. What family drama, what wild swings of opinion, what invective. After a crisis of confidence in his marriage and writing and beliefs Strindberg spent five years working on science. What science? Creating gold! He was an actual alchemist, in the 1890s. He’s a character in a John Crowley novel.
The sheer bulk of Strindberg’s writing is hard to understand. He wrote something like eighty plays, of which I have now read eight, and only the most famous. He wrote novels, short stories, history, popular science, and rants. Elias Canetti, in his memoir A Tongue Set Free, described his mother’s obsessive reading of Strindberg – this was during and after World War I, so after Strindberg’s death. Teenage Canetti would buy his mother every volume of Strindberg he could find, assiduously avoiding glancing at the contents because his mother forbid it. Canetti’s book gave me my first hint of what Strindberg meant to people outside of the theater.
No, the first hint, which I did not understand, came from Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography The Magic Lantern (1987). Bergman constantly returned to Strindberg throughout his life, in his films, his reading, and especially in the theater:
When I was twelve, I was allowed to accompany a musician who was playing the celeste backstage in Strindberg’s A Dream Play. It was a searing experience. Night after night, hidden in the proscenium tower, I witnessed the marriage scene between the Advocate and the Daughter. It was the first time I had experienced the magic of acting. The Advocate held a hairpin between his thumb and forefinger, he twisted it, straightened it out and broke it. There was no hairpin, but I saw it. The Officer was backstage waiting for his entrance, leaning forward at his shoes, his hands behind his back. He cleared his throat soundlessly, a perfectly ordinary person. Then he opened the door and stepped into the limelight. He was changed, transformed: he was the Officer. (Ch.4, tr. Joan Tate)
I suppose this story has happened to many children at many different plays, but how appropriate that it was this play, one where the theatrical illusion is constantly violated. The result was a life of the highest creativity that was suffused with Strindberg.
Here is what I read, by the way, the material for the next few days. This is a good time to let me know what I should have read not instead of but of course in addition to these. Always in addition.
The Father (1887) – terrific, intense, deeply misogynist, and yet…
Miss Julie (1888) – as a bonus, it has a preface as hilarious as those of Zola.
To Damascus I & II (1898) – these are oddities, but boy do they explain a lot.
The Dance of Death I (1901) – I saw Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen do this one in 2001 or 2002. Was that ever fun.
A Dream Play (1901) – Bergman has a funny section describing the impossibility of doing this play, yet he tries again and again.
To Damascus III (1904) – more of the above.
The Ghost Sonata (1907) – short, concentrated, pure; Strindberg aspiring to the condition if music.
This will give me something to do.