Friday, October 17, 2014

It’s all here in these books! - The Father, some realistic Strindberg

DOCTOR.  There are many different kinds of women, you know.

CAPTAIN.  Recent research has shown there’s only one!  (Act II, Sc. 4, p. 31)

The Father (1887) is the earliest Strindberg play I read.  It is a good place to start to see the great Strindberg theme of the battle of the sexes.  Just blatant open warfare. 

PASTOR.  You’ve too many women running your home.

CAPTAIN.  You can say that again!  It’s like being in a cage full of tigers.  If I didn’t keep a red-hot iron in front of their noses they’d tear me to pieces the first chance they got!  (I.3, 6)

The Captain lives in a house of women – wife, daughter, childhood nurse (see above) who is a substitute mother figure, mother-in-law (who never sets foot on stage), and numerous servants.  And however hyperbolic he sounds, the Captain is right.  He and his wife Laura compete for the affection of their daughter.  The wife wins by having her husband sent to a mental institution.  Perhaps she has actually driven him insane, or perhaps she has merely convinced the law he is crazy.  Also possible is that he was essentially insane already; his own weakness has destroyed him with his wife just giving him the slightest tap over the edge.  The mother is a first-rate villain, a monster.  Yet perhaps the family is better off rid of the father.

Technically, this is an exercise in manipulating sympathy.  The father starts at a high level, the mother low; there is a modest attempt to increase sympathy for the mother, but mostly Strindberg systematically destroys sympathy for the father.  I have been reading Bleak House, where the standard Dickens (Trollope, Eliot, etc.) move is to create sympathy for the most unlikely characters.  Strindberg is helping found the great Modernist tradition of literature with only horrible characters.

CAPTAIN [gets up].  Get out, woman!  To hell with you, you witches!...  Get out, woman!  At once!

NURSE.  Lord preserve us, what’s going to happen now?

CAPTAIN. [puts on cap and equips himself to go out].  Don’t expect me home before midnight!  [Exits

NURSE.  Sweet Jesus, help us, how is this all going to end?  (I.9, 23-4)

A naïve Strindberg reader, that is just what I was asking! Not now, though. As he grows mad, the Captain begins to transform himself into a character in a tragedy, as if he realizes he is in a play, or as if his madness requires dramatization. The Father is often considered one of Strindberg’s “realistic” and Naturalist plays, but the range of literary reference suggests something else.

The CAPTAIN enters with a pile of books under his arm.CAPTAIN [puts the books on the table].  It’s all here in these books, every one of them.  So I wasn’t mad! (Act III.5., 45)

I am making The Father sound a bit more like Pirandello than it really is, but it is a bit like Pirandello.  And I see that in this scene, the Captain is on the wrong track, furiously leafing through the Odyssey, Ezekiel, and Pushkin, when what he needs is Aeschylus.  Well, he figures it out in the end, that he is Agamemnon (or Othello) while his wife is Clytemnestra (or Iago), when it is far too late.


  1. Oh, I like the Aeschylus and Shakespeare connections. What an interesting perspective. I wish I had thought of it.

  2. This is so much like realism, I don't know how you could tell it wasn't.

    That's good stuff, him looking for heroes and prophets in that stack of books. That's quite psychologically realistic, innit?

  3. "He and his wife Laura compete for the affection of their daughter. The wife wins by having her husband sent to a mental institution."

    That's like the greatest plot ever!

  4. Nobody can induce feelings of sympathy like Dickens. This is how he makes us pity even the soon to be murdered, unscrupulous, pyramid scheme-like insurance scam runner and thief, Tiggie Montague:
    "His fears or evil conscience reproduced this door in all his dreams. He dreamed that a dreadful secret was connected with it; a secret which he knew, and yet did not know, for although he was heavily responsible for it, and a party to it, he was harassed even in his vision by a distracting uncertainty in reference to its import. Incoherently entwined with this dream was another, which represented it as the hiding-place of an enemy, a shadow, a phantom; and made it the business of his life to keep the terrible creature closed up, and prevent it from forcing its way in upon him. With this view Nadgett, and he, and a strange man with a bloody smear upon his head (who told him that he had been his playfellow, and told him, too, the real name of an old schoolmate, forgotten until then), worked with iron plates and nails to make the door secure; but though they worked never so hard, it was all in vain, for the nails broke, or changed to soft twigs, or what was worse, to worms, between their fingers; the wood of the door splintered and crumbled, so that even nails would not remain in it; and the iron plates curled up like hot paper. All this time the creature on the other side—whether it was in the shape of man, or beast, he neither knew nor sought to know—was gaining on them."
    Montague's final moments:
    "So cold, although the air was warm; so dull, although the sky was bright; that he rose up shivering from his seat, and hastily resumed his walk. He checked himself as hastily; undecided whether to pursue the footpath, which was lonely and retired, or to go back by the road.
    He took the footpath.
    The glory of the departing sun was on his face. The music of the birds was in his ears. Sweet wild flowers bloomed about him. Thatched roofs of poor men's homes were in the distance; and an old grey spire, surmounted by a Cross, rose up between him and the coming night.
    He had never read the lesson which these things conveyed; he had ever mocked and turned away from it; but, before going down into a hollow place, he looked round, once, upon the evening prospect, sorrowfully. Then he went down, down, down, into the dell.
    As the sunlight died away, and evening fell upon the wood, he entered it. Moving, here and there a bramble or a drooping bough which stretched across his path, he slowly disappeared. At intervals a narrow opening showed him passing on, or the sharp cracking of some tender branch denoted where he went; then, he was seen or heard no more."

  5. It is a good plot. I would have loved to see the Steppenwolf actors do this play. It is quick, varied, and nuts, and in the right hands it would be very funny. "Recent research" - ha ha ha ha!

    And it is all, like Scott says psychologically credible. That is exactly Strindberg's big discovery (with some help from Ibsen) - that he could create psychological realism by violating the surface realism. Then he had one more big move in this direction with To Damascus - why, if the psychology I am really interested in is my own, do I even need these characters and coherent stories and so on?

    But in this case, the characters are effective and exciting. Getting to RT's point, the play begins as something like a Naturalistic domestic melodrama, but then it swings towards a real tragic effect. It's exciting to watch the Captain become more Lear-like, to accept or embrace his tragic fate.

    Cleanthess, I need to remember to write something about this when I write about Bleak House. The big embrace of Dickens makes it even more surprising when he undermines sympathy in a character (like Skimpole). It is rare. I had to refresh my memory of that chapter from Martin Chuzzlewit. Ah, that's good!

  6. I like the quote about the cage full of tigers. Haven't read this one, which sounds fantastic, btw, although I have seen a few Strindbergs performed.

  7. I would love to see this one performed. Lines like that "cage full of tigers" - juicy red meat for good actors.