Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Life and Work of August Strindberg

Dr Samuel Ravengai
Paper presented on the 4th of June, 2012 at the Gallery Delta, to celebrate the centenary of August Strindberg’s death

I am privileged today to talk about a playwright, novelist and essayist whom I was introduced to by Robert McLaren and have found a pleasure to teach to my students since 2002. August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie (1888) resonates with Zimbabwean contemporary discourses of gender, racial and class prejudice. For that reason, we found Miss Julie a relevant text to critique these discourses and the text has been produced in various formats at the university and by various community theatre groups. Today is a momentous occasion for Zimbabwe, in that we join hands with our Swedish friends to celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest modern dramatists in the world – August Strindberg. He influenced his contemporaries and will continue to influence more generations to come. Ibsen, for example kept a portrait of August Strindberg on his wall and he said of him: ‘I am an enemy of his – but I cannot write a line except when this bold man with his mad eyes looks down on me’ (Bentley 1947: 160). An older Bernard Shaw spoke of the ‘giants of the theatre of our time, Ibsen and Strindberg’ (ibid) and gave his Nobel Prize money for better translations of the Swedish genius.

 August Strindberg: Contextual Background – Modernism
For a very long time, Europe was ruled by monarchies. Revolutions that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries replaced monarchies with democracies led by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie inherited the art and culture of the old monarchies through appropriation of illusionistic theatre developed since the time of Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. August Strindberg, together with other playwrights who were not satisfied with the status quo, began an artistic movement that we call modernism today. However, Strindberg occupies a special position in the modernist movement as summarised by Eugene O’Neil:

Strindberg was the precursor of all modernity in our present theatre... Strindberg still remains among the most modern of moderns, the greatest interpreter in the theatre of the characteristic spiritual conflicts which constitute the drama – the blood – of our lives today (Bentley 1947: 160)

Modernism has come to mean different things to different scholars and sometimes conflates with avant-gardism and post-modernism (Whitemore 1994). However, in this article I am using modernism to refer to an artistic movement that began at the end of the 19th century in the West and extended into the second half of the twentieth century. This artistic movement, also called the avant-garde fetishised the notion of newness, originality and innovation in order to overhaul the formularised and consumption oriented generic formats of playwriting associated with western illusionistic theatre. The innovation and attack on western bourgeois theatre by mostly young playwrights such as Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, Antonin Artaud and others was achieved in different ways in different countries and, therefore, took different forms from the 1880s to the 1970s. The historical avant-garde (Lehman 2006, p. 48) or early theatrical modernists (Stone-Peters 2006, p. 208) of the late 19th century, for instance touched on thematic outlaws such as sex with such plays as Ibsen’s Ghosts, Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, the Lulu plays, Wilde’s Salome, Schnitzler’s La Ronde, Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. For writing and performing against the grain, they were banned and/ or fined in Europe and the United States when censorship laws were still operational (Stone-Peters 2006). Some modernist plays attacked bourgeois tastes by revolting against God where a messianic hero kills god and tries to take his place as in Ibsen’s Brand, Strindberg’s To Damascus, and Shaw’s Man and Superman, among others. The presumed death of God became the source of creativity for the absurdist movement. During the late 1950s modernism developed another form which Lehman (2006, p. 52) calls ‘neo-avant-garde’ which denounced the Aristotelian dramatic action and plot, but still depended on speech as the dominant sign system. This became absurdism epitomised by luminaries such as Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, Adrienne Kennedy and Pinter among others. Modernism developed as Dadaism, surrealism, expressionism, constructivism, futurism, absurdism and symbolism in different parts of the West and Russia. Modernism, as it is used in this article covers dramatic texts and performances that followed these approaches to theatre making or a combination of each of them.

 August Strindberg’s Life
August Strindberg was born in 1849 and died in 1912 at the age of 63. After a long illicit union, Strindberg’s father finally married his mother. Strindberg was, therefore, conceived out of wedlock. This moral stigma which was further exacerbated by his mother’s lowly origin followed Strindberg through his life. For this traumatic anguish, Strindberg rebelled against his mother. At the same time, however, Strindberg had a Freudian ambivalence, in the sense that he was violently attached to her. This Freudian complex never left him and he never became a complete individual. When his mother died, Strindberg ‘was not to be comforted. He shrieked like one drowning’ (cited in Bentley 1947: 166). The lowly origin of his mother was to find artistic space in his play Miss Julie (1888) where he changes the roles and makes the man, Jean, the character who has lowly origins. Miss Julie is the aristocrat. However, sexually, Jean is the aristocrat because of his virility. Even though Julie may be the mistress in the class struggle, Jean is the master in the sex war.

The events that followed after Strindberg’s mother’s death reveal the similarities of human cultures. In Zimbabwe, a widowed man must mourn his wife for one year before he marries another, although the period of mourning is double for women. Similarly, Strindberg criticised his father for becoming engaged before the expiration of the mandatory year of mourning. He prophesied misery and ruin on his father and went on to unreasonable lengths. He refused to kiss his step mother at the wedding. He then developed a dislike for women which saw him marrying three times, all of them ending tragically. In the public mind of his contemporaries he was a lunatic genius who never left off beating his wife. Several of his plays draw on the problems of his marriages.

Due to the fact that his life is found in his works of art, Strindberg can be aptly classified as an existential writer. His life and work is one. He writes himself through life and for that reason he is like Kiergaard and Nietzche. In their plays, self-dramatisation plays a significant role. In Strindberg’s plays The Ghost Sonata, he features as a character, Hummel, (Old Man). This self-dramatisation is a technique that features in Dambudzo Marechera’s plays in Mindblast and Scrapiron Blues.

Despite all this negativity about his life ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, August Strindberg was a believer. He did not hide his spiritual values even in his work. In his play There are Crimes and Crimes, a Parisian playwright deserts his child and her mother for another woman. The child dies. The father feels guilty and at the end of the text to the last act prepares to die with his new lover. But Strindberg has prepared the way for a different ending ‘salvation is the answer to suicide’ (cited in Bentley 1947: 175). Strindberg went on parading Christianity and even asked that the bible should be solemnly laid upon his corpse.

 The Work of August Strindberg
August Strindberg wrote fifty five volumes and these can be classified into three categories. The first category consists of Strindberg’s occasional works such as translations, essays and treatises. This is also where we find his autobiographies, which, as we have seen above, provided the raw material for his artworks. The second category consists of novels which attempted to impose order and form upon the chaos of his experience. The last category consists of Strindberg’ central achievement – his plays.

 Strindberg wrote either chronicle history plays or fairy plays. In terms of style, Strindberg’s best plays fall into two groups – the naturalistic plays favoured by the French director, Andre Antoine, and expressionist/symbolist plays which can be associated with the German director Max Reinhardt.

 As can be seen for the foregoing, Strindberg was popular with the French and Germans. In the 1880s and 1890s Strindberg was very much in the swim in France and German. He visited Antoine’s Theatre Libre and was much impressed by the brief one act plays of the French dramatists, which very much influenced his form in Miss Julie. Strindberg resolved to reduce the conflict to its directest manifestation – one person mentally struggling with another as we see in Miss Julie.

 But Strindberg did not make his mark in America, and this is not a reflection of his lack of genius. The intelligentsia in England and America were predominantly radical, but Strindberg’s radicalism was slightly against the the western feminist grain. He was considered morbid, antifeminist, reactionary and religious. At times, he was too pious for the English and American radicals.

What is Strindberg’s place in the history and future of drama? Strindberg was an epitome of knew thinking of the 19th century. He epitomised the century’s knew beliefs, illusions and attitudes. We credit him for fulfilling and destroying (in Christ like style) the dramatic laws of the 19th century. He is the father of modern drama. With the rise of Western feminism and its inherent hatred of men, Strindberg is going to be invoked even more vigorously in future when the future man fights back matriarchy to regain his lost ground. On this prophetic note, I thank you.