Stage Notes

August Strindberg: About the Author

By Luke Evans

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

Johan August Strindberg (January 22, 1849 - May 14, 1912) was a 19th-century Swedish writer frequently called “the Father of Naturalism.” A complex and deeply troubled individual, Strindberg wrote some of the most prominent and tonally varied plays of his time. His writing is nearly as frenetic as his personal life was, jumping from one philosophy, one medium to another. While he is most famous for his plays, he wrote other forms of fiction as well as non-fiction, including novels, short stories, autobiographies, scientific and political essays, and literary critiques. At various points he trafficked in naturalism, symbolism, mysticism, and even early forms of surrealism. What was constant, however, was that he made his presence known in every field in which he worked, dedicating himself to everything he did with passion and conviction.

Strindberg was born in Stockholm, the son of a serving maid and a shipping agent. His parents had eight children and, of the five who survived, Strindberg was the third. His childhood was not happy by any means; they lived in poverty, sometimes to the point of starvation, and his relationship with his parents was frequently contentious. After his mother died and his father remarried their governess, he professed his father and stepmother to be his greatest enemies. He never even attended his father’s funeral. He later dropped out of school and attempted a career as an actor. His failure as an actor drove him to his first suicide attempt.

Strindberg’s unstable personal life and history of upheaval can be clearly read in his writing. Much of his later works are drawn from the trauma he experienced as a child, and he continued to funnel his struggles as an adult into his art. His mental state can often be tracked based on either the success of his career or the turmoil in his personal life. Strindberg was married three times and fathered six children. While his first marriage lasted fourteen years, neither of the other two lasted more than three, and all ended in divorce. In between the first and second, he suffered a string of mental breakdowns that resulted in his institutionalization. August Strindberg was a man well-acquainted with despair.

Red Room
The Red Room, one of
Strindberg’s earliest
successes, is often considered
the first modern Swedish novel.

Though he had enjoyed some success as a novelist, Strindberg’s biggest theatrical successes came when he developed an interest in Naturalism, a mode of theatre that aims to create a powerful illusion of reality. Far from the presentational and melodramatic performances that were common throughout the 19th century, Naturalism brought with it the assertion that characters on stage should look and act like normal people; that the audience should feel that what is happening before them is nearly indistinguishable from reality. Strindberg was intoxicated by the techniques and goals of Naturalism, though while other naturalistic playwrights achieved this effect with scenery and costumes, Strindberg focused on providing his characters a sense of psychological realism. His most successful naturalist work is frequently said to be his 1888 play Miss Julie, written and performed the same year as Pariah.

Strindberg oscillated between forms. He read voraciously, almost as if looking for models to emulate. One of his most notable fixations was with the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, with whom he corresponded briefly. He also found himself fascinated with the emerging science of psychology, particularly the field of hypnotism. The domination of one mind by another is a frequent theme in Strindberg’s work.

Many believe that Strindberg’s wandering mind was a result of his need to find some philosophy that allowed him to make sense of his own mental illness. He would later take up interest in religion, spiritualism, and the occult, which can be seen as a type of last-ditch attempt at salvation. Journalist Gustav Uddgren, upon a visit to Strindberg in 1900, made the following observation: “every night he read his old Roman Catholic prayer books, not to acquire a Roman Catholic edification but to become imbued with their peace. The fires that burned within him were so strong that he needed quieting remedies in order to rest at night.” It was this turning to religion, in conjunction with his numerous psychotic breaks, that inspired his later work in depicting the unconsciousness of the human mind. His A Dream Play is considered by many to be a precursor to Expressionism and Surrealism.

At the time of his death, Strindberg had become a celebrity. When news broke of his declining health (complications from pneumonia), the Stockholm papers reported daily on his condition. He died on May 14, 1912, at age 63, shortly after his play The Father became the first of his plays to be performed in America (it was performed and produced by Warner Oland, who would later become a famous Hollywood actor and a frequent interpreter of Strindberg’s work). In his homeland of Sweden, he is considered a cultural icon, and many consider him to be the greatest author in Swedish history. His plays, particularly Miss Julie, The Father, and Master Olof, are still performed across the world and in various languages.