Stage Notes

Behind the Words: The Real-Life Battle of Wills

By Luke Evans

cover of Eivor Martinus’s 2001 Strindberg and Love
Strindberg and his many
lovers, as depicted on the
cover of Eivor Martinus’s
2001 Strindberg and Love

Strindberg was known to have had a particularly turbulent personal life, especially when it came to women. Not only was he married and divorced three times, but he was believed to have had a few extra-marital affairs as well. At the time he was writing The Stronger, Strindberg was undergoing significant trouble with his first marriage; trouble that would spell its end a few years after.

Egil Törnqvist, a foremost scholar on Strindberg’s biography and work, draws parallels between Mrs. X and Ms. Y and two real women in Strindberg’s life. This comparison positions Strindberg as the much-talked-about husband, Mrs. X as Siri von Essen (Strindberg’s then-wife), and Ms. Y as Nathalie Larsen (a Danish actress, playwright, and translator who worked with Strindberg).

Von Essen had been Strindberg’s wife since 1877. They met two years prior, while von Essen was still married to Major Baron Carl Gustav Wrangel af Sauss. They began seeing each other regularly during 1876, and von Essen divorced her husband later that same year. Strindberg was largely blamed for the divorce. Their marriage was Strindberg’s first and his longest, but was marked by continued distrust and strife between the two. Strindberg regularly accused Siri of having affairs, some with other women. However, they also depended on each other artistically, as Strindberg wrote some of his most popular plays partially as vehicles for Siri to act in.

Larsen was a member of the Scandinavian Experimental Theatre, the short-lived company that Strindberg had founded with Siri in Copenhagen. She had previously translated some of Strindberg’s work, and so likely would’ve been close with both him and Siri. We know from historical accounts of the Theatre’s one performance that Larsen was also an actress, though not one as popular as von Essen. As for her relationship with Strindberg, there are records of numerous exchanges she had with him, some of which read with great familiarity:

“Without being in love with you, I must tell you how pleasant and refreshing I found your visit yesterday, I who have lived in an atmosphere of moulding old ladies, intrigues, lies and hysterical Grössenwahn {closest translation: megalomania}. Yesterday there came with you a breath of that youth which I possessed when we started this company full of hopes.

You have had two strong enemies, one after the other, whom, I flatter myself, I have removed…

Tell me also: would you like to play the part of Miss Julie if Mrs. Essen-Strindberg refuses?

Mrs. Strindberg has namely declared that she leaves everything, if she is not allowed to have her old bitch of an aunt in my house, who haunts me and destroys all that’s young in me. May she leave! Then I will settle for you as the prima-donna.”

Törnqvist identifies the first of these “strong enemies” as Siri, indicating an animosity between the two women. Strindberg also offers Larsen the role of Miss Julie should his wife refuse it, indicating a competitive relationship between the two.

Strindberg and von Essen working on a new play in Stockholm
Strindberg and von Essen working
on a new play in Stockholm

In another letter, Strindberg invites Larsen to visit him on “one of the Christmas days,” only asking her not to come on Boxing Day due to a children’s party. Törnqvist connects this invitation to the invitation Mrs. X extends to Ms. Y to come to their house on Christmas. Strindberg also addresses Larsen in this letter as “Dear Beloved Nathalie Larsen.”

Certainly, Strindberg’s relationship with Siri was strained. He frequently accused her of having affairs, while he was known to have had many himself. When Strindberg wrote The Stronger, they had just reconciled after a brief separation. Their reconciliation was to be just as short-lived, as they would soon both return to their respective homelands. Their correspondences imply that Siri disliked The Stronger. Törnqvist suggests that she may have identified some autobiographical elements to the play that she took offense to. Mrs. X’s claim that other women flock to her husband because they believe he can influence casting is also telling, as Strindberg wrote numerous roles specifically for his wife and – as we see from the above letter – was not averse to promising them to other women.