Stage Notes

My Best Fiend:  The Symbiotic Relationship Between Ibsen and Strindberg

By Nina Saunders  

August Strindberg Painting
The portrait of August Strindberg
that Henrik Ibsen kept hanging in his
office as motivation.

Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg are two Scandinavian theatrical giants of their time who maintained a public rivalry throughout their careers. The grudging respect they had for one another’s skill pushed each of them to improve. Ibsen even kept a portrait of Strindberg in his office because it motivated him to have “that mad man” staring down at him. The two famous playwrights had similar styles yet opposite approaches to playwriting. Ibsen was progressive and formal, while Strindberg was imaginative and casual. Between them, they laid the foundation of modern drama, from Ibsen’s beauty of structure to Strindberg’s power of dreams.

Equal in skill but polar opposites in approach, the two Scandinavian playwrights were two of the most prominent literary names of their day and are often credited as two pioneers of modern theatre. Ibsen is often referred to as the “Father of Realism” while Strindberg is referred to as the “Father of Naturalism.”  These concepts are very similar in effect, in that both work to tell a contemporary story in an honest and truthful way. However, Realism explores how a character’s choices can be the cause for their own demise, while Naturalism is governed by the doctrine of Determinism which states that one's actions are controlled by external causes and therefore people cannot be held morally responsible. This subtle yet distinct difference in philosophy is one aspect that contributes to the playwrights’ alleged rivalry. This fine distinction can be seen when comparing Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler to Strindberg’s The Father. Hedda Gabler is a tale of a noble born woman who suffers not from fate but rather her own ambitious desires. We see this throughout the play as Hedda’s own rash judgment continually leads her down a path of destruction. She denies the man she loves in favor of a choice that can better serve her ambitions, however this denial of happiness is what eventually leads to her suicidal demise. As an audience, we see that this tragedy is caused by a character’s free will and not by external forces. In contrast, Strindberg’s character Laura in The Father is also strong in determination and will, however her choices throughout the play are presented by Strindberg as a consequence of the current laws and culture surrounding marriage social contracts of the time. In this play, Strindberg is forgiving in his depiction of Laura’s twisted plot to have her husband committed to a mental institution in order to get what she wants by depicting that the current rules of society are the cause of Laura’s choices. Hedda and Laura’s differences in motivation are an example of Ibsen and Strindberg’s divergent philosophies about morality. These similar yet opposing approaches to playwriting were further fueled by Ibsen and Strindberg’s battle for intellectual property and criticism of each other’s take on life. In a letter dated in 1891 from August Strindberg to his friend Ola Hannson, he accuses Ibsen of copying Hedda from his character Laura, stating, “Hedda Gabler is...a bastardess of Laura in The Father...You can see now that my seed has actually has fallen into Ibsen's own brain pan - and grown!”

Another example of Ibsen and Strindberg’s tumultuous yet productive relationship resulted from their opposing viewpoints of the proper role of women in society. Strindberg despised how Ibsen idealized women; Strindberg did not think women were useless -- he just thought that they exerted their power in manipulative ways. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Strindberg’s Miss Julie are examples of these opposing viewpoints. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen characterizes his lead, Nora, as a diligent wife who is manipulated by her husband and locked in a subordinate role on the social pyramid. Eventually Nora realizes the manipulation and gathers the strength to leave her husband. In Miss Julie, Strindberg paints women as inferior and as a less important form of human beings.  Miss Julie uses her hatred of men to manipulate them and take command over them. This obvious difference of opinion about women’s value provided ample fuel to inspire Ibsen and Strindberg to continue to create extraordinary work while each resenting the other’s contributions.

Where Ibsen championed tight dramatic structure, Strindberg’s style was often chaotic and anarchic; where Ibsen tended to exhibit cool restraint, Strindberg’s work showed passion and fury; where Ibsen held his characters back until their passion best served the script, Strindberg’s characters constantly yell and contradict themselves. Still, they shared some common ground. They were both astute political writers. They even had very similar goals in their writing: to question social values through their art; to expose the hypocrisy of modern society by putting “unpleasant” issues onstage; and to portray human life as it was (or at least, how they perceived it to be). This symbiotic relationship was inseparably bound together in both love and hate.