Stage Notes

About the Playwright: Romance, Rage, and Strindberg

By Luke Evans

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

To understand Strindberg’s work is to begin to understand the man. A complex and deeply troubled individual, he wrote some of the most prolific and tonally varied plays of his time. His writing is nearly as frenetic as his personal life, jumping from one philosophy, one medium to another, and yet he managed to make waves in each.

August Strindberg was born January 22, 1849 in Stockholm. His father was a shipping agent, while his mother was a serving maid. Strindberg’s upbringing was far from happy; he himself described it as affected by “emotional insecurity, poverty, religious fanaticism and neglect.” Strindberg biographer Olof Lagercrantz, however, warns against using Strindberg’s own autobiography as a reliable source, due to his tendency towards revisionist histories that supported his own preferred point of view. We do know he had a complicated relationship with his parents, as he later admitted to searching for a mother figure to replace his own after her death. After his mother’s death, his father married Strindberg’s governess, and Strindberg’s sisters claim that he saw the two of them as his “worst enemies.” When his father died in 1883, Strindberg did not attend the funeral.

Strindberg took time to build up his literary career. His first play, a one-act comedy called In Rome, performed at the Royal Theatre (at the time, Stockholm’s only major theatre) to positive reviews, but Strindberg himself realized during the performance that he hated the play. His next play received poor reviews but earned him an audience with the king, who began sponsoring his studies. His next play, Master Olof, was rejected by the Royal, leading Strindberg to develop a dislike for official institutions.

In 1879, Strindberg had his first popular success with his novel, The Red Room, often considered by contemporary audiences to be the first modern Swedish novel. The novel satirized Stockholm society, and while it received mixed reviews in Sweden, it was critically acclaimed in Denmark. This success proved encouraging for Strindberg, who immediately wrote his next successful play, starring his then-wife Siri von Essen in the lead role. However, by the late 1880s he had once again grown despondent.

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 by steering as far away as possible from the bombast and melodrama of the early 19th century. The most successful example of naturalism is frequently said to be Strindberg’s 1888 play, Miss Julie, written the same year as The Stronger. Due to this success, Strindberg is often hailed as the “Father of Naturalism.”

Miss Julie was originally written to be performed as part of the inaugural performance for the Scandinavian Experimental Theatre, a group Strindberg and his wife had formed in Copenhagen, after he had grown weary of mainstream theatres. The original lineup included a bill of one-act plays. Miss Julie was to be performed along with The Stronger and another of Strindberg’s one-act plays, Creditors. The Scandinavian Experimental Theatre proved to be short-lived, however, and Strindberg’s interest in Naturalism did not last either.

Strindberg’s personal life was volatile and unstable, marked by insecure and toxic relationships. His first marriage to actress Siri von Essen started on a bad note, as she was married to a baron when they first met. They met in the summer of 1875, and by the beginning of 1876, they began having a secret affair. That same year, von Essen divorced her husband. Von Essen later became an actress at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm, with whom Strindberg had fallen out over Master Olof.

Siri von Essen, Strindberg's first wife
Siri von Essen, Strindberg's first wife

At the time of writing The Stronger, Strindberg was experiencing difficulty in his marriage to von Essen. He had frequently accused her of cheating and began to believe that there was a nation-wide conspiracy among women to discredit him. In 1887, in an effort to counter this perceived conspiracy, he began to write an autobiography titled The Defence of a Fool, revealing the details of his and Siri’s stormy relationship. It was also during this time that he wrote The Father, Miss Julie, On Psychic Murder, Creditors, and Pariah, all of which deal with the topics of psychological warfare and tensions between men and women.

During the formation of the Scandinavian Experimental Theatre, Strindberg and von Essen had just reunited after a brief separation. However, soon after the theatre dissolved, as did their reunion, and they both returned to their respective homelands (von Essen, Germany; Strindberg, Sweden). They officially divorced three years later. It was in this state of mind that Strindberg wrote The Stronger.

After the end of his first marriage and the dissolution of his theatre company, Strindberg moved away from playwriting, choosing to focus his studies on the occult. He also studied the works of various philosophers, including Rousseau, Zola, and Neitzche. His attempts to find meaning in the world led to numerous psychotic breaks, and he was eventually hospitalized. When he returned to playwriting in 1898, after a brief recovery period, he came with a new focus on the consciousness of dreams. One of his later works, A Dream Play, is considered a precursor to both 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).

Today, Strindberg is looked on not only as the “Father of Naturalism,” but as a pioneer for Expressionism and Surrealism, as well. 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.