Castles in the Mud

Strindberg as Dramatist

by Evert Sprinchorn
Yale University Press, 332 pp., $30.00

Strindberg and the Poetry of Myth

by Harry G. Carlson
University of California Press, 240 pp., $22.50

August Strindberg
August Strindberg; drawing by David Levine

With the publication of two excellent books, the tortured Swedish dramatist is at last becoming the subject of thoughtful, comprehensive attention. Encouraged by Strindberg himself, who called his work an exorcistic “poem of desperation,” previous critics (myself included) have been more inclined to describe his fascinating pathology than to admire his art, as if the plays were important largely as a chapter in a psychic biography. But if Strindberg is such an aberration, how do we explain his impact on modern drama, which now exceeds even that of his arch-rival, Henrik Ibsen? He was the cherished literary father of Sean O’Casey and Eugene O’Neill. He has stamped his imprint on Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. And he is commonly identified as crucial to the development of modern expressionism and symbolism, an artist who helped to nurture Artaud’s theories of cruelty, Genet’s extravagant fantasies, the surrealism of Cocteau, indeed the whole of postmodern experimental theater.

Offering to explain why Strindberg, despite his acknowledged influence, has been misunderstood by critics and neglected by the stage, Professor Sprinchorn cites both the dramatist’s own deceptive self-image and his capacity to irritate his contemporaries. Sprinchorn, a leading authority on Scandinavian drama and one of Strindberg’s best translators, offers to remove the wildeyed portrait from Ibsen’s wall (“I cannot write a line,” Ibsen said, “without that madman staring at me with his mad eyes”) and to substitute a picture of a cantankerous but shrewd outsider who stubbornly resisted assimilation by the Swedish literary establishment, who roasted his contemporaries in a series of eighty broadsides, and who confounded them further by supporting a workers’ strike after a conservative victory at the polls—thus managing to transform the “sedate Swedish cultural scene into a beerhouse brawl.” (The Swedish Academy retaliated by continually passing him over for the Nobel prize, a distinction also enjoyed by Tolstoy, to whom Strindberg issued a public apology on behalf of all his benighted countrymen.)

Strindberg’s combative nature was, of course, evident enough from his plays and memoirs, which throughout his career caused him lawsuits, ostracism, even exile. Strindberg was born for trouble, and had no difficulty finding it since his childhood in the 1850s as the unwanted son of a once prosperous shipping merchant and a mother who had seen service in the household. He contracted three miserable marriages, beginning in his forties, and suffered indescribable tortures during his “inferno crisis” in the 1890s when, as he later claimed, he had delusions of being persecuted by a monstrous regiment of women.

But Sprinchorn believes that Strindberg misrepresented his own methods and experience, that far from being in the grip of his obsessions he was purposely experimenting with his life as he experimented with chemicals and literary forms. Sprinchorn asserts, for example, that Strindberg deliberately inoculated himself with madness (through sleeplessness, alcohol, and drugs) in order to analyze his guilt, and that he consciously wrecked…

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