Strindberg’s Letters Vol. I: 18621892 Vol. II: 18921912
selected, edited, and translated by Michael Robinson
University of Chicago Press, 952 pp., $95.00 the set
August Strindberg is known outside his native Sweden chiefly as a dramatist, one of the three most influential (with Ibsen and Chekhov) since Shakespeare. Born in 1849, twenty-one years after Ibsen and eleven years before Chekhov, he was one of the most prolific and uneven of all great writers. Of his sixty plays, barely a third are performed today even in Sweden, and only a dozen or so anywhere else (but which other major dramatist apart from Shakespeare and Ibsen has left as many that have stood the test of time?). Yet these sixty plays form only a fraction of his total output. He wrote novels, poetry, over a hundred short stories, and books on an astonishing range of themes including over two thousand printed pages on scientific subjects alone. Politics, sociology, astrology, religion, aerodynamics, gardening, the occult, how to grow melons—you name it, Strindberg wrote about it. And in every field his writing was as uneven as in his plays. He wrote more rubbish than any other great writer who has lived, even Wordsworth.
None of this detracts from his greatness, because the value of a writer’s work does not depend on the law of averages, and Strindberg’s influence on the drama was profound in two respects. First, in his late thirties (the late 1880s) he wrote three plays, The Father, Miss Julie, and Creditors, which treated sex as never before in the theater. These plays, to put it bluntly, are about people who hate each other and fuck each other. I use the latter verb deliberately, because the root of the tragedy of Strindberg’s characters is that they do not make love, they do not sleep together. They fuck each other like animals and then return to hating each other. That is what Strindberg thought life in general, and marriage in particular, was all about. Before Strindberg in the drama (though not in the novel), fucking only takes place between married people or wicked people (even Cressida, it is implied, was immoral). Strindberg’s honesty and clear-sightedness about sex was to have a powerful effect on his successors, not least Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, both confessed disciples. O’Neill called one of his shorter plays Welded, which could serve as the title for almost any Strindberg play.
A decade later, around the turn of the century, Strindberg branched out into a new kind of drama. Just as The Father, Miss Julie, Creditors, and later plays such as The Dance of Death are set in a nightmare border country where sanity and insanity merge, so the To Damascus trilogy, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata take place in another no man’s land where reality and fantasy overlap. Often we do not know whether what we are seeing is happening in, as we would say, the real world, or inside one of the characters’ heads (though Strindberg argued that there is a higher reality than what happens, or what the eye sees …