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The Beauty of a Debacle

Creditors

by August Strindberg, a production by the Donmar Warehouse, London, directed by Alan Rickman
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, April 16–May 16, 2010
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Stephanie Berger
Owen Teale as Gustav and Tom Burke as Adolph in August Strindberg’s Creditors

Before seeing it performed in late April, I had never read August Strindberg’s 1888 play Creditors, but through the modern miracle of Google Books I was able to download in an instant a 1910 translation, prefaced with a warning from the translator that “it has both the excellencies and the extravagances peculiar to all revolutionary art.”1 Written in the same so-called naturalist period that produced The Father and Miss Julie, Creditors has been far less frequently anthologized or produced, although Strindberg called it at the time of its composition “my great favorite.” (He also thought that all three of its characters were “likeable”—a view that has not been widely shared.)

On the page, especially in the diction of 1910, it seemed a challenging prospect for revival. In a one-act, three-character play pitting two men against the woman each blames for sapping his vital energies—a play consisting of nothing but relentless, nearly uninterrupted talk—Strindberg seemed to have managed a perfect encapsulation of his characteristic blending of antifeminist polemic and sexual paranoia. As a work of tortured self-revelation (full of direct allusions to the circumstances of his own first marriage, which had dissolved not long before the play was written) and, incidentally, as a document of late-Victorian sexology at its murkiest, Creditors could hardly be surpassed, but it was hard to imagine contemporary actors playing it before a contemporary audience without eliciting squirms or giggles.

In Creditors Strindberg sets up a sort of minimalist hell. It is a play, he told an associate, for three characters and two chairs. At a resort hotel two men—the ailing artist Adolph and Gustav, an older man whose acquaintance he has just made—continue a conversation that has evidently been going on for days. Adolph seems almost pathetically grateful for the fresh burst of inspiration the older man has given him by advising him to abandon painting and take up sculpture instead. The talk turns to Adolph’s marriage and its discontents, with Gustav driving the discussion into ever more vulnerable areas as he forces his young friend to dissect his love for Tekla—a novelist whose star has risen just as Adolph’s career has foundered—and see what it really consists of.

Within half an hour of stage time Gustav has managed to undermine Adolph’s faith in his art, his health, and his marriage alike, convincing him, all for Adolph’s own good of course, that Tekla—who years ago abandoned her first husband for Adolph after meeting the artist at this very hotel, and who is on her way to rejoin him—has selfishly robbed the painter of his creative strength by what might be called erotic vampirism, just as she had done, we are led to presume, with her first husband.

This initial duet is followed by two more of equal length: Adolph has it out with Tekla while Gustav (according to a prearranged scheme) eavesdrops from the adjacent room. Then, still following Gustav’s plan, Adolph—at the end of a lacerating scene that allows little hope for the future of the marriage—leaves the stage to his friend while he in turn looks on in secret, to learn (what the audience has long since divined) that Gustav is the deserted husband exacting his revenge on both Tekla and the man who stole her from him. It is a play without half-measures, every moment freighted with maximum psychological violence; it must be played on its own terms or not at all. Might it not now be, for an audience, like entering a museum of the nineteenth century, to look at grotesque waxworks of those ancestors we are inclined to laugh at perhaps because we find them frightening, or perhaps again because we find their fears frightening?

As it turned out, Alan Rickman’s production, which was originally presented with great success at London’s Donmar Warehouse, had nothing of the quality of a historical reconstruction, even if it preserved impeccably the surfaces of the play’s original time and place. The effect was not to set us down in a period piece but to suggest that we are not all that far from the Sweden of 1888. The impersonal white-on-white hotel setting, with its two chaise longues hinting at a convalescent ward and light leaking through the high narrow blinds, achieved perfectly the stripped-down, hard-edged look of the interiors depicted by Strindberg’s near contemporary, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. The adaptation by the Scottish playwright David Greig indulged in no discernible updating or underscoring, merely paring away some of the dialogue without skirting any of the jabs and counter-jabs on which the play is strung.

At the outset, as Tom Burke (Adolph) and Owen Teale (Gustav) picked up what appeared to be the civilized desultory conversation of two men on vacation, everything was spare and bright and dry. To read the text was to be overwhelmed by content, tone, texture: on the page the play seemed dark, dense, if not overwrought then in danger of seeming so. To see it played as it was at BAM was to be sublimely immersed in musical structure. The delicacy that emerged in performance was the other side of Strindberg, a delicacy of formal development counteracting and establishing a distance from the recurrent waves of brutal emotion and physical disgust that overwhelm his characters. Without that the plays would be what they very nearly are: the unmediated registering of the miseries and complaints of his own life, a life whose peculiar inner torments—rising at times to persecution mania and psychotic delusion—made it possible for the same man to be a founder of both naturalism and expressionism.

If director and cast proceeded in every respect as if the play was a score to be interpreted as precisely as possible, they were doing no more than following the playwright’s own suggestion in the preface to Miss Julie:

I have avoided the symmetrical, mathematical artificiality of French dialogue and allowed my characters’ brains to work irregularly as they do in real life, where no subject is ever entirely exhausted before one mind discovers by chance in another mind a cog in which to engage. For that reason the dialogue also wanders, providing itself in the opening scenes with material that is later reworked, taken up, repeated, expanded, and developed, like the theme in a musical composition.2
What was stunning about the production was its demonstration of how exactly Strindberg’s art could be realized; the intricate transformations that occur from moment to moment throughout the play’s length, and that culminate in murderous psychic debacle, unfolded with cool clarity.

The play provides a brutal test for actors, to which Burke, Teale, and Anna Chancellor as Tekla were triumphantly equal. From line to line the dialogue slips from one gear to another while never straying from a pitch of extreme emotional tension. Anything that looks like a means of evasion or concealment, any attempt by the weaker to overthrow the stronger, inevitably leads toward a more naked and ugly acknowledgment of what cannot be evaded. In this context, a single failed line reading, a single misdirected glance would be enough to sink the entire play by allowing the audience to perceive the characters as absurd or unbelievable or completely repugnant.

Since the play is a set of variations on the themes of strength and weakness—with its central action the demonstration of how a stronger person may utterly destroy a weaker one through a carefully orchestrated succession of subversive suggestions—perhaps it is not surprising that it seems so fragile at its core. Just as the characters are forced into knowledge of their own fragility, the play itself is an intricate machine kept afloat only by blind faith, without which it would collapse into a spectacle that no one would want to watch. It would become life, not theater. Only a writer who, like Strindberg, put so much of what he was on stage, making such literal use of his own crises and obsessions, could distinguish so absolutely between theater and life. That his plays are documents of his personal suffering has only an incidental relation to their beauty as theatrical constructs.

The immense accomplishment of this production was to make that beauty so fully perceptible. The direction and acting scraped away anything that might get in the way of Strindberg’s dramatic rhythms. There was little in the way of dire pauses or frozen postures. Most of the time things moved and changed too mercurially to permit tableau effects. The actors seemed to get ahead of themselves, ahead of the play, and that turned out to be the play: predatory interruptions, slippery failures of connection, abrupt localized cave-ins, off-balance efforts to grab hold of something that changes form as soon as it is touched. The unease was not of shadows or silence but of bright exposing lights and of discourse incapable of being arrested, mood swings engendering further mood swings without even time to consider what just happened. It was a process of constant metamorphosis, continually articulating nuances of meltdown. No character was stable. To attempt to define oneself was already to become someone slightly different. From time to time language gave way to gesture—Tekla on the floor with her legs spread in sexual invitation, Adolph impotently brandishing his sculpting knife—as if in recognition of how utterly language had failed to rescue any of them from their predicament.

At some point in the midst of all this it occurred to me that Strindberg might have been the ancestor of all those messy forms of group encounter and ego-dissolving high-intensity therapy that flourished so notably in the 1960s, 1970s, and since. As Gustav so expertly punctured the illusions of Adolph and Tekla, dragging their unspoken fears and desires into the open, he seemed the exact prototype of a latter-day couples counselor or psychedelic guide or Reichian therapist, steering his charges on a journey through their character armor toward a more open and rewarding life: except that his Strindbergian brand of therapy, of course, yields no cure or adjustment but only a lucid vision of ruin.

Gustav’s particular half-baked cant, his pseudoscientific misogynism and theories of epilepsy induced by sexual depletion, are Strindberg’s own, and not intended to elicit the laughs they inevitably stirred up in this production. (The solidity of Rickman’s direction could be measured by the fact that such reactions, occurring early on, in no way alleviated the play’s force; it was more as if the audience’s initial disorientation at finding its way into Strindberg’s emotional scheme was being given a discreet safety valve.) But it doesn’t actually matter what Strindberg’s characters believe, or what he himself believed, any more than it matters what sort of hats or shoes they wear. Such doctrines are just accessories to the underlying power struggles whose truthfulness is tested by the performers.

Strindberg’s modernism was not of the kind that winks in acknowledgment of the audience. The actors were focused on one another with a predatory attention that did not dare waver for a moment, assuming stances of seductiveness or self-protection as needed. The audience was cast entirely in the role of voyeur, peeking with unhealthy curiosity at scenes never intended to be witnessed. This was entirely appropriate for a play so much about eavesdropping. Strindberg described it as a “tragic comedy,” and it nowhere more resembles comedy than in the way it sets up its characters to be spied on: first Gustav will spy on Adolph and Tekla, then Adolph will withdraw as each man takes the other’s place with dancelike formality. Gustav is the arch-voyeur: we will learn that he spied on Tekla as she was traveling by ferry, and caught her flirting with a group of boys, a bit of information he uses to torment Adolph. He is the stage manager, manipulating the timing and blocking of everything that happens, carefully controlling how and when information is made available to the other two.

The playwright Arthur Adamov, in a penetrating study of Strindberg’s dramaturgy, wrote of his real-life propensity for spying on others:

He watches through the keyhole, and little by little there is born in him the decision to enlarge the hole and to use it as a frame for all his suffering. The keyhole, in becoming larger, becomes the stage.3

In Gustav, Strindberg realized to the full the figure of playwright as malevolent voyeur, enlisting his empathy and intellectual scope in a mission not of healing but of revenge: he has come to hurt, to achieve his vengeance on his wife and the man with whom she betrayed him not by direct means but by forcing them to perceive the truth that will destroy them. He goes too far, and Adolph dies: physically, in Strindberg’s text, although the Donmar production suggests something more like utter collapse of personality.

Owen Teale’s Gustav achieved by the end a sense of hatred and resentment nursed so long that they become a kind of perverse wisdom. By then Creditors had revealed itself as, among other things, a horror play worthy of the Grand Guignol tradition, and without shedding a drop of blood. When Gustav uttered the phrase “I have no home,” there seemed to materialize for a moment on stage some supernatural presence—Flying Dutchman, Wandering Jew, Mephistopheles roaming the earth restlessly—a burned-out human turned devil, and (this being Strindberg) finally an object of pity. As he watched Tekla crouched grieving over her destroyed husband, the surge of compassion elicited in him by an act of personal destruction he had himself stage-managed with such evident relish functioned as the intended last twist of the rack: the improbable and futile conjunction of compassion and cruelty, a drop of remorse to close out a remorseless play.

All three actors were remarkable but Anna Chancellor as Tekla undoubtedly had the most difficult assignment, struggling as she had to not only against Adolph and Gustav but against Strindberg. It was like witnessing a character rebelling against a playwright-god consigning her to her punishment. Tekla bears the name of an early Christian saint stripped naked in the arena and subjected to multiple torments by lions, bulls, and snakes—even though she was miraculously saved she was accorded sainthood in view of the unusually cruel torments to which she had been subjected.

It is Tekla who is the ultimate creditor in Strindberg’s scheme, owing everything to the energies she has leeched from both her husbands in order to set herself up as a free-thinking, socially independent author, yet so steeped in self-delusion that she cannot even face the debts she has contracted. Chancellor made her Gustav’s worthy opponent, who however vain and self-serving was yet admirably and necessarily fierce in the face of an implacable enemy. There was real battle in their confrontation, a battle that Strindberg’s play can be said not merely to represent but to embody. The Donmar Warehouse did not so much bring it to life as demonstrate—by means of as thorough a testing of each of its joints as any play could get—that it was very much alive.

  1. 1

    August Strindberg, The Creditor: A Tragic Comedy, translated by Francis J. Ziegler (Brown Brothers, 1910).

  2. 2

    August Strindberg, Miss Julie and Other Plays, translated by Michael Robinson (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 63.

  3. 3

    Arthur Adamov, August Strindberg: Dramaturge (Paris: L’Arche, 1955).

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