Bizarre & Wonderful Strindberg

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Strindbergsmuseet, Stockholm
August Strindberg on the Swedish island of Värmdö, near Stockholm, summer 1891

There are two Strindbergs, the one the English-speaking world thinks it knows, and the one who is locked away in the treasure house of the Swedish language. To us, he is the author of a few major plays—Miss Julie, The Dance of Death, A Dream Play—while one or two other translated pieces are generally regarded as little more than curiosities. The founder of a new kind of drama, he was the precursor of writers as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, and Sean O’Casey, who called him “the greatest of them all,” and who in one of his letters wrote, “Ibsen can sit serenely in his Doll’s House, while Strindberg is battling with his heaven and hell.” He was also, in our version of him, a notorious misanthrope and an unregenerate misogynist.

For the Swedes, however, Strindberg is their best-loved and most prolific literary figure—in Sue Prideaux’s biography the list of his principal literary works runs to five pages—the author of a popular comic novel, The People of Hemsö (1887)1, and a series of history plays that make him the Swedish Shakespeare. Besides being a playwright of genius he was a strikingly fine painter, a revolutionary photographer, an inventive if anarchic musician, a political activist, a protofeminist, and a lifelong adept in the dark art of alchemy. In fact, there were not two but many, many Strindbergs.

The emergence and triumphant survival of this lavishly gifted, protean figure seem to be something of a miracle, for his childhood was, if we are to believe him, nothing short of calamitous. He was born in 1849 in a cramped apartment—“children on ironing boards and chairs, children on tables, in cradles and beds”—on Riddarholmen, one of the four islands that make up the city of Stockholm. His father, Carl Oscar, a dandy and a bully, had pretensions to grandeur, although the family’s drop of noble blood had long ago dried up. However, Carl Oscar’s older brother, Ludwig, controlled the Swedish spice trade and was one of the wealthiest men in the country, while his brother-in-law, the Englishman Samuel Owen, was a hugely successful inventor and shipbuilder, and both men were frequently invited to the royal palace. No doubt Carl Oscar was proud of these grand connections, yet they must have rankled, too, in the heart of one who, as a mere employee in the family firm, knew himself to be the poor relation.

The playwright’s mother, Nora, had been forced to go out to work at the age of fourteen. She was first a nursemaid and then a servant to a prison officer, and when Carl Oscar first spied her she was a waitress at an inn. The couple lived together for six years and produced a number of children, three of whom died, before they eventually married, in 1847, two years before August was …

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    It should be pointed out that, although he later modified the opinion, he did describe the novel as “idiotic” and said he had written it “from necessity, so that I can then write unperformed plays and unpublished novels,” by which presumably he meant “unperformable” plays and “unpublishable” novels.