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Bizarre & Wonderful Strindberg

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 born. Nora was, in the words of Prideaux, “sensuous, stubborn and implacably [sic]2 stupid.” She was also a Pietist and “revelled in the hellfire sermons of the rabble-rousing preachers who at that time had a great hold over Sweden’s ill-educated and poor.” It seems odd that Carl Oscar should have married her, for by doing so he damaged considerably his social position—his rich and powerful brother stopped speaking to him—and one finds it difficult to accept Prideaux’s suggestion that “the answer perhaps lies in Carl Oscar’s strong sex drive, a quality widely attested.” That there had been at least four pregnancies before the marriage surely points to Nora’s prenuptial generosity in matters of the flesh.

Caught between his “ferociously religious” mother, as Prideaux describes her, and the frustrated martinet Carl Oscar, little August lived in constant torment and fear. In The Son of a Servant (1886), one of a number of autobiographical works composed at successive stages of his life, Strindberg, writing of himself in the third person, as he often did, starkly describes the misery of his childhood:

Hungry and afraid, afraid of the dark, of spankings, of upsetting everybody. Afraid of falling and hurting himself, afraid of being in the way. Afraid of being hit by his brothers, slapped by the maids, scolded by his grandmother, caned by his father and birched by his mother…he could do nothing without doing wrong, utter no word without disturbing somebody. Finally, the safest thing was simply not to move. His highest virtue was to sit on a chair and be quiet. It had effectively been dinned into him that he had no right to exist.

Nor was there much comfort to be found in the world outside the house. It may surprise present-day readers to learn that Stockholm in the mid-nineteenth century was, as Prideaux writes, “one of the more backward and unhealthy capitals in the whole of Europe…unsafe, old-fashioned, chaotic and dirty.” There was hardly any running water, there were open drains in the streets, the roadways were unlighted except by an occasional oil lamp—which, as the saying went, only “made darkness visible”—clocks were not standardized, gibbets stood at the crossroads.

And then there was school. Considering contemporary depictions of nineteenth-century schooling, in for instance Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, one might well think that education in those times was aimed not at developing the young but at breaking their spirits, or the spirits at least of those thought too weak and neurasthenic to be potential leaders of bourgeois society.

Strindberg first attended the Klara state school in central Stockholm, which was, as he later wrote, “a preparation not for life but for hell.” Even when he was a grown man, Prideaux tells us, his worst nightmare was that he was back at Klara, suffering again the humiliations, the floggings, and the bullying. “He felt continually guilty,” Prideaux writes, “and later thought of Klara as a place of punishment for Original Sin, a penal institution for crimes committed before he had been born.”

However, following Carl Oscar’s bankruptcy in 1853 the family had moved to the suburb of Norrtullsgatan, to a house surrounded by orchards and tobacco fields. Here August began to develop an appreciation of nature that was to be for him a driving force throughout his life. Later he wrote:

To walk in the garden when the freshly turned earth lay black under the apple trees’ pink and white canopy, and when the tulips blazed their oriental colours seemed more solemn than sitting an exam at school and more glorious, even, than church on Christmas morning.

And at Klara, too, there was one delightful and wholly unexpected compensation. The nine-year-old daughter of the local school rector attended during French lessons, and although she sat demurely at the back of the class she was the center of attention:

August fell in love and was aware of a kind of collective breath of tenderness exhaled by the boys and men in her presence, a soft breeze that dispersed the habitual atmosphere of horrid, institutionalised vindictiveness.

For Strindberg this first encounter with the ewig Weibliche—eternal feminine—was formative. He saw how the presence of even one female served to meliorate male barbarity and, importantly, to bring “Madonna-worship…within its proper limits.” Strindberg all his life fought against the “false ideas of woman as a separate and mysterious species” and argued, albeit erratically, for genuine equality between the sexes.

Young August was an assiduous student, with a good memory and a remarkable gift for languages—he quickly mastered Greek, Latin, and French—and read widely in the classics and theology; he also studied a German guide on midwifery, which must have provided many fascinating insights for an eleven-year-old boy. He was good at natural subjects. He set up a herbarium and collected insects and minerals, and, Prideaux tells us, “forced himself to learn the names of all the plants in the Stockholm area.” At first he could not grasp mathematics, but a book on surveying changed all that. Prideaux writes:

Geometry’s magical key to unlocking invisible laws, at first instinctively feared, turned out to be the very key to unlocking Strindberg’s life-governing idea, the idea of an underlying esoteric order, a discoverable formula that ruled over the abstract and the infinite, waiting to be uncovered by the persevering scholar.

Following the death of Strindberg’s mother from tuberculosis, his father quickly remarried, and, as Prideaux has it, “August went into a Hamlet-like sulk.” The stepmother, Emilia Charlotte Petersson, was another religious zealot, and took an instant dislike to the boy. It was time to escape. In 1867 August entered Uppsala University. By now his father’s fortunes had vastly improved—he was running a fleet of forty-one ships—but his only gesture to his departing son was the gift of a handful of cigars. August paid for his first term at college with money he had earned as a tutor and a loan from the family’s cook. By Christmas his funds had run out, and he had to take a job as a temporary teacher—at Klara, of all places. However, a friend recommended him to a family of freethinkers, the Sandahls, who hired him as tutor to the two daughters of the house. It was a life-changing experience. Later, Strindberg described the house as “one of the finest in Stockholm” and, writing of himself again in the third person, observed that “here he could give expression to his own thoughts.”

This idyll was followed by another, when he was approached by a guest at the Sandahls’ home, Dr. Axel Lamm, who suggested that the young man should study to be a doctor. August was enthusiastic, but what was he to do for funds? Lamm invited him to come and serve as companion to his two sons in exchange for free board. “The Lamms,” Prideaux writes, “were a Jewish family who ran an open, liberal and cosmopolitan house where many languages were spoken and a merry-go-round of visitors passed through with gossip, fashion and politics from all corners of Europe.” It must have seemed to Strindberg that the fates had decided to make up to him for his frightful childhood. “He could never have become such a convincing writer,” Prideaux astutely observes, “had not this short period given him a thorough understanding of the other side of the coin: the real nature of disinterested benevolence.”

So far this might be the story of any writer’s beginnings. Strindberg, however, was not any writer. While living at the Lamms’ he attended the theater two or three times a week, and quickly hit on the idea of becoming an actor. He managed to land a tiny part in a production at Stockholm’s Royal Theater, but the experience was so humiliating that he fled for home and took an opium pill, then went out with a friend and got “stupendously drunk,” as Prideaux writes. Next morning, crapulous and remorseful, he lay in his room on a sofa, where, so he later wrote,

  1. 1

    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. 

  2. 2

    Prideaux is “Anglo-Norwegian,” a jacket note informs us, which perhaps accounts for her at times shaky grasp of English. She is a mistress of the dangling participle, and many comical instances of her manglings might be adduced, though none surely would surpass this one, when she is speaking of a Paris hotel: “Dark, labyrinthine and creaky, Strindberg thought its atmosphere mystic….” Strindberg is one of Wilde’s lords of language, yet Prideaux’s rackety prose, with its headlong dash and frequent disregard for the niceties of grammar and syntax, is peculiarly suited to her subject. Her book is a stylistic mess but at the same time gloriously readable. 

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