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 his marriages for the express purpose of examining his reactions in extreme psychological states—this in preparation for his exploration of the war between the sexes. Sprinchorn’s Strindberg seems like a character out of Pirandello—one who suffers and watches himself suffer, a self-conscious actor in a self-created drama, sacrificing himself and others in order to arrange the materials of his art.

I suspect that Sprinchorn is a little gulled by his subject’s paranoid cunning, but one does not have to follow him this far to agree that Strindberg organized his work with considerably more forethought than has previously been acknowledged. Sprinchorn carefully extracts the philosophical and metaphysical references in Strindberg’s plays, showing his indebtedness to nineteenth-century thinkers, particularly Swedenborg and Kierkegaard, his affinities with Jung, and his familiarity with scientific method. If the breadth of his art has hitherto been minimized, it is because Strindberg preferred to emphasize his unconscious inspiration: “Everything comes so easily, half consciously, with just a little bit of planning,” he said, adding that he was a “medium” through whom a mystery became manifest. It is more likely that, like his hero in The Father, who cited The Odyssey, the Bible, and Russian history to justify his doubts about paternity, Strindberg sought intellectual reinforcement for his paranoiac fears, in an effort to master them through generalized references to literary sources.

Harry G. Carlson also testifies to Strindberg’s vast reading and intellectual powers. His study concentrates entirely on Strindberg’s mythopoesis in the conviction that virtually all of his work is indebted to Biblical, Norse, Hindu, Buddhist, or Greek fables—particularly the myth of the Great Mother to which Strindberg was drawn for obvious psychological reasons. (His vacillating feelings toward maternal women also explain his fascination with the Hercules myth, and especially the story of Omphale, who unsexed Hercules by making him work at the distaff.) Strindberg and the Poetry of Myth is chiefly a scholarly source book, but together with Sprinchorn’s research it provides a valuable corrective to the popular image of a mad Romantic genius throwing lighted lamps at women or running through Paris pursued by three witches preparing to electrocute him. Despite their differing emphases and approaches, both scholars manage to find thick layers of thought even in Strindberg’s most illogical plays, placing him in the tradition of Goethe and Dante (not to mention Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce) in the way he uses mythic imagery to establish a system of correspondences.


I am convinced they are right, but the odd thing is how this highly self-conscious Platonist continued throughout his life to call himself a Naturalist. Strindberg’s “Naturalism,” of course, is highly unconventional, as Zola immediately perceived after Strindberg sent him The Father. But although he was incapable of writing kitchen dramas about oppressed classes in the grip of their heredity and environment, Strindberg never lost his passion for unconditioned, unreflective nature. What possessed him in such plays as The Father, Miss Julie, Comrades, and Creditors, rather, was what he called “the great Naturalism which seeks out the points where the great battles are fought,… which delights in the struggle between natural forces”—a Naturalism, in short, of wills and minds in conflict. By insisting on the importance of these elements, he further confirmed the incorporeal nature of his art, for Strindberg’s view of nature had as much to do with the invisible as with the visible, as much to say about the spirit as about the flesh. “So let there be Naturalism,” he wrote, “let there be rebirth of the harmony between matter and spirit.”

Strindberg’s divided attitudes toward matter, which he usually equated with the flesh, made it impossible for him to contemplate life without transcendence, but he was at the same time too honest to take refuge from material reality in a realm of absolute spirit. Strindberg built his castles not in the air but out of earth and muck—the flowering castle in A Dream Play is planted in a manure heap. Sprinchorn sees Freudian overtones in this blossoming edifice “with its ability to grow and raise itself, with its crown that resembles a flower bud, with the forest of hollyhocks that surround it,” calling it “the optical equivalent of Strindberg’s perception that the sex and excremental systems are joined.” This perception obsessed Strindberg throughout his life, as it did Swift, Shaw, Brecht, Yeats, and all the other excremental visionaries. One wonders how he made love to his three wives when he could confess puzzlement over “what the higher love for the beautiful soul of a woman has to do with the not very nice reproductive system.”

But if Strindberg was repelled by the thought of love’s mansion being pitched in the place of excrement, he was also disgusted by virtually every physical function, including sweating, spitting, even the sound of people eating soup—these things he identified with what he called “the dirt of life.” Just as those who have visited his house can testify to his pathological neatness, so many of his plays (particularly The Ghost Sonata) bespeak his revulsion over the most trifling household inconvenience—a wobbly table, a smoky fireplace, even ink-stained fingers. Few theatrical people in history have equalled his passion for domestic order, with the notable exception of Joan Crawford (who might have made a compatible mate).

It was perhaps inevitable that Strindberg would begin to seek solace in Eastern religions with their promise of release from the corruptible material world in Nirvana and other transcendent states. The purifying fire at the end of A Dream Play represents not just death, but a checkroom for all earthly baggage; there the daughter of Indra deposits her shoes after having experienced the shame of being human. Strindberg’s shame over being human made him a natural candidate for religious solutions. Significantly, in at least two of his plays—Crimes and Crimes and To Damascus—Strindberg’s suffering characters find themselves at the door of the Church; more significantly, neither of them enters. For no matter how much he hates the flesh, Strindberg’s castle remains embedded in the earth. This paradox supplies the basic tension of his work, even in a naturalistic play like Miss Julie where the characters’ parallel dreams concern climbing and falling and where an amorous boy can reach his childhood love only by squirming through a latrine.

He never ceased in his efforts to transmute the physical into the spiritual, however, and one method was by experimenting with music in the theater. Sprinchorn writes, “The young Strindberg would have been familiar with Schopenhauer’s praise of music as the highest form of artistic expression, highest because it represents pure energy unadulterated by the phenomena of matter.” This idea forms the basis for what is perhaps Sprinchorn’s most original chapter—“Making Music”—where Strindberg’s musical tastes are compared with those of his contemporaries, especially Ibsen, who is described as utterly indifferent to lyrical charms (not to mention flowers and children—Sprinchorn makes him sound like W.C. Fields), and who, in violation of stage custom, insisted that Ghosts be performed without overture or intermission music. This gave Strindberg further reason to fear and despise the Norwegian, and to try to surpass him. Following Nietzsche and Wagner, Strindberg—who was not a trained musician but was able to work closely with composers—made a conscious effort to recreate tragedy, in the manner of the Greeks, from the spirit of music.


Along with Nietzsche, however, Strindberg soon grew to despise Wagner, especially when he discovered that his music was not simply a reinforcement of the text, as he had once thought, but an ideological statement designed to exalt the German nation and celebrate paganism. Offended by the increasing complexity of Wagner’s orchestration, Strindberg began to investigate more simplified musical modes that would dispense with formal harmony (Sprinchorn suggests he was anticipating Schoenberg here—in addition to being one of the first Action painters, Strindberg may have been an early atonalist.) To Strindberg, Wagnerian opera was a contradiction. The text of the Ring cycle ridiculed ambition and conquest, while the score was “military music for the drill field.”

In place of Wagner, Strindberg exalted Beethoven, with whose spirit and achievements he felt a strong affinity. At one point, Strindberg wrote:

I wanted to hear music, music of the greatest kind, music by that greatest of souls who suffered all his life—I wanted Beethoven, especially Beethoven, and I began to rouse to life in my inner ear the last movement of the “Moonlight Sonata,” which has become for me the most sublime expression of mankind’s yearning for liberation, of a sublimity beyond the reach of words.

This “sublimity beyond the reach of words” appealed to Strindberg because he had now become convinced that language was also a part of the dirt of life—“to put things into words is to degrade,” he wrote, “to turn poetry into prose.” Since true poetry could only be achieved through an alliance with music, he began to construct his plays on the pattern of symphonies (A Dream Play) and fugues (To Damascus), while working rhythms and melodies into the web of the action.

Perhaps the most musical of Strindberg’s works, however, as well as the one most heavily indebted to Beethoven, is The Ghost Sonata, whose very title comes from one of Beethoven’s chamber pieces, and whose three scenes repeat the patterns of musical movements—allegro, largo, and andante—in classical sonata form. In constructing this play, Strindberg creates an unprecedented theatrical synesthesia of visual and aural elements, transforming backgrounds into foregrounds, expositing, developing, and recapitulating themes from one episode to another, and gradually eliminating characters until only one is left at the end. The Ghost Sonata is the best in a series of “opuses” designed to revolutionize the theater with a new sense of intimacy, simplicity, and affinity with other art forms, to which Strindberg gave a generic name also borrowed from music—“Chamber Plays.”

In view of the painstaking, original way in which Strindberg is now discovered to have created his drama, it is not surprising that large claims which would have seemed excessive just a few years ago are now being made for him. Professor Sprinchorn argues passionately on behalf of a complete reconsideration of Strindberg, asking that he be regarded not just as an influential literary predecessor but as one of the greatest innovators of modern times. Sprinchorn sees significance in the fact that Strindberg wrote The Ghost Sonata in the same year (1907) that Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, that Schoenberg wrote his Second String Quartet, and that Einstein conceived the happy thought which inspired his theory of relativity, for he believes that Strindberg’s liberation of drama “from its long enslavement to character and motivation” is of equal weight with those achievements. Citing Einstein’s observation that the “body and soul are not two different things, but only two different ways of perceiving the same thing,” Sprinchorn proclaims Strindberg the first writer of the Einstein age in the sense that he was the first to see “the disintegration of the atom and the dissolution of the ego as parallel events auguring a new concept of the cosmos.”

Strindberg would have enjoyed being included in such distinguished company, especially since he took his own scientific work so seriously (he valued his chemical experiments above his plays and professed to find more satisfaction in the publication of one of his scientific treatises than in the Berlin production of Crimes and Crimes). But even though Strindberg’s experiments in alchemy and occultism were pretty harebrained, it is still possible to argue that science has finally caught up with his conviction regarding the forces behind life, not to mention his concept of continual change: “Everything is in flux, everything changes,” he wrote toward the end of his life (after having changed his apartment in Stockholm alone at least twenty-two times). “How then can anyone set much store on an order that is not really established now and was only temporarily so, fifty years ago?” With the failure of materialistic science, as implicitly conceded in Heisenberg’s indeterminacy theory, the kind of literature based on positivism and causality now seems quaint and archaic, while Strindberg’s eccentric fantasies look like a relatively realistic way of describing the world.

“I don’t hold any opinions,” Strindberg wrote.

My views are impromptus. Life would be pretty monotonous if one thought and said the same things all the time. We’ve got to keep it new and fresh. One’s whole life, after all, is only a poem, and it is much more pleasant to float over the swamp than to stick one’s feet in it to feel for solid ground where there isn’t any.

Elsewhere he said:

Do you know what makes life bearable to me? It is that every now and then I convince myself that life is only half real, a bad dream inflicted on us as a punishment, and that at the moment of death we awaken to the true reality, becoming aware that the other was only a dream…. That is redemption, salvation.

It is a perception he shares with Calderón in Life Is a Dream and with Shakespeare in The Tempest, not to mention a large number of Eastern and Western philosophers; but he held it with the passionate conviction of one who longs to escape his body, for whom death is the only true awakening. Suffering from inoperable cancer of the stomach, he wrote his daughter, “Don’t grieve for the old man for he only wants to go,” and, dying, told his nurse, “Don’t bother about me. I no longer exist.”

When Yeats later came to Sweden to receive his Nobel prize, he learned that, at least in the eyes of the literary establishment, Strindberg still did not exist. Although he was considered the Shakespeare of Sweden by a few, Strindberg had never been forgiven by the Swedish Academy for “his quarrels with his friends and his book about his first wife.” Literary feuds die hard, this one harder than most, and Strindberg’s reputation abroad had never been enough to compensate for his dismissal at home. With the publication of these two books, however, Strindberg is at last beginning to exist—not for his influence on others but by virtue of his own achievements, not as a biographical curiosity but in recognition of his own unique gifts.

This Issue

January 20, 1983