The Beauty of a Debacle


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
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…

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