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,

he felt an unusual degree of fever, during which his brain seemed to work at arranging memories of the past, cutting out some and adding others…. After one or two hours had passed, he had a comedy of two acts ready in his head…. But now he had to write it. In four days the piece was ready. He kept on going from the writing table to the sofa and back; and in the intervals of his work, he collapsed like a rag. When the work was finished, he drew a deep sigh of relief, as though years of pain were over, as though a tumour had been cut out.

Here, in this earliest instance of inspirational fever, the pattern was set that would hold throughout his career: the drug and the drunkenness, the hypnagogic state, the swift, dreamlike composition, the relief at the end, the sense of recovery as if from terrible illness. That first play, A Nameday Gift, has not survived, but he went on to write half a dozen more in quick succession. Strindberg the playwright had sprung fully armed from his own hungover head.

At the start he enjoyed a gradual though marked success, with many of his pieces being put on at the Royal Theater. These included The Outlaw (1871), a Viking drama based on the old sagas—to read them he had taught himself Icelandic—which led to a summons to the palace, where the king told the twenty-two-year-old author how much he had enjoyed the play, “adding that he himself when young had competed for an Academy prize with a poem on the Vikings and was fond of the Old Norse legends.” Prideaux does not tell us if Carl Oscar came to hear of the royal audience, but if he did, how the old snob must have chafed.

Despite these triumphs Strindberg found it impossible to live by his pen, and in 1874 he took a job as an assistant at the Stockholm Royal Library, a post in which, perhaps surprisingly, he found great contentment. He also acquired a mistress, Ida Charlotta Olssen, of whom little is known except that she had a child by him, after he had abandoned her. Ida had given him cause to doubt that he was the baby’s father, but although the affair left him with a heavy burden of guilt, the real legacy of it, according to Prideaux, “was his lifelong horror of the man’s uncertain position towards biological paternity,” a theme that surfaced repeatedly in his life and in his work, particularly in his play The Father (1887), the protagonist of which torments himself so much with doubts about the provenance of his daughter that he ends up in a straitjacket while his gloating wife seizes his house and money.

Strindberg was still fretting over the Ida debacle when he met his first wife, Siri von Essen. Siri was already married, to Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel, “that inert mass she calls her husband,” as Strindberg contemptuously remarked, but Strindberg was not going to let that stand in his way. Siri, the daughter of a Finnish minor aristocrat, was an actress, but not a very good one, by all accounts. “She was lively, flirtatious and willowy with a graceful neck,” Prideaux tells us, adding, with incongruous relish, “a feature much prized in those days when people were still beheaded in Sweden.” Strindberg himself was more conventional in his description, writing:

Of Byzantine slenderness, which allowed her dress to fall in simple, noble folds…her body was of bewitching proportions, her wrists and ankles exquisitely turned.

She was also self-willed and tough, and although their marriage began in raptures—they reveled in each other’s company, and greatly enjoyed sex, Strindberg being particularly passionate about Siri’s button boots—it was to end in bitterness and squalid recriminations.

Strindberg had a lofty view of marriage, which he felt should be the union of two equal partners. In the preface to his book of stories, Getting Married (1884), he set out a long list of “Woman’s Rights,” calling for complete equality between the sexes, “which will do away with that revolting form of hypocrisy called gallantry.” The book drew down upon his head the wrath of the bourgeois matriarchy, led by the Society for Married Women’s Property Rights, which suspected and feared his views on equality, and a moralistic group called the Federation, which was appalled by his outspokenness on sex.

At the time rumor had it that Sweden’s Queen Sophia, a Pietist like Strindberg’s mother, was behind the campaign to discredit him. That campaign was successful, insofar as he was prosecuted for blasphemy—in the book he had referred to Holy Communion as an “impudent deception”—although events backfired on his accusers when Strindberg, arriving for the trial, was cheered by a huge crowd of well-wishers. For his part he was not greatly impressed. “No, I’m just not cut out to be ‘a great man,’” he wrote. “Can never bring myself to believe in those cheers. They cheer me today; tomorrow they’ll boo.”

As his marriage to Siri began to founder, however, Strindberg’s attitude on the Woman Question, as it was called, became increasingly embittered.3 Prideaux is surprisingly indulgent in this matter, and is certainly not as censorious as Michael Meyer in his 1985 biography of the playwright, in which he quotes, for instance, a postscript to a letter Strindberg wrote to a friend in 1888:

Woman, being small and foolish and therefore evil…should be suppressed, like barbarians and thieves. She is useful only as ovary and womb, best of all as a cunt.4

By now Strindberg had discovered Nietzsche—“Everything is there!” he declared—and accordingly his views were turning feral, not only on the Woman Question but also on the Jews. Here again Prideaux emphasizes the positive:

The Jew’s glory, he said, was precisely his lack of fatherland. This was what enabled him to become the international arbiter, high-minded, above nationalism, a superior being above those who claimed a mere, limiting nationality. It was the Jew’s role to be “free from all national prejudices, unfettered by the deadening dogmas of Christianity, brother to all men…the most intelligent race in Europe.”5

The quote here is from “My Anti- Semitism,” an article Strindberg wrote for the radical newspaper Tiden. Meyer, however, is careful to cite a letter from about the same time: “People talk about ‘persecution of the Jews’! That is their strategy! ‘Persecuted’ the moment people stop kissing their arses!” Strindberg does add: “But hate them as reactionaries, not as Jews!”

Strindberg had three children with Siri. He was a wonderful father, loving, patient, playful, and tender. He never minded looking after the little ones when his wife was away—among the many splendid photographs in Prideaux’s book is a self-portrait of Strindberg the keen horticulturalist, with his daughters Karin and Greta, that is charming and Edenic. He was also caring in his relations with his siblings. His sister Elisabeth, who had mental problems, wrote to him to say she felt hopeless and that life was pointless. He replied, “It normally takes a long time before people discover their purpose in life though I believe everybody has one, great or small,” and ended by offering financial help if she needed it.

In 1888 the family was living in Taarbeck, a fishing village on the eastern coast of Denmark. One day an old woman who sold vegetables door to door “arrived like the wicked witch from a fairy tale,” Prideaux writes, “offering them ‘a palace’ to live in at the suspiciously cheap rent of 50 kroner a month.” This was the prelude to one of the most bizarre, grotesquely comical, and artistically inspiring passages in Strindberg’s life, and Prideaux wisely begins her book with a bravura account of it. The “palace” was Skovlyst, “Delight of the Forest,” a former royal hunting lodge in the woods outside Copenhagen, now owned by one Countess Frankenau, who shared it with the vegetable seller’s son, Ludvig Hansen, and his sixteen-year-old sister Martha Magdalena.

When the Strindbergs arrived they were received by the countess—“a round, sunburned cat’s face, fish-eyes and poor front teeth,” according to a later account by Strindberg’s daughter Karin—dressed in a weird outfit from the previous century. She treated them to a recital on the hurdy-gurdy, while the servant Hansen—in fact he was the countess’s half-brother—performed magic tricks, making chalices appear out of nowhere and levitating his sister. “Siri was having trouble stifling her laughter. But Strindberg suddenly stood up and demanded the carriage. Now there was uproar.”

All the same, they stayed, and it was not long before Strindberg and the rascally Hansen were drinking companions. The playwright also made the mistake of sleeping with Hansen’s sister, on Midsummer’s Eve, an indiscretion that nearly landed him in jail when Hansen, who had tried to blackmail him, brought the matter to court. Strindberg’s solution was to flee Denmark and return to Sweden. This was to be another recurring pattern throughout his life: foolishness, peccancy, panic, and flight. Martha Magdalena herself was sanguine, and told a journalist: “I went with [Strindberg] because I rather liked him and I thought it was a pity we did it only once.” The summer at Skovlyst, squalid and farcical though it was, gave Strindberg the material for his greatest play, Miss Julie (1888), which he wrote in the space of a few weeks during that July and August, taking the countess and Hansen as models for Miss Julie and her brutish serving man. Life, as always, fed almost unmediated into his work.

In the long preface he wrote to Miss Julie, which describes his revolutionary aesthetic, Strindberg claimed that in other countries writers had sought to create a new drama “by pouring new ideas into the old forms,” but had failed. His would be a genuinely new kind of realism:

Since they are modern characters, living in an age of transition more urgently hysterical at any rate than the age which preceded it, I have drawn my people as split and vacillating, a mixture of the old and the new…. My souls (or characters) are agglomerations of past and present cultures, scraps from books and newspapers, fragments of humanity, torn shreds of once-fine clothing that has become rags, in just the way that a human soul is patched together…. I have avoided…symmetrical, mathematically constructed dialogue…and have allowed their minds to work irregularly, as people’s do in real life….

Strindberg always wrote from life, his own life and the lives of those around him, or the life teeming within his own mind. This is not to say that his work is ploddingly autobiographical and naturalistic; as Wallace Stevens has it, “things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar,” and few instruments were bluer than Strindberg’s. In the fragrantly Oriental A Dream Play (1901), in which he had attempted, as he wrote, “to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream,” he anticipates both Freud and the Surrealists:

Whoever accompanies the author for these brief hours along the path of his sleepwalking will possibly discover a certain similarity between the apparent medley of the dream and the motley canvas of our disorderly life.

However, it was the author fully awake who took as material for The Dance of Death (1900) the collapsing twenty-five-year-old marriage of his mentally unstable sister Anna and her husband Hugo von Philp, presented as the thinly disguised characters Edgar and Alice who, in Prideaux’s evocative but grammatically disorganized formulation, “perform the scorpion dance of just such a marriage whose energy and delight comes [sic] from mutual torment.” Strindberg’s brother-in-law, when he had read the play, threw it into the fire, and afterward Strindberg and the von Philps were estranged for four years.

Von Philp and the playwright had already quarreled over Strindberg’s treatment of Siri, and when one reads of that treatment one is inclined to side with the former. In 1891, suspecting Siri of lesbianism, Strindberg had pushed the woman he thought was her lover down a staircase and was tried and found guilty of assault. The following year the Strindbergs’ marriage was dissolved. Strindberg was to love and marry again—and again disastrously—but it seems clear that Siri was the love of his life. When he was old and sick he was still thinking of her and sending her money—“an old debt,” as he said—and when she died, in 1912, three weeks before his own death, he shed bitter tears.

Sue Prideaux has written a lively, enlightening, at times thrilling life of an extraordinary artist. She is at her best in set pieces, as in the Skovlyst episode, and what Strindberg called his “Inferno” crisis—it gave him the title for one of his volumes of autobiography—of the mid-1890s when he was living in Paris and, deeply immersed in alchemical experiments, temporarily lost his reason, which is hardly surprising, given the list of chemicals, medicines, and stimulants he was absorbing at the time: “arsenic, chlorine, cyanide, mercury, nicotine, sulphur, vitriol, absinthe and the sleeping drug suphanol.”

Prideaux also writes very movingly of the playwright’s last years, when he was dying of stomach cancer but had at last achieved international fame and, more precious to him, the adulation of his own countrymen—ten thousand mourners lined the route of his funeral. She is persuasive in conveying Strindberg’s greatness and the novelty of his art and his aesthetic achievement. He was, as Richard Ellmann said of James Joyce, a “bizarre and wonderful creature,” impulsive, willful, endlessly inquiring, a great lover and a great hater, and, above all, an inexorable force in the world. As his friend Carl Ludwig Schleich wrote of him:

This inexorability was indeed the final consequence of his ideas, which were pursued to the bitter end, where others would have tempered the light of truth for our poor human eyes, making it at once more attractive and more beneficent.