Tomorrow they’ll boo

John Simon

  • Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux
    Yale, 371 pp, £25.00, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 13693 7

August Strindberg’s complete works in Swedish run to 55 volumes, not counting the ten thousand or so letters. He lived for 63 years, yet wrote sixty-odd plays, equalling Shaw, who lived thirty years longer. And not only plays: novels, memoirs, poetry, essays. He was also a superb painter. He led a complicated life with manifold pursuits to which Sue Prideaux’s Strindberg: A Life does condign justice. She is Anglo-Norwegian, grew up straddling the two countries, and completed her education in art history at Florence, Paris and London. One infers her familiarity with at least five languages, so she is attuned to the polyglot Strindberg, who taught himself German, French, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew, even writing books in French. Prideaux is also an accomplished novelist, and the prize-winning biographer of Strindberg’s friend Edvard Munch.

Any biographer of Strindberg has to assess his shuttling between sanity and what could be called madness. Prideaux writes of his paranoia, but – one neurosis not excluding another – he may also have suffered from manic depression. Periods of intense productivity rapidly succeeded others of total fallowness; amiability followed reclusiveness and misanthropy. ‘I never go anywhere. I hate human beings,’ he told Isadora Duncan. One might say that his was either the maddest form of sanity or the sanest form of madness. Arthur Miller called him ‘the mad inventor of modern theatre’, in a useful oversimplification. Carl Larsson’s portrait of Strindberg, on the book jacket, essentially in sepia but with rosy lips and penetratingly blue eyes (‘the most beautiful sapphire blue eyes I have ever seen,’ Shaw called them) can be construed as symbolic: the sepia for his humdrum life, the red for his many passions, the blue for his heaven-storming otherworldliness.

Prideaux’s virtues have their downside. There is no discussion of Strindberg’s habit of wilfully and hurtfully turning his life into a series of dramatic scenes, which were then vividly exploited on stage. This is superlatively brought out in Evert Sprinchorn’s Strindberg as Dramatist, which is conspicuously missing from Prideaux’s bibliography. Then again, she has her masterstrokes. One is her synoptic and suggestive preface. Another is beginning her story with an account of the circumstances that elicited Strindberg’s most famous, most performed work, Miss Julie. Strindberg and his family, including three young children, were staying in a dilapidated mansion not far from the Danish coast, chaotically run by a crazed countess and her feckless steward (her secret half-brother and lover), who became Strindberg’s Julie and her lover, the valet Jean. Prideaux says that the play is one of the two best-known things about Strindberg outside Sweden, the other being his ‘alarming misogyny’. From there, she fills in Strindberg’s miserable childhood: his father often caned him, usually for uncommitted misdeeds, and denials only made him more furious. To stop the beating, the boy had to confess to his non-existent sins. His mother gleefully watched the lashes, often administering some herself. ‘Pain was transitory,’ Prideaux writes, ‘not so injustice.’

Strindberg walked half an hour to school everyday, the beginning of a lifelong love of the world out of doors. Other early loves were geography, geometry and natural sciences, which also had later echoes. The nine-year-old’s unreciprocated love for the rector’s daughter made him grab a knife and contemplate suicide, foreshadowing his later turbulent relations with women. ‘So that was all it was!’ he remarked after his first experience of sex. This, too, prefigures a good deal to come. He tried schoolmastering and private tutoring, but his first profit and pleasure came when Dr Axel Lamm brought him into his liberal and cosmopolitan household as companion to his two sons. Lamm was Jewish, as were Strindberg’s publishers the Bonniers and his boosters, the influential critic Georg Brandes and his brother Edvard, a prominent journalist and editor. Nevertheless, Strindberg would later become rabidly anti-semitic.

He tried his hand at acting, but was given non-speaking parts at the Royal Theatre. When he finally did get a line to say, he flubbed it badly, putting paid to his acting career. This experience, and his justified displeasure with his early plays, may be the reason he found it unbearable to watch even his later plays being performed. On the rare occasions he did, it was with a sense of shame and embarrassment. At the age of 22, he wrote what would be the first success of his many history plays, Master Olof, which, good as it was, did not get anywhere with theatres and publishers until many years later. He even went to the trouble of rewriting it in verse. For a while he worked as a journalist, thanks to the support of Dr Lamm, but found the profession humiliating, and applied to become assistant librarian at the Royal Library. Here he discovered occult literature and, though the pay was poor, the job left much time for writing as well as useful reading. And then he met Siri von Essen, the daughter of Finnish and Swedish aristocrats, and married to the handsome but adulterous Baron Wrangel.

Strindberg eventually married Siri, a union that lasted 14 years, the first few very happy and amorous, the later ones progressively quarrel-riddled, though not without reconciliations. In the preface to his story collection Getting Married, Strindberg set down a feminist manifesto of 14 demands that managed to earn him the hostility of both feminist women and patriarchal men. Number 12 called for separate bedrooms, declaring that a ‘common bedchamber’ gave rise to ‘confusion, distaste, satiety and even worse’. Separate rooms would make a woman freer and give her control of her own body. This was, as Prideaux writes, in accord with the contemporary norm of puritanical Sweden, but it may also suggest some problems with Strindberg’s sexuality, which Prideaux does not go into. The book elicited a trial for blasphemy, as it had called Holy Communion ‘an impudent deception’ in one story. Strindberg won but didn’t make any friends doing so. For six years, August, Siri and their children kicked around Europe in self-imposed exile, with 21 changes of residence and not a little discomfort.

Although by now he had many fans and enough books and stage productions to make him famous, Strindberg still had difficulties with publishers and theatres, not to mention constant financial troubles. He remained shy, easily embarrassed and a poor public speaker. ‘I’m just not cut out to be a “great man”,’ he remarked, ‘can never bring myself to believe in those cheers. They cheer me today, tomorrow they’ll boo.’ Publishers and theatre managers were afraid to get involved with him for fear of censorship on moral or political grounds. One future bishop called John Personne, the author of Strindbergian Literature and Immorality among Schoolchildren, blamed Strindberg for masturbation among the young. The Bonniers’ business suffered from publishing him and the subsequent rejections fed Strindberg’s paranoia. ‘Nobody spoke up for him,’ Prideaux writes, ‘and he was more alone than ever.’

But there were jolly days in Berlin, at a café Strindberg nicknamed Zum Schwarzen Ferkel (The Black Piglet), where he was surrounded by comrades like the Polish philosopher Stanislaw Przybyszewski, the painter Carl Larsson, who became his effective illustrator until they quarrelled (which Strindberg did sooner or later with most of his friends), the poet Richard Dehmel, the magazine editor Julius Meier-Graefe and Knut Hamsun, but not Sibelius – he couldn’t stand the noise. Wherever he lived, Strindberg needed such ‘clubs’, as well as a garden where he could grow things. He was also beginning to have success as a painter; Prideaux includes colour plates of 15 of his astoundingly modern oils. Today his work fetches prices undreamed of by the often impoverished artist, who sometimes didn’t have enough money for stamps. It took time for his art to be recognised; one contemporary critic described it as dirty bedsheets hung out to dry.

By the time August and Siri divorced, she had become friendly and perhaps sexually involved with a couple of Danish lesbians, one of whom, Marie David, successfully sued Strindberg for assault. Not much later he married the 20-year-old Austrian journalist Frida Uhl. It was a marriage he’d drifted into, but at first it was happy enough, except for the wedding night, when he tried to strangle Frida, saying he thought she was Siri. Soon there were lengthy separations, longer than the times the couple spent together. But he and Frida had a daughter, and to support them he kept turning out every sort of writing at extraordinary speed, tossing finished pages on the floor without a thought to correction or revision. Unlike Siri, Frida was a good businesswoman. She saw to the German edition of his startling autobiography, A Madman’s Defence, written in French, and, like most of his memoirs, in fictionalised form. Frida also wanted to return to journalism, but he discouraged her, claiming that no one ever profited from dramatic criticism; he certainly didn’t.

Though he was now published fairly regularly, and performed reasonably often, there were always setbacks. So he was thrilled when the great French director André Antoine planned to produce The Father at the Théâtre Libre. But then Antoine dropped it in favour of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Not surprisingly there was rivalry between him and Ibsen, the two of them often bracketed together as Scandinavian playwrights, usually to Strindberg’s detriment. Strindberg had little use for Ibsen, calling him a ‘decrepit old troll’, and wrote Sir Bengt’s Wife as a supposed corrective to the much superior A Doll’s House. Ibsen, on the other hand, was respectful of Strindberg, calling him a ‘very great talent … I have read his work with great interest.’ But Ibsen also bought a portrait of Strindberg and hung it facing his writing desk, so that his ‘demonic eyes’ would stir him to higher achievements. Around this time Strindberg was becoming immersed in scientific and alchemical pursuits, claiming to have produced gold, as well as conducting experiments in photography. He called himself a Monist and undertook outlandish experiments in an attempt to prove that all matter was one. Frida and her family were Catholics; Siri and her children also converted to Rome. Though Strindberg felt that his Protestantism, which followed phases of atheism and Pietism, was inferior to Catholicism, he never converted, except perhaps as he was dying, when his daughter ‘placed the Bible and a crucifix on his breast as he had requested’.

Between 1898 and 1901 he wrote 20 plays, as well as Inferno, a brilliant autobiography of a period of extreme crisis, which ends: ‘Now admit that a man’s life may bear every appearance of a practical joke.’ Then he fell in love with the young actress Harriet Bosse, charming as Shakespeare’s Puck. He put his hands on her shoulders and asked: ‘Would you like to have a little child with me, Miss Bosse?’ ‘Yes, thank you,’ she said. The wedding night was a disaster, and Strindberg cancelled their honeymoon the morning they were supposed to leave. ‘The Powers’, in whose guidance he believed, were against it. Harriet went on alone, finding rooms near Elsinore, to which she invited Strindberg by post. He came and they spent a month together, but then, to his despair, she left ‘for ever’, as she put it in a farewell letter. Soon, though, they were writing passionately to each other again, and her marriage to another actor, Gunnar Wingård, drove him crazier than ever. When Anne-Marie, the daughter he had with Harriet, visited him wearing a bracelet she got from Wingård, he wrote: ‘Oh God! … Now the child is his!’ In total, he wrote 31 works for Bosse, including the four great chamber plays, first performed in the Intimate Theatre he founded with August Falcke in Stockholm, which for 11 years put on only his plays.

His last years brought him belated recognition in his own country. When the Nobel Committee stupidly kept bypassing him, Swedish fans gave him an anti-Nobel Prize of 45,000 kroner gathered by subscription. Feeling in need of a woman’s love, he proposed to the devoted young actress Fanny Falkner, who was still in her teens. She was bright enough to refuse. After he died in 1912 of stomach cancer, ten thousand mourners accompanied his hearse to the cemetery.