Play­wright mined his trou­bled life

Strind­berg: A Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Joanna Gen­tilli Joanna Gen­tilli

By Sue Prideaux Yale Univer­sity Press, 372pp, $49.95 (HB) Dis­trib­uted in Aus­tralia by In­books

AU­GUST Strind­berg is best known as the au­thor of the play Miss Julie (1888) and for burn­ing his hands in the kitchen sink try­ing to make gold. He wrote 61 plays, three books of po­etry, 14 au­to­bi­ogra­phies and 19 nov­els. A sci­en­tist, pho­tog­ra­pher and pain­ter of note, he quar­ried his own tur­bu­lent life for lit­er­ary raw ma­te­rial. In a new bi­og­ra­phy ti­tled Strind­berg: A Life, Sue Prideaux plunges straight into the may­hem.

In 1888 the strug­gling play­wright, his es­tranged wife and three young chil­dren moved from the Leopold ho­tel in Copen­hagen to a nearby mock palace called Skovlyst. They shared this filthy ruin with the ec­cen­tric Count­ess Franke­nau and her half-brother, hand­some Lud­vig Hansen.

These two be­came mod­els for the cen­tral char­ac­ters in Miss Julie, a tale of se­duc­tion and midsummer mad­ness. Prideaux links the play’s bloody end­ing to that of a fem­i­nist writer who had slashed her own throat at the Leopold ear­lier that year. De­spite the aura of mes­merism, hal­lu­ci­na­tion, hyp­no­tism and un­seen forces, the play was hailed as a man­i­festo of the re­al­ist move­ment.

Strind­berg had cherry picked those as­pects of early psy­chol­ogy best suited to in­tense dra­matic ac­tion. He ad­mit­ted no con­tra­dic­tion; in his play the new sci­ence met the ro­man­tic imag­i­na­tion.

Prideaux de­picts late 19th-cen­tury Stockholm as a dark frozen city, dom­i­nated by re­li­gion and class. Swedish his­tory is taken at a fast clip and her chatty ac­ces­si­ble style pulls up just short of dis­mis­sive. It al­lows the bi­og­ra­pher to keep a rea­son­able dis­tance from the man whose life was a mael­strom.

As Prideaux points out, the au­to­bi­ogra­phies ‘‘ ei­ther stick close to the ac­tion or veer into the wildest imag­ined sce­nar­ios’’. Strind­berg de­picts him­self as a ‘‘ roar­ing boy with a sex drive as strong as his spir­i­tual drive’’. For him, au­to­bi­og­ra­phy was a kind of ex­or­cism. Not much of Strind­berg’s mar­vel­lous lan­guage is quoted, but Prideaux does an ex­cel­lent job of weav­ing his neu­roses into the fab­ric of his work.

She tells of a re­lent­lessly puni­tive up­bring­ing. Strind­berg was an un­happy, beaten boy who was ter­ri­fied of dogs and of the dark, even as an adult. Child­hood fears im­bue his plays with a pow­er­ful imag­i­na­tive force. In Miss Julie, his mother’s bru­tal Protes­tantism is ex­pressed through the cook. It brings about the shock­ing cli­max.

An early li­ai­son with a ser­vant girl re­sulted in an il­le­git­i­mate child and gave Strind­berg a life­long hor­ror of un­cer­tain pa­ter­nity. In The Fa­ther (1887) the pro­tag­o­nist is so tor­tured by his clever wife that he ends up in a strait­jacket and she gets the money. In 1876 Siri von Essen left her baron hus­band and young child to join Strind­berg. Three chil­dren later and aware of her sac­ri­fices, he pub­lished Get­ting Mar­ried (1884), cham­pi­oning women’s rights. He was pas­sion­ate and wil­ful. The fam­ily en­dured a peri­patetic ex­is­tence as Strind­berg ‘‘ con­ducted a damned soul’s flight through the moun­tain peaks in his Fly­ing Dutch­man cloak with his senses wide open and brain afire’’. His di­vorce from Siri re­sulted in A Mad­man’s De­fence (1888), writ­ten from within a chasm of para­noia.

Alchemy and ab­sinthe brought him

to break­down. Prideaux de­scribes him ‘‘ stand­ing all day over his cru­cibles in a room as hot as hell and stink­ing of pitch and sul­phur, dressed only in a night­shirt and slip­pers with a belt around his waist and a straw hat on his head’’. In­ferno (1897) doc­u­ments his de­spair. No one was spared. The Dance of Death (1900) is a mer­ci­less por­trait of his sis­ter’s com­bat­ive mar­riage.

As with his friend, pain­ter Ed­vard Munch, Strind­berg’s work pre­fig­ured that of Freud and ex­is­ten­tial­ism. His tech­niques, based on emo­tional mem­ory were later used by Kon­stantin Stanislavsky in method act­ing.

Prideaux is par­tic­u­larly good at vi­gnettes. These cap­ture the en­thu­si­asm, naivety and com­pas­sion that make Strind­berg so at­tract- ive. He had a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with the oc­cult. It be­gan when he worked for the Royal Li­brar­ian, a noted ma­gus who kept an open cof­fin in the base­ment to house his corpse for 30 days. The play­wright first saw his vo­ca­tion while ly­ing on the sofa in a slather of al­co­holic re­morse, cut­ting and past­ing mem­o­ries. Once he at­tempted sui­cide by swim­ming naked in icy seas, then sum­moned Siri to his ‘‘ deathbed’’ and de­clared his love. He al­ways had a soft heart. Poverty stricken and with holes in his trousers, he bought a daily hand­ful of cher­ries for a cap­tive park bear.

Two fur­ther marriages failed and artis­tic suc­cess came late to Strind­berg. A po­lit­i­cal and so­cial rad­i­cal, he was driven by spir­i­tual in­ten­sity and be­lieved that the world was gov­erned by a se­cret un­der­ly­ing for­mula. His ele­men­tal can­vases are re­pro­duced along with his pho­to­graphs. Af­ter 50, he wrote fever­ishly for his In­ti­mate The­atre in Stockholm.

Prideaux glosses over his weak­nesses, an en­thu­si­asm for Ger­man mil­i­tarism and the slave the­ory of Ni­et­zsche, and she writes poignantly of his end. Ten thou­sand peo­ple fol­lowed the hearse of the man whose life was a hymn to the pro­tean qual­ity of the imag­i­na­tion.

Au­gust Strind­berg

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