Playwright mined his troubled life
Strindberg: A Life
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.