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March 1985

Strindberg’s ghosts

by Vernon Young

A review of August Strindberg by Olof Lagercrantz.

Olof Lagercrantz   August Strindberg.
Translated by Anselm Hollo.[1]
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 400 pages, $25.50

The unhappiest moment of his life was the hour of his birth.” So reads the first sentence of a biography of August Strindberg published in the Forties, with its then familiar inference that Strindberg’s existence had begun in deprivation and was resumed under lifelong persecution. In recent years, however, an increasingly revised opinion has refuted any conclusion arrived at by accepting Strindberg at his own estimate. Olof Lagercrantz’s biography of the man (it is not primarily a critique of the work) is the most enlightening which has appeared; to begin with, the author acknowledges that “any biographer of Strindberg must in a sense protect himself from his subject: for every phase of his life, Strindberg decided how he wanted to be understood and deliberately created a persona for himself.”

One of his most deliberate creations was indeed “the hour of his birth.” In 1896, at the age of forty-seven, he wrote from Paris to a Theosophist friend in Stockholm that he had been born under the sign of the Ram, which represented Sacrifice; his reward for his life’s work: “to be butchered. Every success a consequence of suffering, every trace of happiness tainted by dirt; every encouragement a mockery, every good deed punished by crucifixion.” When he wrote these words Strindberg, while not at the moment popular in Sweden, was the highly acclaimed author of The Father, Miss Julie, and Master Olof and his Parisian self-exile was being sustained with funds provided by a wealthy patron of the arts in Goteborg. Lagercrantz, supported by more detail than previous histories have included, reveals the 1896 lament as nonsense and questions the autobiographical complaints Strindberg had earlier published in Sweden.

Usually regarded as a self-evident source of his boyhood and youth, The Serving-Maid’s Son (1885), a piece of self-aggrandizement in which Strindberg endowed his mother with a low social origin in order to boast how far he had risen above it, is not to be relied on for anything but incidental observations of Stockholm (hierarchical and unsanitary) in the 1860s and 1870s. In Lagercrantz’s opinion, the personal history is “either useless or downright misleading.” Strindberg’s mother had been for a short period a servant, beneath her station, but when Strindberg was growing up she and her husband were of the medium-income bourgeoisie. However thwarted Strindberg may have felt in his efforts to achieve intellectual independence, he was raised in comfort and was well fed—something to be kept in mind if we try to read his last “chamber” play, The Pelican, as an autobiographical slice of life. His mother was subservient in the household, that’s for certain, but this was customary in an era of suffocating male chauvinism. She died when Strindberg was thirteen and his father promptly married the governess, who could scarcely have been described as a servant either. No details of Strindberg’s precise relationship with his stepmother are forthcoming in Lagercrantz’s recital; the inference is that he was more charmed than not by her; she was attractive and only by seven years his senior. That this is the most important clue to Strindberg’s radical and lifelong conflict with women will, I trust, be clear in what follows.

Unlike Dostoevsky, Strindberg did not resent the crowded home atmosphere in which, with six brothers and sisters, he lived. After attending two schools where he bitterly missed the amenities of his family circle, he was sent to the Stockholm Lyceum, a private institution where instruction was more liberal. None of his brothers or sisters was given this privilege. Lagercrantz insists that Strindberg’s dream of a happy existence on earth was, au fond, father, mother, and children around a well-appointed table. To that idyll he remained faithful all his days and it may well be that, since he proved personally incapable of establishing it in his own vicinity, he chose, with his native perversity, to depict life as an eternal repetition of internecine relationships: imprisonment within the family, within marriage, within society and, finally, on earth.

His perennial embrace of his less well-furnished fellow prisoners was equally contradictory. While it is undeniable that he felt sympathy for the underprivileged at the moment he expressed it, his extended treatment of the subject was confused when it wasn’t expedient. By selective quotation Strindberg can be made to appear a friend to man (an unsmiling one) but his collaborative protests were frequently rubbish. Around 1872 he published a number of pamphlets in which he contended that all the ills of society arose from division of labor, whereby a man was incarcerated in his occupation, often imposed on him, forever. Given the static condition of nineteenth-century European social conditions there is a half-truth in this assertion, but Strindberg’s pursuit of the subject brought him no nearer to the whole. He was detoured by arguments reaching him from the Continent in that standard form of seductive Rousseauism, the corruption of the natural man, which has served nearly every anti-intellectual romantic to this day. During 1885, when he was badly displaced professionally, so he thought, and certainly in dire financial straits, he visited Italy (Rome and Venice), saying afterward, “Expected little, found even less.” Lagercrantz, without quoting him directly, assures us that “The relics of antiquity and the Renaissance which he saw filled him with revulsion, as they represented a dominant culture built on slave labour.” One wonders if Strindberg was the first among eminent visitors to publish such an imbecile judgment, which surfaced again in our Sixties. He must have known better and he must have known that the division of labor, broadly speaking, was a necessary condition by which social mankind had channeled its energies, but at the hour it did not suit his hampered convenience to recognize it. Railways, he raved, were unnecessary luxuries; so were telephones and, of all things, the compass! (He didn’t want to know where he stood!) While purporting to believe that the writer was the only citizen able to see clearly the shortcomings of organized society, he dismissed almost in the same breath the virtues of literacy. His reason: a tenant farmer he knew, although illiterate, was a valuable member of society.

It is not surprising that he began to reverse his deprecations of an elite in 1886 when the publisher Bonnier canceled a debt of eight thousand kronor (accumulated advances) and when, as a result of sundry letters he had written advertising his impecunity, a collection by friends in Stockholm presented him with 3680 francs. After travelling extensively throughout France, allegedly collecting material for a study of the peasantry, he settled in Germany, near Lake Constance. At this point, he became as authoritarian in his views as he had before been populist. He was being obedient, no doubt, to the claims of that terrifying play, The Father, which he was just then conceiving. He seems to have been unable, in his contemporary drama, to imagine a protagonist (male or female) unrelated to himself. To create the Captain convincingly he found it imperative to be the Captain, and assume the frame of mind to which a sternly disciplined cavalry officer would have been conditioned. The adverse critic of a class-power society in Sweden was now transformed into an admirer of Bismarck, rejoicing, incidentally, to find that in Germany women were not permitted to study in universities, a source of pleasure no doubt inspired by his ten years of increasingly disputatious marriage to Siri von Essen. The Father was the first, and if the most powerful, the most depressing, of those masterpieces of domestic malice that include Miss Julie and The Dance of Death.

The Captain, a figure of physical health and moral blamelessness, is not only a military man but also an amateur scientist (which brings him into line with one of Strindberg’s most whimsical pretensions). His wife, Laura, strong-willed and insidious, wants their daughter to become a painter, against his preferred choice for her of a teaching career. From Strindberg’s odd point of view at that moment, Laura aimed at turning the girl into an upper-class parasite, or worse, a Bohemian, in opposition to his laudable desire for her to marry and dutifully instruct her children in what she herself has learned. A mortal combat ensues, with Laura undermining the Captain’s mental health by leading him to suspect that he is not his daughter’s authentic father. Driven to a frenzy of desperation by his wife’s taunts and his own doubts, he throws a burning kerosene lamp at her. In the final scene he is a certified madman, coaxed rather than forced into a straitjacket by his physician and by the wet nurse of his childhood. He has exchanged one uniform for another.

Since Strindberg’s despotic alliance with Siri von Essen, inverted in the action of this play, provided him with so many other creative lies, it is appropriate to focus on his first acquaintance with her and her husband, Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel. Incredibly, when he met the couple in 1875, they were living in the same apartment in which, for three years, Strindberg had lived, with his stepmother and the family. Although Freud’s oedipal theory had not yet been made public, the substance of its formulation was conspicuously available in Hamlet, which Strindberg, always prepared to magnify and dramatize a coincidence, may well have enlisted. At any rate, Lagercrantz believes he was alert to the analogy: he had entered his parental home “in order to kill his father, represented by Wrangel, and to marry his mother or, alternatively, stepmother.” This is no idle speculation. Wrangel, scion of a distinguished military lineage, held a commission in Sweden’s most prestigious regiment, whose commander was the King himself. During the subsequent dissolution of Wrangel’s marriage with Siri, easily assented to because he was pursuing an affair with her cousin, Strindberg felt humiliated by the indulgence extended to him by this lordly member of the military establishment. Ten years later, in The Father, whatever of the Captain was not Strindberg was no doubt a recollection of the Baron, whom he could now destroy symbolically.

Strindberg claimed to have discovered, in a blinding flash, at a performance of The Father, that he had always contrived the life situations he needed in order to “rectify” his literary material! That the discovery did not in the least deter him from repeatedly thereafter involving others in his compulsion of the hour reveals him as something of a monster. And his persecution of Siri von Essen for thirteen years was probably the most monstrous of these episodes, as it was the most fruitful; from it he derived characterizations for his so-called novel, A Fool’s Apology (known also as A Madman’s Defense), for numerous short stories, and for at least two plays, notably The Father and Miss Julie. As grotesque as it may sound, one has to face the probability that he consciously married a mother-figure so that the incest taboo would forever prohibit him from enjoying her. In any case, all the evidence suggests that the principal obsession for which Strindberg is famous, his grinding misogyny, preceded his alliance with Siri, which he then used in a crescendo of vilification to nourish a monomania on which he was already feeding.

At the outset he professed to agree with Ibsen’s plea for the liberalization of women, especially for those who, like Siri, were potentially creative (she had a first-rate singing voice and nursed a frustrated ambition to become an actress). When Strindberg realized that he had a Nora under his roof who had every intention of emulating Ibsen’s heroine, he changed his tune radically. Thereafter, with mounting vehemence, in his literature as in his correspondence, he pursued an unsparing arraignment of womankind at large and of Siri von Essen face to face. Very thinly disguised, Siri was delivered to the public gaze—in A Fool’s Apology and in the sequence of stories that make up Marrying—as “a painter of no talent, an alcoholic who neglected her children [the daughters of Baron Wrangel and of Strindberg], as crude, heartless, cynical, and lacking in the least trace of affection for the writer who was slaving away to keep the family—her husband.”

By the time he had completed Marrying, publication of which landed him in court (not for slandering women but for incidentally blaspheming against the Christian religion), Strindberg had reached a level of denunciation unattained by any writer since Swift.

I want to exhort the lawmakers to carefully consider the consequences of granting civic rights to semi-apes, inferior creatures, sick children, sick and insane thirteen times a year at the time of menstruation, completely out of their minds during pregnancy, and irresponsible during the rest of their life, unconscious criminals, criminal, instinctively malicious animals who do not even know that that is what they are.

Not all of this nauseating invective actually reached Siri herself. The passage just quoted is from a version of Marrying which, according to Lagercrantz, was but recently recovered among the papers of Edvard Munch in Oslo. But enough reached her at a time when she was coping with uterine problems as a result of her latest childbirth. From then on she justifiably watched Strindberg closely for signs of complete dementia. To that, of course, he retaliated by accusing her of forcing him into an insane asylum. “And there indeed,” remarks Lagercrantz triumphantly, “is the subject matter of The Father.”

With the help of a “psychoanalytic profile” which he does not identify—he names only the author, Theodore Lidz—Lagercrantz calls our attention to the concealed pattern of self-recrimination that lurks in this harrowing and repellent play. The Captain confesses that in his violent quarrels with Laura he suffers most when instead of shouting back at him she mollifies him, like a mother. In the last scene, as the Captain, seemingly insane or perhaps feigning madness,[2] is enticed into the straitjacket by snatches of fairy-tale lore and baby talk, the wet nurse is disarming him with the same tactics as those used by Laura. When his captivity is complete, Laura tells him that the fateful events have proceeded along lines that he himself has laid down and that before God and her conscience she feels innocent. A curious speech in this context, we must agree; if it refers to Strindberg’s own marriage, it is a grudging admission that Siri was not guilty of the charges he had leveled, since she had proceeded along lines that Strindberg himself had set down.

Wheels within wheels. The insight with which Strindberg could see through his own degrading strategies, subtilizing them as theatrical elements but failing to abandon them in actuality, is incredible. That a writer purges himself of his torments by expressing them on the page (or on the stage) is a belief not ratified by Strindberg’s example. The Father was staged in 1887, followed by the shock of recognition I have alluded to above, yet for the remaining years of his marriage to Siri he hounded her with accusations of sexual infidelity which he tried in vain to prove by writing sly letters to friends, soliciting clues in the pretense of defending Siri from gossip. At the hour of their divorce, in order to gain custody of his children (heaven knows why; he had no serious intention of becoming a model father), he tried recklessly to link her in a lesbian relationship with a woman named Marie David, whom he had already pilloried in A Fool’s Apology as a vampire, an alcoholic, and a pervert. Marie David countersued and Strindberg was eventually forced to concede defeat.

Theodore Lidz found the provenance of Strindberg’s mania in latent homosexuality. Perhaps I have read Lagercrantz’s explanations unclearly but I am not satisfied by the demonstration. For me, the incest taboo in Strindberg is so powerful that it takes precedence over every other suggestion. That both suppressions can be harbored in the same personality is of course likely and Strindberg’s life-in-art and art-in-life is a tangled web. One thing is certain, whatever the ancestry: that Strindberg had an undying need to inflict and when he was provoked by an insult, real or fancied, to his sexual proclivities his reaction was volcanic and the fury of his language beyond his control to abate. While engaged to Frida Uhl (another liberated and personally ambitious woman whom he unwisely married) he had a brief affair with Dagny Juel, a notorious Norwegian beauty who had been Edvard Munch’s mistress. She rejected Strindberg in three weeks with the rumored explanation that he was too old—and too corpulent! In the ensuing months Strindberg, in a blind rage, described Dagny (whether in letters, tavern talk, or fiction Lagercrantz fails to make clear) as “a whore, a reptile, a rotten cadaver ... a vampire, whose embrace killed, and a witch, who had to be burned at the stake.”

His autumnal years, in Stockholm, after 1900, curbed his rancor toward woman in the flesh, without modifying his conviction that she was an inferior being. His third failed marriage, to the actress, Harriet Bosse, was far less turbulent than his previous misalliances and his regrets upon separation from her had touches of pathos. These may well have been histrionic; they did not inhibit his delight upon reading a philosophic study by Otto Weininger entitled Sex and Character. Lagercrantz is somewhat vague about the contents of this work but implies that it was a misogynist’s farewell; the author committed suicide. Strindberg sent a wreath to Weininger’s funeral and promptly wrote an article inspired by Weininger but uninspired by any radical departure from his own inveterate thesis.

According to the latest analysis, a woman’s love consists of 50 per cent rut and 50 per cent hatred .... Quite apart from differences of taste, inclination, opinion and so on, one finds that when a woman loves a man, she also hates him; hates him because she feels tied to him, and inferior to him. There is no continuous flow in her love, but a continual reversal of polarity, a perennial alternation of current….

Not as venomous, perhaps, as the early variants but for all that banal. Yet his most astonishing reversion in these years is The Pelican, last of his chamber plays, an altogether baffling item in the chronology. From the plays that preceded it, A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata, (didactic tone poems, they might be called), The Pelican departs radically in style and structure. A Dream Play has always appealed to enemies of the well-made drama, as well as to those who prefer chatter about the Riddle of Life to adversary situations carried out in the heat of the day; the play is a disintegration product, with musical undertones, imprecise and suggestive. As an index to the multiple ghosts stalking the corridors of Strindberg’s mind, it fascinates. I saw it a number of times in Sweden and was usually frustrated by my suspicion that because it was about everything it was substantially about nothing—except the winter of Strindberg’s discontent: a chronicle in fragments of his nostalgia, his animosities, his obsession with signs and portents, his unsettled will to resignation.

By contrast, The Pelican is categorical and realistic—on the surface, at least. The scenario, as lurid as any by a gifted playwright before Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, treads so closely on farce that few directors, even in Sweden, where they are susceptible to the over-serious, venture to stage it. The Mother, who dominates the action, is derived from the unnourishing Cook in The Ghost Sonata; she has driven her husband into the grave and is half-starving her son and daughter, gorging on the choice morsels herself. When her daughter is ill, she attends an operetta (for some reason a mortal frivolity in Strindberg’s credo); believing herself attractive, she makes lewd advances to her son-in-law. At the climax, the drunken son sets fire to the house, Mother leaps into the flames, brother and sister clasp each other in an incestuous embrace.

I can understand why Evert Sprinchorn, in his book Strindberg as Dramatist (1982), sees the play as “a domestic Gotterdamme-rung that announces the bankruptcy of the family as an institution and the end of bourgeois drama.” It didn’t, and it wasn’t, but it could have done and it might have been! I am not to be imposed upon, however, by his description of it as “magnificent dramaturgy” and I am struck all of a heap by his comparison of this and the other chamber plays with Beethoven’s last quartets. Sprinchorn’s tendency to replace skepticism with adulation is no help when we try to solve such problems as are raised by The Pelican. Symbolic and sociologically comprehensive the play may be if you can stand back far enough, but this leaves us with the odd explanation offered by Strindberg of its internal justifications.

As reported by Lagercrantz, Strindberg let it be known that the monstrous mother was a portrait of his sister, Anna von Philp. She and her husband Hugo had been mod els for his discordant couple in The Dance of Death, in which the blame for an unendurable marriage was attributed largely to the husband. Hugo von Philp had since died and evidently Strindberg wanted to alter his verdict. Anna stayed with Strindberg for a week in 1906 when he was preoccupied with furious complaints over the food served him by a succession of cooks. Anna joined that succession and he shortly ordered her from the house.

On the face of things, it scarcely seems possible that Strindberg could have contrived the House-of-Usher claptrap and the symbolic superstructure of The Pelican for the sake of fulminating against his sister. She could have been a mere point of departure. All the same, it is more likely that the mother was a composite accusation in Strindberg’s long-familiar vein of the un-nourishing female (unnourishing and bloodsucking; vampire was his favorite apposition for women he detested). At the eleventh hour he wanted to relieve his actual mother, or stepmother (it gets so complicated!) of that accusation. Which might account for his displacement of the prominent incest motif from son-mother to brother-sister ... Or I might be in another part of the forest! Lagercrantz disbelieves in all the hypothetical mothers. In accord with his common-sense conviction that any ambiguous target in the Strindberg oeuvre is likely to be the playwright himself, he sees The Pelican as “the most repulsive of all Strindberg’s self-portraits. It is he who battens on the lives of others; who, while advanced in years, pursues love and forgets his children. It is he who constantly demands the very best in the house and uses all life within the family for his writing.” When, in the play, the son reminds his mother: “Father said that if you were tortured on the rack, you would not admit a single error or lie,” Strindberg is patently confessing a shortcoming which Karin Smirnoff (his daughter) has confirmed was among his most egregious.

Refreshingly absent from Lagercrantz’s biography is the excessive anxiety with which American professors, defending the genius of their choice, have inflated Strindberg’s talent and minimized his chill factors. Lagercrantz takes for granted that within the world of theater at the turn of the century Strindberg was indisputably a potent force, without insisting, as Evert Sprinchorn has done, that we should reinstate Strindberg among the great tragedians. This begs a question settled long ago. You cannot invest analytic realism, however oblique, with the timelessness of tragedy. Where there is no magnitude of aspiration there can be no authentically tragic denouement; and aspiration would be an irrelevant source of passion and defeat where, as in Strindberg’s drama, the express purpose is not to exalt but to expose. Exposure may be calamitous; it may be merely negative; it is an irreversible commitment of our era.

Strindberg, despite the reactionary nature of his manic irresolutions, was a modern man, much to his own astonishment. His best plays are distinguished by their internal consistency and their psychological persuasiveness. They are critical, and criticism—let us not avoid the charge—drives out tragedy. Their integrity is mirthless, yet for all that they are not inflexible. They are playable: the balance of their allegiances has been subtly weighed. The extent to which you sympathize with one or another antagonist depends very much on the acuity with which the director of the production you see has grasped the leeway that has been allowed him.

Even so, most of Strindberg’s plays are hard to take. As Auden said, our grief is not Greek. It is not Swedish either! The morbid intensity of Strindberg’s pious outlook is thoroughly Swedish and the social situation from which it was educed, resembling those of the Victorian period elsewhere, has nonetheless a cast of mind you can only appreciate by trying to live in Sweden today. If the order of relationships has been altered by time and social democracy, the climate of relationships has changed very little. You have not experienced Strindberg until, in Stockholm, you have emerged from a performance of, let us say, The Father or The Ghost Sonata or one of those never-ending pilgrimage pieces (e.g., The Great Highway) on a cold, dark winter’s night when the streets are as devoid of promise as the play was devoid of charm: no cafe open, no one to talk to if there were, and the prospect of a midnight ride home to your deathly silent sleeping-suburb on the immaculate subway.

There is never a last word on any artist. There is always what seems to be the last word if we agree with whoever pronounced it. For many who read the Lagercrantz biography, the generosity with which he has amplified their knowledge of Strindberg the man will imperil their acceptance of Strindberg the dramatist. Like D. H. Lawrence, who crucially resembled him—the splitting of the self, the identification with Christ, the unfailing spite and the breathtaking defamations—Strindberg commands attention. He resists affection. Among those writers who severally shaped what we call modernism for the first decade of our century (Freud, Hardy, James, Conrad, Ibsen, Chekhov), Strindberg surely was the most inflamed, the most intolerant and intolerable, the least ingratiating, the one among them whom we would have wanted least to know.

  1. I want to commend Anselm Hollo's translation of Lagercrantz's book. Swedish looks easy to translate and thereby presents a problem. The syntax is far less intricate than ours and the vocabulary is deficient in synonyms. To convey a style demands constant resourcefulness.Go back to the text.
  2. As played by Lars Hanson in his superb performance of 1953, which I saw revived in the early Sixties, the Captain was clearly, one may say contentedly, mad!Go back to the text.

Vernon Young


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 March 1985, on page 71

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