By Sue Prideaux. 371 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-13693-7

Reviewed by Patricia Keeney[1] (Canada)


This new biography of Swedish playwright August Strindberg by Sue Prideaux—an Anglo-Norwegian writer whose many previous books include an award-winning biography of Edvard Munch—greatly modifies the overriding impression of Strindberg as a humourless misogynist. Best known for his corrosive explorations of sexual and domestic politics in such unrelenting plays as Miss Julie and The Father, the Strindberg who emerges in multi-dimensional glory here—a creative mind in full flight—is a man who enthusiastically and courageously embodies a life of turbulence in every contradictory way possible.

The first chapter entices the reader into “Miss Julie’s Kitchen,” a tantalizingly behind-the-scenes look at the circumstances that inspired the famous play. Married ten years to actress Siri von Essen—described as disappointed in her career and a melancholy mother—Strindberg and his family, strapped at this time for cash, were forced to move out of the Hotel Leopold, a popular residence for artists and intellectuals in Copenhagen. It was while there that their seven-year old daughter actually witnessed a suicide attempt by the feminist writer Victoria Benedictsson who had been attacked in print by the noted critic Georg Brandes’ as a writer of nothing more than women’s fiction. Intrigued with his daughter’s account of what she saw, Strindberg’s dramatic imagination seized on the event that gave him the ultimate scene in his famous play.

What follows, in Prideaux’s telling, is truly stranger than fiction. Searching for a suitable place to live, Strindberg is offered a ‘palace’ at a ridiculously cheap price by one Countess Frankenau, owner of the property. Both the Countess and her manservant become the main players of Miss Julie. The biography follows sexual liaisons, swindles of various kinds and duels with pistols during which the impressionable Strindberg struggles between awed fascination and a strong desire to flee. But ultimately it is precisely these mad doings that give him the essential ingredients of the powerful concoction that becomes his most well-known play.

Prideaux vivifies the vast canvas against which Strindberg’s life was played out. It is surprising and revealing to read in the chapter called “The Son of a Servant”—the title of one of his many autobiographies (this is the one that chronicles the class division that most clearly pitted his parents against one another)—about the child Strindberg who witnesses the public punishment of criminals, endures medieval medical measures against a cholera epidemic, his father’s bullying and brutalities at school. Nature is his sole solace.

Drawing copiously but judiciously on letters, paintings, photos and journals, Prideaux illuminates Strindberg’s life with skill and verve: his boyhood infatuation with a rector’s daughter inspiring him to that first lofty idealization of women as a sacred and separate species; his numerous investigations into how things work (from batteries to electric generators) that eventually leads to experiments with alchemy and the psychotic Inferno period of his life.

Prideaux’s treatment of Strindberg’s women is particularly sensitive. His love for the already married and mothered Siri feels fully realized in Prideaux’s descriptions. Lustily in love, they also made a fine creative team, actively participating in each others’ work, although Strindberg’s “alabaster Madonna” image of his wife is continuously sullied by Siri’s drinking, smoking and swearing and ultimately by her attraction to another woman. They spend summers on their beloved island of Kymmendo, where Strindberg finds “the real Sweden” into which he delves deeply to finish his history, The Swedish People. He also indulges in the kind of psychological game-playing with friends and acquaintances that contributes to a lifetime of mental notes on human behaviour—conscious and subconscious—culminating in the complexities and intricate construction of such later plays as The Ghost Sonata.

His fertile mind never at rest, Strindberg was forever saying the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons. His affectionate social satire, The Red Room (1879) had turned him into a hero of the proletariat while his next satire, The New Kingdom produced such outrage that he fled Sweden with Siri and the children, establishing his voice on the continent but also contributing to Siri’s increasing professional frustration. At the birth of a third child in 1884 and “with his head full of fatherhood,” Strindberg writes Getting Married, a book of short stories dealing with the much publicized “Woman Question.” The Scandinavian double standards of marriage—including a wife who must remain fecund but never admit to enjoying sex while her husband pleasured himself freely—offended Strindberg, who championed sexual equality and a woman’s financial independence.

Getting Married, in Prideaux’s words, was “so scandalously progressive that it won him many new enemies,” espousing as it did that a woman shall keep her own name upon marriage, a separate bed so that she may possess her own body, and should have the right to pay for amusements herself even if she is out with her husband. Strindberg and his publisher actually faced blasphemy charges though ultimately winning a victory for free speech and restoring Strindberg’s status as public hero.

Profoundly disappointed that the very feminist groups he thought he was championing had helped to persecute the book, Strindberg’s next project, Getting Married II (1887) depicts the most banal aspects of his own failing marriage, one where neither he nor Siri are any longer able to share sexual or intellectual partnership, are no longer able even to laugh together, They have become in reality a parody of the marriages he has written about.

Inspired by the fiery restlessness of her subject, Prideaux often writes in the way Strindberg’s mind and life seemed to evolve—from one triumph or disaster to another. She describes his family during this period as “hectically flying from one picture-postcard Alpine pension to another while he conducted a damned soul’s flight through the mountain peaks…with his senses wide open and brain afire, creating a new literature of psychology and introspection.”

It was his writing of The Father (1887) “which tracks a man’s growing paranoia concerning the paternity of his daughter” but more profoundly details “how a tiny idea can grow to take over a life.” The play is so psychologically astute, says Prideaux, it could be “staged inside a skull,” Strindberg has rediscovered his dramatic power, however, at exactly the same time a book is published denouncing him as a major corruptor of Swedish youth.

Despite moving to a farm in Bavaria where he produces his most popular work, The People of Hemso with Breughel-like effervescence, his marriage continues to deteriorate driving the couple eventually to “Gothic grotesqueries.” Yet he finally begins to understand how certain of his own works have vilified Siri, and, aware that she is close to having him certified, he insists (in a letter to his Danish translator) that “the confusion between reality and imagination during the process of creation” is most sane, the playwright being a “hypnotist-writer” forced to inhabit the dreams he has invented. Coincidentally, he discovers the work of Edgar Allen Poe who also makes a strong case for the “conjunction of insanity and creativity.” Although pre-dating the ideas of Munch and Freud, Strindberg’s next attempt at autobiography, A Madman’s Defense, illustrates the “same interior panic” as Munch’s 1884 painting, Anxiety and anticipates many of the ideas of Freud as well as many of the tenets of existentialism.

After his marriage to Siri is dissolved in 1892, Strindberg moves to Berlin where he catalyzes a group of young intellectuals who gather to explore ‘the riddle of the universe.’ They maintain that Darwinian science can never explain it all. They discuss (and variously practice) the psychology of sex and the relationship between the artistic mind and the criminal mind, their mandate being to unlock the doors of perception by embracing the irrational using whatever means they might, including drink and drugs.

As Strindberg’s international reputation grows, he meets another woman, Frida Uhl whose ‘tumbling talk’ reminds him of his early days with Siri. They fall apart and come together in the dank Danube mansion of Frida’s parents while he delves deeply into the sulfurous fumes of alchemy. Strindberg barely dissuades her from aborting their child, whom she summarily leaves with her family in order to pursue her own journalistic career. Strindberg, ashamed that he is chronically unable to support either of his two wives or his four offspring, only meets his new daughter after two and a half years comparing the moment to Doctor Faust’s “return to earthly life.” Frida later gives birth to another child, a son by Frank Wedekind. That son is given the last name, Strindberg.

By 1896, Strindberg emerges in Paris where he continues to transform his tempestuous life into literature. Here he begins The Inferno, another volume of autobiography in which he sets out to explore “the shallowness of sanity by giving priority to the deeply irrational within the mind and psyche.” He surrenders himself to superstition, to the signs and omens found in everyday life. Munch, “famous but impecunious” and a constant visitor, figures largely here having rigorously excavated the subconscious in paintings such as The Scream, Jealousy and Vampire. Prideaux suggests that Strindberg may have envied Munch the single focus intensity of his artistic output compared to his own ‘cloudy uncertainties’ as a creator. Prideaux also argues that The Inferno was a book before its time. It was initially rejected by publishers in France because, although it cleared the way for such modernist authors as Joyce, Woolf and Proust, its language was “almost childishly plain” and did not use the “beauty of words” to pull readers into Strindberg’s own stream of consciousness.

He now enters an innovative period of dramatic creation, the most important result of which was his play To Damascus. Completed in 1901, it is a work that combines “the entirely modern idea of the multi-faceted personality” with the medieval form of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Founded as usual on his own life and featuring versions of Siri and Frida, it had an enormous influence, Prideaux declares, on Beckett, Kafka, Ingmar Bergman and Hitchcock, despite the fact that, at the time, it was written off as deeply confused.

Eventually back in Stockholm “with no home of his own and only other people’s furniture to sit on” but with the consolation of being able to finally send his children Christmas money, his sprawling historical Vasa trilogy is published and Gustav Vasa is accepted for production at the Swedish Theatre. It is there he becomes aware of the “oriental-looking twenty-year-old actress, Harriet Bosse,” already besotted with his work. In Prideaux’s appropriately dramatic rendition, “she entered his life in the manner of a Symbolist heroine.” His own note, in the Occult Diary, of her visit describes her as “a tiny exquisite Javanese temple dancer.”

The Bosse period of his life, says Prideaux, fosters a further creative outpouring with expressionistic works such as The Dream Play where Harriet, an actress instinctively drawn to the quieter psychological delivery of roles that the older histrionics could not match, plays Indra’s daughter. But after only a month of honeymoon bliss, Harriet moves out, the union undermined by the great difference in their ages. Nevertheless, for some years after their divorce, they continue to love and to fight.

Frustrated that so many of his new dramas remain unproduced, Strindberg now begins to long for his own theatre, an intimate theatre for experimental drama. That theatre is finally born in 1907 in a warehouse near a railway station, a politically sensitive spot “where budding Swedish socialists had followed the Russian example of building a ‘Peoples House,’ a community centre and meeting place for workers. Symbolically suitable, ‘Intiman,’ as it became familiarly known, was the playwright’s to put into practice the imperatives set out in his famous preface to Miss Julie in which he emphasizes psychological exactitude—with actors carefully listening to each other—over declamatory acting and set scenes. Prideaux highlights the psychological verity of such chamber pieces written for Intiman, as Ghost Sonata and Storm in which “the layout on stage resembles the mind.”

The title of Prideaux’s final chapter, “The Blue Tower” refers to his last home in Stockholm, in an area full of memories from his early life. Especially fascinated by the lift which became his new “multi-purpose” symbol for levels of consciousness, he created in this tower his own space full of flowers and mirrors and candles. George Bernard Shaw, Gordon Craig and Isadora Duncan all pay calls during this time, providing Prideaux with deliciously revealing vignettes. This is also a very emotional period, when he is reunited with his children, financing and participating joyfully in his eldest daughter’s marriage.

Turning 60, he is publicly celebrated. He accepts what he calls “the Anti-Nobel” Prize for Literature that his supporters insist on, only after Maeterlinck – whose work he admires—is given the official Nobel. On his 63rd birthday, now gravely ill with stomach cancer, a crowd of 50,000 greet him below his balcony. During this period, productions of his plays take place nationally and internationally. When his daughter brings the news of Siri’s death, he is deeply saddened. A mere three weeks later, after great pain, he himself dies. Despite his desire for a simple burial, more than 10,000 people follow the horse-drawn hearse to the cemetery. With the royal family duly represented, full honours are given this great writer. The next day, however, vandals plunder his grave, “a suitable tribute,” says Prideaux, who treats these last days of the life of “Sweden’s roaring rebel” with a mixture of sensitivity and irony.

Ultimately, one must ask whether we really need another life of this 19th century genius. Many fine biographies already exist. The answer here is “yes.” Along with Ibsen, he is certainly one of the major figures of the modern theatre and, as such, deserves to be reassessed. Why not now, the centenary of his death? It’s as good a time as any for a serious biography and this is precisely that. Prideaux has written a perceptive and intelligent study of a genius, an artistic adventure story vigorously inspired by the tempestuous and irrepressibly productive life of her subject. This is a new contribution to knowledge, to Strindberg studies, a serious re-examination of a life fully engaged in the terra incognita of the human mind.

[1] Patricia Keeney is a poet, novelist and theatre critic. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University.

Copyright © 2012 Patricia Keeney
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Strindberg: A Life