Margareta Sörenson[1]


The centennial of the Swedish author Strindberg’s death is as loaded with different perspectives and contradictions as the life of the author was itself. The commemoration got off to a poor start as the Swedish (right wing-liberal coalition) government did not want to invest in one of the most famous Swedish writers and spend resources on the Strindberg year. Compared with the commemoration of the Norwegian author Ibsen’s death in 2006, it is minimal. While Ibsen is treated as a national treasure, Strindberg remains controversial. Both Ibsen and Strindberg were revolting against dominating ideas and opinions of their time, but by the end of his life Ibsen was treated with respect and still dominates the contemporary Norwegian theatre stage.

August Strindberg, no less dominant in the life of the Swedish theatre than his Norwegian peer, expressed self-contradictory as well as controversial opinions throughout his life. His statements against women and women’s rights remain provocative to this day.

On the other hand, Strindberg, a man of paradoxes, married three times to well educated women. These women had professional careers of their own to look after, and his daughters all pursued careers of their own. There is no reason to hide the fact that Strindberg was a very complex person with viewpoints we would not share today. So why do we love Strindberg’s works and why do we consider his legacy such a contemporary one?

The position taken by the minister of culture of Sweden—that there would be no fabulous celebration—created a storm of protests and, finally, the result was rather the opposite: let’s celebrate anyway! So, the Strindberg year is proving that the work of August Strindberg is alive and relevant to our time, possible to study still more profoundly and to recreate and reinvent again and again. Almost every theatre in the country has contributed with new versions of the classics or by creating new theatre plays based on the life and works of Strindberg. Not to mention photo exhibitions, new editions of his books, seminars, conferences and other events. And some international manifestations have been nationally funded, as it would look too strange for the mother country not to give exposure to an artist as internationally known as Strindberg.

To understand the Swedes’ divided but nevertheless creative attitude towards the author’s work, a more complete understanding of Strindberg’s work has to be developed. Strindberg, modernist and multi-capable, seems to challenge the intellect and trigger the mind. Outside of Sweden, Strindberg is known foremost as a playwright, and a handful of his plays are in the international repertoire. The psychologically strong and thrilling Miss Julie, from a period when Strindberg was much inspired by his reading of Nietzsche in the late 1880s, and the modernist A Dream Playfrom 1901—“my dearest drama and the child of my greatest pain”—are the most familiar of his plays. A Dream Play, with its open structure and rich possibilities of interpretation, has challenged stage directors of the 20th century from Max Reinhardt (1921) to Robert Lepage (1994), Robert Wilson (1998) and Mats Ek (2007). However, August Strindberg’s actual body of work is extremely large and varied, including novels, poetry, sharp political writing, scientific studies and also other art forms, such as paintings (oil on canvas) and experimental photography. Among Swedish readers one of the novels, The Inhabitants of Hemsö, is beloved for the humanity of its humour and its clear-eyed view of the clash between fashionable city people on summer vacation and rural fishermen. It is, furthermore, a picture of the summer life that Swedes love and at the same time a study on how a modern, urban lifestyle competes with an earlier way of living. The expressionist paintings of seas and skies did not interest the art lovers in Strindberg’s own time, but today they are highly respected—also internationally—for their early and independent modernist style.

August Strindberg's own photo of himself and his two elder daughters Karin and Greta.
August Strindberg’s own photo of himself and his two elder daughters
Karin and Greta.

Curious Strindberg

August Strindberg, born in 1849, was in his twenties a young assistant at The Royal Library of Sweden, at the time situated in the Royal Palace in Stockholm. Student life in the old university town of Uppsala had disappointed him, feeling the academic world too narrow and Uppsala “a nest of owls.” The Royal Library offered new possibilities to enlarge his knowledge, and anthropology—a new science attracting intellectuals in the Western world—proved to be one of his major interests.

Last year, in the Royal Library in Stockholm, when I was reading the French history book on puppetry by Charles Magnin, L’Histoire des marionettes en Europe depuis l’antiquité jusqu’à nos jours (1852), there was a paper neatly folded in the book where we could read: “Please see the notes by August Strindberg on the last pages of the book.” And there they were, indicating the pages where you could read about shadow plays and how the inspiration came from the Far East. Anyone who reads the introduction to Strindberg’s A Dream Play, will find the description of shadows in a shadow play very close to Strindberg’s words describing dreams as shadow plays in which the imagination “spins and weaves new patterns… The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge.”

Everything is possible in August Strindberg’s A Dream Play, since it allows artists—of the performing arts—to interpret it freely in terms of both form and understanding. Strindberg, the modernist, intertwines theatre for a new era with classical Asian philosophy and new ideas about the importance of dreams and childhood in the adult individual’s life, ideas taken from the new science of psychology.

Actress Harriet Bosse in the role of Indra's daughter in A Dream Play 1906. Bosse was Strindberg's third wife and mother to his fifth child, Anne-Marie.
Actress Harriet Bosse in the role of Indra’s daughter in A Dream Play 1906. Bosse was Strindberg’s third wife and mother to his fifth child, Anne-Marie.

Real life and fiction melt together in A Dream Play and it is clear that images related to the author’s life are at the very core of his work. At the same time, a most conscientious theatre maker is to be observed creating a drama for the modernist stage. For one planned, but never realised, production for his own theatre—the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm 1907—Strindberg sketched a staged version with projections for the growing palace; and he also wanted sequences of dance to be included in the performance. In a letter to the two young actresses, Fanny Falkner and Anna Flygare, he encouraged them to design the choreography themselves, but recommended that the dance be “in grand style (Duncan).” Isadora Duncan had toured Sweden in 1906 with great success, and her partner Gordon Craig tried very hard to meet Strindberg, but he refused and shut himself in at home. His English was good enough in writing, but he probably feared a conversation. It is possible that he had seen Isadora Duncan dance elsewhere, but it has not yet been proven.

Modernism and its artists fascinated Strindberg and he was deeply influenced by new ideas for the theatre that had taken the stage in Europe. In the 1890s Strindberg lived for three years in Paris. It was an unhappy period of depression and agony, constant lack of money and dreams of riches, but he also had the chance to visit avant-garde stages such as the Chat Noir, where the multi-coloured shadow performances offered a creative frame for lyrics, images and music. He had a dream of a Chat Noir of his own, where he himself would play the guitar, create wall paintings and stage his play Keys for Heaven, as Gösta M. writes in Bergman in Den moderna teaterns genombrott.

The theatre in Paris where the plays of Strindberg and Ibsen were staged—Théâtre de l’Oeuvre—was the same place where the play King Ubu, by Alfred Jarry, was performed before an audience interested in the trends and new waves of the time. Jarry’s play was initially created for marionettes, but was performed at Théâtre de l’Oeuvre by “marionette-like” human actors. The theories of Gordon Craig on the marionette as being the perfect actor—the super-marionette—were typical for the time. Puppetry, including shadow theatre, was part of the theatre world of the modernists, normally brought up with puppet and toy theatres in their homes. Like Strindberg, they were often interested in folk art and folk traditions. The rather strange play, The Mardi-gras of Punch, written in 1901 by August Strindberg, was a fiasco and played only few times. It follows Jarry’s structure and live actors play the roles of puppets, being taken out of their box after having been stored during the winter. It is spring, and the time has come to perform in the public park, and the puppets revolt against their theatre director: they want to be paid, and, as usual, the theatre director is very weak in terms of his finances.

August Strindberg and puppetry, as entertainment and as a fine art, form a chapter of their own in Swedish theatre history. As a young man, Strindberg wrote together with an older colleague, Claës Lundin, the book Gamla Stockholm (1882) (Old Stockholm), a book which describes the city, its inhabitants and their traditions “of the old times,” i.e. the time before the middle of the 19th century, when the population grew rapidly along with the factories, the shipping, the steam engine, trains and ships. The part of the book on street entertainment, parades, jugglers and puppetry was written by Strindberg himself and what it describes is most likely much richer in quantity than puppetry was in real life. Nevertheless, the Kasper theatre of Stockholm (“Punch”) was most popular and had a large adult audience who loved the burlesque entertainment and the political satire, an era in modern times which has been almost forgotten, since puppetry has been embraced by children’s culture and ended up being kindly and didactic.

Puppetry in Europe was indeed a feast for adult audiences, offering political satire and burlesque, as well as absurdist revolt. Being rude and clumsy, it took the position of poor people and workers, and that is why Kasper used to hit with a stick his superiors, such as the Officer, the Creditor or various other authorities—as well as his wife. At the same time, the tradition of Christmas creches and Christian puppetry maintained their grip, which would explain the central role of the Devil within the Kasper (Punch) tradition. Indeed, the first generation of modernists gathered around the bold simplicity in theatricality, its radicalism and its ancient profile. At Chat Noir, in Paris, or at Quatre Gats, in Barcelona, puppetry was displayed in a mix that might look strange to us, since it came with Christmas stories and experimental forms put together in rich and multiform variety shows.

August Strindberg's own sketch for a planned production of A Dream Play.
August Strindberg’s own sketch for a planned production of A Dream Play.

Strindberg’s fascination with the Kasper theatre, both as a specific theatrical form and for its political potential is evident. During his first marriage to the actress Siri von Essen, husband and wife and a circle of friends shared a “Kasper club,” where short plays and puppets were homemade, and where Strindberg added “punchlines” to the texts written by other club members.

Scholar and researcher Bo Bennich-Björkman published an essay on Strindberg and the Kasper theatre (“Strindberg och Kasperteatern: Några fakta och en probleminventering”, in Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap, no. 2-3, 1984), referring to the theatre established in Sweden by a German itinerant artist, musician and acrobat J. C. Heuserman, and including information about his touring, his family tree and, interestingly enough, his techniques. Heuserman started to work with string puppets, marionettes, but gradually left them for glove puppets. During his first years in Sweden—in the 1860s—the theatre was sometimes called a Polichinell Theatre, which indicates marionettes. Bennich-Björkman has equally researched the Kasper Club and how the circle of friends entertained themselves with a Kasper booth, six puppets and ten theatre masks, which indicates that other kinds of theatre were also performed. A member of the circle, Robert Geete, described later, in 1919, how the work was done and the task of writing satire rotated among the friends:

Me too, I had to fulfill my task and I did my best. After Strindberg looked it over, and added punchlines here and there, the play was performed with the voicing of Mr. Svante Hedin. Mr Strindberg was a strict secretary of the club, and his opinion was that anyone who wanted to amuse themselves in the club, also had to contribute.

Bennich-Björkman asks himself what other plays the club might have done, since only few written proofs remain. A poster from Easter of 1881 has been saved, announcing the German play by Hans Sachs: Eulenspiegel and his Adventure with the Vicar’s Maid and Horse, which according to Bennich-Björkman does not fit with the information that the club members wrote the plays themselves. He further suggests that the club was inspired by George Sand and her puppet theatre in the Nohant castle, where theatre of puppets and actors were mixed together. It is also possible that the voices of the different roles were distributed among the club members, while only one person handled the puppets.

Furthermore, Bennich-Björkman speculates as to whether the notes about the performances of the professional Kasper theatre in Stockholm were indeed taken by Strindberg himself, or—as he assumes—by a friend of his, Jakob Kulle, who assisted with documentation for the book on Stockholm in olden times.

Kulle, who was a collector of folk textiles from southern Sweden and also interested in anthropology, may have been instructed to take proper notes; it is clear from the writing style concerning both the Kasper role and Heuserman’s own stage profile that their German background is much emphasized.

On this point, Bennich-Björkman writes: “When Strindberg saved these examples from Heuserman’s theatre we must appreciate him for implanting a German classic theatre program into Swedish theatre” even if Heuserman used simplified texts and not the “real” old Goethe to retell the story of Faust. Or, as Strindberg himself writes about Heuserman’s plays: “They are poor, it is true, but their echo comes from a literature once free and independent and rich in recreating power, a power that everything truly original should possess.”

Cover of the book Strindberg: Peintre et photograpgh. Éditions de la réunion des musées nationaux, 2001.
Cover of the book Strindberg: Peintre et photograpgh. Éditions de la réunion des musées nationaux, 2001.

Themes and impressions from older German plays can be observed in Master Olof, the play that was Strindberg’s breakthrough in 1879. Charles Magnin’s puppet history book was loaned from the Royal Library in November 1876, when the work with the manuscript for the book on old Stockholm had started. Bennich-Björkman insists that, when documenting Heuserman, Strindberg already stressed Kasper’s character as a free, independent man of revolt, in a way attracting the radical and anti-authoritarian Strindberg that he was at that time.

The little Kasper Theatre in the public park of Djurgården was run by Hamburg-born Johan Christoffer Heuserman from the 1860s until his death in 1880, when his successor and son-in-law Kegel took over, followed by Barthel, both of them German. Heuserman toured in Sweden and Finland; Kegel toured in western Sweden and to Kristiania, today’s Oslo. Most likely a magic show and performance by Henrik Wilhem Christian Kegel was the puppetry that made such an impression on Selma Lagerlöf experienced as a little girl in the 1870s.

Theatre with objects, costumes, puppets and shadow plays were all the rage with the first generation of modernists. From the artists’ cabaret at Chat Noir to Gordon Craig’s theories of the super-marionette, the traces lead to the Petrushka of the Russian Ballet and the mechanical ballet by Oscar Schlemmer in the Bauhaus circle. Dancers dressed in sculpture-like costumes transformed the human body into moving puppets. At the same time, puppetry as simple entertainment has lived on both in the theatre and in the TV culture.

In our time, we seem to have forgotten that puppetry had a wide spread from positions of artistic prestige to “low” entertainment. And to several generations of children, puppet theatre was their first and perhaps their only encounter with theatre at all.

Strindberg’s interest in curiosity about Kasper as popular mass culture and the shadows of the “arty” modernism, with its projections and crossover gesamtkunstwerk, are part of his work as a playwright and theatre director. Late in life, he had a theatre of his own and felt inspired to let different art forms meet on stage. “Cinematograph as much as you want,” were his words as he urged his team at the Intimate Theatre. When preparing To Damascus in 1900, he wrote: “[M]aybe the backdrop could be created by a scioptikon-image drawn on glass and projected on a white canvas.” Both modernist and contemporary: maybe this is why you so easily feel that Strindberg belongs to our time.

Bibliographic references

BENNICH-BJÖRKMAN, B. (1984). “Strindberg och Kasperteatern: Några fakta och en probleminventering,” in Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap, no. 2-3. (”Strindberg and the Kasper Theatre: some facts and problematizing,” Revue for literature Science, No. 2-3, 1984) (in Swedish only).

BERGMAN, Göst (1966). Den moderna teaterns genombrott, 1966 (The Breakthrough of Modern Theatre).


[1] Margareta Sörenson is vice-president of the IATC and supervisor of its Seminars for New Critics. She is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, specializing in visual and crossover performing arts, as in the specific case of contemporary puppetry. During the centennial commemoration of August Strindberg (1849-1912), she wrote a play for young audiences on Strindberg and his youngest daughter, showing how the divorce almost broke their relationship, but it was saved in the end. Sörenson is the author of several books on performing arts and children’s culture, having recently published a book on Mats Ek, with photos by Lesley Leslie-Spinks.

Copyright © 2012 Margareta Sörenson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Shadow of August Strindberg