By Caitlin Scarr (2013)
August Strindberg’s life was a fascinating journey of successes, failures and insanity. His personal life was highly influential to his work and political and social ideology. He wrote novels, letters, and most famously in English-speaking countries, plays. His work as a playwright earned him various achievements and he wrote a phenomenal number of plays in a variety of styles. Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Maxim Gorky, John Osborne and Ingmar Bergman have all cited Strindberg as a profound influence.
Strindberg, born 22 January 1849 in Stockholm, Sweden, grew up in a tense, working-class family with a shipping merchant father and maid-servant mother. Strindberg claimed his mother, who was very religious, was resentful of his intelligence, and as a young adult he moved out on his own, leaving behind much interaction with his family.
As a young man, Strindberg worked as a schoolteacher, before enrolling in a chemistry course that he intended to use as a means of becoming a doctor. He failed the initial exam, however, and his interest in a medical career waned. He did, however, return to university to study aesthetics and modern languages. It was during this time that he began writing plays.
In 1875, at a time when Strindberg regarded himself as a failed author, he met Siri von Essen, a 24-year-old baroness and aspiring actress. The pair began to meet in secret, and eventually married when Siri was seven months pregnant. The child was born prematurely and survived only two days.
Siri had begun working as an actress for Sweden’s Royal Theatre, but Strindberg was having more difficulty with his career. He was forced to declare bankruptcy a year into their marriage, but his situation would change somewhat within the next year, when he published his satirical novel The Red Room. Although the novel was not particularly successful in Sweden, it was very popular in Denmark, and Strindberg quickly made a name across Scandinavia.
The success of his novel moved Strindberg to write more, and he quickly began writing plays, articles, and works of historical fiction. His first major play, Master Olaf, was finally staged (at a length of five hours), and he went on to write a series of short stories, Getting Married, which led to him being tried for blasphemy. He was acquitted, but the experience left him pessimistic. He started to examine atheism as a religious alternative then turned to science as an alternative to his literary life, and began to write about non-literary topics. His work became autobiographical, before he eventually returned to playwriting.
In the mid-to-late 1880s, Strindberg began to write in a naturalistic style. He completed The Father in a number of weeks. The play was a reactionary piece to the themes and subjects of his contemporary Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and Strindberg decided instead to make his play a battle of genders.
In 1888, Strindberg wrote one of his most renowned works: Miss Julie. As he had done with The Father, Strindberg finished Miss Julie in a fortnight. He mailed it to a Stockholm publisher, K. O. Bonnier, with a letter urging him not to reject the play or he would regret the decision. Strindberg wrote that Miss Julie would become a play remembered through history.
Despite Strindberg’s confidence, Bonnier did in fact reject the script, deeming the naturalistic style too ‘risky’ for the theatrical climate of the time. Strindberg eventually found a publisher for Miss Julie, and the play was soon to be produced as part of a double bill for a new theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark. However it was not to be: police arrived the day before the premiere with a notice that Danish censors had banned Miss Julie from being performed.
Strindberg searched for a private venue, and the play premiered at the Copenhagen University Student’s Union on 14 March 1889 in front of 150 students and critics. Strindberg himself did not watch the performance, as he was overcome with jealousy – convinced that his wife Siri, playing the title role, was having an affair with the actor playing Jean.
The reviews at the time were somewhat ambivalent towards the production. Miss Julie was not revived for another three years, this time in Berlin. That season closed after only one night, due to public protests about its perceived immoral content. It took 16 years for Miss Julie to be performed in Strindberg’s native country, Sweden.
The play’s story of a sexual encounter that crossed social boundaries held similarities to his own relationship with Siri. It also established notions of survival of the fittest, and created a battle between the sexes, using sexuality as the key weapon.
Strindberg’s relationship with Siri had deteriorated, and she took their three children with her to Finland. He wrote a number of plays, some of which were influenced by the experience of the divorce, but he later developed writer’s block.
The writer’s block led to a halted income and subsequent depression in the mid-1890s. Strindberg had met and married Frida Uhl, 23 years his junior, but in less than a year and soon after the birth of their first child the marriage broke down. The combination of these different factors led to a famous period in Strindberg’s life – the Inferno – when it’s believed he spent years in a state of paranoia bordering on insanity. It was during this time of instability that he wrote one of his most notable works, Inferno, an autobiographical account of his state of mind.
Following the Inferno years, Strindberg married Harriet Bosse, but the marriage lasted less than two years. In 1907 he founded the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm. The theatre went bankrupt in 1910, but stayed open until his death from suspected stomach cancer in 1912, aged 63. His body was followed by thousands in the funeral proceedings.