Johan August Strindberg (1849-1912) – dramatist, theatre practitioner, visual artist, writer of fiction and non-fiction – is one of the most radical innovators of modern literature and theatre. His writing, including some sixty plays written between 1869 and 1909, takes up seventy-two volumes in the current Swedish national edition of his collected works. His correspondence – providing a remarkable documentary of his times and creative methods – has been published in 22 volumes. He is best known from worldwide productions of such plays as Miss Julie, The Dance of Death, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata.
In an international context Strindberg contributed with groundbreaking advances to a number of literary genres, starting with the history play Master Olof (1872), where he introduced decidedly modern characters and language for the first time, and the satirical piece The Red Room (1879), arguably the first modern Swedish novel. In his native country, Sweden, Strindberg was hailed by a new wave of modernist writers as a great innovator and renewer of the Swedish language. His writings reveal a fervent social critic, antagonistic to any given political, religious, or cultural authority. His fiction and plays are always provocative, his essays are passionately polemic. A thirst for knowledge and a search for truth – psychological, political, or poetic – are common threads throughout all his work.
There is no single “Strindberg style.” The constantly shifting mode and form of his writings reveal a creative method based on experimentation in order to find adequate expression to his sense of a volatile self, elusive reality, and cultural paradigm-shifts as fin de siècle Europe was entering the era of modernity. His own words from the 1894 essay “Deranged Sensations” illustrate best this overwhelming experience of change that his writings seek to articulate:
“.… Do I feel displaced since, being born in the good old times, when people had oil lamps … and six-volume novels, I have passed through the age of steam and electricity with forced speed? Perhaps that is why I am out of breath and got bad nerves! Or could it be that my nerves are undergoing an evolution towards over-refinement and that my senses have become all too subtle? Am I shedding skin? Am I about to become a modern person? I am as nervous as a crab that had cast off its shell, as irritable as a silkworm in its metamorphosis.”
Strindberg’s experimental practice and forward-looking vision can be traced in a wide variety of new dramatic modes. Having revolutionized the theatre with his unique brand of naturalism, focusing on the central characters’ psychological battles for the survival of the fittest in such plays as The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and Creditors (1888), Strindberg then went on to develop his pioneering “dream play technique” with the To Damascus trilogy (1898, 1901) and A Dream Play (1901). These so-called ego-dramas, where the subconscious of the main character or that of an all-encompassing poetic self is physicalized in the sets and sound effects, were little understood during Strindberg’s lifetime, but were posthumously celebrated as the first examples of dramatic expressionism. In his later years Strindberg produced his so-called Chamber Plays – including The Ghost Sonata and The Pelican (both in 1907) –, which were met with even greater confusion by his contemporaries, but became extremely influential throughout the twentieth century. As Strindberg explained in 1907 to the members of his Intimate Theatre in Stockholm, for whom he wrote the Chamber Plays, with these works he attempted to transfer the concept of chamber music into drama. Through the repetition and variation of a few underlying leitmotifs, the often grotesque interactions of small tightly knit sets of characters in modern urban settings, and atmospheric imagery, light, and sound effects, he created subdued rites of passage, most effectively performed in intimate spaces.
Strindberg’s impact on our literature, theatre, and culture is immeasurable. Already during his lifetime many of his works were translated and published in German, French, Russian, and English; and his plays were produced by the most progressive, and mainly non-commercial theatres throughout Europe, in cities of vital importance to the cultural life of the period, including Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Moscow. Posthumously, in the late 1910s and ‘20s, Strindberg became a cult figure for avant-garde and progressive theatre movements internationally. In Germany, a generation of young dramatists and directors acknowledged him as the originator of Expressionism, a new revolutionary mode of playwriting; in pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia his work inspired the leaders of the avant-garde theatre, including Vsevolod Meyerhold and Evgeny Vakhtangov; in France his work was acknowledged as a profound inspiration for Antonin Artaud, the much admired genius of the “Theatre of Cruelty,” and many other avant-garde poets and theatre artists; and in the United States Eugene O’Neill expressed his deep indebtedness to Strindberg when he produced The Ghost Sonata in 1924 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York. Strindberg’s influence can be traced in the work of prominent playwrights including Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and many others. His is a living voice that has challenged and inspired audiences, authors, critics, and artists worldwide, including such cultural icons as Max Reinhardt, Emma Goldman, Birgit Cullberg, Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Kani, Robert Wilson, Caryl Churchill, and Robert Lepage.