August Strindberg: Still in the Middle of the Battle

Article excerpt

The Swedish dramatist and novelist, August Strindberg (1849-1912) was a master of the Swedish language and an innovator in literary styles [who] cannot be classified in any one school; he was by turns a naturalist, an iconoclast, and a mystic, but his work bears always the stamp of his individuality. His influence continues to be a living force, particularly in the theater. -the Columbia Desk Encyclopedia

In Copenhagen in 1889 the forty-year old August Strindberg premiered his new play Miss Julie. In December of 1999, 150 years after Strindberg's birth, the Mike Figgis production of Miss Julie opened as a film in New York and Los Angeles. Not a bad way to celebrate the life of this controversial Swede. There were various celebrations of Strindberg's life and works throughout Europe and the US during the past year. New York, for instance, had the Marymount Manhattan Theater Strindberg Symposium, and Stockholm had a number of major productions and events. But those celebrations were merely an indication of how central Strindberg remains to modern theater and film.

One suspects that the contentious Swedish author and playwright, who wanted to conquer the literary world, would be pleased with the highly visible presence of his work on stage and screen as well as in libraries and bookstores. He would have enjoyed The New York Times's article about Benoit Delhomme (Dec.5,1999), the cinematographer of Figgis' Miss Julie, though Strindberg would no doubt be irritated by the attention paid to Delhomme rather than himself. He would on the other hand have been impressed by Frank Langella's powerful interpretation of The Father in New York in 1996 and Los Angeles in 1998. Per Olov Enquist's highly successful depiction of Strindberg in The Night of the Tribades (Dramatists Play Service, 1978) also drew international attention to Strindberg in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Merger of Art and Life

But there is more to Strindberg than his plays, as Bjorn Meidal's 1995 Swedish Institute booklet August Strindberg points out. Strindberg was a voracious reader and a constantly creative personality, exploring everything from contemporary science to religion and the occult.

In this ongoing search, however, Strindberg often exposed his life and his family to public scrutiny. Publishing private letters, using wives and relatives in plays and novels, Strindberg might have adapted well to the modern world of scandal television shows and rumor based newspapers. But his work, like that of any great artist, probed much deeper than superficial journalism or simple entertainment. His oeuvre ranges from journalism, short stories, novels and autobiographical fiction to plays, painting and photography.

His photography has recently become more visible to the public eye. Linda Haverty Rugg's insightful book Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography (1997) explores, in a chapter on Strindberg, the relation between his sense of autobiography and biography. A more extensive collection of his photographs has been assembled in Strindberg og Fotokunsten (1996), and the photographs themselves are currently being shown in various museums and universities throughout the country. The book and the exhibition demonstrate his continuous probing and merging of art and life, his obsessive effort to bring science and art, naturalism and mysticism, into some kind of fruitful union. Harry Carlsson's book Out of Inferno: Strindberg's Reawakening as an Artist (1996) analyzes this tension in Strindberg and relates it, among other (1996) analyzes this tension in Strindberg and relates it, among other things, to Strindberg's painting and his experiments in visual imagination.

Besides the ongoing stream of academic books about Strindberg's oeuvre, as well as the productions and films of his plays, some - but not enough - of Strindberg's plays and novels remain in print in English. Numerous editions and translations of various plays are in print, but most of the prose works, such as Getting Married, The People of Hemso, By the Open Sea, Inferno, and The Roofing Ceremony are difficult to obtain or available only in expensive editions. …