It is difficult to argue with the contention that through the nineteenth century, while the novel was flourishing, and, some may say, establishing itself as the principal form of literary expression, drama – the form that had in the past given us the Athenian tragedians, Shakespeare, Calderón and de Vega, Racine, Corneille and Molière – had stagnated; and that it was only with the emergence towards the end of the century of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov that it was once again revitalised. However, while the plays of Ibsen are dear to me, and while I love the last three of four plays of Chekhov, I have never really come to grips with Strindberg. He’s an odd ’un, as they say.
Both as a person and as an author, Strindberg was what may kindly be described as “eccentric”. His plays, even the more ostensibly realistic ones, such as The Father, Miss Julie or The Dance of Death, seem to take place not so much in the real world, but, rather, in some curiously disembodied region, some vague and obscure chamber of the author’s very strange mind – a mind filled with paranoia, bitterness, and misogyny. It is hard to think of any other dramatist who communicated such private and personal visions in so public a form as the theatre. And yet, his influence has been enormous: both Synge and O’Neill cited Strindberg rather than Ibsen as a major influence; and while Ingmar Bergman (to judge from the account given of him by Michael Meyer in his memoirs) was at best ambivalent about Ibsen, his closeness to Strindberg, whose plays he had frequently directed on stage to much acclaim, seems obvious.
According to his biographer and translator Michael Meyer, “[Strindberg] had a much narrower vision than Ibsen, but wrote better than anyone except perhaps Dostoevsky and Poe about that borderland where sanity and insanity merge.” This closeness to insanity certainly gives his dramatic work – the best of them, at least – a certain frisson; but, at the same time, unless one has a certain sympathy with his particular brand of insanity, it can also leave the reader or the viewer bewildered. And that is the effect his plays tend to have on me: I find myself bewildered, and really don’t know that I understand them adequately.
Meyer himself seemed to have an oddly ambivalent attitude to Strindberg, both as man and as writer. His biography of Strindberg is certainly authoritative, but while his earlier biography of Ibsen was a triumph, this one seems vitiated by his dislike for his subject. (There is a more recent biography of Strindberg by Sue Prideaux: I have not yet read this, but the consensus of critical opinion appears to be that this now supersedes Meyer’s biography for the very reason that Prideaux has greater sympathy for her subject.) Meyer is also frequently censorious of much of Strindberg’s work, describing his dramatic output as “wildly uneven”; while he is clearly keenly appreciative of Strindberg’s finest plays, there are others which he is happy to dismiss with an almost casual nonchalance. Here, for instance, is Meyer on the five late works Strindberg wrote for the Intimate Theatre (Intiman), and which he designated as “chamber plays”:
…the new plays which Strindberg wrote for the Intimate [Theatre] were not good, apart from Storm … and The Ghost Sonata, which was too far in advance of its time for the cast to encompass or the critics to understand.
This is certainly not the opinion of translator Eivor Martinus, who, in the short essay that prefaces her translations, describes all five of these plays as “miniature masterpieces”. There was only one way to find out: read these works for myself. For, clearly, I was missing something.
I had intended to read all five plays one after the other, but after reading the first one, Thunder in the Air (the one Michael Meyer refers to as Storm), I felt I needed a break from that claustrophobic environment. That I felt this way indicates in itself the power of the work; and, yes, I shall certainly go on to read the others. But not right now. The play itself is not too long: it takes about ninety minutes to read without a break, and a performance would, I imagine, similarly take about ninety minutes; but, as with the other plays I have read by Strindberg, I had a sense of being trapped in that vague, obscure chamber of Strindberg’s mind; and, strange and fascinating though that mind is, even so brief a period as ninety minutes in there has one gasping for a bit of fresh air, for a bit of sanity.
The play is partly about the serene detachment of old age; and also about the fragility of this detachment. The protagonist, unnamed, is an old man who has left behind, as he thinks, his earthly entanglements, and who wishes merely to spend his remaining days with equanimity, without bitterness, remembering only those aspects of his life that had been beautiful:
And it’s nice and quiet like this … no love affairs, no friends, just a little company to break the silence. People appear really human and they don’t make any emotional demands on you. In the end you become loose like an old tooth and fall out painlessly.
This renunciation of earthly ties in preparation for death is a common theme in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures; it was enthusiastically taken up by Schopenhauer, and found its way into several of Wagner’s operas. But such detachment is not easy to achieve: renunciation does not come easily. The unnamed protagonist’s equanimity is shattered when his young ex-wife and their child intrude once again into his life. He who had wanted to keep only the most beautiful memories of them must once again be forced to enter the world of human passions: the tooth he had thought was ready to fall out painlessly is still rooted in all the hatred and bitterness and anger that he had thought he had left behind. By the end, he looks forward once again to his departure from the world:
Shut the windows, and pull down the blinds, please. And we’ll leave our memories in peace! The peace of old age! And this autumn I shall move away from this silent house.
But his equanimity has been ruffled: the detachment he so yearns for has proved a fragile thing.
This is a play rich in veiled imagery, and Eivor Martinus’ translation is a work of limpid beauty: I think I am beginning to understand why Strindberg’s works, even at their most discordant, are so frequently described as “poetic”. But this is not a serene work. The hatred that resurfaces on encountering his ex-wife takes us into those regions of the mind that many of us some time or other may have entered, but in which it is unhealthy to stay too long: it is a deeply oppressive world. And Strindberg, it seems to me, couldn’t keep away from it – from that borderland where sanity and insanity merge, as Michael Meyer put it.
Once, only once, does Strindberg allow us to see something of the perspective of Gerda, the protagonist’s former wife:
And when I was prisoner in this house it wasn’t because of the jail-keeper that I was unhappy but because of the prison!
This is a striking image, but Strindberg doesn’t seem very interested in exploring further the implications of this. Despite this sudden and unexpected shaft of light, this play is less the story of a failed marriage than a depiction of the bitterness and unhappiness the failure has left in its wake. It is certainly a powerful and fascinating work, and, having read it only once – and so soon after the reading – I am not at all sure that I have yet taken it in to an adequate degree. I shall certainly return to it: it merits re-reading; and, despite Michael Meyer’s airy dismissal, I shall certainly read also the other four chamber plays. But not yet. I need first a few breaths of fresh air. Even a mere ninety minutes of Strindberg goes a long way.