“Thunder in the Air” by August Strindberg

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.

017

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.

Advertisements

13 responses to this post.

  1. Have you ever tried his novels? I find them quite different to the plays (although, it’s true, it’s a very very long time since I read any of Strindberg’s plays; they exist only at the very beginning of my literary education). More enjoyable anyway.

    As to Michael Meyer, it was probably reading all that Strindberg which drove him to start chasing sexually-explorative teenagers in the woods with a knife.

    Reply

    • I haven’t tried anything by Strindberg other than about a dozen or so of his best-known plays. His is a sensibility that really is very alien to my own. Sometimes, that can be no bad thing: one goes to literature to have one’s perspectives widened, ratherthan merely have one’s existings perceptions confirmed; but sometimes, a writer’s perspective can be so very alien to one’s own, thatthere is no real point of contact. I fear Strindberg may, for me, be one such writer.

      As for his novels – I can’t even remember even having seen any in English translation!

      Perhaps Michael Meyer’s general antipathy to Strindberg has put me off a bit – although it is fair to add that there are at least a dozen or so of Strindberg’s plays about which Meyer is wildly enthusiastic. The rest – including his novels – Meyer doesn’t seem very keen on.

      (I remember back in the early 80s the BBC broadcast a performance of The Ghost Sonata in Meyer’s translation, featuring Donald Pleasance. That was back in teh days when the BBC wasn’t afraid of broadcasting challenging drama. I’d love to see this again, but I don’t even think it’s available on DVD.)

      Yes – meyer does indeed have a lotto answer for. And that’s even before we take into consideration his various mass-murdering activities!

      Reply

  2. Strindberg is beginning to feel like the biggest hole in my reading. I should do something about that. You make him sound so interesting. Bewildered – good, very good.

    It was a surprise reading in Canetti’s childhood memoir about his mother’s obsession with Strindberg. She read and reread everything as it was translated into German – the plays, the novels, history, essays – a staggering amount of writing, mostly unavailable in English. I hope to follow obooki’s advice and try some of the fiction, too.

    I’ll mention as an aside that the German-language theater of the 19th century was pretty healthy, beginning to end, far from stagnant. And that Ibsen emerged way before the end of the century.

    Reply

    • Ibsen’s plays neatly cover the latter half of the 19th century, but his earlier works (i.e. pre- Brand and Peer Gynt) are mainly conventional melodramas, rarely performed even in Norway (with a few odd exceptions, such as Love’s Comedy). None of them, not even Love’s Comedy, indicates a talent in the field of drama of the magnitude of, say, that of Flaubert or Tolstoy in the field of the novel. Brand and Peer Gynt were written in the 1860s, and were his first undoubted masterpieces (both, ironically, written to be read rather than to be performed: all versions for performance have to cut the text, often quite ruthlessly, to fit them into a single evening); but both were written in verse – hardly pointers to twentieth century drama. I’d say that the plays by Ibsen that changed the ground rules, as it were, were the twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society (1877) and ending with When We Dead Awaken (1899): in these plays, Ibsen effectively pioneered realistic prose drama, dealing with people in ordinary walks of life – i.e. not kings and queens, princes and bishops, etc. (Of course, there had been prose drama before as well: the plays of Gogol, for instance, but these were generally comedies and farces.) And, almost as soon as he had developed realist prose drama, Ibsen, though still writing in prose, seemed to move away into a dramatic landscape less realistic, and more informed by poetic imagery.

      I don’t really know much about German drama of the period. The only name that really comes to mind is Georg Büchner, but, as I understand it, his plays weren’t discovered till the 20th century. Hauptman, I believe, came a bit later.

      (I’d be happy to be corrected on these points, of course. All opinions expressed here are prvisional till something better comes along!)

      I had meant to spend the next month or two immersing myself in Strindberg, but frankly, I’ve gone off the idea a bit. When I first discovered Ibsen some 20 or so years ago, I was utterly fascinated: I greedily read everything by Ibsen that I could get hold of, in as many translations as I could; and I read also Michael Meyer’s biography. I felt duty-bound to have a go at Strindberg as well – as Ibsen and Strindberg always seem to go hand in hand, like Laurel and Hardy – but could make little sense of his plays. My latest attempt doesn’t look like it’s going to be very successful either. I can sense a dramatic power in his works, but the vision of life he presents is too alien to me: I can’t quite get my head around it. Perhaps it didn’t help that I was reading the translations and the biography by Michael Meyer, whose work on Ibsen is invaluable, but who is less than sympathetic to Strindberg, both as a man and, quite frequently, as a writer.

      Reply

  3. That’s right, Brand and Peer Gynt in the 1860s, way before the end of the century.

    Early 19th century German theater includes Schiller, Goethe, and Kleist. In the middle, Nestroy and Grillparzer are still performed in German theaters. Büchner was discovered by Germans in the 1870s. English readers were slowpokes.

    Anyway, not stagnant. Come to think of it, I would not want to describe the Russian theater of the 19th century as stagnant, either.

    Reply

    • Ibsen once opined that Goethe and Schiller were great poets, but not great dramatists. Of course, writers are not always the best of critics, but on this occasion, I find myself agreeing: I have read a number of the plays of Goethe and Schiller in translation, and, whatever poetic qualities they may have had in the original language, the drama does not, I think, survive translation. It is only very rarely their plays are put on at all in translated versions, and even then, only very rarely do they provide satisfy as theatrical experiences. (I’m afraid I don’t know the plays of Kleist.)

      The same may be said, I think, of the plays of Pushkin. To the Russian-speaker, Boris Godunov and the four “Little Tragedies” are amongst the greatest masterpieces of Russian literature: I’m sure they are – but, once again, the drama does not survive translation. I have read two translations of the Little Tragedies, and in neither case did they strike me interesting as drama.

      Of course, this is just my critical judgement (or, rather, just an opinion, since I am not offering a supporting argument here), but, even assuming I am wrong in this opinion, these are plays dealing with kings and queens and nobles, and written in verse. Whatever merit they may have, these plays don’t point forward, as do the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, to 20th century drama. They are remnants of an older theatrical tradition, rather than harbingers of a new.

      Brand and Peer Gynt are, admittedly, about people in ordinary walks of life, but these, too, are written in verse. They are possibly the last great plays to be written thus: Ibsen himself soon made verse drama obsolete. (Once again, I cannot see the plays of Yeats or of T. S. Eliot as drama, whatever poetic qualities they may have.)

      In Russia, after Pushkin, there was Gogol’s Marriage – a fine comic farce – and, of course, the masterpiece The Government inspector. Yes, I agree, these are wonderful works. But otherwise, the only other plays that come to mind are Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (a fine work, but not, I think, of a standard comparable to his novels); and Ostrovsky’s Storm – another fine work, but, once again, hardly comparable to the great novels of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy’s plays are interesting, but we may agree, I think, that they are inferior works compared to his prose fiction.

      Perhaps I was wrong to have described pre-Ibsenite drama – and Ibsen’s own verse plays – as “stagnant”. But the plays of Goethe, Schiller and Pushkin, even if they are better plays than I am giving them credit for, are, as Debussy said of Wagner’s operas, beautiful sunsets rather than beautiful sunrises. It was Ibsen’s later prose plays, and the plays of Strindberg and of Chekhov, that opened paths, I think, for the new kinds of drama of the twentieth century. With the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg & Chekhov, drama changed, I think, for ever: there was no going back. Drama, from then on, had to be in prose: while attempts have been made to revive verse drama (most notably, perhaps, by T. S. Eliot), they haven’t really convinced. And from then on, there were no more kings and queens or bishops and nobles, no more finely crafted poetic soliloquies revealing the characters’ innermost thoughts: drama found ways of depicting the characters’ inner lives and their unconscious thoughts without using soliloqiuies, and became as supple and as expressive a form as the novel. Of course, new generations of dramatists from Pirandello to Brecht to Beckett to Pinter have sought out even newer paths, but the path back was now closed for ever.

      I was just looking through my edition of Büchner’ plays (Oxford World Classics, translated by Victor Price), and you’re right: the translator says in the introduction that a critical edition of Büchner’s works appeared in Germany in 1879; and the first performance was an amateur performance in 1895 of Leonce and Lena. The first performance of Danton’s Death was put on by a small theatre in Berlin in 1902, but “not until 1910 was it given a full professional performance”. And Woyzeck had to wait till 1913 for its first performance. Ibsen was living in Germany in 1879, but there’s no indication in Meyer’s biography that he knew these works. It is intriguing to speculate how his own dramatic art may have developed had he done so.

      Reply

  4. Verse? Kings? Sunsets? Translation?(??) Goethe and Pushkin did not write good plays?(???) I will have to concede the argument, since I no longer understand it.

    There is a commonplace idea, which I think is true, about the stagnation of the English-language theater in the 19th century, or earlier, post-Sheridan, pre-Shaw and Wilde. I believe you are making an error extending that story into other literary traditions.

    Reply

    • I’m actually being entirely serious (for a change)! I think it is a test of the purely dramatic qualities of a play that it should be effective on stage even in translation; and the plays of Goethe, Schiller & Pushkin rarely if ever hold the stage in translation, whereas the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg & Chekhov regularly do. (As do the plays of the Greeks, and of Shakespeare.) Whatever the qualities of the plays of Schiller, Goethe et al, they don’t strike me as essentially dramatic.

      Reply

  5. The error I have been making is that I took your “drama had stagnated” line to be a statement of literary history, which I see it is not. In other words, I thought the issue was about how other people have historically judged the works of their tradition. But I guess it is not.

    I mean, German-language theater goers seem to have found Schiller dramatic enough.

    Reply

    • Oh, I’d be foolish to make derogatory literary judgements about the likes of Pushkin and Schiller! Maybe I could turn into the petulant schoolboy Amazon reviewer:

      “I recommend you do not read ths … It sucked …”

      Schiller is regularly performed in Germany, so I guess it works in German. Racine, I believe, still works well in French. But have you really come across translations of either that works as drama (i.e, not as poetry)?

      (‘Ere .. ‘e’s ‘avin’ a go at Racine now! Give it a break, mister!)

      Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “stagnated”. What I meant was that these plays broke no new ground; that their dramaturgy was not taken up by later generations of dramatists.

      Reply

  6. You have seen a lot more theater than I have – that’s a caveat.

    Racine – Richard Wilbur. I would love to see one of his versions performed.
    Schiller – nothing worth going out of your way for.

    Reply

  7. Posted by alan on September 24, 2013 at 2:12 am

    I’ve only seen “Dance of Death” and was not at all bewildered.
    Perhaps I’m missing something – what should I look at next?
    As to stagnation of theatre – I’m not sure that the best theatre does reveal the characters’ innermost thoughts. I think that the best theatre, while pehaps not literally holding ‘the mirror up to nature’, does show the exterior of psychologically realistic characters in situations that test our understanding of human nature, while implicitly accepting that we can never have complete knowledge of other minds.
    Perhaps in the 19th century some nationalities were less comfortable with dramatic ambiguity: ‘the very age and body of the time his form and
    pressure’.

    Reply

    • Hello Alan,
      If I am bewildered by Strindberg, and you aren’t, then clearly it’s me, and not you, who’s missing something!

      I was perhaps wrong to have used the word “stagnant”. But it does seem to me that dramatists of the twentieth century have been influenced more by Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov than than they have been by dramatists of earlier generations; and that plays by these three hold the stage magnificently even in translation, whereas plays even by undoubted literary geniuses (Schiller, Goethe, Pushkin) on the whole don’t.
      I generally tend to steer clear of analysing literary trends in terms of social and economic factors: I think trends in literature are determined primarily by the writers themselves. When a writer of vision creates something of quality, the influence that has on other writers seems to me of far greater import than any social or economic factor. If my contention – i.e. it was Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg who transformed drama – does hold some water, I don’t know that we can look for the reason in social analysis, or by relating it to advances in scientific thought, or anything of that nature. At least, I’d be unwilling to look for the reason in those areas.

      I think plays can depict the interiors of peoples’ minds. Ibsen did this frequently, through the use mainly of poetic symbols. Something such as the Master Builder, or rosemersholm are not strictly realistic: they are permeated by symbols, and by poetic imagery. Strindberg very frequently (e.g. A dream Play, The Ghost Sonata) left behind even the outward appearance of reality, and presented dream-ike visions on stage. Of course, we are restricted in a play to whatteh characters say and do: unlike a novelist, the author cannot tell us directly what the characters are thinking. (Eugene O’Neill tried to remedy this in Strange Interlude by freezing the action on stage at points, and having individual characters step forward to deliver to the audience what they were thinking, but not saying. This was mercilessly parodied by Groucho Marx in the film Animal Crackers … “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude” …) In Chekhov’s plays, the drama often lies in characters saying something different from what they are feeling; sometimes saying quite the opposite of what they’re feeling. Chekhov had developed very sophisticated dramatic technique to allow us to understand the characters’ thought even when not stated – or even when the opposite is stated.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: