Monday, 31 December 2012

Strindberg international

So, the centenary of August Strindberg’s death has come to a close. It has been an extraordinary year and I wish I could have spent more of it in Sweden where there was an impressive number of new productions. At least I managed to see Lucky Per’s Journey at Intiman in January and that was a truly marvellous performance. It is a play which is not often done but this production was so inventive and imaginative that I long to find some English producers who could put it on here in England. George Bernard Shaw believed in the play but Strindberg himself thought it was too ‘bourgeois’ (‘brackig’).
One of my favourite Strindberg plays is The Ghost Sonata and I had the good fortune to enjoy three different productions of that play this year alone. One was in my translation at the Chelsea Theatre in London in July, directed by Eldarin Yeong, a young Chinese woman director. She had chosen a very physical approach and this created an eerie, surreal atmosphere. The production was her Master’s Thesis in Directing at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and she had managed to cast only professional actors. Like so many English actors they had found Strindberg odd and difficult. Judging by what I saw at one of the last rehearsals - because I missed the performances in the theatre - we shall see more of this Chinese director.
The second version of  the play was at a small theatre in San Francisco as part of the Strindberg conference there in October. The set and the costumes were more solid and the style of acting was less adventurous but it went down well with the audience on the night I was there. The last production of The Ghost Sonata was in December in Uddevalla where I was giving a talk about Strindberg and it was put on by a dance company. It was totally absorbing and had that marvellous, zany, unpredictable quality. The costumes, the mobile set and the movement were all beautifully in tune with the play. In September, a French ensemble came to London and performed Mademoiselle Julie at the  Barbican, with Juliette Binoche in the lead. It was a contemporary setting with disco dancing and see-through screens which separated the audience from the actors. It was powerful but I didn’t believe in Jean who walked in a stooping fashion with unkempt hair and with a generally rather slovenly appearance. 
Anna Pettersson gave a shortened version of her brilliant performance of Miss Julie in San Francisco and I can now see why the critics raved about it.
Personally, I have given twelve lectures about Strindberg this year and it has been heartening to see how people warm to different aspects on Strindberg. My topics have covered Translation problems, Strindberg and his Women, Faith and Doubt in Strindberg’s works, Strindberg productions in England, The Chamber Plays  and a summary of my experience  with Strindberg. It has been a truly inspirational year and it has been my privilege to talk in London, Seattle, San Francisco, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Uddevalla and Trollhättan.
Apart from that I continue to spread the word to my small group  of students at Southbank International School, London. 

Friday, 30 November 2012

Strindberg's directing tips

Strindberg was never a theatre director in the modern sense of the word but he was very keen to help his actress wives and his last protégé, Fanny Falkner, to achieve the best results on the stage. He was perceptive and had an intuitive approach to acting. He first spotted Fanny when she was appearing in a non-speaking part at Intiman in one of his plays. He looked at her without saying anything but he went straight to August Falck, the artistic director of the theatre and told him: ‘There is our Easter girl, alive and well. She must play the girl in Easter.’ Falck was appalled and thought Strindberg was mad to think of casting a completely inexperienced and untrained girl in a leading part. Falck already had another actress in mind for that part but without consulting Falck Strindberg invited Fanny and a young actor called Alrik Kjellgren to his apartment at Karlavägen and there he rehearsed the young couple privately. After a few rehearsals Strindberg was moved to tears. He turned to Kjellgren and said:’What do you think, she is a born artist. Her expressions, her eyes, her hair - her hair!’
He drew up a list of the basic principles of speaking on stage. In a letter that he wrote to Fanny on 30 May 1908 he gave her the following advice:
‘1. Speak slowly, legato, all words in the sentence strung together; the commas and full stops must not produce a staccato, but glide across with a little extra sound which I shall teach you.
2. Speak naturally, but do not ‘talk’.
3. A broad register in the beginning, a little affected; imagine making a speech or preaching but without shouting.
4. Begin to speak grammatically correctly, and get used to a slightly pedantic speech on a daily basis, as if you were reading aloud or giving a lecture. Stop talking or chatting when you are speaking normally. In other words: don’t be careless, but speak slowly.
5. Watch your consonants, especially your R’s. The vowels are easier to hear.
6. If you make a habit of speaking carefully every day you won’t need to read so much.
7. Speak, articulate, ‘phrase’ like a singer. Listen to your own voice and enjoy it when it sounds good.
8. Flygare speaks carefully as a rule, listen to her, imitate her. It should sound a little exaggerated, important!
And the whole secret about speech is : slowly, drawn out, legato. Beginners prattle but do not speak. They deliver in staccato, which is the worst of all.
Walk in nature; speak to yourself there, read poetry; that strengthens your voice.
And learn to breathe through the nose, when you speak, then you get the best delivery...
I am determined to make you into a great actress; but take it seriously and work at it because it is not child’s play.’
Did he succeed? Well, Fanny became a member of the original company at Intiman and took part in many plays during the next two years until the theatre had to close due to financial problems.She played Bertha in The Father and she took over the role of Eleonora in Easter when Flygare went on tour with the play. She was also the first actress to play the leading role in Swanwhite, the play Strindberg had written specifically for Harriet Bosse. Her youth and innocence and not least her beauty seduced the critics and audiences alike. 
Strindberg akso asked her to design the cover for his play Abu Casem’s Slippers and after Strindberg’s death she returned to painting and became a well-known miniature portrait artist.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

About twelve years ago I came across an attractive, young-looking woman who could have been in her mid forties. She introduced herself as Madeleine Strindberg, August Strindberg’s granddaughter.
‘Hello, hello,’ I thought. ‘Something funny here.’ She can’t be one of Siri von Essen’s granddaughters. Karin only had one daughter, also called Karin and she married her cousin, Hans’ adopted son, Erik. They didn’t have any children so there were no grandchildren from Strindberg’s eldest daughter, or only son for that matter. Greta, the second daughter, died in a train crash just a month after August’s death. She was pregnant at the time but the child did not survive either.  Anne-Marie, Strindberg’s daughter by Harriet Bosse, only had two sons, so Madeleine could not belong to that family either. Who was she then? Could it have been one of Frida Uhl’s offspring? Frida had one daughter by Strindberg, Kerstin, who in turn had one son, Kristoffer Sulzbach. 
‘Ah!’ But Frida had an affair with another well-known playwright, Franz Wedekind, and managed to produce a son before her divorce from Strindberg was made absolute. In other words, Madame Strindberg, as she called herself for the rest of her life, had given birth to another Strindberg who could legitimately keep the name and who, because of that name, got Swedish citizenship and helped thousands of Jews  flee from Germany during the  Second World War. He became a journalist and writer and wrote a very interesting novel about life in Berlin during the war. The German title was Die Juden in Berlin. Wie sie leben, lieben und sterben. When the book was published in Sweden the Strindberg family were not pleased to have this ‘bastard’ Strindberg in their midst so he published the Swedish version under another name, Fredrik Uhlson.
The book was reissued by Bonniers a few years ago with an afterword by Jan Myrdal. So it was this Friedrich Strindberg, August’s legitimate (since he was born in wedlock) but not biological son who had a daughter in the 1950s called Madeleine. She is a well-known artist, based in London and she has won the prestigious Jerwood Prize for her art. In a way, of course, Madeleine was right. She is August Strindberg’s granddaughter, even if his blood is not running through her veins.
I bought one of her expressive paintings at an exhibition, signed in flamboyant handwriting: Madeleine Strindberg. So now I can boast that I have a Strindberg painting in my collection. 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Talking about Strindberg

August has followed me everywhere this year so far and if things work out we shall stick together until the end of the year, like an old couple. Maybe it is time to live apart for a while after that. We shall see.
 I am amazed at how many people are jumping on the bandwagon this centenary year and holding forth about the most incredible aspects of him. Is there any Swedish writer who has been so thoroughly examined and dissected even after his death, I wonder? In many cases he did a better job himself in his autobiographical or semi-autobiographical books and I can't help wondering whether some of the new Strindberg 'experts' may have exploited  this centenary without any real research or depth behind them. I have just come back  from the Gothenburg Book Fair and wherever you turned  there was someone  speaking with great conviction but not always matched by knowledge about August Strindberg.
I remember Mary Sandbach, a chain-smoking grande dame who translated some prose works by Strindberg in the seventies. When my first volume of Strindberg plays came out she was obviously very suspicious of me and wondered where I was coming from and who I was to enter her field, so to speak. Since I rarely touched the prose she forgave me but after that I had Michael Meyer to contend with. He was the drama translator par preference when it came to Scandinavian authors from the sixties onwards. His Swedish was not perfect but at least he had lived in the country and he spoke the language - albeit with a strong accent and with many linguistic mistakes. However, we locked horns on one occasion, but since I realised I couldnt afford to have him as an enemy I told him straightaway that he would never find any of his phrases or expressions in my translations. I also told him that I never look at another translators work when I am translating and he could rest assured that I would only work from the original. He gave me one long look and after that we were friends.
This year will see me travelling all over the place, giving talks on a number of subjects related to Strindberg: Translation problems from Swedish to English, How to teach Strindberg to teenagers, Strindberg productions that my husband and I have been involved in, Strindberg and his women - of course, Strindberg and drama, Strindberg in my life, Faith and doubt in Strindbergs work, etc. Some are in English and some in Swedish. Several talks are written in both languages.
So what has this year taught me? I will have given more than a dozen talks in all by the time I return from my last trip in December. Most audiences have been very attentive, appreciative and grateful, but there have been quite small gatherings. People havent exactly been bending over backwards to listen or buy the book, Strindberg and Love or the Swedish version, Lite djävul, lite ängel, Strindberg och hans kvinnor. We cant compete with self-revelatory books, feel good books or Cookery and Gardening books.  There may be slightly more interest in him after this year of celebrations but do not let us be deceived by that. He is still an oddball, viewed with suspicion by the young.  And it is going to be very hard to change his image. To many he will remain the madman and the misogynist.     

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Strindberg still in the news - August

Strindberg still in the news

There has been a lot of media coverage about Strindberg this year, especially in Sweden in Sweden. Judging by the opinions offered on a number of subjects concerning our literary genius he is obviously just as controversial today as he was a hundred years ago. 
What surprises me is that it’s Strindberg the person who is nearly always in focus - rather than Strindberg, the author. Why is it that his life is more interesting to the majority of people rather than his work?
He did, of course, lead an extraordinary life and he liked to draw attention to his person, even if it meant that he was the subject of ridicule or, in some cases, a hate campaign. He lived on the edge most of the time and thrived on provocation. That is not something which is going to endear him to all and sundry. He was generally considered a bad influence on the young with his revolutionary and indecent ideas. After all, a man who advocated free love and who made fun of the holy communion, the royal family, the military establishment and politicians in general would probably be more on the side of the rebels than the establishment.
This year I have been asked to give around a dozen talks about him and most of them will be about his attitude to women because that is the subject most people have requested. I find the fact that he was a serious religious seeker more remarkable, especially when you consider that he lived at a time when the established church (similar to the Church of England) had a tremendous hold on society.
When working on his plays I have struggled with some beautifully expressed sentences which resist translation. At the same time, he offers the translator a forum for imaginative solutions which make the translator’s job very rewarding. He was a master of dramatic dialogue and performing it is most gratifying to actors. Just look at the way he uses punctuation. His dashes and exclamation marks mark the tempo and energy - The way his characters talk over each other, interrupt each other or simply don’t listen  - all this creates a very intense and realistic atmosphere.
Maybe a little less personal exposure would have been beneficial to his career as a writer. A certain amount of reserve could have meant that people concentrated more on his writing than his histrionics.
Yes, he did actually say A. but he also said B. He changed opinions shamelessly, but not without reason. It would help greatly in understanding this complex man if we read everything in context, rather than pick some provocative statements to score a quick sensational point.
I was asked once in an interview what I thought about Strindberg’s famous measuring of his penis or of the alleged rape of a sixteen-year-old servant girl at Skovlyst in Denmark.
My answer to the first question was that I didn’t find it particularly odd or shocking that he measured the length of his penis. I remember many of my girl friends measuring their boobs in their teens, while chasing the ideal measurements. Presumably, the size of a man’s penis is as vital to his masculinity as the size of the boobs to a woman’s femininity, although that logic  defeats me.
As regards the famous ‘rape story’, the girl in question was not a servant but the sister of the manager of Skovlyst Manor, and she had turned up in Strindberg’s bedroom in the early hours and late at night, in a way which Strindberg found provocative.
According to the girl’s own admission she consented to the intercourse but her brother quickly tried to make a big scene of it and used blackmail. Strindberg was acquitted but contracted a venereal disease for his sins.
When taken thus in its entire context this story takes on a different hue. That is the case with most of the ultra sensational episodes in Strindberg’s life.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Strindberg's spiritual search

Strindberg’s spiritual search

Strindberg loved battles. He would enter any battle like a war-hungry soldier. He wrote about the battle of the sexes, the class struggle and the battle of brains, and in his early play, Master Olof, he lets the main character, Olaus Petri, say: ‘It wasn’t the victory that I wanted, but the struggle.’
In Master Olof, which is about the introduction of Protestantism in Sweden he uses the Reformation as a metaphor fo the rise of Socialism. Towards the middle of the 1880s Strindberg went through a period of atheism and he wrote to his publisher, Bonnier: ‘Since I am about to become an atheist (the world is run by idiots, consequently God is an idiot) I shall probably attack God from now on as well.’ 
This warning to his publisher must have been very worrying indeed. Strindberg had already stood trial for blasphemy once and Bonnier, who was Jewish was, naturally, uncomfortable with anything which might be interpreted as an attack on the Church of Sweden. In another letter to the Danish critic Edvard Brandes, Strindberg admitted that he was preparing to become an atheist but he found it horribly difficult. His atheism was - in his own words - a mental experiment which had failed at once.
During his short marriage to Frida Uhl he was drawn to Catholicism which he was introduced to through his mother-in-law in Austria. But with Strindberg we can never know for sure what he stands for. As soon as we have put a label on him he changes and is already on his way somewhere else. His Austrian mother-in-law was a believer and a good Catholic, but she was also drawn to Swedenborg who became one of Strindberg’s idols during the 1890s.
He bought a Catholic prayer book and a rosary and even thought of entering a monastery. In Inferno he writes:’I have bought a rosary. Why? It is beautiful and the Evil One is afraid of the cross.’ The thing that held him back was the need to obey. Strindberg found it very difficult to obey anyone. 
‘I am not a wild man. I prefer strolling by the sea and growing cucumbers. But people hate me because I write so bloody well. My motto is: Leave me alone, I am prickly. Why the hell do they have to probe me when I am prickly. But everyone has to have a feel. And then they get stung!’
The road back to Christianity meandered along some narrow paths, via Swedenborg, Kierkegaard, Buddhism and Islam. But in the end Strindberg found his way back to the faith of his childhood and by that time regret and remorse had replaced his wrath and defiance. ‘What shall I regret? How much shall I regret?,’ he asks himself. ‘How should I live in order to please God?’ At the same time he realises that his greatest sin was the way he had treated his wife and children. He accuses himself of hubris, the only sin that the gods won’t forgive. Maybe Christ is an avenging spirit? 
In 1897 he abandoned Swedenborg  and didn’t return to him until the end of his life. In May 1897 he applied for a place in a Benedictine monastery but when he found out that the abbot had been sacked because of a sexual offence he withdrew his application.
‘I want to have religion as a quiet accompaniment to the monotonous everyday tune of life.
A buddhist book has made a more lasting impression than all the other holy books because it puts positive suffering above abstinence.’ 
His most beloved drama, A Dreamplay, is a synthesis of all his thoughts about faith and the meaning of life. The leading character, Indra’s daughter, an invention by Strindberg, has been interpreted in many ways - as a human being or as a divine being. She walks through life like a female Jesus and returns to heaven at the end of the play. Her recurring line is: ‘Det är synd om människorna,’ a sentence which is practically untranslateable. ‘Mankind is to be pitied,’ is perhaps the closest we can get to this sigh of compassion.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The pain was his fuel

The pain was the fuel for his creativity.
 It strikes me that Strindberg indulged in pain rather than trying to avoid it. When he was in a highly emotional state it was like an engine switched on. It would make sense then that he didn’t shun big emotions, explosive passion or unreasonable hatred. In fact, he sought these extremes. He rarely rested on his laurels and when things became a bit too cosy - which didn’t happen often, admittedly – he’d launch into one of his sudden attacks to stir things up. The only people who escaped his wrath were children. Again and again we find how he creates a sanctuary for his own children, and other young people who came in his path.
When he was living in Drottninggatan towards the end of his life, for instance, he often let Fanny Falkner's little sisters come to play and on one occasion he laid the table for a children’s party with place cards and proper napkins and he was so engrossed in the play that he was unavailable to the adult visitor who called on him.
 On another occasion he was holding a small child’s hand and refused to let go of it in order to shake the visitor’s hand.
Adversely, if you were on the receiving end of one of his attacks you would find it hard to come to terms with his hot temper.
But by picking on each outburst and using it as evidence of Strindberg’s unstable mind or madness we are denying the importance of a charged atmosphere to many artists, including Strindberg. I think it is interesting that so few Strindberg scholars touch upon the correlation between the creative process and the adrenaline that sparks the anger and aggression.
Anyone who has lived with an artist will recognize that behaviour and will understand the reasons for some unreasonable and unpredictable conduct. In that sense, Siri was the perfect artist’s wife - extremely patient and understanding. She may have been an idle baroness when she met Strindberg but she had the unruffled temperament to support an artist who was frequently walking through fire and who was more often than not consumed by his own fire. 

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Strindberg distorted

When you are faced with a biography of someone you have studied for years and feel you know intimately and you suddenly don’t recognize what is written about that person you get an eerie feeling. I was curious to read about a new biography on Strindberg since I have spent the last thirty years or so translating his works and writing about him in journals and in book form. But when I saw the reviews of Sue Prideaux’s book Strindberg – a life I was alarmed to find some serious errors. It is not often that a biography on Strindberg is published in this country, although the publisher’s claim that it is thirty years since the last biography appeared is not true. My biography Strindberg and Love which deals with his wives and works was published in 2001 by Amber Lane Press
In her book Prideaux makes some hair-raising claims; she writes, for instance, that Strindberg’s and Siri’s eldest daughter, seven-year-old Karin kept a vigil at Viktoria Benediktsson’s bedside at the Leopold Hotel in Copenhagen on that fateful night in January 1888 when Benediktsson tried to commit suicide by taking morphine. Benediktsson survived on that occasion because she vomited in the night but six months later she used a razor instead and succeeded. Two weeks after her death Strindberg finished his play Lady Julie (Miss Julie) and let Julie use the same method as Benediktsson when taking her life in the final scene.
Karin wrote about this whole dramatic event in her book Strindbergs första hustru (Strindberg’s First Wife), but in doing so she is quoting another writer and friend of both Benediktsson and Strindberg who had witnessed the suicide attempt but was sworn to secrecy. It was he who had been sitting by Benediktsson’s bedside as she was drifting off, but at the last moment he got cold feet and knocked at Strindberg’s door in the middle of the night and told him about Benediktsson’s suicide attempt.  By putting this story squarely into Karin’s mouth and ignoring the fact that she was retelling Axel Lundegård’s experience Prideaux makes Strindberg into a complete monster. If he had been alive today he would have sued her for libel.
As Ruth Scurr writes in the Guardian review of 21 April 2012: Karin remarked: ’I’ll never forget the expression on his face. He was so interested. Not a smidgen of human sympathy or compassion crossed his features, just naked curiosity; he was fascinated.’
Karin NEVER said or witnessed that. Karin was simply quoting Axel Lundegård in her sober, restrained way.

Another glaring mistake is Prideaux’ assumption that Strindberg persuaded Siri to give up her first child, husband, most of her fortune and her social respectability. Where does she get this information from, I wonder? If you read Siri’s letters from that period you’ll see quite clearly that Siri did not want to be burdened with a small child when she started out as an actress. She wanted her first husband to have custody of their daughter so that she could have the freedom to develop as an actress. As far as her fortune is concerned she came to a complicated arrangement which I have written about at length in my biography but she certainly did not abandon her fortune at Strindberg’s request. Her first husband did rather well out of her. More so than Strindberg.
Where did Strindberg declare Frida’s journalism useless? On the contrary, he read some of her articles while she was staying on in England after their honeymoon and he was  surprised to find that she had a very good writing style and told her so in a letter.

When it comes to his third wife, Harriet Bosse, he did not try to cancel their honeymoon because he wanted to work. He was feeling uneasy about travelling at that time because ’the powers that be’ didn’t want him to go. It has been suggested that he was deeply affected by Dagny Juel’s murder that summer. Dagny had been one of his girl-friends during the Berlin period and he and Harriet were planning to go to Berlin on their honeymoon.
I could go on picking at details which are untrue or distorted but suffice it to say that it is rather sad to see so many sensational titbits presented as facts.
There are enough reliable sources around. There are no reasons for getting the facts so wrong.
It makes me both sad and angry.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


Strindberg's slot in March was taken over by one of the 'others', an old favourite of mine, the Swedish Nobel Laureate Pär Lagerkvist. It must have been more than fifty years since I first read his novel Barabbas, the story about the crucifixion seen from the point of view of Barabbas, the evil-doer who was released instead of Christ.
Everyone knows how they hung there on their crosses, writes Lagerkvist. It may have been true in many western countries fifty years ago but the story cannot be expected to have the same familiar feel today when most people are not obliged to study the Bible at school or necessarily attend Sunday school where they might learn about the most famous stories from the Bible.
Lagerkvist introduces the disciples, Lazarus,  Mary Magdalene but without naming them. We simply assume that they are these well-known figures from the New Testament, judging by their speeches and actions. So what is the point of retelling a story that is already covered in four gospels?
Lagerkvist, who had been brought up in a pious home with a non-conformist religion, was put off by the claustrophobic atmosphere in the halls and churches he used to attend as a child. He called himself an atheist believer. He was certainly an agnostic, but throughout this slim novel there is quite clearly a longing for a god, for communion with other people who have a faith. Barabbas is baffled and visibly shocked by Christ's death. He watches that thin rabbi on the cross and can't understand how he ended up there. A weakling who could not even carry his own cross but who had to let Simon of Cyrene do it for him. Barabbas cannot imagine Christ committing the kind of crimes which would call for the worst death penalty imaginable, so he lingers on Golgotha and watches the crucifixion and observes the people surrounding the cross. He can't help thinking that if it had been him hanging there on a cross there would not have been such a crowd watching. After this shattering experience his old friends do not hold such fascination for him any more. He goes back to their den and drinks with his old companions and makes love to his favourite whore, but he is not himself and he can't let himself go like the others. His curiosity brings him to the disciples and he starts talking to them about Golgotha. When they realise who he is they curse him and don't want any more to do with him but Barabbas goes to the place where Christ had been buried amongst the rocks and there he waits to see if Christ is going to rise from the dead like he said he would. Barabbas doesn't believe he will but he goes there all the same and finds a  woman there, waiting for the resurrection. She actually sees an angel descending from heaven and it is her story that Barabbas repeats when he is chained to a Christian slave in the copper mines later. The slave reveres Barabbas because he has seen God, he was there when it happened. The kindness that he receives from the woman and his fellow slave gradually softens him and when the slave dies for his faith Barabbas is visibly moved and, for the first time in his life, he feels compassion. The book cleverly argues that goodness spreads and it is the chain reaction of goodness which gives us hope for peace and love among people.
This novel was translated and adapted for the stage by me and presented as an Easter drama   at the Swedish church on Palm Sunday 2012.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Taking it out on Strindberg

It is quite remarkable that Strindberg still manages to create such a stir and that so many people are outraged at what he wrote or said over a hundred years ago.
What is often forgotten is that he was such a multi-faceted person that you can find almost anything in his character. When people choose to highlight only his less attractive features and make a huge mountain of them it says more about the people criticizing Strindberg than it says about Strindberg. I have come across many people in my life who, after a heavy drinking session, may lash out in an uncharacteristic, venomous fashion. Feelings of suppressed anger, frustration and hatred rise to the surface and lands on unsuspecting bystanders. The devil drink doth stoke up fires in hell, indeed. Strindberg drank a lot, almost all his life. He also imbibed absinthe which could bring about symptoms similar to those associated with drugs. He was poisoning his brain with alcohol over the years and he never tried rehab, unlike his friend Edvard Munch.
I truly believe that the worst aspects of Strindberg were due to two things: his intake of alcohol and his fear of financial ruin. The daytime August, the Strindberg who played shops with his little daughter or her friends was the gentlest of creatures. The man who tended his garden and wrote lovingly of birds and plants was a harmless Strindberg. I don't deny that he sometimes said some awful things to people, some of whom had previously been his friends, but at least he wasn't hypocritical. He certainly didn't elevate himself. His last play, The Great Highway, is an important testament to his humility before God or 'the powers'.
Bless me, your poor mankind
Who suffers, suffers from your gift of life!
Me first whos suffered most
Whos suffered most and grieved
Because I couldnt be the man Id hoped to be!

He admitted that The Madman's Defence was a terrible book. He fell out with von Heidenstam but who wouldn't after he had revealed his true colours. He was disenchanted with Carl Larsson after he had met with success and become conservative. He was very close to his siblings, Anna and Axel, most of his life, but he also managed to fall out with them on some occasions. He adored his mentally fragile sister Elizabeth and he missed his late mother terribly.
Tor Aulin, the composer, stood by him right up to the end and so did several of his other friends.
Honesty hurts. Strindberg could be ruthlessly honest, not only to others but also to himself. Yes, it is uncomfortable, yes, he must have been jolly difficult to live with, but he possessed the fire, the greatest fire in Sweden, as he so boastfully put it. And thank God for that commitment and that passion which still engages people. He gave us a language that sparkles and burns and for that we are truly grateful.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Other gods and Gravesend

Between 1907 and until his death in 1912 Strindberg wrote down reflections and ideas in a book which he called A Blue Book. In this book he writes about love, jealousy, religion, philosophy. One entry caught my eye recently because it could have been written today. Like so many other authors around the end of the 19th century he studied Buddhism and  even incorporated Buddhist ideas into at least two of his later works. He was fascinated by Buddhism for a while, but he also saw the funny side of this appetite for new religions and the way the grass is always greener on the other side. In A Blue Book he writes: 'When Buddhism became fashionable in 1890 all renegades rushed in and tried to fill their religious vacuum. Six thousand new gods were acclaimed at once; the new trinity, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva did not raise any objections; spirits, ghosts, genies, fairies were natural phenomenons; Gautama's hells and heavens were part of the parcel; a little asceticism also belonged to the story. Those who recently had denied the resurrection found the reincarnation unproblematic. But the favourite, however, was Krishna. He was the god Vishnu who had been sent down to earth, and was born by human parents in order to save mankind. His arrival was prophesied and feared so that Bethlehem-like child murders were instigated on new-born children, but without success. Krishna fulfilled his mission and fought against evil, and he suffered and died voluntarily.
That was acceptable. The trinity Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva was alright, but The Father- The Son - The Holy Ghost was not. Krishna was acceptable but not Christ. How funny!'

Strindberg was never fond of England. He admired Dickens, Shakespeare and Turner and his paintings show quite clearly the influence by Turner, but during his brief visit to England in 1893 he couldn't wait to leave London and go back to the island of Rügen in North Germany where several of his friends were then staying. It didn't help that he and his second wife, Frida Uhl, arrived in Gravesend after a stormy crossing that had taken forty-eight hours.  Frida suffered terrible sea-sickness so they had to stay in Gravesend for a few days for her to recover.
When they reached London it was hot and stifling and he didn't know the language so he was miserable and wanted to leave at once. After ten days Frida pawned her lace and jewellery, including her wedding ring, and  managed to raise £5 which was enough for Strindberg's travelling expenses so he set off, leaving his new wife behind. Frida had been to a convent school in London and she knew the city well. She was hoping to make some contacts in the theatre or secure some contracts for Strindberg. At least that was her excuse. She found a small Swedish colony in Putney and suggested in a letter that they might settle down there. But Strindberg never returned to England. However, Frida's son, Friedrich Strindberg, lived there for some years, but despite having the same surname as August and consequently being his legal son, he was the offspring of an extra-marital relationship between Frida and Frank Wedekind. But more of that anon.