Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Strindberg's revolutionary play

Mäster Olof

My first encounter with Strindberg on stage was at Gothenburg Civic Theatre in 1958. They were showing Mäster Olof - which is translated as Master Olof but I would prefer to call it Father Olof, since it is about a monk who breaks away from the Catholic church and follows in Luther’s footsteps.
It is a play which has been revised endlessly and Strindberg wrote three different versions of it. The prose version, which is perhaps considered the best, was finished in 1872. Two years later he wrote another version which is partly in verse, and in 1876 he finished the verse drama on the same character. It took nine years before the play was produced on stage in Sweden. The cast list is huge and I can understand why foreign companies shy away from a production for that reason, but it is fascinating play of ideas in Ibsen’s and Schiller’s vein, and it works on two levels. On the one hand it is a play about the priest Olof who studied under Martin Luther in Germany and who returned to Sweden in 1518 with revolutionary ideas about the church. He wanted to fight ‘the spiritual death and corruption in the Catholic church’. With the help of the king, Gustav Vasa, he brought about the Reformation in Sweden. At the time when Strindberg started work on this play there was another strong movement gathering momentum in Europe and, undoubtedly, Strindberg was referring to the rise of Socialism in Mäster Olof. Like Luther, Olof falls in love with a nun and marries her, thus breaking the law of celibacy. Olof’s wife, Kristina, is portrayed as an unusually gentle and yet strong woman. She stands by her husband, but at the same time, she points out the importance of appreciating flowers and birds. The lofty ideals must not eradicate the real values in life. She represents a kind of Francis of Assisi in her naivety and all-embracing love.

Are you too grand to look at a flower or listen to a bird? Olof, I put the flowers on your table for you to rest your eyes on , but you ask the maid to take them away because they give you a headache, you say. I wanted to break the silence when you were engrossed in your work so I offered you birdsong, but you call it shrieking. I asked you to come in for dinner a short while ago, but you didn’t have time. I wanted to talk to you, but you don’t have time. You despise this small reality and yet you have placed me in it. You don’t want to elevate me, but then spare me your contempt at least. I shall remove everything that might disturb your thoughts. I shall leave you in peace and keep myself and my rubbish away from you. (She throws the flowers out of the window, takes the birdcage and is about to leave the room)
Kristina, my child, forgive me! You don’t understand!

The play lasts for six hours if performed in its entirety. It took Dramaten another nine years before they put it on. They chose the verse play. In 1887 while the Strindbergs were living in southern Germany August asked his brother Axel to sell the original manuscript. It brought in a much needed 500 kronor and Strindberg wrote to his brother in a desperate but jocular tone:
‘Well, now I have sold everything that can be sold. The only thing remaining is my corpse (and above all the skull) which I donate to Medical Science.’
But soon after he sat down to write his most popular novel, The People of Hemsö, which became a huge success.