The Swedish playwright August Strindberg was, amongst other things, a mercurial talent, artist, occultist, husband and father. He is also frequently accused of, amongst other things, misogyny, anti-Semitism and insanity. In this exclusive article, published to coincide with the paperback publication of Yale’s acclaimed biography of Strindberg, author Sue Prideuax responds to queries submitted by followers of the Yale Books Twitter account.
The questions and answers that follow focus on the legacy of Strindberg’s work. The playwright and artist referred to his compositions as ‘battles of the brians’ and propagated a style of theatre which permeated, and continues to permeate, dramatic practice.
Strindberg’s legacy: To what extent has Strindberg had a lasting influence on theatre?
He scorned the immutable characters and tennis-match dialogue of the day. Instead, he gave weight to the irrational, using suggestion to set up associations in the mind of the audience. He talks about ‘hypnotising’ the audience and he spent a lot of time studying psychology and dreams to understand how such subconscious connections work.
Arthur Miller, Sean O’Casey, Eugene O’Neil all cite him as the star who pointed the way. Tennessee Williams and Albee continue the domestic danses macabres. André Breton’s 1929 Surrealist Manifesto is pretty much a hymn to A Dream Play: Surrealist Theatre and the Theatre of the Absurd follow on. Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Pinter and John Osborne have all been cited as followers: Pinter and Beckett denied it. Strindberg was Kafka’s favourite author. Sartre and Camus formed a Strindberg Society. In film: Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman.
Performing Strindberg: You recently advised the actors from the Gate Theatre production of Strindberg’s Dance of Death, What did you suggest to them?
I didn’t suggest or advise as I’m not the director, merely the biographer. I told them what was going on in his life when he was writing the play, and about women’s position in society because that has a big bearing on the battle between Alice and Edgar. Then I answered questions. The cast were curious about the setting of the play, the quarantine island, and pretty amazed to learn there was still leprosy in Sweden in the nineteenth century. We agreed that the hermetically-sealed quarantine island is the perfect mise-en-scène for a battle of the sexes play. Michael Pennington, who was playing Edgar, wanted to know about Strindberg and religion. This led to talking about the Darwin/God/Occult stuff I’ve outlined here and, interestingly, to the proposal that the three characters in The Dance of Death can be read as the clash of three irreconcilable concepts:
Edgar = the Nietzschean Will to Power
Kurt = Christianity
Alice = Eternal Eve.
The following extract is taken from Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux:
[Strindberg] attended rehearsals and posterity is fortunate that he found public speaking so agonisingly difficulty that he simply could not force himself to speak in front of the hole cast. He remained unnervingly silent during rehearsals but sent practically everybody notes on matters great and small, and so we have his Memorandums to the Members of the Intimate Theatre from the Director, later published as Open Letters to the Intimate Theatre.
The book starts by looking back to his beginnings as a playwright and one realises how far theatre had come in the previous thirty years when he describes that as a young playwright he had to write to a strict formula in order for his plays to stand any chance of being read, let alone performed.
The play should preferable have five acts; each act approximately twenty-four sheets long or, in all, 5 x 24 = 120 folio pages. The division into scenes was not appreciated and was considered a weakness. Every act should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The end of the act should be the place for applause which was aroused by an oratical figure [ a set-piece delivered by a star actor] and, if the play was in blank verse, the last two lines should rhyme. . . .About 1870, when I had written Blotsven in five indifferent acts in verse and tried to read it aloud to my fellow poets at Uppsala, I found the whole play unjustifiably extended and uninspired. I burned it (and Erik XIV, too). Out of the ashes rose the one-act The Outlaw, which, along with its great weaknesses, had the merits of sticking to the subject, being brief but complete. I was undoubtedly influenced by Bjørnson’s splendid one-acter Between the Blows [Mellem slagene, 1857] which I found was my model. The times had, as you see, picked up speed; peope demanded quick results and had become impatient . . .
I tried a compromise. In my first version of Master Olof I substituted prose for verse, and instead of opera-like blank verse dramas with solos and ensemble numbers, I composed polyphonically, a symphony in which all the vice were interwoven (major and minor characters treated equally). The attempt succeeded but the play proved too long . . .
If anyone asks what an intimate theatre wants to achieve and what is meant by chamber plays, I can answer like this . . . freedom of treatment which is limited only by the unity of the concept.
Strindberg goes on to refer the reader to his famous preface to Miss Julie in which he had already set out his ‘naturalist’ manifesto against declamatory acting, character make-up, dazzling footlighting, set-pieces for applause and the curtain because ‘as soon as a curtain comes down the audience gives itself a shake and rejects what it has seen.’
For the same reason, the preface continues,
Director Falck broke with the classic tradition of serving liquor in the theatre. That was courageous, for the sale of liquor usually pays at least half the rent. . . but the drawbacks to allowing the audience strong drink in the middle of the drama are well known. The mood is destroyed by talk; the transported spirit loses its flexibility and becomes conscious of what should remain unconscious .
He goes on to talk about acting. First, speech:
Speak effectively! The first requirement is to speak slowly. The beginner has not the slightest notion how exceedingly slowly he can and ought to speak on stage. As a young actor-to-be I imitated our foremost conversational actor, repeating his lines softly. I was amazed, for no one could have made me believe that anyone could speak that slowly on stage without making what he had to say sound like a sermon.
He abhors the iniquity of trademark mannerisms and stresses the importance of the passive actor whose listening on stage and silent acting deepens the illusion. The next section on directing contradicts any notion that the new theatre is so devoted to the abstract that the smallest physical detail is beyond notice. Take men’s trousers: ‘The men have to be careful that their trousers fall attractively and cover their shoes and that they do not creep up revealing garter or sock; moreover, the knee should not have the profile of a pointed angle; the calf or leg should not form a triangle with the foot.’
Mastering the role! There are several ways of doing this but the surest is without doubt first a careful reading of the script, which used to be done at the initial group reading of the play, which I consider necessary. I have seen with horror how great artists pick out their roles like grains of sand and leave the rest to its fate as if it did not concern them . . . Since they do not know what other people are saying about them when they are not on stage, they do not know who they are . . . I have seen a great artist who lost his biggest scene because he did not , which used to be done at the initial group reading of the play, which I consider necessary. I have seen with horror how great artists pick out their roles like grains of sand and leave the rest to its fate as if it did not concern them . . . Since they do not know what other people are saying about them when they are not on stage, they do not know who they are . . . I have seen a great artist who lost his biggest scene because he did not understand what it was about. The audience who had heard the preceding scene understood the situation, caught the allusion but could not understand what he was about because he had not understood the play . . .
The following scene I am told, was acted at a rehearsal:
STAR: Why doesn’t he come? Shall I wait for him any longer?
A VOICE: he can’t come. He died in the preceding act.
STAR: Died, did he? Well, well!
Again and again Strindberg’s advice stresses the importance of company acting, and of the director.
‘The director like the orchestra conductor is not a particularly popular person, because he is only there to criticise. He often has to instruct even the mature artist and often gets tit for tat.’ Yet the director too must be a receptive instrument; he must direct and not dictate.
I have seen introspective directors who have drilled and thrashed a play to pieces to impose their own gestures, their own intonation, their own fragile voice, their own mannerisms. We never engage in that sort of thing . . . The director does not have the freedom in selecting plays that actors and authors imagine. Depending on the prevalent taste, the financial or economic situation, or the mood, he is often forced to select a play that people want to see, even if it is not very good . . . Still, following the public’s taste can be risky because taste is forever changing and changes suddenly.
Open Letters to the Intimate Theatre gives no advice to authors, for the good reason that the theatre was to perform only his own plays but even at this late stage in his career, and in a great position of power over his own theatre, he did not regard his words as sacred and he told them that whatever did not work in rehearsal they must feel free to cut or to change.