Johan August Strindberg (22 January 1849 – 14 May 1912) was a Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and painter. A prolific writer who often drew directly on his personal experience, Strindberg's career spanned four decades, during which time he wrote over 60 plays and more than 30 works of fiction, autobiography, history, cultural analysis, and politics. A bold experimenter and iconoclast throughout, he explored a wide range of dramatic methods and purposes, from naturalistic tragedy, monodrama, and history plays, to his anticipations of expressionist and surrealist dramatic techniques. From his earliest work, Strindberg developed forms of dramatic action, language, and visual composition so innovative that many were to become technically possible to stage only with the advent of film. He is considered the "father" of modern Swedish literature and his The Red Room (1879) has frequently been described as the first modern Swedish novel.
Strindberg’s father, Carl Oskar Strindberg, was a bankrupt aristocrat who worked as a steamship agent, and his mother was a former waitress. His childhood was marred by emotional insecurity, poverty, his grandmother’s religious fanaticism, and neglect, as he relates in his remarkable autobiography Tjänstekvinnans son (1886–87; The Son of a Servant, 1913). He studied intermittently at the University of Uppsala, preparing in turn for the ministry and a career in medicine but never taking a degree. To earn his living, he worked as a free-lance journalist in Stockholm, as well as at other jobs that he almost invariably lost. Meanwhile he struggled to complete his first important work, the historical drama Mäster Olof (published in 1872), on the theme of the Swedish Reformation, influenced by Shakespeare and by Henrik Ibsen’s Brand. The Royal Theatre’s rejection of Mäster Olof deepened his pessimism and sharpened his contempt for official institutions and traditions. For several years he continued revising the play—later recognised as the first modern Swedish drama—thus delaying his development as a dramatist of contemporary problems.
"The world, life and human beings are only an illusion, a phantom, a dream image"
In 1874 he became a librarian at the Royal Library, and in 1875 he met the Finno-Swedish Siri von Essen, then the unhappy wife of an officer of the guards; two years later they married. Their intense but ultimately disastrous relationship ended in divorce in 1891, when Strindberg, to his great grief, lost the custody of their four children. At first, however, marriage stimulated his writing, and in 1879 he published his first novel, The Red Room, a satirical account of abuses and frauds in Stockholm society: this was something new in Swedish fiction and made its author nationally famous.
He also wrote more plays, of which Lucky Peter’s Travels (1881) contains the most biting social criticism. In 1883, the year after he published Det nya riket (“The New Kingdom”), a withering satire on contemporary Sweden, Strindberg left Stockholm with his family and for six years moved restlessly about the Continent. Although he was then approaching a state of complete mental breakdown, he produced a great number of plays, novels, and stories. The publication in 1884 of the first volume of his collected stories, Married, led to a prosecution for blasphemy. He was acquitted, but the case affected his mind, and he imagined himself persecuted, even by Siri.
He returned to drama with new intensity, and the conflict between the sexes inspired some of the outstanding works written at this time, such as The Father, Miss Julie, and The Creditors. All of these were written in total revolt against contemporary social conventions. In these bold and concentrated works, he combined the techniques of dramatic Naturalism—including unaffected dialogue, stark rather than luxurious scenery, and the use of stage props as symbols—with his own conception of psychology, thereby inaugurating a new movement in European drama. The People of Hemsö, a vigorous novel about the Stockholm skerries (rocky islands), always one of Strindberg’s happiest sources of inspiration, was also produced during this intensively creative phase.
The years after his return to Sweden in 1889 were lonely and unhappy. Even though revered as a famous writer who had become the voice of modern Sweden, he was by now an alcoholic unable to find steady employment. In 1892 he went abroad again, to Berlin. His second marriage, to a young Austrian journalist, Frida Uhl, followed in 1893; they finally parted in Paris in 1895.
A period of literary sterility, emotional and physical stress, and considerable mental instability culminated in a kind of religious conversion, the crisis that he described in Inferno. During these years Strindberg devoted considerable time to experiments in alchemy and to the study of theosophy.
Read more of Brita Maud Ellen Mortensen's Biography here.
Extracts from 'The Inferno'.
IV. THE FALL AND PARADISE LOST
Guided into this new world in which no one can follow me, I conceived an aversion to social intercourse, and have an unconquerable desire to free myself from my surroundings. I therefore informed my friends that I wished to go to Meudon to write a book which required solitude and quiet. At the same time insignificant disagreements led to a breach with the circle which met at the Restaurant, so that one day I found myself entirely isolated. The first result was an extraordinary expansion of my inner sense; a spiritual power which longed to realise itself. I believed myself in the possession of unlimited strength, and pride inspired me with the wild idea of seeing whether I could perform a miracle. At an earlier period, in the great crisis of my life, I had observed that I could exercise a telepathic influence on absent friends. In popular legends writers have occupied themselves with the subjects of telepathy and witchcraft. I wish neither to do myself an injustice, nor altogether to acquit myself of wrong-doing, but I believe that my evil will was not so evil as the counterstroke which I received. A devouring curiosity, an outbreak of perverted love, caused by my frightful loneliness, inspired me with an intense longing to be re-united with my wife and child, both of whom I still loved. But how was this to be brought about, as divorce proceedings were already on foot? Some extraordinary event, a common misfortune, a thunderbolt, a conflagration ... in brief, some catastrophe which unites two hearts, just as in novels two persons are reconciled at the sick-bed of a third. Stop! there I have it! A sick-bed! Children are always more or less ill; a mother's fear exaggerates the danger; a telegram follows, and all is said. I had no idea of practising magic, but an unwholesome instinct suggested I must set to work with the picture of my dear little daughter, who later on was to be my only comfort in a cursed existence. Further on in this work I will relate the results of my manoeuvre, in which my evil purpose seemed to work with the help of symbolical operations. Meantime the results had to be waited for, and I continued my work with a feeling of undefined uneasiness and a foreboding of fresh misfortune.
At length a pause ensues in my sufferings. For hours at a time I sit in the open space before the summer-house, watch the flowers, and think over the recent events. The peace of mind, which I find after my flight, convinces me that I have not been suffering from the delusions of disease, but have been persecuted by real enemies. I work during the day and sleep quietly at night. Delivered from the squalor of my former residence, I feel myself rejuvenated among the roses of this garden—the favourite flower of my youth. The Jardin des Plantes, this wonder of Paris unknown to the Parisians themselves, has become my park. This epitome of creation confined within a narrow circuit, this Noah's Ark, this Paradise Regained in which I wander without danger among wild beasts—it is too much happiness. Beginning with stones, I proceed to the vegetable and animal kingdoms, till I come to man, and behind man I discover the Creator—the great Artist who develops as he creates, sets on fool designs which He rejects later on, resumes plans which have failed, and completes and multiplies primitive forms endlessly. All is the work of His hand. Often in the discovery of methods He makes enormous leaps, and then Science conies and ascertains the extent of the gaps and the missing links, and imagines that it has found the intermediary forms which have disappeared.
Extracts from 'From the Diary of a Damned Soul'.
X. THE ETERNAL HAS SPOKEN
Winter, with its grey-yellow skies is here; no ray of sunlight has lit up the sky for weeks. The muddy roads hinder us from taking walks; the leaves fall from the trees and rot; all nature is dissolving in decay. The usual autumn butchery of dumb animals has begun. All day long the cries of the victims rise against the dark vault of heaven; one steps in blood and among corpses. It is terribly depressing, and I feel sad for the two, good, kind-hearted sisters who tend me like a sick child. Besides this, my poverty, which I must conceal from them, depresses me, together with the futility of my attempts to avert approaching beggary. For my own good they wish for my departure, since such a lonely life is not good for a man; moreover, they believe that I need a doctor. In vain I wait for the necessary money to be sent from Sweden, and prepare to depart, even though I have to tramp the high roads. "I have become like a pelican of the wilderness, and like an owl in the desert." My presence is a trial to my relatives, and but for my love to the child, they would have hurried me away. Now that mud or snow makes walking difficult, I carry the little one along the paths on my arms, climb hills, and clamber up rocks, so that both the old ladies say, "You will make yourself ill, you will get giddy, you will kill yourself". "And a beautiful death that would be!" I reply.
Six months have passed, and I still go daily walking on the city wall and survey the lunatic asylum, and catch glimpses of the blue sea in the distance. Thence will the new epoch, the new religion, come of which the world is dreaming. Gloomy winter is buried, the meadows are green, the trees are in blossom, the nightingale sings in the garden of the observatory, but a wintry sadness still weighs upon our spirits, for so many weird and inexplicable things have happened, that even the most incredulous waver. The general sleeplessness increases, nervous breakdowns are common, apparitions are matters of every day, and real miracles happen. People are expecting something.