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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
August Strindberg (1849–1912)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn (1882–1955)
 
IT is far too soon, nor will it ever be easy, to pass any final critical verdict on the immense and multiform literary productivity of August Strindberg. A morbidly sensitive, ungoverned, impassioned character, prodigally gifted but without any mastery over his own soul or of his own aims, he vibrated to every breath of the modern spirit. He began as a romanticist, turned consistent naturalist, had his Nietzschean period, and ended as a confirmed mystic and symbolist. His earliest plays are historical tragedies in verse, those of his middle period acrid transcripts from life, those of his declining years betray strongly the influence of Maeterlink. Thus a foreign critic may be pardoned for believing, at least provisionally, that Strindberg’s most solid contribution to the literature of his time was made during his middle or naturalistic period, that the fourteen plays produced between ‘The Father’ (1887) and ‘The Link’ (1897), the short stories in ‘Marriage’ (1884–86) and the autobiographical novels, especially ‘A Fool’s Confessions’ (1888), are more memorable than the dreamy fancies of his later works. Among these the best and most satisfactory are again those in which, as in ‘The Storm’ (1907), he recovers a portion of that marvelous acuteness in analyzing the human heart which was undoubtedly his chief gift.  1
  He was born in Stockholm. His parents were in narrow circumstances and the family was large. Gifted, rebellious, thin-skinned, he was wretched from the first. At school he fared no better, nor at the University of Upsala where he was plagued by poverty and by the dead, conventional routine of learned dullards. He tried teaching, acting, journalism, the study of medicine. A position in the Royal Library of the capital finally gave some stability to his life. In 1875 he contracted his first marriage which caused him the most terrible suffering but proved finally the inspiration of his best work. With very gradual but cumulative success he now devoted himself to writing. He lived much in Paris where he was recognized by Antoine and his plays were performed at the “Théâtre Libre”; then at Friedrichshagen near Berlin and also, as his reputation spread in Germany, in Berlin, and then again in Paris where he suffered the tragic mental collapse and mystical reawakening described in ‘Inferno’ (1897). He spent the rest of his life in his native country where, after years of bitter criticism and active hostility, he was finally accepted as the most notable figure in modern Swedish literature and where his death in 1912 was regarded as a national event and a national calamity.  2
  His best work is a direct outgrowth of the spirit of his age. Or, rather, though it comes to the same thing, a protest against that spirit. In a period of feminism he is the great anti-feminist, the reactionary of sex, the conscious protester against Ibsen “the famous Norwegian bluestocking” and all his works and ways. It is quite wrong to call him a woman-hater, as he has himself excellently demonstrated:
          “On looking back at my past life I discover that, ever since I became a man, I have always lived in regular relations with women, and that their presence has aroused pleasant feelings in me, in so far as they have remained women toward me. But when they have behaved as the rivals of man, neglected their beauty and lost their charm, I have detested them by virtue of a sound and natural instinct.”
  3
  To this passage it is only necessary to add that Strindberg, like most creative thinkers, was insanely jealous of any impingement upon his psychical personality, that therefore what he sought in love was rest and ease and refreshment. But in the modern woman he found instead rivalry and disquietude and rebellion. There, in brief, is his whole case, the spiritual background of that fearful suffering from which sprang the passionate precision of his analysis of the women of his time.  4
  Precision is the word to which one returns again and again in any attempt to characterize Strindberg’s psychology of woman and of the relations of the sexes. Extreme suffering had impelled him to fix an immensely penetrating gaze upon these things. He had lived the problem in its acutest form, had turned it over in his mind a thousand times, had viewed it from a thousand angles. Hence the pitiless clarity of his insight and of his presentation. He shows us the first and perhaps the central phase of the whole problem in ‘The Father’ (1887). And this phase one might call the phase of sex will. The fact that is fundamental to this terrible play is that the volition of woman is biological. Under the veneer of civilization she is the bearer of the race impulse and of the race will. Her purpose is nature’s, not reason’s. Hence her faith in the rightness of her willing is unhesitant. In truth she need not even exercise faith. She wills as an avalanche falls. It is through a subtle understanding of this fact that man has kept her in subjection, established the chivalric tradition and called her weak in order that he might have a measure of freedom. Now modern society liberates that primal force, that elemental will. Before it the man with his social and ethical conscience, his reserves and psychical divisions, with that whole cultural universe of values which he has erected upon the basis of the biological, is utterly helpless. The captain in ‘The Father’ is, of course, infinitely more intelligent than his wife, but he is infinitely less cunning; he is full of scruples; she is quite unscrupulous. She has no pang of conscience, for her willing is not ethical at all but starkly biological. The result of this struggle is a tragedy which, as Georg Brandes rightly says, “clings to one’s memory and grips and terrifies through the depth of the passionate suffering that uttered the cry.”  5
  It is useless to say that we are dealing with an exaggeration. It is an exaggeration in the sense that even the most realistic art works by a process of selection and concentration. But no one who lives among the gentler classes of any modern social group and has any power of observation can doubt the dangerous predominance of the feminine will. In ‘Comrades’ (1888) and ‘Creditors’ (1890) Strindberg attacks a further complication of the same difficulty. Not only is the will of woman set free but it is now exerted, even within marriage, in terms of competitive activity. The result is that the husband’s art is crippled and broken, because the woman’s will is used to make his strength contributary to her own. But there is no element of compensating good in this injustice, for the woman’s art, even at the cost of the man’s strength and talent, is still inferior to his. Thus these so-called comradely marriages are not, in essence, comradely at all. Nor are they unions in any true sense, but the bondage of two naturally hostile and competitive forces, the less worthy but more single willed of which is bound to be victorious. It is again useless for the conventionally minded to protest. Few instances will be found so pure in their horror as those which Strindberg presents. But the evil is definitely present in modern society and the memory of every observer will summon up the pusillanimous and unpleasantly uxorious figures of men whose wives are learned in the same science or practitioners of the same art as themselves. A powerful genius would, no doubt, transcend the difficulties involved. But powerful genius is a rare thing. Strindberg rightly presents to us cases that typify the great majority of merely talented and useful men.  6
  The famous ‘Miss Juliet’ (1888) is really less interesting because it deals with a morbid and unusual situation. Masterly in their power and precision, on the other hand, are ‘Facing Death’ (1893) and ‘The Link’ (1897). The latter, especially, is a marvelous analysis of the psychical factors in a modern marriage and especially of the fundamental differences between the ethical impulses of man and those of woman. The portraits of the Baron and the Baroness in the play may not add to the glory of human nature. They are a superb addition to our exact knowledge of the soul of men.  7
  No account of Strindberg’s best plays, however brief, is sufficient without a word in regard to his dramatic art. Before Hauptmann and with no first-rate examples of naturalistic dramaturgy to guide him except Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts,’ he achieved a technique of almost incomparable severity, purity, and strength. There is no groping, no experimentation in his plays. At once in ‘The Father’ his dramatic art appears in all its perfection, utterly without concessions to the tradition of intrigue and factitious plots which still rules the European theatre. His place is therefore no less important among the masters of the modern theatre than among the great analysts of character and of society.  8
 
 
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