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August Strindberg | Biography

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Early Years

Johan August Strindberg was born on January 22, 1849, in Stockholm as one of 12 children, several of whom died in infancy. His emotionally written autobiography, The Son of a Servant (1888–87; in English, 1913), indicates youthful unhappiness and rejection, characterizing himself as the least favored of many sons. His father's family had been prominent in the spice trade in Stockholm, operating steam vessels sailing the many canals of the city. But the elder Strindberg went bankrupt in 1853, and the large family experienced many difficulties as a result.

His mother, who had worked as a waitress and was of lower social standing, died nine years later. His father's remarriage to a former governess caused much pain to the children. Strindberg's education was spotty. He attended several different schools, where he struggled to fit in. Highly creative in the arts, including painting and music, he mastered other languages and liked to experiment with new sciences that had been unknown at the time.

Life in Sweden during Strindberg's youth was beginning to change rapidly. Stockholm was a large city but underdeveloped in terms of modern life. Many people were illiterate, transportation was limited, and no city water or sanitation was available.

In these conditions the future playwright explored new ways of thought and creativity. However, feeling the burden of poverty and sensing the lack of a future in Sweden, Strindberg abandoned his university studies in medicine and religion at the University of Uppsala several times. Pursuing acting, he joined the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, which led to Strindberg's first attempts at playwriting. His first plays, The Freethinker and In Rome, were published and performed in 1870. However, Strindberg left the theater and went back to university to study philosophy while continuing to write dramas. He left school again in 1872, returning to Stockholm. He became a librarian in the Royal Library in 1872 to be around books and intellectuals, and he worked in the library for eight years. His next play, Master Olaf, received harsh criticism. Strindberg continued to work on Master Olaf, producing new versions in 1876 and 1881. The 1881 version, staged by the Royal Dramatic Theater, was his first significant success as a playwright.

Departure from Sweden

A turning point occurred in 1875 when Strindberg met a Finnish-born Swede, Siri von Essen (1850–1912). She had aspirations of becoming an actress, and her marriage to a military officer, Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel, was tense and unhappy. She and Strindberg began a tumultuous affair that led to her divorce from Wrangel and marriage to Strindberg in 1877. Von Essen was pregnant at the time of the marriage, but the child, a daughter, died two days after being born. Around this time, Strindberg wrote his first novels, The Red Room (1879) and The New Kingdom (1882), a satire. Strindberg also wrote three new plays. One of the plays, Sir Bengt's Wife, was written for his wife to perform in. The play did not launch his wife's career as Strindberg had hoped. The couple went on to have three other children and in 1883 embarked on a life of continual travel in Europe. Their travels began in France and soon expanded to include Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. In 1884 Strindberg published Getting Married, a collection of short stories.

Early Works and Influences

Strindberg's early writings, such as in his novel, The New Kingdom, were considered blasphemous against marriage and the Church for their satire and skepticism. He was legally tried in Sweden for blasphemy in 1884 after the publication of Getting Married for making a mocking allusion to the Christian sacraments of bread and wine, but he was acquitted of charges. He returned to Sweden for the trial but had no intention of settling there.

Strindberg immersed himself in the new study of psychology, with particular emphasis on hypnosis and the power of suggestion from afar, techniques newly popular at the time with others, including the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). He also turned to a new conception of drama based on the scientific attitudes of the time. These dramas emphasized characterizations of troubled individuals rather than traditional plots leading to predictable conclusions. Strindberg was after a far more radical approach to literature, and his next play, The Father (1887), set off much controversy. The story tells of violent marital clashes of wills over disputed paternity, child raising, and education. The play ends in a hypnotic madness, which greatly shocked audiences.

Strindberg became increasingly interested in portraying suicide in his work when a close literary acquaintance, Swedish writer Victoria Benedictsson (1850–88), succeeded in taking her own life. About that time, he moved with his family into the Danish countryside at Skovlyst, a secluded rural area where they lived with an eccentric artistic family. The household was headed by a disgraced Countess Frankenau, who kept dozens of animals inside and maintained an odd relationship with a mysterious figure who may have been her half-brother or a servant. Strindberg's apparent seduction of a young girl in the house brought legal charges against him, but they were ultimately dropped.

Miss Julie and Other Works

The filthy and deteriorating conditions at the house suggested to him the depths of the human psyche and human condition. They also increased his interest in hypnotism, séances, and other occult activities. When he wrote Miss Julie in July and August 1888, he included, in addition to the theme of suicide, the symbols of boot polishing and bell ringing to provoke the will. Both rituals formed part of the turbulent daily life at Skovlyst, which he chronicled. Further, the tensions of Strindberg's own marital life, with its upheavals, accusations, and battles of will, appear in Miss Julie as well. Censored in Sweden, Miss Julie premiered in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1889, with Siri von Essen in the title role.

His later plays, including The Stronger (1889), The Dance of Death (1901), and The Ghost Sonata (1907), explored mystical events, psychology, and tormented relations in marriages and families. In one of his most acclaimed and influential works, A Dream Play (written in 1902 and first performed in 1907), Strindberg abandoned a realistic framework in favor of dream sequences about human suffering. This play, together with his trilogy To Damascus (1898–1904), is considered a forerunner of Expressionist drama, which focuses on emotional or psychological states rather than plausible events and characters within a structure of acts and scenes.

Later Years

Strindberg's marriage was a constant source of unhappiness and upheaval as the family went through frequent periods of poverty. There were separations and frequent accusations of adultery. Strindberg and Siri von Essen divorced in 1891. Strindberg married again, twice, to much younger women and fathered other children. His frequent marital turbulence crops up in his plays and other writings. A man of many talents, Strindberg continued to work in the other arts as well, producing many paintings in an Impressionist style, verging on abstraction. He worked for a time with Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944), best known for his painting The Scream. Munch painted Strindberg but angered him by misspelling his name.

Strindberg began a long period of deeply experimental living in Paris in what he called his "Inferno" period, going far into many types of drugs, psychoanalysis, alchemy, shock therapy, and hallucinations.

Death and Legacy

After years of turmoil, he returned permanently to Sweden in 1899 and involved himself in different forms of drama, in addition to his increasing interests in sketching, painting, triple-exposure photography, and the occult. He wrote plays about Swedish history and proposed new theories for more scientific-focused writing and objectivity based on observation and study.

In his last years he was still controversial and engaged in a two-year battle with the newspapers, called "the Strindberg Feud." Although he was not selected for a Nobel Prize in literature, a public appeal for funds raised sufficient money to create an anti-Nobel prize for him in 1912, the year both he, on May 14, and Siri von Essen, on April 22, died. His funeral was a great public event, with thousands marching in Stockholm and his plays being performed.

Strindberg eventually became a figure of great importance for world drama. The American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953) praised him openly in his own Nobel Prize speech in 1936 as a deep influence running "through more than a few of my plays." Strindberg also influenced other writers, including many of the 20th century's best-known playwrights: German poet and playwright Berthold Brecht (1898–1956), French writers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) and Jean Genet (1910–86), American author Tennessee Williams (1911–83), American dramatist and producer Edward Albee (1928–2016), and British playwright and film producer John Osborne (1929–94).

Strindberg's radical political and social positions continue to intrigue and often mystify audiences because he expresses provocative misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and other negative views as givens in his attack on social norms and traditions. Miss Julie is fully accepted as an important watershed moment in modern drama, after being criticized and censored widely for the treatment of sexual relations as a type of extreme and destructive hostility leading to great suffering for the tormented male and power-seeking female. Biographer Sue Prideaux notes Strindberg, the self-proclaimed "vivisector of life" and called the Shakespeare of Sweden, produced 61 plays (including 12 historical epics), 3 books of poetry, 18 novels, 9 autobiographical works, 10,000 surviving letters, and 69 boxed files of journalistic writing in various languages.

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