"I cannot write a line without that madman standing and staring down at me with those mad eyes."
- Henrik Ibsen on Strindberg's portrait.
Swedish playwright, author and poet Johan August Strindberg was one of Sweden's most controversial modernist writers of the 19th and early 20th century. Born in Stockholm, 1849, to a shipping merchant with aristocratic aspirations and his ex-maidservant wife, Strindberg was one of nine children. As a child and young man, August was said to be shy and prone to depression. The latter of these qualities followed him throughout his life, although as a grown man he was also given to bouts of mania and psychosis. Much of Strindberg's work reflects this uncomfortable relationship with his mental state, combined with his perverse take on male-female relations: many characters in his plays are bound by a mutual desire to destroy and yet physically possess each other. In general, Strindberg's art is a reflection of his creative genius and complicated life.
Childhood and education
As one of nine children of a household somewhat lacking in luxury, Strindberg was an unhappy child. His mother died of TB in 1862 when he was 13, and the young Strindberg came to hate his father's new wife. Described as a 'suspicious, irritable and sensitive' young man, August left home at 18 to study at Uppsala University, but was forced to leave after financial troubles and failing a first year exam in chemistry. At this stage Strindberg worked for the Royal Dramatic Theatre, but his three plays and attempts at acting failed to gain any attention. Seized by depression, the young man tried to commit suicide. The story goes that after taking opium, Strindberg was overwhelmed by memories of his childhood whilst unconscious, thus inspired to become a writer, and came round to write his first good play in only 4 days.
The promise shown by these newer attempts at writing plays earned Strindberg a stipend from Charles XV, which allowed him to return to university in Uppsala. Once more, however, Strindberg dropped out; this time as he was dissatisfied with his tutors. He settled to write the first of his major works, the historical drama "Master Olaf". This was unfortunately for Strindberg highly unsuccessful, once more leaving him depressed and despondent. His situation improved, however, as in 1874 August was appointed assistant librarian at the Royal Library. At this point he meets his first wife, the married Baroness Siri von Essen, one of the Swedish aristocracy in Finland. She divorced her husband, Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel and married the young playwright in 1877, seven months pregnant with their first child. Siri became an actress, and starred in the revamped and more successful "Master Olaf". Despite the relatively curious love-hate nature of their relationship, Siri bought some stability into August's life. She bore him 3 more children, who became the only children after the firstborn died. The family moved to Denmark, where Strindberg wrote the popular "Miss Julie". Siri continued to act in August's plays.
Declining mental health and divorce
In 1883, after being accused of anti-semitism in Denmark, the now prolific and controversial playwright moved to a Scandinavian artists' colony near Paris, then to Switzerland. Strindberg's life began to spiral out of control: his apparent mental illness led him to believe his wife Siri persecuted him and wanted to put him in a mental institution. The marriage began to break down under the weight of Strindberg's absinthe consumption and financial difficulties. His contentious alternative account of the Last Supper enraged the establishment, and Strindberg was prosecuted for blasphemy. He was however acquitted, but the whole episode had taken its toll on Strindberg's mental health and marriage. Back in Stockholm in 1891, August divorces Siri.
Second marriage and 'Inferno'
Strindberg moved to Berlin the following year, and spent time in artistic circles. He began to move away from writing, and engaged in much photography and painting. Strindberg met Austrian Maria "Frida" Uhl in 1893, married her, and moved to Austria. Throughout the following few years, Strindberg started to suffer psychotic episodes; haunted by guilt at leaving his children and his fear of persecution, which had been visible in early stages in Switzerland. After "Cloisters", a somewhat autobiographical account of his marriage to Uhl - which had lasted only a year - Strindberg entered his 'Inferno' crisis, so named after his novel of that name which describes this psychotic period. He became interested in occultism and alchemy, and began, between 1896 and 1908 to keep a vivid diary, the 'Occult Diary'. The lifespan of the diary outlived the Inferno crisis by a long way, however, which passed with Swedenborgian therapy when Strindberg returned to Stockholm in 1897.
Third marriage and 'Kammerspiel'
Back in Sweden, Strindberg married and divorced once more, this time to Harriet Bosse. Once more, the relationship was a painful mix of contempt and desire, and after divorcing, the pair went on to become lovers. Strindberg described the relationship in the 'Occult Diary':
When I married Bosse I got her with child immediatly. But she grudged me that great honour, and out of spite she went off with her unborn child. She alleged that I had deserted our bedroom, but the truth was that she had begged me to move, as pregnancy had given her a dislike for my person. She returned and the child was born. The next thing was that she did not want to have more children, but did want to continue "married life". This resulted in distaste and disgust. First we separated, then we got a divorce. After that we came together again and I became her lover, and still am. This then is the question, in what way have I failed? My reputation was restored, but is so no longer, for her lies are enduring, in spite of all there is to confute them! At 50 I was no good as a husband, but at 58 I am good enough to be a lover! It is sublime! Sublime!!
After the collapse of yet another marriage, Strindberg concentrated on establishing an intimate 'chamber theatre': these were attempts to exchange plays with a single protagonist
for those which worked by creating mood and atmosphere with several actors. He then wrote many plays in this style, such as The Thunderstorm, After the Fire and The Spook Sonata. These were named 'Kammerspiel', after the Kammerspiel-haus in Berlin.
Death and after
In 1908, Strindberg became more sedate and settled into his 'Blue Tower' house. He lived there until dying from stomach cancer in May 1912. Despite the contention Strindberg exacted from his contemporaries, he has become the most celebrated of Swedish writers. Although never awarded the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Trade Unions' 'alternative' Nobel Prize. His influence on modernist literature has been vast, and can be seen in works by Samuel Beckett, Tenessee Williams, Harold Pinter and many others. Sadly nowadays, Strindberg is often seen as the domain of the pretentious, although is still highly popular.