Strindberg still in the news
There has been a lot of media coverage about Strindberg this year, especially in Sweden in Sweden. Judging by the opinions offered on a number of subjects concerning our literary genius he is obviously just as controversial today as he was a hundred years ago.
What surprises me is that it’s Strindberg the person who is nearly always in focus - rather than Strindberg, the author. Why is it that his life is more interesting to the majority of people rather than his work?
He did, of course, lead an extraordinary life and he liked to draw attention to his person, even if it meant that he was the subject of ridicule or, in some cases, a hate campaign. He lived on the edge most of the time and thrived on provocation. That is not something which is going to endear him to all and sundry. He was generally considered a bad influence on the young with his revolutionary and indecent ideas. After all, a man who advocated free love and who made fun of the holy communion, the royal family, the military establishment and politicians in general would probably be more on the side of the rebels than the establishment.
This year I have been asked to give around a dozen talks about him and most of them will be about his attitude to women because that is the subject most people have requested. I find the fact that he was a serious religious seeker more remarkable, especially when you consider that he lived at a time when the established church (similar to the Church of England) had a tremendous hold on society.
When working on his plays I have struggled with some beautifully expressed sentences which resist translation. At the same time, he offers the translator a forum for imaginative solutions which make the translator’s job very rewarding. He was a master of dramatic dialogue and performing it is most gratifying to actors. Just look at the way he uses punctuation. His dashes and exclamation marks mark the tempo and energy - The way his characters talk over each other, interrupt each other or simply don’t listen - all this creates a very intense and realistic atmosphere.
Maybe a little less personal exposure would have been beneficial to his career as a writer. A certain amount of reserve could have meant that people concentrated more on his writing than his histrionics.
Yes, he did actually say A. but he also said B. He changed opinions shamelessly, but not without reason. It would help greatly in understanding this complex man if we read everything in context, rather than pick some provocative statements to score a quick sensational point.
I was asked once in an interview what I thought about Strindberg’s famous measuring of his penis or of the alleged rape of a sixteen-year-old servant girl at Skovlyst in Denmark.
My answer to the first question was that I didn’t find it particularly odd or shocking that he measured the length of his penis. I remember many of my girl friends measuring their boobs in their teens, while chasing the ideal measurements. Presumably, the size of a man’s penis is as vital to his masculinity as the size of the boobs to a woman’s femininity, although that logic defeats me.
As regards the famous ‘rape story’, the girl in question was not a servant but the sister of the manager of Skovlyst Manor, and she had turned up in Strindberg’s bedroom in the early hours and late at night, in a way which Strindberg found provocative.
According to the girl’s own admission she consented to the intercourse but her brother quickly tried to make a big scene of it and used blackmail. Strindberg was acquitted but contracted a venereal disease for his sins.
When taken thus in its entire context this story takes on a different hue. That is the case with most of the ultra sensational episodes in Strindberg’s life.