Introduction: The international Strindberg

Anna Westerståhl Stenport

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript


Outside of his native country, August Strindberg (1849-1912) is best known as a playwright. His early naturalist plays are identified with a relentless interest in making the conflicts of the psychological and the domestic "private" shamelessly public. His later dramatic output seems to render a different onstage experience of subjectivity, including that of a subconscious or dreaming mind. Subjectivity questions have nevertheless guided interpretations of Strindberg works, whether early or late, whether in the form of prose, dramatic text, poetry, or painting, for more than a century. A plenitude of biographical interpretations that link the author's creative output to events in his life is only one aspect of a dominant subjectivity paradigm. Though multiple other scholars complicate Strindbergian self-presentation and challenge any identification of an imagined I with a presumed autobiographical voice, the subjectivity-analysis paradigm has remained strong. This book argues that it is time to firmly establish an alternate trajectory for Strindberg studies, one specifically manifesting that an international constitution and subsequent disbursement is critical to the formation of a lasting legacy of Strindberg's multifaceted output. Strindberg made a name for himself as a playwright in Europe-especially in French- and German-speaking countries-exactly at a time when theatrical practices were undergoing radical changes, transitioning from the spectacular and entertainment-oriented diversions of the nineteenth century into a serious art form in which bourgeois norms were challenged. Theater, for Strindberg and many of his European contemporaries, became a new didactic practice in the service of an internationally constituted avant-garde and for the purposes of critical examination. Strindberg's large and comprehensive prose production is equally significant in its international and comparative contexts (his poetry and pictorial art-photography and oil paintings-share these characteristics). Written in two languages (Swedish and French), Strindberg's prose spans all the major literary genres of the European late nineteenth century, including novelistic and short story fiction, autobiography, scientific treatises, historical and ethnographic prose, political pamphlets, essays on arts and aesthetics, and religious and philosophical writing. In strikingly individualistic ways, his works address all major cultural and intellectual questions of late-nineteenth-century modernity. These also challenge the dominant discourses of modernity: the nation-state, capitalism, urbanization, secularization, democracy, gender and racial equality, scientific investigation, and emergent aesthetic forms of representation. Strindberg's writing almost never conforms to dominant ideologies. As this book shows, what Strindberg's oeuvre offers us today are under-explored and provocative venues for investigating both the formation and persistence of modernity as a mode of existence constituted by encounters with, experiences of, and challenges to the international. It also illustrates the ways in which past and current ideas of modernity are internationally constituted. Strindberg's work embodies and helped accelerate a sense of emergent internationalism at the end of the nineteenth century. His life was similarly international. Born and raised in Stockholm, he spent nearly half of his life as a professional writer outside Sweden, traveling around the European continent, often with his family in tow. He may be canonized in Sweden as the Father of Modern Swedish Literature and one of the foremost innovators of the Swedish language, yet he is more than "just" a Swedish writer. His influence continues to extend beyond the borders of Sweden in multiple ways, as it did during his lifetime. Strindberg was invested in the idea of intellectual internationalism, of idea transfer across borders. His writing engages directly with other central aspects of international modernity. For example, a prominent topos is movement between regions and countries, or, in the later plays, between symbolic "stations" of a mind that nevertheless remained rendered as concrete and material. Strindberg's voluminous correspondence of more than 10,000 letters testifies to the international context in which he was active: his missives and telegrams crisscrossed the European continent as part of a communication revolution, whose accelerated nature has become constitutive of modernity. Strindberg clearly imagined and understood his own writing as internationally constituted and oriented. Drawing on a nascent European interest in his writing, and capitalizing on the international appeal of provocative topics of sexuality and class in plays such as The Father (Fadren, 1887) or Miss Julie (Fröken Julie, 1888), Strindberg's breakthrough in Paris in 1894 reflects more than the efforts of "just another" would-be Parisian. His writing in French, his auto-translation into French, and his topical interest in France (including an 1886 ethnographic study of French peasantry critical of Paris) illustrate both an understanding of the centrality of French culture at the end of the nineteenth century and the need to challenge precisely its international allure. The work Among French Peasants (Bland franska bönder, 1886) is deeply critical of both Paris and French official culture, while productions in Paris of The Father, Miss Julie, and Creditors (Fordringsägare, 1888) in the early 1890s catered explicitly to avant-garde and radical groups whose international cachet and reach had already been established. Despite their clear ambition toward international recognition, Strindberg's works and fictional worlds (including those of his autobiographies) are products of a nationally oriented European nineteenth-century paradigm, and thus were also influenced by nationalism's constant Other: colonialism. Strindberg wrote and lived both in tandem with and in revolt against nationalist master-narratives. He was deeply conflicted with respect to his own country, yet he was never unequivocally enthusiastic about another. The tension between national and international in Strindberg's oeuvre was enhanced by his experience of the exclusivity of national literary canons. In fact, most of Strindberg's better-known works and protagonists transcend national contexts; it does not matter, really, if Miss Julie is a Swedish nobleman's daughter, or whether the dynamic set of A Dream Play (Ett Drömspel, 1902) reflects changes specific to Stockholm as Sweden's capital during a transformative urbanization process taking place at the end of the nineteenth century. Julie is the product of an aristocracy caught in a modern crisis, and the city that is radically transmogrified is the modern European capital. Similarly, Strindberg's later historical plays, such as Erik XIV (1899), are less investigations of Swedish history than explorations of modern challenges not only to the historical legacy of monarchies, but to the individual's existence within an encompassing govermentality. Well-known oil paintings by Strindberg, such as Night of Jealousy (Svartsjukans natt, 1893) and Snowstorm at Sea (Snöstorm på havet, 1894), collapse any borders between interiority and Swedish nineteenth-century landscape painting's participation in a nation-building project. Night of Jealousy, for example, expresses deep familiarity with a quintessential Swedish landscape-the rocky archipelago of the Baltic Sea-although the canvas was conceived and painted in an apartment in Berlin and offers far from an idyllic image of seascape. The abstraction of Snowstorm came through in a borrowed apartment at Avenue de Neuilly in the Parisian suburb of Clichy. One of Strindberg's last prose narratives, The Roofing Ceremony (Taklagsöl, 1907), may be set in a Stockholm apartment bedroom, but it tells a story of colonialism and brutal exploration in Belgian Congo, including bringing to light Sweden's participation in that colonial paradigm. To transcend a national context does not, of course, imply a facile renunciation of one's subjectivity. Strindberg's oeuvre consistently presents and refashions the modern subject, frequently in the mask of an autobiographical "I." Yet, what has been overlooked for a century is the ways in which this figural I participates in and configures a new drama of international modernity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe International Strindberg
Subtitle of host publicationNew Critical Essays
PublisherNorthwestern University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9780810166295
ISBN (Print)9780810128507
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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