August Strindberg (1849-1912)

August Strindberg was born in 1849 to an unhappy family of ten in Stockholm, Sweden. His father was a shipping merchant and his mother a former servant, and Strindberg later attributed much of the family's strife to the social differences between them. Bitter sibling rivalry, the death of Strindberg's mother in 1851, and Mr. Strindberg's immediate remarriage to the housekeeper did little to improve the situation. As a youth, August Strindberg held a variety of odd jobs, briefly attended the University of Uppsala. He worked as an actor, journalist, and librarian at the Royal Library while pursuing his writing career. Though his first literary success, Red Room (1879), was a novel, Strindberg is primarily remembered as a chief founder of the modern prose play.

Strindberg was an infamous misogynist, and he intended to portray the title character of his best-known work, Miss Julie (1888), as a monster. One can trace the genealogy of his hatred for women in some of his early works, such as Getting Married (1884), which earned him a charge of blasphemy, and The Cloister (1886), a grim portrait of his second marriage. Strindberg's misogyny was central to the many psychotic episodes he suffered throughout the 1890s, episodes that put a stop to his dramatic production altogether.

In 1898, however, Strindberg took up his pen anew, writing 36 plays in the following decade. In 1907, he began experimenting with what he called an "intimate theater" based on the structures of chamber music, turning from the conventional figure of the protagonist in favor of a small and more balanced group of characters to direct his plays. The following year, Strindberg retired to his house, the famous "Blue Tower," where he lived until his death in 1912.

Background on Miss Julie

Censored for its shocking content, Miss Julie revolves around a familiar Strindbergian encounter: a quasi-Darwinian struggle across sex and class lines. Strindberg scholars believe that a short story by Zola, "The Sin of Father Mouret," served as direct inspiration for the play. Zola's tale tells of a priest who abandons his order to take up with a virgin but returns to the cloth upon being "caught in the act" by a fellow clergyman. Grief-stricken, the maiden commits suicide by suffocating herself in a bed of rose petals. There is also some evidence that Strindberg intended the play as a warning to the first of his three unfortunate wives, the Baroness Siri von Essen. When confronted with the suggestion that the play is a warning to his wife, Strindberg reportedly answered that he could hardly be sure enough to deny it.

Naturalist Theater & Expressionistic Theater

Miss Julie remains Strindberg's most famous work. In the history of drama, it is primarily canonized for its stylistic innovations. Its preface serves as a classic manifesto of late-19th century naturalism. In defining the new naturalist theater, Strindberg makes two major demands of contemporary playwrights. First, he demands that they adhere to an unflinching realism, whether in content (for example the explicit references to menstruation, blasphemy, lust, and bodily functions in Miss Julie); staging (the elimination of footlights and makeup); and time (Miss Julie, for example, takes place over a single, compressed, and unbroken 90-minute episode).

Strindberg also demands that the naturalist playwright strive toward a new conception of character. Eschewing the one-dimensional stock figure of the melodrama, the playwright must people his stage with full, lively beings. Characters must not be collections of idiosyncrasies and catch phrases coupled with simple motivations. Instead, the playwright must craft a psychology, a "soul."

Strindberg is also venerated as a progenitor of the expressionist theater, though he did explicitly theorize about expressionism as he did about naturalism. Expressionist devices are present throughout Miss Julie and Strindberg's other works. Key examples include continual allusions to mystical forces, the use of symbology and ritualized dance, the backdrop of the pagan festival, and the construction of an absent, shadowy, and yet precipitating center of authority in the figure of the Count.