Plays by August Strindberg, Third Series

Plays by August Strindberg, Third Series

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
1849-1912 — Translations into English
Swedish drama — Translations into English
Plays by August Strindberg, Third Series













The collection of plays contained in this volume is unusually representative, giving what might be called a cross-section of Strindberg’s development as a dramatist from his naturalistic revolt in the middle eighties, to his final arrival at resigned mysticism and Swedenborgian symbolism.
“Swanwhite” was written in the spring of 1901, about the time when Strindberg was courting and marrying his third wife, the gifted Swedish actress Harriet Bosse. In the fall of 1902 the play appeared in book form, together with “The Crown Bride” and “The Dream Play,” all of them being issued simultaneously, at Berlin, in a German translation made by Emil Schering.
Schering, who at that time was in close correspondence with Strindberg, says that the figure of Swanwhite had been drawn with direct reference to Miss Bosse, who had first attracted the attention of Strindberg by her spirited interpretation of Biskra in “Simoom.” And Schering adds that it was Strindberg’s bride who had a little previously introduced him to the work of Maeterlinck, thereby furnishing one more of the factors determining the play.
Concerning the influence exerted upon him by the Belgian playwright-philosopher, Strindberg himself wrote in a pamphlet named “Open Letters to the Intimate Theatre” (Stockholm, 1909):
“I had long had in mind skimming the cream of our most beautiful folk-ballads in order to turn them into a picture for the stage. Then Maeterlinck came across my path, and under the influence of his puppet-plays, which are not meant for the regular stage, I wrote my Swedish scenic spectacle, ‘Swanwhite.’ It is impossible either to steal or to borrow from Maeterlinck. It is even difficult to become his pupil, for there are no free passes that give entrance to his world of beauty. But one may be urged by his example into searching one’s own dross-heaps for gold—and it is in that sense I acknowledge my debt to the master.
“Pushed ahead by the impression made on me by Maeterlinck, and borrowing his divining-rod for my purposes, I turned to such sources [i.e., of Swedish folk-lore] as the works of Geijer, Afzelius, and Dybeck. There I found a superabundance of princes and princesses. The stepmother theme I had discovered on my own hook as a constant—it figures in twenty-six different Swedish folk-tales. In the same place I found the resurrection theme, as, for instance, it appears in the story of Queen Dagmar. Then I poured it all into my separator, together with the Maids, the Green Gardener and the Young King, and in a short while the cream began to flow—and for that reason the story is my own. But it has also been made so by the fact that I have lived through that tale in my own fancy—a Spring in time of Winter!”
Swedish critics have been unanimous in their praise of this play. John Landquist, who has since become Strindberg’s literary executor, spoke of it once as “perhaps the most beautiful and most genuine fairy tale for old or young ever written in the Swedish language.” Tor Hedberg has marvelled at the charm with which Swanwhite herself has been endowed—”half child, half maid; knowing nothing, yet guessing all; playing with love as a while ago she was playing with her dolls.” On the stage, too—in Germany as well as in Sweden—little Swanwhite has celebrated great triumphs. Whether that figure, and the play surrounding it, will also triumph in English-speaking countries, remains still to be seen. But if, contrary to my hopes, it should fail to do so, I want, in advance, to shift the blame from the shoulders of the author to my own. In hardly any other work by Strindberg do form and style count for so much. The play is, in its original shape, as poetical in form as in spirit—even to the extent of being strongly rhythmical in its prose, and containing many of the inversions which are so characteristic of Swedish verse.
It is not impossible to transfer these qualities into English, but my efforts to do so have had to be influenced by certain differences in the very grain of the two languages involved. Like all other languages, each possesses a natural basic rhythm. This rhythm varies frequently and easily in Swedish, so that you may pass from iambic to trochaic metre without giving offence to the ear—or to that subtle rhythmical susceptibility that seems to be inherent in our very pulses. But the rhythm dearest and most natural to the genius of the Swedish language seems to be the falling pulse-beat manifested in the true trochee. The swing and motion of English, on the other hand, is almost exclusively, commandingly iambic. And it was not until I made the iambic rising movement prevail in my translation, that I felt myself approaching the impression made on me by the original. But for that very reason—because the genius of the new medium has forced me into making the movement of my style more monotonous—it is to be feared that the rhythmical quality of that movement may seem overemphasised. Should such a criticism be advanced, I can only answer: I have tried several ways, and this is the only one that will work.
“Simoom” seems to have been written in 1888, in close connection with “Creditors” and “Pariah.” And, like these, it shows the unmistakable influence of Edgar Allan Poe, with whose works Strindberg had become acquainted a short while before. The play was first printed in one of the three thin volumes of varied contents put out by Strindberg in 1890 and 1891 under the common title of “Pieces Printed and Unprinted.” But, strange to say, it was not put on the stage (except in a few private performances) until 1902, although, from a purely theatrical viewpoint, Strindberg—master of stagecraft though he was—had rarely produced a more effective piece of work.
“Debit and Credit” belongs to the same general period as the previous play, but has in it more of Nietzsche than of Poe. Its central figure is also a sort of superman, but as such he is not taken too seriously by his creator. The play has humour, but it is of a grim kind—one seems to be hearing the gritting of teeth through the laughter. Like “Simoom,” however, it should be highly effective on the stage. It was first published in 1893, with three other one-act plays, the volume being named “Dramatic Pieces.”
“Advent” was published in 1899, together with “There Are Crimes and Crimes,” under the common title of “In a Higher Court.” Its name refers, of course, to the ecclesiastical designation of the four weeks preceding Christmas. The subtitle, literally rendered, would be “A Mystery.” But as this term has a much wider application in Swedish than in English, I have deemed it better to observe the distinction which the latter language makes between mysteries, miracle-plays, and moralities.
The play belongs to what Strindberg called his “Inferno period,” during which he struggled in a state of semi-madness to rid himself of the neurasthenic depression which he regarded as a punishment brought about by his previous attitude of materialistic scepticism. It is full of Swedenborgian symbolism, which, perhaps, finds its most characteristic expression in the two scenes laid in “The Waiting Room.” The name selected by Strindberg for the region where dwell the “lost” souls of men is not a mere euphemism. It signifies his conception of that place as a station on the road to redemption or annihilation.
In its entirety the play forms a Christmas sermon with a quaint blending of law and gospel. A prominent Swedish critic, Johan Mortensen, wrote: “Reading it, one almost gets the feeling that Strindberg, the dread revolutionist, has, of a sudden, changed into a nice village school-teacher, seated at his desk, with his rattan cane laid out in front of him. He has just been delivering a lesson in Christianity, and he has noticed that the attention of the children strayed and that they either failed to understand or did not care to take in the difficult matters he was dealing with. But they must be made to listen and understand. And so—with serious eyes, but with a sly smile playing around the corners of his mouth—he begins all over again, in that fairy-tale style which never grows old: ‘Once upon a time!'”
In November, 1907, a young theatrical manager, August Falck, opened the Intimate Theatre at Stockholm. From the start Strindberg was closely connected with the venture, and soon the little theatre, with its tiny stage and its auditorium seating only one hundred and seventy-five persons, was turned wholly into a Strindberg stage, where some of the most interesting and daring theatrical experiments of our own day were made. With particular reference to the needs and limitations of this theatre, Strindberg wrote a series of “chamber plays,” four of which were published in 1907—each one of them appearing separately in a paper-covered duodecimo volume.
The first of these plays to appear in book form—though not the first one to be staged—was “The Thunder-Storm,” designated on the front cover as “Opus I.” Two of the principal ideas underlying its construction were the abolition of intermissions—which, according to Strindberg, were put in chiefly for the benefit of the liquor traffic in the theatre café—and the reduction of the stage-setting to quickly inter-changeable backgrounds and a few stage-properties. Concerning the production of “The Thunder-Storm,” at the Intimate Theatre, Strindberg wrote subsequently that, in their decorative effects, the first and last scenes were rather failures. But he held the lack of space wholly responsible for this failure. His conclusion was that the most difficult problem of the small theatre would be to give the illusion of distance required by a scene laid in the open—particularly in an open place surrounded or adjoined by buildings. Of the second act he wrote, on the other hand, that it proved a triumph of artistic simplification. The only furniture appearing on the stage consisted of a buffet, a piano, a dinner-table and a few chairs—that is, the pieces expressly mentioned in the text of the play. And yet the effect of the setting satisfied equally the demands of the eye and the reason.
“The Thunder-Storm” might be called a drama of old age—nay, the drama of man’s inevitable descent through a series of resignations to the final dissolution. Its subject-matter is largely autobiographical, embodying the author’s experiences in his third and last marriage, as seen in retrospect—the anticipatory conception appearing in “Swanwhite.” However, justice to Miss Harriet Bosse, who was Mrs. Strindberg from 1901 to 1904, requires me to point out that echoes of the dramatist’s second marriage also appear, especially in the references to the postmarital relationship.
“After the Fire” was published as “Opus II” of the chamber-plays, and staged ahead of “The Thunder-Storm.” Its Swedish name is Brända Tomten, meaning literally “the burned-over site.” This name has previously been rendered in English as “The Burned Lot” and “The Fire Ruins.” Both these titles are awkward and ambiguous. The name I have now chosen embodies more closely the fundamental premise of the play.
The subject-matter is even more autobiographical than that of “The Thunder-Storm”—almost as much so as “The Bondwoman’s Son.” The perished home is Strindberg’s own at the North Tollgate Street in Stockholm, where he spent the larger part of his childhood and youth. The old Mason, the Gardener, the Stone-Cutter, and other figures appearing in the play are undoubtedly lifted straight out of real life—and so are probably also the exploded family reputation and the cheap table painted to represent ebony—although one may take for granted that the process has not taken place without a proper disguising of externals.
There is one passage in this little play which I want to point out as containing one of the main keys to Strindberg’s character and art. It is the passage where The Stranger—who, of course, is none but the author himself—says to his brother: “I have beheld life from every quarter, from every standpoint, from above and from below, but always it has seemed to me like a scene staged for my particular benefit.”






ELSA   } Maids

An apartment in a mediæval stone castle. The walls and the cross-vaulted ceiling are whitewashed. In the centre of the rear wall is a triple-arched doorway leading to a balcony with a stone balustrade. There are draperies of brocade over the doorway. Beyond the balcony appear the top branches of a rose-garden, laden with white and pink roses. In the background there can be seen a white, sandy beach and the blue sea.
To the right of the main doorway is a small door which, when left open, discloses a vista of three closets, one beyond the other. The first one is stored with vessels of pewter arranged on shelves. The walls of the second closet are hung with all sorts of costly and ornate garments. The third closet contains piles and rows of apples, pears, melons, pumpkins, and so forth.
The floors of all the rooms are inlaid with alternating squares of black and red. At the centre of the apartment stands a gilded dinner-table covered with a cloth; a twig of mistletoe is suspended above the table. A clock and a vase filled with roses stand on the table, near which are placed two gilded tabourets. Two swallows’ nests are visible on the rear wall above the doorway. A lion skin is spread on the floor near the foreground. At the left, well to the front, stands a white bed with a rose-coloured canopy supported by two columns at the head of the bed (and by none at the foot). The bed-clothing is pure white except for a coverlet of pale-blue silk. Across the bed is laid a night-dress of finest muslin trimmed with lace. Behind the bed stands a huge wardrobe containing linen, bathing utensils, and toilet things. A small gilded table in Roman style (with round top supported by a single column) is placed near the bed; also a lamp-stand containing a Roman lamp of gold. At the right is an ornamental chimney-piece. On the mantel stands a vase with a white lily in it.
In the left arch of the doorway, a peacock is asleep on a perch, with its back turned toward the audience.
In the right arch hangs a huge gilded cage with two white doves at rest.
As the curtain rises, the three maids are seen in the doorways of the three closets, each one half hidden by the door-post against which she leans. SIGNE, the false maid, is in the pewter-closet, ELSA in the clothes-closet, and ELSA in the fruit-closet.
The DUKE enters from the rear. After him comes the STEPMOTHER carrying in her hand a wire-lashed whip.
The stage is darkened when they enter.

STEPMOTHER. Swanwhite is not here?
DUKE. It seems so!
STEPMOTHER. So it seems, but—is it seemly? Maids!—Signe!—Signe, Elsa, Tova!

The maids enter, one after the other, and stand in front of the STEPMOTHER.

STEPMOTHER. Where is Lady Swanwhite?

SIGNE folds her arms across her breast and makes no reply.

STEPMOTHER. You do not know? What see you in my hand?—Answer, quick! [Pause] Quick! Do you hear the whistling of the falcon? It has claws of steel, as well as bill! What is it?
SIGNE. The wire-lashed whip!
STEPMOTHER. The wire-lashed whip, indeed! And now, where is Lady Swan white?
SIGNE. How can I tell what I don’t know?
STEPMOTHER. It is a failing to be ignorant, but carelessness is an offence. Were you not placed as guardian of your young mistress?—Take off your neckerchief!—Down on your knees!

The DUKE turns his back on her in disgust.

STEPMOTHER. Hold out your neck! And I’ll put such a necklace on it that no youth will ever kiss it after this!—Hold out your neck!—Still more!
SIGNE. For Christ’s sake, mercy!
STEPMOTHER. ‘Tis mercy that you are alive!
DUKE. [Pulls out his sword and tries the edge of it, first on one of his finger-nails, and then on a hair out of his long beard] Her head should be cut off—put in a sack—hung on a tree——
STEPMOTHER. So it should!
DUKE. We are agreed! How strange!
STEPMOTHER. It did not happen yesterday.
DUKE. And may not happen once again.
STEPMOTHER. [To Signe, who, still on her knees, has been moving farther away] Stop! Whither? [She raises the whip and strikes; Signe turns aside so that the lash merely cuts the air.]
SWANWHITE. [Comes forward from behind the bed and falls on her knees] Stepmother—here I am—the guilty one! She’s not at fault.
STEPMOTHER. Say “mother”! You must call me “mother”!
SWANWHITE. I cannot! One mother is as much as any human being ever had.
STEPMOTHER. Your father’s wife must be your mother.
SWANWHITE. My father’s second wife can only be my stepmother.
STEPMOTHER. You are a stiffnecked daughter, but my whip is pliant and will make you pliant too.

[She raises the whip to strike SWANWHITE.

DUKE. [Raising his sword] Take heed of the head!
STEPMOTHER. Whose head?
DUKE. Your own!

The STEPMOTHER turns pale at first, and then angry; but she controls herself and remains silent; long pause.

STEPMOTHER. [Beaten for the moment, she changes her tone] Then will Your Grace inform your daughter what is now in store for her?
DUKE. [Sheathing his sword] Rise up, my darling child, and come into my arms to calm yourself.
SWANWHITE. [Throwing herself into the arms of the DUKE] Father!—You’re like a royal oak-tree which my arms cannot encircle. But beneath your leafage there is refuge from all threatening showers. [She hides her head beneath his immense beard, which reaches down to his waist] And like a bird, I will be swinging on your branches—lift me up, so I can reach the top.

The DUKE holds out his arm.

SWANWHITE. [Climbs up on

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Plays by August Strindberg, Third Series
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