Strindberg, with and without Helium

Sometimes, reading an author’s biography makes his or her work a little less appealing.  Such is the case with August Strindberg. He wrote two of his better known plays, The Father and Miss Julie, when his first marriage (to Siri von Essen) was breaking up. In The Father, a man is wrongfully locked up for insanity by a scheming wife who taunts him with the possibility that he didn’t father his own children.

In real life, Siri may have worried that Strindberg was completely in control of all his faculties. His diaries show a good deal of paranoia, and his thoughts of suicide combined with his manic productivity have led modern psychologists to suggest he was bipolar. At various points in his life, he claimed to suffer from electrical currents running through his body, to be erotically possessed telepathically, and to have olfactory hallucinations (phantosmia). His paranoia about Siri’s faithfulness led him to spy on her leading men (she was an actress), and to make wild accusations.  One actor who worked with Siri wrote, “I don’t understand Strindberg. Must he, a genius of the first order, really conduct himself like a complete lunatic?”

His unpleasant views extended far beyond his own marriage, and his letters contains such misogynistic and racist comments as:

  • “[T]he whole of [Norwegian] literature is castrated; it’s quite evident that your women read your manuscripts before they go to press.”
  • “[W]oman is by nature mean and instinctively dishonest.”
  • “A Jew never forgives! He won’t kill you, but he’ll take your work. … Jew’s don’t believe in friendship or gratitude.”

Now, it’s well known that some artists are notorious for being unpleasant, Richard Wagner comes to mind immediately. Typically we give them a certain amount of leeway in acknowledgement of their art. Strindberg, however, had the bad habit of not bothering to disguise who he was writing about in his novels and plays, however, so that many one-time friends or lovers who he later turned on, would find themselves portrayed in wildly inaccurate ways in Strindberg’s writing, and in ways that allowed the public to know just who Strindberg was writing about.  Several times his publishers refused some of his work for fear of libel charges. Indeed, one of Siri’s female friends won such a cash against him. She also won an assault charge against him after he pushed her down a flight of stairs.

I’m grateful, therefore, to Erin Perkins and her collaborators for creating Strindberg and Helium, which makes me smile rather than cringe when I encounter his words.

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