Biography August Strindberg

August Strindberg

photo of August Strindberg
  • Time Period1849 - 1912
  • Place
  • CountrySweden

Poet Biography

August Strindberg was born January 22, 1849 in Stockholm. His father, Carl Oscar Strindberg, proud of a trace of aristocratic blood, was a shipping agent, but business success was relatively modest. His mother, Ulrika Eleanora Norling, had a proletarian background. She was a tailor's daughter, who had been a domestic servant and become Carl Oscar's mistress. August was their third son; the couple had nine more children. Strindberg's childhood was poor and miserable - he was shy and family tensions depressed him. The first great tragedy of August's life was the death of his mother in 1862 when he was 13. His father's subsequent marriage to the much younger governess further strained the family relationship.

He left for the University of Uppsala at the age of eighteen only to freeze and go hungry in a tiny attic. After a single semester, he was forced to drop out of school. About this time Strindberg became interested in the theater, and began working as an accountant in a couple of the local theaters. August finally got up the nerve to audition as an actor in minor role. When he was rejected, Strindberg when on a drinking binge that nearly drove him to suicide. Strindberg determined to take his life. He climbed up into the small attic in which he lived and swallowed an opium pill, expecting to die. But he did not die. Instead, he fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke his mind was seething with memories of childhood. He began to arrange his thoughts feverishly on paper, and in four days he completed his first play. It was then that he knew he would be a writer.

One of Strindberg's early plays, The Outlaw, set in ancient Ireland, won him a stipend from Charles XV and allowed him to return to the university, but he quickly began to quarrel with his instructors and dropped out again, eventually retiring to an island and devoting himself to writing. Unfortunately, Master Olaf, the play he composed there, was something of a disappointment. The young playwright once again found himself floundering in a deep depression and almost determined to give up writing entirely.

During the early 1870's, Strindberg continued living a very unsettled existence, working a variety of jobs and evading his creditors. In 1875, he met Siri Wrangel, an officer's wife who was avidly interested in the theater and harbored aspirations to become an actress despite her husband's disapproval . The officer allowed Strindberg to seduce his Siri, mainly because the officer had a mistress of his own. Siri divorced in 1876 and married Strindberg the following year, with the hope of becoming an actress and living a life of artistic freedom. Siri made her acting debut shortly before the marriage and her resulting success put an immediate strain on the marriage. The couple had children but the marriage quickly broke down - Strindberg became jealous, suspicious and cruel when Siri wanted to be more than a wife and mother. Strindberg hoped his wife would reconcile him to life at last, but her own independent streak smashed these dreams.

Under her influence, he returned to his writing and experienced his first real success. Strindberg had his first great literary success in 1879 with the novel The Red Room, a social satire that brought scandal to Stockholm and literary notoriety to Strindberg. The couple welcomed their first child, Karin, in 1880, but joy of motherhood did not quell Siri's ambition as Strindberg had hoped. A mere three months after giving birth, Siri starred in her husband's play, The Secret of the Guild.

The following year the couple had another daughter while Strindberg was writing a 1,000 page history of everyday people in Sweden. Strindberg supported his wife's career on the stage, writing several roles for her and even stated that he only worked in the theater to help further Siri's career. The 1882 publication of the short story collection The New Kingdom, which satirized the royal family and other powerful institutions, truly scandalize all of Stockholm and eventually drove Strindberg into exile.

In 1883, Strindberg moved his family to Paris, which they disliked because of the noise and pollution. The move effectively ended Siri's acting career, which in turn put severe strains on an already rocky relationship. The success of Strindberg's play Lucky Pehr back home, allowed Strindberg to move his family to a village near Lake Geneva, Switzerland in late 1883. The couple had a third child while Strindberg was working on Married: Twenty Stories of Married Life, a controversial work about the role of women in society that eventually got banned in Sweden. Strindberg was forced to briefly return to Stockholm in 1884 to defend himself at trial, where he was acquitted.

In April 1885, Strindberg moved the family to Paris where Married had just been published in French to a favorable reviews. However, Strindberg's own relationship his wife was not as rosy as he had previously depicted in the book. Strindberg was becoming increasingly bitter and resentful toward his wife, an attitude reflected in the second volume of Married he was working on at the time. By the summer, Strindberg moved his family again, this time to Grez, a Scandinavian artists colony just outside Paris, where, at the age of 37, he began working on his own autobiography using the latest scientific theories of psychology to examine his childhood and early adulthood. After nearly a year, the Strindberg's returned to Switzerland where they led a nomadic existence while August completed his first major play, The Father, which examines how the weaker sex can psychologically destroy the stronger. The play, which was the beginning of Strindberg's Naturalistic period, had difficulty finding a publisher, but it was eventually printed 1887. The extremely pessimistic view of women seen in the play was a breaking point in Strindberg's marriage and couple decided to divorce in August 1887. Strindberg then enjoyed a burst of creativity and wrote the charmingly comic People of Hemso, considered his most accessible work. He also wrote The Confessions of a Fool, a thinly disguised bitter account of his marriage, but it would five years before it appeared in print.

Strindberg moved to Berlin, where he met an Austrian journalist Maria Uhl, known as Frida Uhl, his second wife, whom he married in 1893. Frida tried to direct his career and had literary ambitions of her own, refusing to play the wife and mother role Strindberg had always sought in a woman. Financial constraints forced the couple to live with her grandparents in Austria. Strindberg again became bitter, jealous and domineering, accusing Frida of being opportunistic and a whore. Strindberg felt humiliated being in a such a position of dependence and again turned his attention to Paris, where he hoped to use the recent Parisian interest in Scandinavian literature to alleviate his financial difficulties. By the time he left for Paris in 1894, his marriage was over.

In Paris, Strindberg wrote a number of articles to ingratiate himself with the Parisian literati while leading a life of debauchery, destitution, and paranoia. He enjoyed a brief theatrical success when the Théatre de l'oeuvre produced The Father in 1895, but his personal life was rapidly spinning out of control. He began to conduct pseudo scientific experiments and became obsessed with the occult. Combined with his utter destitution, these pursuits threatened his health and sanity. In 1896, while visiting Frida's relatives in Lund, Sweden, Strindberg underwent a 'religious conversion' influenced by the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, the great Swedish Christian mystic - theologian who was still popular at the time. Strindberg wrote about his conversion in the book Inferno and then traveled to Paris in 1898 to have it published. While in Paris, he wrote Legends, a sequel to Inferno mainly about his Lund, and then return to drama with To Damascus, an experimental work that deals with the internal struggles surrounding the writer's recent conversion to what he termed a 'creedless Christianity.' After the play was completed, Strindberg returned to Sweden in the spring of 1898. He stayed in Lund for a year before settling permanently in Stockholm, where he embarked upon an extremely productive five year period that produced no less than 22 plays.

In 1900, August, then in his fifties, met Harriet Bosse, a 22-year-old actress, who he carefully seduced by having her cast in the lead female role of To Damascus. In March of 1901, Strindberg proposed and the couple married in May. She starred in his plays, but Strindberg had once again married another woman ill suited to him - strong-willed and bent on an artistic career rather than family life. The marriage soon faltered under all the jealousy, domination, cruel accusations, and a clash of wills. By the time the couple's daughter was born in 1902, they were living apart. The couple divorced shortly after. The pain of this relationship fueled some of Strindberg's best work, including the autobiographical novel Alone.

In 1906, Strindberg began working on establishing his own experimental theater in Stockholm that would be used to stage 'chamber plays,' one act plays that were to become the dramatic equivalent of chamber music, focusing on the character's internal development rather than plot. The Intimate Theater opened in November of 1907 and for which Strindberg wrote four chamber plays. He now favored symbolist and expressionist techniques rather than the naturalism of his early career. The theater had a short but successful run.

In 1904, Strindberg then wrote Black Banners, a satire about the Swedish literary establishment, which again brought controversy and popularity his way. By this time, Strindberg's plays were being successfully produced throughout Europe, especially in Paris and Germany. His literary reputation spread throughout the world, though he was still a bit of pariah in his native Sweden. By this time, Strindberg was a financially secure confirmed bachelor. He sought out companionship with Fanny Falkner, a 17-year-old actress, and moved in with her family in 1908. There, he finally experienced the family life he always sought without the responsibilities that he had failed to shoulder in previous relationships. At last, Strindberg became a respected figure in his native Sweden. After he failed to win the Nobel Prize in 1909, he was awarded a government pension due to a grass roots campaign led by a socialist dockworker. At this point, Strindberg had begun to suffer stomach pains that were probably the onset of cancer. In his last days, many visitors came to pay respect to a man who always thought he was despised by both God and man. Strindberg died peacefully May 14, 1912 and had a large, well attended, government sponsored funeral . According to his wishes, Strindberg's tombstone reads "O Crux Ave Spes Unica" (O Cross, Be Greeted, Our Only Hope).