Strindberg and the Zuni curse

This `non-woman' saw women as mad, bad and dangerous. So why, asks Paul Taylor, do modern directors revive his work?

Paul Taylor
Monday 12 October 2015 13:31

Shortly before Christmas, I received a strange and unnerving communication from California. Consisting of a single sheet with no covering letter, it had been word-processed by the soi-disant Daughters of Eve, a misogyny-monitoring sorority from U CLA. This is the outfit that researches the lives of, and then puts on trial, those men (or, rather, those "remorse-free and humour-free non-women" as the sheet magnanimously calls them) whom it considers have done "fatal damage" to members of the female sex.

In 1992, the Daughters laid the Zuni curse on John Osborne; they're to try Ted Hughes later this year; and on the circular I received they were laying out the charges against Harold Pinter who will be hauled into the dock (in absentia, naturally) "in thefirst quarter of 1995". Perhaps it was the connection with Osborne, who described himself as August Strindberg's "man in England" that set me thinking about how, if the indictment of Pinter can be posted in a smallish envelope, the Daughters of Eve would need Pickfords to deliver the case against Sweden's greatest author (1849-1912).

The embittered survivor of three troubled, failed marriages, who dragged his first wife, Siri, through the dirt by relaying his virulently biased view of their relationship in stories and plays, this particular "non woman" was also a vociferous opponent of the women's rights movement. That comes across fairly unambiguously in this passage from one of the versions of his autobiographical novel, A Madman's Defence: "I want to exhort the lawmakers to carefully consider the consequences of granting civic rights to semi-apes, inferior creatures, sick children, sick and insane 13 times a year at the time of menstruation, completely out of their minds during pregnancy and irresponsible during the rest of their life, unconscious criminals, criminal, instinctively malicious animals who do not even know that that is what they are."

It's characteristic that Strindberg is one of the few male dramatists whose anxieties about penis-size has led him to set down for posterity his own alleged vital statistics (16cm by 4cm, since you're asking) and if there's an image from his plays which seems to encapsulate his inflamed view of the relations between the sexes, it's the spectacle of the Captain at the end of The Father, wheedled into a straitjacket by the emasculating feminine guile that's trained to exploit a man's condition ed need fora mother-substitute.

We live in politically correct times, so it's a tribute to the power of Strindberg's vision that the works of this least pc of dramatists are so frequently revived. What that power consists in, and why it can override objections, are opportune questions given that London is just about to experience an ad hoc mini-festival of Strindberg.

At the Almeida, the Swedish director Peter Stormare is mounting The Dance of Death, which makes you privy to the lacerating mutual hatred of an artillery captain and his former actress wife as they approach the silver jubilee of their deathly symbiosis. Written in the same month as The Dance but almost schizophrenically dissimilar in its message of redemptive Christian hope, Easter is revived by Katie Mitchell for the Royal Shakespeare Company in February. This last play focuses on a family anxiously awaiting the arrival of a creditor, whereas Creditors, revived in the same month by Fusion Theatre Company at the Gate, focuses on debts of a marital kind in a literally mesmeric drama of a man's revenge on his former wife and her current husband. Meanwhile, later this week, Sweden's Marionetteatern offers a puppet version of The Ghost Sonata as part of the London International Festival of Mime.

Gemma Jones, who takes on the role of the wife in Dance of Death, argues that the misogynist label is over-applied to Strindberg. "I don't feel I'm playing a belittled character. She's full of power and passion and contradiction and she gives as good as she gets." In one of his letters, Strindberg refers to his misogyny as, "only the reverse image of a terrible desire for the other sex", a fact you're reminded of when Jones maintains that, "he admired women to the point of fearing them". Certainly, no one could accuse him of condescending to the female sex, nor of that dishonest gambit, the glorification of womanhood that's a cover for furtive dread. In Strindberg, the hostility is at least out in the open.

Then there is his still-shocking modernity. Stormare recounts how one of the production's technicians, after overhearing a scene from Dance, admitted that he and his girlfriend had had a row along similar lines just that morning. Strindberg feels like our contemporary in a raw, blackly comic way that Ibsen, whom he dubbed "the Norwegian Bluestocking", does not. He disliked the latter's A Doll's House with its door-slamming Nora, the doll who finally demands to be treated like an adult human being, because he thought it reached too tidy a conclusion. There were, he believed, deep antagonisms between the sexes that no amount of enlightened thinking would cure.

Upset the old patriarchal equilibrium, he claimed, and the result would be war. You can repudiate his invidious reading of the gender-duel and you can adduce how, despite his obsessive emphasis on biology, Strindberg's work has had a strong influence on homosexual dramatists and on the presentation of the kind of straight relationship that is partly a gay one in disguise (Dance of Death lurks behind Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?; Miss Julie behind Streetcar Named Desire etc). All the same, you have to concede that on the sex war, he had a point. Bitterly resentful of the way nature made it impossible (at least in his day) for a father to be certain a child was his, Strindberg would have reacted intriguingly to modern fertilisation techniques that dispense with visible fathers altogether. He was mad at times, and at times he had the gift of prophecy. Indeed, it's a kind of compliment to Strindberg's art to say that it foresaw the Daughters of Eve.

On their circular, the Daughters issue a warning that "a woman who assists in realising the fantasies" of indicted male authors "is in complicity with them and their crime". So watch out Katie Mitchell, director of Easter. It turns out that she would not, in fact, be prepared to direct Dance of Death, Miss Julie or The Father and she is persuasive on the point that the all-suffering, redemptive heroine of Easter is an intelligent young girl who has been under enormous strain and neither mad (she's just absconded from an asylum) nor the fey J M Barrie creation she at times seems on the page. Mitchell is impressed by Strindberg's breadth and the extent of his reading of contemporary feminist writing - knowledge that gives his drama its perverse, twisted depths.

Would this satisfy the Daughters of Eve, though? Alongside those qualities (flexibility, inbuilt symbolism) that make them apt for the paranoid nightmare-logic of the late Ghost Sonata, perhaps the stringed puppets of the Marionetteatern have another advantage over human beings: they can't be hexed by the Zuni curse.

n `Dance of Death' previews at the Almeida, London N1 (071-359 4404) from tomorrow. `Easter' is at the Pit, Barbican, London EC2 (071-638 8891) from 18 Jan. `Creditors' is at the Gate, W11 (071-229 0706) from 6 Feb, `Ghost Sonata' is at the Purcell Room,London SE1 (0171-928 8800) from 14 Jan

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