European studies blog

03 April 2015

Hope, humanity and humour: Strindberg’s Easter message for a new century

The autumn of 1900 was a productive season for the 51-year-old August Strindberg, returning to his native Sweden and to the theatre after a long absence. Within the space of three weeks he had written two full-length plays: Påsk (Easter) and Dödsdansen (The Dance of Death). The second, a pitiless study of a couple trapped in a poisonous marriage, is in accord with the popular image of Strindberg as a nihilistic woman-hater, and the contrast with the message of redemption and reconciliation conveyed by Easter is thus all the more striking. The British Library holds a copy of the first edition (Stockholm, 1901) at 011755.ff.12 (picture below).

Strindberg Pask Cover

Strindberg set the play in Lund, a university town in southern Sweden where he had lived while recovering from a protracted nervous breakdown. Born and brought up in Stockholm, he found the atmosphere of Lund deeply uncongenial, provincial and suffocating, and constricting for one used to the fresh sea air of the archipelago and Lake Mälaren. Worse still, he was not the only member of his family undergoing mental suffering at that time; his sister Elisabeth was committed to an asylum during his period in Lund. Brother and sister had been especially close, and it was with Elisabeth in mind that he created the figure of the ‘Easter girl’ Eleanora at the centre of his play, and gave her the name of his mother.

200px-Harriet_Bosse_Strindberg_To_Damascus_1900There was a third woman in Strindberg’s life who can be glimpsed in this character – his future wife, the young Norwegian actress Harriet Bosse, for whom he visualised the role. She had moved to Stockholm and been engaged to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Dramaten in 1899, and the other-worldly quality which she possessed led her to be cast as the Lady in the premiere of Strindberg’s To Damascus (picture left from Wikimedia Commons). Strindberg’s diary account of the dress rehearsal in November 1900 describes his growing infatuation with Harriet after a dream in which she was married to him and appeared dressed as Puck, and on 6 May 1901 the couple, aged 52 and 22, embarked on a marriage (his third) which would prove as ill-fated and tempestuous as any that he could have dreamed up.

There is no trace of foreboding in Easter, however; although the Heyst family has grave problems of its own, Eleanora’s freshness, honesty and spirituality have survived a spell in a mental asylum from which she has escaped to the home inhabited by her mother, her schoolmaster brother Elis, and their lodger Benjamin, a grammar-school pupil who is preparing for his examinations. Elis – touchy, bitter, suspicious and morbidly possessive of his fiancée Kristina – is a self-portrait, and the dark shadow which hangs over the household, like the sense of guilt and shame surrounding Strindberg’s father’s irregular union with the servant whom he belatedly married and his subsequent bankruptcy, is a result of Heyst senior’s actions. His dubious financial dealings have landed him in prison, and the family lives in dread of Lindkvist, the most threatening of their creditors.

The action, which spans the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter Eve and is accompanied by Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, sees the tension increasing when Eleanora innocently takes a daffodil from a closed flower-shop and falls under suspicion of theft despite leaving payment for it. Yet in spite of the ominous atmosphere which grows stronger and stronger throughout the three acts, the play unfolds in a landscape full of signs of the approach of spring after a harsh Swedish winter – the removal of the double windows, the putting aside of heavy garments, the song of chaffinches, and the repainting of steamers in readiness for the new season. When the (literally) shadowy Lindkvist finally appears, the ogre actually reveals himself as a kindly figure prepared to renounce his claim.

There is no easy resolution; as Lindkvist says, he cannot help Heyst to escape his punishment or Benjamin to pass his Latin examination: ‘Life won’t give us everything – and nothing gratis’. But the play ends in the sunlight of Easter Day as the family gathers with a new sense of forgiveness and hope, which, although there are constant Scriptural references, is equally applicable in humanist terms as a comment on the transformations which can be achieved through reconciliation and generosity of spirit. Appropriately, the British Library holds a translation by Stellan Engholm (Stockholm, 1935; YF.2012.a.23780) into Esperanto, a language conceived to promote international unity and mutual understanding.

Following its premiere at Stockholm’s Intima Teatern the play received many more performances, including a production in 2013 in New York, transposing the action to 1950s Harlem with an Afro-American cast.

And so, let us look forward with Elis, to ‘the Easter Holiday – five glorious days to make the most of!’

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak studies      


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