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Strindberg frustrated by 19th-century gender conventions, scholar says


Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
217-333-2177; andreal@uiuc.edu


Released 12/7/2006

Anna Stenport
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Anna Stenport,a professor of Germanic languages and literatures, is a co-editor of a recently published book of essays about August Strindberg. She is finishing her own study of his writings about Stockholm and Paris.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Misunderstood genius or misogynist? Playwright or novelist? Alchemist or artist? Beyond being the unquestioned father of modern prose drama, who was the real August Strindberg and what was he really trying to communicate?

A young professor of Germanic languages and literatures at the University of Illinois who grew up reading Strindberg in her native Sweden, has taken on the alternately venerated and vilified Swedish playwright (1849-1912) as her intellectual challenge.

In fact, Anna Stenport, has devoted seven years to deconstructing and deciphering the brilliant, prolific and controversial writer of Stockholm and Paris, who shocked audiences and readers with his raw realism – explicit references to lust and bodily functions, for example, and unapologetic writings on politics and religion – and who still had time to marry three times, father five children, become an accomplished artist and photographer and even dabble successfully in alchemy, spiritualism and the occult.

Stenport, a co-editor of a recently published book of essays about Strindberg, is finishing her own study of his writings about Stockholm and Paris. She argues that like some of the other major writers of the time, including Henrik Ibsen, Strindberg was driven by his “extreme frustration with the stifling gender conventions of the late 19th century.”

“I believe that at the core of his writing, Strindberg was rebelling against those conventions, while at the same time trying to work out new paradigms for how men and women could coexist, especially in marriage.”

However, unlike Ibsen, who also was interested in exploring gender relations but who opted for “a kind of consensus or rational and well-tempered approach, Strindberg held out as a rebel, a radical, a challenger, and perhaps also as a more interesting writer.”

But he paid a dear price for his positions, Stenport said. Not only was he essentially kept out of the drama canon over the decades, but he also was not particularly well received by his readers, including literary critics.

“I would say that his views on gender are the white elephant in his works,” said Stenport, the director of Illinois’ Scandinavian studies program.

“Everyone knows that he had some peculiar ideas. In a play like ‘Miss Julie,’ for example, he appears to be wildly misogynistic. The female protagonist in that play comes across as a neurotic, a not very serious character who ends up killing herself.”

While critics have homed in on Strindberg’s portrayals of women, Stenport and the authors in the new book of essays are trying to look at the writer more broadly – “not only at his portrayals of women who do indeed seem overly neurotic, but also at his construction of his own masculinity as an authorial persona, for example.”

The new book, co-edited with Anna Cavallin and titled “Det gäckande könet: Strindberg och Genusteori” or “The Vexing Sex: Strindberg and Gender Theory,” was published last month by Symposion, a Swedish press. Next semester, Stenport is offering a U. of I. course on the writings of Strindberg.

According to Stenport, Strindberg is for a small group – scholars of literature in Sweden and readers of Swedish and Scandinavian literature, “very much a canonical figure, but he is mostly known in Sweden as a prose writer, a novelist.”

However, for international audiences, Strindberg is better known for his key dramas, “Miss Julie” and “The Father,” among them – both regarded as his naturalist plays, and for “A Dream Play” and “The Ghost Sonata” – his expressionist or modernist plays.

In the United States, on the other hand, Strindberg is read less widely than Ibsen – mainly in university theater departments and in Scandinavian studies classes. He also is occasionally performed in the “off-Broadway, non-mainstream theater,” Stenport said.

The book manuscript Stenport is finishing, which focuses on Strindberg’s prose, is tentatively titled “Metropolitan Modernisms: Strindberg, Paris and Stockholm.”

“What I do in this book is offer a reading of the prose that’s very little known outside of Sweden. Strindberg – yes, he may have been the ‘father of modern drama,’ but he wrote a very substantial amount of prose in both Swedish and French,” Stenport said.

In her manuscript, Stenport compares Strindberg’s Swedish and French writings and looks at “how he conceived of himself as a cosmopolitan living on the European continent for a large portion of his life.” He typically wrote about Stockholm when living in Paris and about Paris when residing in Stockholm, she said.

“He has a complementary – I’m not going to say radically different – view on turn-of-the-century European modernity,” Stenport said.

“He’s writing from the provinces, in a sense, trying to break onto the stages of Paris at the end of the 19th century, and also trying to present Sweden to Europe in a way that was different – that didn’t include the old stereotypes.

“He was trying to remake Sweden, trying to turn its image into one that was more cosmopolitan and modern.”

To Stenport, Strindberg ultimately offers “an alternate understanding of European modernity, particularly about how we should think about the function of European cities.”

“He's a fascinating person – mad and prolific – one of those authors that you feel you can never totally get a handle on.”