Those who made their name in the late 19th century set the tone for the evolution of drama the following century. While many of Henrik Ibsen's plays focused on women in all their complexity, fellow Scandinavian Strindberg focused on the psychological battle of the sexes. Currently running at Jermyn Street Theatre are two of Strindberg's lesser known works, running as a double bill. The first (The Stronger) is notable for having two female characters, one of whom doesn't get around to speaking throughout. Much like Dolly, the talkative friend in Brief Encounter who doesn't let Laura get a word in edgeways, Sara Griffths as Madame X dominates the conversation. Mademoiselle Y (Abbiegale Duncan) instead uses non-verbal communication to register her what she's thinking or feeling.
From Mme. X's train of verbal stream of consciousness, we glean that Mlle. Y is in an 'unfortunate position' of being single, after previously in the enviable position of being engaged to an ideal suitor – 'ideal' meaning someone of affluence, rather than a romantic match. Of course the longer that Mme. X speaks, the more things that come to mind about Mlle. Y's past behaviour – so much so that her thoughts cascade down with revelation after revelation.
This of course leaves it to the audience to decide whether these assumptions are all in her mind, or whether she has inadvertently stumbled upon 'the truth' because she stopped to look beyond the surface of things.
Incidently, many years later, Alan Ayckbourn would use the device of the silent accused listening to their gregarious companion in his one act play A Talk In The Park. If it's good enough for Strindberg, it's good enough for Ayckbourn...
Writing biographical or autobiographical works is nothing new. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night was semi-autobiographical, while Simone De Beauvoir wrote about her fractious relationship with her mother and produced four tomes for her autobiography. The latter half of Strindberg's life had its fair share of drama, culminating in divorce and a desire to live a relatively quiet life. It is during this period that Strindberg wrote Storm, where a former government employee who was one married, finds that his ex-wife and new, younger lover live above him – not unlike the predicament of the classical Medea.
Having a similar temperament to General Griggs in Lillian Hellman's The Autumn Garden, 'the Gentleman' (Paul Herzberg) wants a quiet life where thoughts of the past can't trouble him further. However, an opportunity arises for him to be reunited with Gerda (Sara Griffiths, again) which his brother (Brian Kingsland) arranges. Their meeting however, is anything but harmonious and we see that far form infidelity being at the root of their acrimony, something deeper is behind it all – the truth is much more nebulous.
What adds an extra frisson to the proceedings is the knowledge that the women in these plays are are based on real women in Strindberg's life. Madame X in The Stronger is based on his first wife Siri, while Gerda in Storm is based in his third wife Harriet Bosse. While Madame X's verbose behaviour is perhaps not so endearing, it is Strindberg's alter ego, 'the Gentlemen' whose entrenched behaviour does not fare well against Gerda. As a 19th century King Lear, the Gentleman/Strindberg shows that old age doesn't naturally confer wisdom or forgiveness over the passing of time.
© Michael Davis 2016
Strindberg's Women: The Stronger and Storm are being performed as a double bill at Jermyn Street Theatre until 26th November 2016.