The Terrible Swede

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/June, 1940

Run your eye down the stenographic autobiography of Johan August Strindberg, the great Swedish dramatist, in “Wer Ist’s,” the German “Who’s Who,” and you will encounter this:

Verh: I, 76, m.d. Schauspiel. Siri v. Essen gesch. Wrangel, gesch; II, 93, m.d. Schriftst. Frida Uhl aus Wien, gesch.; Ill, 01, m.d. Schauspiel. Harriet Bosse aus Stockholm, gesch.

Which, being clawed into the vulgate, gives news that Strindberg married Siri von Essen, an actress and the divorced wife of one Herr Wangel, in 1876; that he divorced Siri and married Frida Uhl, a lady author “out of Vienna,” in 1893; that he divorced Frida and married Harriet Bosse, of the Stockholm theaters, in 1901; and that he has since divorced Harriet. And which, being revolved a bit in mind, and weighed, as it were, in the psychological scales, points to the origin, perhaps, of the two most salient characteristics of the man, as dramatist and as novelist; the one being his strong tendency to empty his personal experience, without effort at disguise, into his every fable, and the other being his liking for depicting the conjugal relation as a form of combat—not as a combat genial and romantic, of pretty love taps all compact, but as a combat savage and to the death, like that between two bull walruses or a pair of half-starved hyenas. Strindberg, indeed, has lived more stories than even Strindberg could invent, and they have been stories to bulge the eyeball and lift the lanugo on the baldest head.

The son of a Stockholm barmaid, he has tasted almost every sort of adversity known to man. He failed, in his youth, as teacher, as physician, as actor and as journalist. Coming into the world to the wagging of tongues (for his father, a small shopkeeper, did not marry his mother until a few months before his birth) he moved, until well into middle age, in a fetid atmosphere of scandal. At twenty-six he was hero and villain of a peculiarly nasty divorce case; at thirty-five he faced a term in prison for a gross offense against Swedish prudery. And then came another divorce case, and then another, and then yet another. And in the intervals he more than once went hungry and half -clad, and more than once fled his country to escape his woes, and more than once meditated suicide as the one escape from despair. No wonder his own life bulks so large in his books and plays! And no wonder the dominant tone of those books and plays is a cynicism so appalling that it turns the virtuous liver to water!

Compared to Strindberg, old Ibsen seems an optimist, almost a sentimentalist. “Ghosts,” to be sure, gave us a shock in the naive nineties, but that shock, as we all know, has since dissolved into a platitude. It would probably be difficult today to find a defender, not clerical or insane, for Mrs. Alving’s disastrous fidelity to mensa et thoro. Even the flight of Nora Helmer, once so vile an infamy, is now admitted to have been excusable, if not actually ladylike. But who, so long as romance reigns and the family endures, will admit the essential truth, or even the ordinary sanity, of “The Dance of Death,” or “Motherlove,” or “The Bond,” or “Lady Julie,” or “The Father”? Here, indeed, is bitter, bitter stuff! Here is idol smashing with cobblestones! Here is the massacre of the gods! In the first play, husband and wife wallow in a morass of mutual hatred, wounding and besmirching each other at every roll; in the second a debauched mother, sniveling sentimentally, drags her young daughter down; in the third husband and wife tear their child to pieces between them; in the fourth a sort of extra-lascivious Hedda Gabler seduces her father’s valet, and in the fifth a nagging wife drives her husband crazy. Certainly not plays for sucklings. Certainly not plays that make the slightest concession to the common assumptions and traditions of the theater. And yet, when all is said and done, plays of truly astounding mordancy, with living people in them and the rank smell of reality.

Not all of Strindberg’s work, of course, is in that key. On the contrary, he has also tried his hand at the historical drama and even at the poetical drama, and of the four plays lately translated by Edwin Bjorkman—“Plays,” by August Strindberg (Scribner)—the first is of the last named species. But it is scarcely as a recreator of Swedish history and legend, whatever his talent in that field, nor as a heavy-handed imitator of Maeterlinck and the more romantic of the two Hauptmanns that he holds the attention of Europe today, but as a metaphysical realist who has carried the search for motives and causes to its uttermost limit. Not that he is a mere merchant of indecencies, a flabbergaster of the stalls. Far from it, indeed. It is always the psychological fact that interests him, and not the physical fact. What he tries to do is to find the genuine motive beneath the shells and trappings of conventional habit and morality. That husband and wife greet each other daily with certain words, that they engage in certain mummery before their children and the world, that they occasionally quarrel over this or that, that their union ends thus or so—all this is to Strindberg only the surface play of life. What he seeks to get at is what they actually think of each other deep down in their secret souls—what ideas and impulses he at the bottom of their outward acts—what change and color of character each has derived from the other. Naturally enough, this quest involves the delineation of conflict, for it is only in the heat of conflict, when the primal emotions burst their bonds and the ceremony of civilization is forgotten, that self-revelation is ever genuine. And so, in his plays, one constantly encounters scenes like that famous one in the last act of “A Doll’s House,” wherein Nora and Torvald Helmer face each other across the table, or that less famous but even more staggering one in “Friedensfest,” Hauptmann’s “family catastrophe,” wherein the skeletons of the Scholtz family come out to dance.

But whereas Hauptmann is a frank meliorist, with peace arising phoenix-like from his fires of combat, and even Ibsen, as a rule, hints humanely at a possible way out, Strindberg is ever impatient of compromises and happy endings. Seeing woman as a vampire, as the Nietzschean corrupter of the superman, as a parasite at war with masculine cleanliness and strength, he is unwilling to let her undergo any romantic metamorphosis, even for the sake of an affecting curtain. Not that he denies her a certain eleventh hour remorse, a temperamental incapacity for playing out her role to the bitter end, a tendency to be horrified, soon or late, by her own deviltry. That weakness, indeed, he actually insists upon, but only to show its unauthenticity and its moral futility. Thekla, in the last scene of “The Creditor,” appalled by her ruin of two men, babbles for a chance to make atonement; Lady Julie, caught in her own net, begs Jean to assure her that she shall enter into grace; Laura, in “The Father,” like Alice, in “The Dance of Death,” mouths pious platitudes. But always to no purpose. The way of escape is ever closed. Responsibility is ever brought home. “Out with you, infernal woman!” shrieks Laura’s victim. “And damnation on your sex!” “Atonement?” demands Thekla’s. “One must atone by restitution—and you can’t. You have not only taken, but you have destroyed what you have taken!” And the victim of Alice spits in her face, while Lady Julie’s, her master at the end, puts the cold steel into her hand and—“There is no other way. Go!” Even in “The Bond,” though an armistice hangs vaguely in the air, if only because both antagonists are beaten, there is no escape for the woman. She talks sentimentally of peace at last, of sleeping near her child. “You hope to sleep tonight?” jeers her husband. “You?”

Mr. Bjorkman’s volume of translations is made up of the two parts of “The Dance of Death,” “The Link” (otherwise, “The Bond”) and “The Dream Play,” a reasonably representative selection, though it does not include Strindberg’s most celebrated plays. The English dialogue is fluent and idiomatic, and, so far as I have been able to judge by comparison with the admittedly excellent German translations, very close to the original. A well-written introduction and a complete bibliography add to the value of the volume. Simultaneously comes a new translation of “Froken Julie,” by Charles Recht (Brown), a considerable improvement upon the version made by Arthur Swan a year or so ago. (With the title of this play, by the way, all the translators, English and German, seem to have difficulties. Mr. Recht makes it “Countess Julia;” Mr. Swan prefers simple “Julie;” one of the Germans chooses “Grafin Julie,” and another “Fraulein Julie.” In the original it is “Froken Julie.” “Froken” means either “miss” or “lady.” Inasmuch as Julie is a count’s daughter, why not “Lady Julie”?) Beside this play and those in Mr. Bjorkman’s volume, there are also English translations of “The Father,” by N. Erichsen (Luce); “Motherlove,” “The Creditor” and “Swanwhite,” by Francis J. Ziegler (Brown), and “The Stronger,” “Simoon,” “Debit and Credit” and “The Outcast” (Badger). Most of these are one-acters, and few of the translations are perfectly satisfactory. A well equipped Swede of my acquaintance, in collaboration with his American wife, is now engaged upon English versions of all of Strindberg’s principal plays, and their publication in the United States has been arranged. Meanwhile we must rest content with what we have.

Comes now Percy Mackaye, of our own fair land, with two new books for the dramatic shelf. The first contains a prose drama called “Tomorrow” (Slokes), and the second is a volume of one-acters called “Yankee Fantasies,” five in all (Duffield). Mr. Mackaye, who has yet to see forty, and probably has his best work still ahead of him, first attracted public attention and favorable notice as a composer of poetical plays in the grand manner, and in that field he still holds a place of considerable distinction. If you don’t know his “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” I advise you to get it and read it at once, for it is one of the best blank verse comedies done in English in many a long year. And in his “Jeanne d’Arc” and “Sappho and Phaon” you will find more melodious and excellent stuff, as you will also in “A Garland to Sylvia.” Thus browsing the meadows of pentameter, so long deserted by our practical dramatists, Mr. Mackaye took on the aspect of a very old-fashioned young man, and this view of him was confirmed two years ago, when he wrote a very bitter and amusing burlesque upon the social dramas of Henrik Ibsen. What he seemed to find most comical in these social dramas was their solemn discussion of human marriage, and in particular, their assumption that the thing might be improved. I myself enjoyed “Anti-Matrimony” hugely, both on reading it and on seeing the troupe of Miss Henrietta Crosman act it, for there was undoubtedly a lot of sharp humor in it—and I am so steady a believer in old Henrik and his dramatic method that it gives me no uneasiness to see him and it lampooned. Satire, like the colic, is fatal only to the infantile and the senile. The sturdy man or idea survives it unharmed, and not only survives it but actually fattens on it.

But, to get back to Mr. Mackaye, what are we to think of that scorpion now? What are we to think of a man who sits down, after publishing an acidulous burlesque upon the social drama, and straightway writes a social drama five times as solemn and ten times as hortatory as any that Ibsen himself ever wrote—a social drama outshawing Shaw and outbarking Barker and coming dangerously near the pathological outposts of Strindberg, Wedekind and Brieux?

And yet that is just what Mr. Mackaye has done in “Tomorrow.” Its theme is precisely that of Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” and the handling thereof is considerably more pontifical than in “Ghosts,” for since the latter was writ ten the sum of knowledge about heredity has been considerably augmented by many searchers, and so it is possible to speak with some assurance about things which Ibsen could only discuss vaguely and by indirection. The heroine of “Tomorrow” is merely Ibsen’s Mrs. Alving with a bachelor’s degree in biology—a Mrs. Alving able to look ahead as well as backward—a potential tragedy queen who saves herself in time. In consequence there is no young Oswald in the play, to cry for the sun and spoil the midnight lobsters of the squeamish. Senator Julian Henshawe, like old Kammerherre Alving, is perfectly willing to transmit his name and his taint to such a son, and since he is a handsome fellow, romance becomes his strong partisan; but though Mana Dale is carried off her feet by his wooing, she comes back to earth in time to save herself and the unborn. The Mendelian laws of heredity are as familiar to Mana as the latest styles from Paris. She is the daughter of Peter Dale, the famous plant breeder, and biology is a fireside topic in the Dale home. So when she discovers that the blindness of the Senator’s illegitimate child, little Rosalie, is an inheritance from his side of the house and not from the side of Rosalie’s anonymous mother, she tells the Senator without further ado that he will have no further children if she can help it. “Mana! Mana!” he cries. “You’ve promised! I mustn’t lose you! I can’t!” But Mana is as adamant. “Not you,” she answers. “Not you!” And when, “clinging to her hysterically,” he continues to importune her, she tears herself from him, cries, “Let me go!” and “rushes into the bungalow, closing the door.”

If this play on a fair reading strikes the reader as a bit absurd, he will probably agree that its absurdity lies not in its theme but in its working out. The trouble with it, in brief, is that Mr. Mackaye, forgetting the example of Ibsen, has neglected to transmute its ideas into emotions—a process necessary before any stage play can show genuine effectiveness. The effect of “Ghosts” is staggering, not because Ibsen’s belief that Mrs. Alving erred agitates our minds, but because Oswald’s terrible death wrings our hearts. In “Tomorrow” Mr. Mackaye fails to get any such emotional appeal into his story. His argument is always dignified, but it is never quite moving. The one appreciably dramatic scene of the play goes close to melodramatic fustian. Mana, wringing the Senator’s confession from him, dismisses him as I have described— and then a rival lover bobs up and throws him over a cliff! On Third Avenue, I have no doubt, that climax would satisfy an audience to the full, but the persons who follow the play of ideas demand a somewhat closer welding of Q. E. D. and sforzando. If a clash of wills brings down the second act curtain, it must be the principal clash of wills and not a subordinate clash of wills. The deus ex machina, however graceful his descent, is always an irritating invader.

To make matters worse, Mr. Mackaye gives his characters speeches which drop them to the level of the rubber stamp stock company. The Senator, for example, says a number of things that might have been taken from some mouldering prompt book of Augustin Daly. Once he and Mark Freeman, his rival for Mana’s heart, have an old-fashioned villainous-squire-and-honest-yeoman dialogue. “Go, I say!” bawls the Senator. “This is my land. You are trespassing.” “You, sir,” returns the virtuous Mark, “are trespassing on the Creator’s land.” And then the Senator launches into a Boucicaultian tirade against Mana’s father, who has begun to make inquiries regarding the hereditary lesions of his family. “My family!” he sneers. “He, a gardener, of a breed of farmers and ranchmen—he to quibble about family! Let him know that my father was a justice, and I am a Senator. We are no common stock.” Needless to say, he is in riding togs when he makes this speech—the villainous squire is seldom out of them. Can’t you see him switch his glossy boots with his riding crop and twirl his ebon mustache and discharge cigarette smoke through his nose? Certainly Mr. Mackaye must do better next time. If he would write serious plays, plays of ideas, he must be careful to steer clear of banalities. The fact that he has laughed at Ibsen stands eternally against him. Let him beware lest it also consume him!

In his “Yankee Fantasies” he is more at home, but even here his promise falls considerably below his achievement. What he is trying to do, judging by the tone of his preface, is to stage the New England peasant as the late J. M. Synge (whose name, by the way, he spells Singe) staged the peasant of Mayo and the Arran Islands. But he makes the profound mistake, at the very start, of putting an incredibly complex and artificial language into the mouths of his muzhiks. Here, for example, is how a village ne’er-do-well is made to orate to his sweetheart!

. . . I reckon we can nose for our livin’ as good as them other gipsies. I’ve watched ’em sence I was so high—the chuckfolks. Durn if I don’t think they’re happier’n menfolks. They ain’t domestic, nor they ain’t wild, but they live on the fat o’ both stock. . . . Housefolks hoe and harrer; chuckfolks feed and fairer. Housefolks borrow trouble; chuck folks lend it out at interest. Housefolks help the devil; chuckfolks help ’emselves.

Note the neat antitheses, the note of conscious cleverness. And here is how that dunghill Macaulay takes his girl to wife!

Reverend Mr. Wood—of the renowned family of Chucks—we, male and female, of your honor’s own kin and communion, bein’ nat’ral born sinners (and glad of it), poachin’ in your honor’s parish (off and on) for some twenty seasons (more or less), and havin’ published our banns (from time to time) in the presence of chipmunks, woodcocks and water wagtails, duly assembled therefor, do now respectfully petition your experienced worship to unite us, one t’ other, in the blessin’s of wedlock, accordin’ to the ancient rites and ceremonies of orchard communities. . . . Yours truly —Amen!

Allowable enough, perhaps, in blank verse —but Mr. Mackaye is here writing prose. Even prose, of course, can be poetry. But the prose of a Harvard professor cannot be the poetry of a Vermont yokel, in or out of a play. Let Mr. Mackaye, before he manufactures any more of these “Yankee Fantasies,” give a bit of hard study to the plays of Synge—in particular to “The Tinker’s Wedding,” “Riders to the Sea” and “The Shadow of the Glen.” There he will discover what peculiar qualities distinguish peasant poetry, not only as to form and expression but also as to direction and content.

More plays—plays in blank verse, plays in blankety-blank verse, plays in prose. Of those of the first class, the most important is “The War God,” by Israel Zangwill, that cleverest of Asiatics (Macmillan). Here we have a fantastic tragedy with a sobered Zenda for its scene, and Bismarck, Tolstoi and Wilhelm II, thinly disguised, for its principal characters. Bismarck (Count Torgrim) is preparing a grand assault upon Perfidious Alba (England) when Brog, an anarchist, assassinates his commanding general, Count Hoik (Von Moltke?). Brog, it appears, proposes to follow up this beginning by slaying all the other generals, Torgrim himself and the whole royal family, but in carrying out his plan he is halted by the appearance of Count Frithiof (Tolstoi), an apostle of peace. Frithiof, at the start, really helps the anarchists, for his first conquest is of the army, and so the pursuit of Hoik’s assassin lags; but in the end he does so much execution among the Reds themselves that Brog resolves to kill him. Too late, alas, too late! The red flag turns to white; the “Marseillaise” melts into the Doxology! The fair destroyer told off to shoot Torgrim loses her ardor; the King suddenly becomes a Frithian; Torgrim is dismissed; instead of steel projectiles, kisses are hurled across the sea to Alba!

A curious and extremely interesting piece, well fashioned and full of originality, and with more than one ringing line in the verse. But that it is a work of genius, as various English critics have certified, I doubt exceedingly. The success it lately scored in England was largely a succes de scandale. The Licenser of Stage Plays, with traditional imbecility, balked at its public performance, apparently in fear that it would offend Germany—and the newspapers did the rest. Let the Licenser prohibit a play and its fortune is made, however modest its merit. Consider, for example, “The Breaking Point,” by Edward Garnett, a piece much nearer to French melodrama than to the drama of ideas, and yet one solemnly published, with all the bravery of a polemical introduction, and as solemnly read—all because Mr. Redford refused to license it! “The War God,” of course, is far better stuff, if only because of Torgrim, a lifelike and arresting portrait. But even so, it is by no means a play that carries the art of playmaking forward, or one that makes any appreciable contribution to the world’s stock of ideas. Far better have been forgotten for lo, these many years.

Blank verse again. To wit, in “Sherwood,” by Alfred Noyes, the English poet (Stokes), a suave and workman like rendering of the familiar story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, with the addition of a fairy element. Suave and workmanlike—but not glowing, not gorgeous, seldom inspired. Save, indeed, in his lyrics and in occasional passages of exhortation and soliloquy, Mr. Noyes shows little of that prodigality of language, that luscious word music, that arresting unexpectedness which we associate, bearing the Elizabethans in mind, with dramatic blank verse. Too often it is mere prose that he writes—prose deft and graceful, but still mere prose. That charge cannot lie against Blanche Shoemaker Wagstaff , author of “Alcestis” (Privately printed), for here a constant novelty and ingenuity of epithet are visible. Mrs. Wagstaff, in truth, sometimes goes to the opposite extreme and her adjectives run riot. But her little play, it must be confessed, has a considerable dignity nevertheless. That same quality is uppermost in n one-act plays in irregular and rhymeless verse. Their collective title is “Daily Bread” (Macmillan), and they present grim pictures of the lives of the poor. Not much poetry here, nor even, in the conventional sense, much drama; but all the same the dusk of tragedy is in them, and the reader who reads one will probably read all—and then be a long time forgetting them.

So goes space—and five plays remain. Or rather, two plays and three books of plays. One of the first is Paul Wilstach’s effective stage version of Anatole France’s “Thaïs” (Bobbs-Merrill), lately a rival to Massenet’s opera in popular favor. The other is the late Leo Tolstoi’s posthumous tragedy, “The Living Corpse” (Brown), a piece somewhat old-fashioned in structure but still touched with fire. Feodor Vasilyevich Protasov, at odds with his wife, resolves to set her free, and so he goes through the mummery of a pretended suicide. The wife thereupon marries an old lover, and Feodor departs with a gipsy woman. Later on the deception is discovered, the police take to the trail of all concerned, and Feodor, to make an end of the scandal, commits suicide in earnest. The three collections of plays are “Plays of Protest,” by Upton Sinclair (Kennerley); “Three Farces,” by Arnold Bennett (Doran), and “Embers,” by George Middleton (Holt). Mr. Middleton’s pieces are one-acters— somber little things without much action, but showing serious purpose and a considerable technical facility. Mr. Bennett’s are drawing room extravagances in the Gilbert manner. Mr. Sinclair’s are longer—and far less diverting.