On Character – August Strindberg

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(excerpt from Author’s Note to Miss Julie by August Strindberg)

My treatment of the subject has thus been neither one sidedly physiological nor exclusively psychological. I have not put the entire blame on what she inherited from her mother, nor on her monthly indisposition, nor on immorality. I have not even preached morality – this I left to the cook in the absence of a minister.

This multiplicity of motives, it pleases me to assert, is in kepping with the times. And if others have done it before me, then it pleases me that I have not been alone in my “paradoxes,” as all discoveries are called.

As for characterization, I have made my people rather “characterless” for the following reasons:

The word character has come to mean many things over the course of time. Originally, it must have meant the dominant trait in the soul-complex and was confused with temperament. Later it became the middle-class expression for the automaton, one whose disposition was fixed once and for all or had adapted himself to a particular role in life. In a word, someone who had stopped growing was called a character. In contrast the person who continued to develop, the skillful navigator on the river of life, sailing not with sheets belayed, but veering before the wind to luff again, was called characterless – in a derogatory sense, of course – because he was so difficult to understand, classify, and keep track of. This bourgeois concept of the immobility of the soul was transferred to the stage, which the bourgeoisie has always dominated. There a character became a man who was ready-made; whenever he appeared, he was drunk or comical or sad. The only thing necessary to characterize him was to give him a physical defect – a clubfoot, a wooden leg, a red nose – or have him repeat an expression, such as “that was splendid” or “Barkis is willin’.” This simplified view of human character still survives in the great Moliere. Harpagon is nothing but a miser although he could have been not only a miser but an excellent fancier, or splendid father and good citizen. What is worse is that his “defect” is very advantageous to his son-in-law and daughter, who are his heirs and therefore should not criticize him, even if they have to wait a bit before climbing into bed together. Therefore, I do not believe in simple theatrical characters. And an author’s summary judgments of people – this one is stupid, that one brutal, this one jealous, that one stingy – should be challenged by naturalists, who know how rich the soul-complex is and realize that “vice” has a reverse side closely resembling virtue.

As modern characters living in an age of transition more compulsively hysterical than the one that preceded it at least, I have depicted my people as more vacillating and disintegrating than their predecessors, a mixture of the old and the new. If  the valet belches something modern from the depths of his ancient slave’s soul, it is because I think it not improbable that through newspapers and conversations modern ideas filter down even to the level a servant lives on. There are those who find it wrong in modern drama for characters to speak Darwinism. At the same time they hold up Shakespeare as a model. I would like to remind these critics that the gravedigger in Hamlet speaks the fashionable philosophy of the day – Giordano Bruno’s (Bacon’s) – which is more improbable since there were fewer means then for the spread of ideas than there are now. Besides, “Darwinism” has existed in every age, ever since the description in Genesis of the steps in creation from lower animals to man. It is just that only now have we discovered and formulated it.

My souls (character) are conglomerates of past and present cultural phases, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, pieces torn from fine clothes and become rags, patched together as is the human soul. I have also added a little evolutionary history by having the weaker mid steal and repeat words from the stronger. Ideas are induced through the power of suggestion: from other people, from the surroundings (the blood of the greenfinch), and from the attributes (the straight razor); and I have inanimate objects (the Count’s boots, the bell) serve as agents for Gedankenubertragung [“though transference”]. Finally, I have used “open suggestion”, a variation of sleep-like hypnosis, which is now so well known and popularized that it cannot arouse the kind of ridicule or skepticism it would have done in Mesmer’s time.

(…)

As for the dialogue, I have broken with tradition somewhat by not making my characters catechists who ask stupid question in order to elicit clever replies. I have avoided the symmetrical, mathematical, constructed dialogue of French drama and let chracters’ minds function irregularly, as they do in a real-life conversation, where no topic of discussion is exhausted entirely and one minds by chance finds a cog in another mind in which to engage. Consequently, the dialogue also wanders, presenting material in the opening scenes that is later taken up, reworked, repeated, expanded, and developed, like the theme in a musical composition.

The plot is serviceable enough, and since it really concerns only two people, I have concentrated on them, including only one minor character, the cook, and having the father’s unhappy spirit hover over and behind the action. I have done this because I believe that people of today are most interested in the psychological process. Our inquisitive souls are not satisfied just to see something happen; we want to know how it happened. We want to see the strings, the machinery, examine the double-bottomed box, fell for the seam in the magic ring, look at the cards to see how they are marked.

(…)

As for the scenery, I have borrowed from the impressionist painting the device of making a setting appear cut off and asymmetrical, thus strengthening the illusion. When we see only part of a room and a portion of the furniture, we are left to conjecture, that is to say, our imagination goes to work and complements what is seen.

(…)

Here in an attempt! If it fails, there is surely time enough for another!

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