The Road to Damascus by August Strindberg


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Page 2

In the trilogy Strindberg's first wife, Siri von Essen, his
marriage to whom was happiest and lasted longest (1877-1891), and
more especially his second wife, the Austrian authoress Frida Uhl
(married to him 1893-1897) have supplied the subject matter for his
picture of THE LADY. In the happy marriage scenes of Part III we
recognise reminiscences from the wedding of Strindberg, then
fifty-two, and the twenty-three-year-old actress Harriet Bosse,
whose marriage to him lasted from 1901 until 1904.

The character of THE LADY in Parts I and II is chiefly drawn from
recollections--fairly recent when the drama was written--of Frida
Uhl and his life with her. From the very beginning her marriage to
Strindberg had been most troublous. In the autumn of 1892
Strindberg moved from the Stockholm skerries to Berlin, where he
lived a rather hectic Bohemian life among the artists collecting in
the little tavern 'Zum Schwarzen Ferkel.' He made the acquaintance
of Frida Uhl in the beginning of the year 1893, and after a good
many difficulties was able to arrange for a marriage on the 2nd May
on Heligoland Island, where English marriage laws, less rigorous
than the German, applied. Strindberg's nervous temperament would
not tolerate a quiet and peaceful honeymoon; quite soon the couple
departed to Gravesend via Hamburg. Strindberg was too restless to
stay there and moved on to London. There he left his wife to try to
negotiate for the production of his plays, and journeyed alone to

to stop in Hamburg owing to lack of money. Strindberg stayed on

parents-in-law at Mondsee, near Salzburg in Austria, where he was
to meet his wife. But when she was delayed a few days on the
journey from London, Strindberg impatiently departed for Berlin,
where Frida Uhl followed shortly after. About the same time an
action was brought for the suppression of the German version of _Le
Plaidoyer d'un Fou_ as being immoral. This book gives an
undisguised, intensely personal picture of Strindberg's first
marriage, and was intended by him for publication only after his
death as a defence against accusations directed against him for
his behaviour towards Siri von Essen. Strindberg was acquitted
after a time, but before that his easily fired imagination had
given him a thorough shake-up, which could only hasten the crisis

Strindberg wrote his scientific work _Antibarbarus_, the couple
arrived in November at the home of Frida Uhl's grandparents in the
little village of Dornach, by the Upper Danube; here the wanderings
of 1893 at last came to an end. For a few months comparative peace
reigned in the artists' little home, but the birth of a daughter,
Kerstin, in May, brought this tranquillity to a sudden end.
Strindberg, who had lived in a state of nervous depression since
the 1880's, felt himself put on one side by the child, and felt ill
at ease in an environment of, as he put it in the autobiographical
_The Quarantine Master_, 'articles of food, excrements, wet-nurses
treated like milch-cows, cooks and decaying vegetables.' He longed
for cleanliness and peace, and in letters to an artist friend he
spoke of entering a monastery. He even thought of founding one
himself in the Ardennes and drew up detailed schemes for rules,
dress, and food. The longing to get away and common interests with
his Parisian friend (a musician named Leopold Littmansson)
attracted Strindberg to Paris, where he settled down in the
beginning of the autumn 1894. His wife joined him, but left again
at the close of the autumn. In reality Strindberg was at this time
almost impossible to live with. Persecution mania and hallucinations
took possession of him and his morbid suspicions knew no bounds. In
spite of this he was half conscious that there was something wrong
with his mental faculties, and in the beginning of 1895, assisted
by the Swedish Minister, he went by his own consent to the St.
Louis Hospital in Paris. During his chemical experiments, in which
among other things he tried to produce gold, he had burnt his hands,
so that he had to seek medical attention on that account also. He
wrote about this in a letter:

'I am going to hospital because I am ill, because my doctor has
sent me there, and because I need to be looked after like a child,
because I am ruined. ... And it torments me and grieves me, my
nervous system is rotten, paralytic, hysterical. ...'

Never before had Strindberg lived in such distress as at this
period, both physically and mentally. With shattered nerves,
sometimes over the verge of insanity, without any means of
existence other than what friends managed to scrape together,
separated from his second wife, who had opened proceedings for
divorce, far from his native land and without any prospects for the
future, he was brought to a profound religious crisis. With almost
incredible fortitude he succeeded in fighting his way through this
difficult period, with the remarkable result that the former Bohemian,
atheist, and scoffer was gradually able to emerge with the firm
assurance of a prophet, and even enter a new creative period, perhaps
mightier than before. One cannot help reflecting that a man capable of
overcoming a crisis of such a formidable character and of several years'
duration, as this one of Strindberg's had been, with reason intact and
even with increased creative power, in reality, in spite of his
hypersensitive nervous system, must have been an unusually strong man
both physically and mentally.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 15th Oct 2019, 9:01