Strindberg and Our Theatre¹ (1923)

an essay by: Eugene O'Neill

In creating a modern theatre which we hope will liberate for significant expression a fresh elation and joy in experimental production, it is the most apt symbol of our good intentions that we start with a play by August Strindberg; for Strindberg was the precursor of all modernity in our present theatre just as Ibsen, a lesser man as he himself surmised, was the father of modernity of twenty years or so ago when it was believed that A Doll's House wasn't--just that.

Strindberg still remains among the most modern of moderns, the greatest interpreter in the theatre of the characteristic spiritual conflicts which constitute the drama--the blood!--of our lives today. He carried naturalism to the logical attainment of such poignant intensity that, if the work of any other playwright is to be called "naturalism," we must classify a play like The Dance of Death as "supernaturalism" and place it in a class by itself, exclusively Strindberg's since no one before or after him has had the genius to qualify.

Yet it is only by means of some form of "super-naturalism" that we may express in the theatre what we comprehend intuitively of that self-defeating self-obsession which is the discount we moderns have to pay for the loan of life. The old "naturalism"--or "realism," if you prefer (would to God some genius was gigantic enough to define clearly the separateness of these terms once and for all)--no longer applies. It represents our father's daring aspirations toward self-recognition by holding the family Kodak up to ill-nature. But to us their old audacity is blague; we have taken too many snapshots of each other in graceless position; we have endured too much from the banality of surfaces. We are ashamed of having peeked through so many keyholes, squinting always at heavy, uninspired bodies--the fat facts--with not a nude spirit among them; we have been sick with appearances and are convalescing; we "wipe out and pass on" to some as yet unrealized region where our souls, maddened by loneliness and the ignoble inarticulateness of flesh, are slowly evolving their new language of kinship.

Strindberg knew and suffered with our struggle years before many of us were born. He expressed it by intensifying the method of his time and by foreshadowing both in content and form the methods to come. All that is enduring in what we loosely call "Expressionism"--all that is artistically valid and sound theatre--can be clearly traced back through Wedekind to Strindberg's The Dream Play, There Are Crimes and Crimes, The Spook Sonata, etc...

Hence, The Spook Sonata at our Playhouse. One of the most difficult of Strindberg's "behind-life" (if I may coin the term) plays to interpret with insight and distinction--but the difficult is properly our special task, or we have no good reason for existing. Truth, in the theatre as in life, is eternally difficult, just as the easy is the everlasting lie.

So pray with us--and (although we don't need it, of course, but it may do us some good) for us.

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¹ First published in Provincetown Playbill, no. 1, season 1923-24.

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