Embodied Struggles: A Reduction of the Lives and Characters of August Strindberg and Tennessee Williams

“Of course it is a pity that so much of all creative work is so closely related to the personality of the one who does it. It is sad and embarrassing and unattractive that those emotions that stir him deeply enough to demand expression, and to charge their expression with some measure of light and power are nearly all rooted, however changed in their surface, in the particular and sometimes peculiar concerns of the artist himself, that special world, the passions and images of it that each of us weaves about him from birth to death, a web of monstrous complexity, spun forth at a speed that is incalculable to a length beyond measure, from the spider mouth of his own singular perceptions.”

—Tennessee Williams i

“There is no occupation so coarse, so lacking in sensitiveness as the writerʼs. If you only knew what sort of life this is, in which one must, as a writer must, strip oneself naked in public, how he must like a vampire suck blood from his friends, from his nearest and dearest, from himself! And if he doesnʼt, he isnʼt a writer.”

—August Strindberg

from a letter to Verner von Heidesmanii

Of all the needs described in psychologist Abraham Maslowʼs famous hiearchial pyramid of human needs, there is none that drives our plays, literature, and poetry more than the third tier—our need to love and belong. This is the first need that arises after all of our physiological needs are satisfied, and which is then followed by the fourth and fifth tiers, esteem and self-actualization. According to the model, lower needs must be satisfied before one can reasonably progress up the ladder. However, with the introduction of a bougeoise society in the latter half of the 19th century, an interesting development occurred where baser needs (e.g. sex) became stifled in order to meet the standards of a new social etiquette. All of a sudden—though perhaps it was not an altogether new phenomenon—the third and fourth tiers became twisted together and, by virtue of this perversion, the state of self-actualization became an even harder goal to attain. It is from this setting that our Modern Drama would emerge.

And of the many playwrights that would come onto the scene, two in particular were heavily invested in this struggle between sex, society, and self, and who were especially adept in the area of human psychology to effectively elucidate the problem—August Strindberg and Tennessee Williams. Their plays “Miss Julie” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are excellent examples of how a sexual instinct, stunted by an alien, societal construct, can thwart an honest realization of the self. Yet it is important to note that the lives of these play and the themes they deal with exist not only as characters on a stage, but in actuality reflect a great deal of the lives and personal struggles of the authors who illustrated them. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to not only examine how these struggles function on stage, but to root out their origins within the respective playwrights. In doing so I hope to show how these plays are not simply expressions of a problem, but active searches by the authors for their solution. The end result, not to be underscored, in both plays is tragedy.

To begin, the first thing we need to do is identify the embodied character, or characters, of the playwrights within their plays. Just as Strindberg fragmented his personality into different characters in “To Damascus”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Miss Julie” are constructed in a similar fashion. For in order to breathe life into a character as effectively and cohesively as these two playwrights were capable of, a very personal familiarity with the charactersʼ lives would be required. One way of doing this would be to base the character on an actual person that one was able to examine at length. We know that Williams did this quite often and we can trace many of his characters to people from his life, such as Big Mama and Big Daddy as embodiments of his mother and father. He even freely makes note of these associations in his Memoirs. Yet while Big Daddy forms one part of the tragedy of the play, the crux of the play resides elsewhere—in the love triangle between Brick, Maggie and Skipper. This is where the major concern rests and which we can assume the playwright had a special investment in. We will leave Skipper out of the equation seeing as he does not even make an appearance in the play, but what obvious correlations can we find between Brick, Maggie, and Williams? For Brick, who originated as a character from Williamsʼ short story, “Three Players of a Summer Game”, from which the entire play grew out ofiii, we have alcoholism, and as later developed in the play, an arguable homosexuality. For Maggie, we have a poor upbringing, and a sexual drive and energy which was very much like Williamsʼ own. The former is quite easy to identify, but to correlate the latter, we can find numerous accounts of Williamsʼ many love affairs and sexual endeavors which follow along similar lines in his Memoirs. Donald Spoto, a biographer of Williams, described his character as Dionysian, and with this assessment I can very much agree. Also, much like a Cat, Paul Bigelow, a good friend of Williams, related that the playwright “saw his libido as a painful burden”.iv

Yet while Williams may share certain similarities to both Brick and Maggie, it would not be wise to make too many assumptions. Neither Brick nor Maggie completely embody Williams. Brick, for example, was unsure of his sexual orientation while Williams was both very aware and very comfortable with his. And as for Maggie, she had a grave desire to climb the social and economic ladder—a concern which was not shared to such an extent by Williams. The key to look at, however, is where the tragedies of this play lie. For Brick, it is in the mendacity that he confronts in his daily life and the alcoholism he uses to “pass the buck” and escape from it. For Maggie, it is her frustrated desires which are rooted in Brick and which are driven to a frenzy by her sexual inclinations. It is to these two crucial circumstances, born from Williams, that we will return to later when we examine the parsing of the struggle, but first let us turn our attention to Strindberg and “Miss Julie”.

The parallels between “Miss Julie” and Strindbergʼs life are abundant. The story was based on a woman named Victoria Benedictsson, an acquaintance of Strindberg, who had committed suicide because she felt that she had been wronged by a lover. On another level, the class conflict matches that of Strindberg and his wife at the time, the actress, Siri von Essen. Strindberg even remarked that the antagonism between him and his wife was a “clash between the upper class and the lower class.”v At the heart of the play, however, is a clash between the sexes which for Strindberg, as was evident in all of his marriages, was a constant struggle for power. It is in this respect that things get a bit tricky. For the societal constructs in this play are only carried out to a certain point. Much of the conflict in the play occurs within the individual characters and is in many ways self-inflicted. The mendacity of the characters, spurned on by their class differences, only poisons the characters to a certain degree and after that a more primitive instinct takes over which is very sado-masochistic. In Jean and Julie we have two very complex characters that would involve too much time to delineate, so let us instead look at the desires of each, or, once again, where their tragedies lie.

Scene from Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm with Inga Tidblad and Ulf Palme as Julie and Jean

When Strindberg began the play, he had originally wanted to show a stunted half-woman who at the end of the play, after the bell had rung for Jean, grabbed the razor from Jeanʼs hands and slashed her wrists in front of the audience while crying out triumphantly, “You see, lackey, you werenʼt capable of dying!”vi Conversely, Jean begins the play as a Nietzschean superman whose superior mind arms him with the very real potential of rising above both the economic and social strata in which he was born. Strindbergʼs stage was set for his drama consisting of a table and two chairs, one chair being occupied by an aristocratic “superstition”, the other by a lower-class genius. What begins as a story of a fall and a rise, however, results in only a two-fold collapse.

In order to understand why this happens, it would be important to illuminate Strindbergʼs methodology when it came to writing. We will for the moment toss out Strindbergʼs summation of the action as described in his famous preface; he wrote it after he finished the play and his conscious attempt to make sense of the work is riddled with too many inconsistencies. What we will trust about his work is what he did best—portray drama.

A clue to the specific method he made use of in this play is, however, revealed in one passage of his preface where he states:

Now as far as dialogue is concerned, I have broken somewhat with tradition in refusing to make my characters into interlocutors who ask stupid questions to elicit witty answers. I have avoided the symmetrical and mathematical design of the artfully constructed French dialogue and have let minds work as irregularly as they do in real life, where no subject is quite exhausted before another mind engages at random some cog in the conversation and governs it for a while. My dialogue wanders here and there, gathers material in the first scenes which is later picked up, repeated, reworked, developed, and expanded like the theme in a piece of music.vii

The style of the dialogue of “Miss Julie” is directly related to the manner with which Strindberg wrote it. While he did have the specifics of the general plot of the play and the background of the characters established, what happened in between was simply a dialogue that Strindberg was able to have with himself. Of this ability, Evert Sprinchorn writes:

This extraordinary restlessness [of Strindberg], inherent in his personality, became a crucial element in his method as an artist. In midcareer he wrote of himself that he might rightly be called a seeker who “experiments with points of view. A complex of individualities, stemming from many crossbreedings affecting blood and brains, of many stages passed through, for which the author simply makes himself a medium or ʻautomatic writer.”viii

Turning now back to Williams, the method with which he wrote “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” shares certain vital similarities. Spoto writes:

[Cat…] in its earliest development was observing classical unities of place, time and theme, and it entirely subordinated action to a series of very nearly philosophical dialogues. Perhaps because “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was dense with a network of personal references and personal fears, he was calling it a comedy of manners. In this play, everything that happened had happened before the curtain rose—or it might happen afterward. During the summer evening of the playʼs time, only the charactersʼ reactions filled the stage, only these representative critical moments were held up for the audience.ix

What we have in Cat…, as in Miss Julie, is a conversation that the playwright is having with himself. While Williams has Big Daddy to push the action forward (an achievement that he was particularly proud of), the main story rests in the struggle between Maggie and Brick. For Strindberg, who first came up with the idea for Miss Julie after Benedictssonʼs first suicide attempt, when a friend, Axel Lundegard, related the story to him, Sprinchorn goes on to say, “[Lundegard] would always remember Strindbergʼs response. ʻHe listened,ʼ said Lundegard, ʻwith an expression of implacable, cannibal-like interest without the slightest trace of human compassion.ʼ Perhaps his interest was not purely that of the objective artist; his own desperate position had often led him to think of killing himself…”x

So Strindberg was invested in both characters a great deal, as Jean in terms of the lowly up-and-comer, and as Julie as the troubled passion that would lead to suicide. Despite his intentions for a didactic work to show the weakness of woman, and the strength of man amidst class strife, once he sat the two down at a table and two chairs, his characters, his embodiments, performed the play before him while he acted in the role of medium or ʻautomatic writerʼ.

For Williams, a story that began with an alcoholic and a sexual impulse, there emerged the addition of his own life-long concern with mendacity and the truth, and his father and mother to help move things along.

So what we have now is the embodiment of this struggle between the third and fourth tiers of Maslowʼs pyramid, what about the fifth and final—self-actualization? Many artists find this in expression. Of his first desires to write Williamsʼ wrote the following:

“The malign exercise of snobbery in “middle American” life was an utterly new experience to Rose [his sister] and to me and I think its sudden and harsh discovery had a very traumatic effect on our lives. It had never occurred to us that material disadvantages could cut us off from friends. It was about this time, age eleven or twelve, that I started writing stories—it was a compensation, perhaps…”xi

Yet where the playwrightsʼ stories ended was tragedy. One can argue that this is only because tragedy is good drama, but what can be said about the familiarity required to properly portray tragedy? Williamsʼ career went spiraling down directly after “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and his substance abuse eventually killed him. One can only imagine the same future for Brick, and we can only see Maggie as never finding satiety, staying as long as she can on a hot tin roof. And as for Strindberg, divorce would follow soon after “Miss Julie”, then two more failed marriages, and then madness. Yet they kept on writing, and the question now is whether we can truly reach that top tier without satisfying Love, Belonging and Esteem first. Or if writing is compensation enough.

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i Williams, Tennessee; “Person—To—Person”; The Theatre of Tennessee Williams Vol. 3; (New York: New Directions Books, 1971). p. 3.

ii Strindberg, August; taken from Strindberg as Dramatist by Sprinchorn, Evert; (New York: Yale University Press, 1982).

iii Spoto, Donald; The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams; (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1985); pp. 175-176.

iv Spoto. p. 98.

v Sprinchorn. Strindberg as Dramatist. p. 37.

vi Lamm, Martin; August Strindberg; (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971); p. 218.

vii Strindberg, August; “Miss Julie”; preface.

viii Sprinchorn. p. ix.

ix Spoto. p. 193.

x Sprinchorn, Evert; Selected Plays; (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); p. 201.

xi Williams, Tennessee; Memoirs; (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983); p. 14.

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