Other artists lay hold upon life through an exceptional sensibility. Strindberg laid hold on life through an exceptional excitability—even an exceptional irritability. In his plays, novels, and essays alike, he is a specialist in the jars of existence. He magnified even the smallest worries until they assumed mountainous proportions. He was the kind of man who, if something went wrong with the kitchen boiler, felt that the Devil and all his angels had been loosed upon him, as upon the righteous Job, with at least the connivance of Heaven. He seems to have regarded the unsatisfactoriness of a servant as a scarcely less tremendous evil than the infidelity of a wife. If you wish to see into twhat follies of exaggeration Strindberg’s want of the sense of proportion led him, you cannot do better than turn to those pages in Zones of the Spirit (as the English translation of his Blue Book is called), in which he tells us about his domestic troubles at the time of the rehearsals of The Dream Play.
My servant left me; my domestic arrangements were upset; within forty days I had six changes of servants—one worse than the other. At last I had to serve myself, lay the table, and light the stove. I ate black broken victuals out of a basket. In short, I had to taste the whole bitterness of life without knowing why.
Much as one may sympathize with a victim of the servant difficulty, one cannot but regard the last sentence as, in the vulgar phrase, rather a tall order. But it becomes taller still before Strindberg has done with it.
Then came the dress-rehearsal of The Dream Play. This drama I wrote seven years ago, after a period of forty days’ suffering which were among the worst which I had ever undergone. And now again exactly forty days of fasting and pain had passed. There seemed, therefore, to be a secret legislature which promulgates clearly defined sentences. I thought of the forty days of the Flood, the forty years of wandering in the desert, the forty days’ fast kept by Moses, Elijah, and Christ.
There you have Strindberg’s secret. His work is, for the most part, simply the dramatization of the conflict between man and the irritations of life. The chief of these is, of course, woman. But the lesser irritations never disappear from sight for long. His obsession by them is very noticeable in The Dream Play itself—in that scene, for instance, in which the Lawyer and the daughter of Indra having married, the Lawyer begins to complain of the untidiness of their home, and the Daughter to complain of the dirt:
THE DAUGHTER. This is worse than I dreamed!
THE LAWYER. We
are not the worst off by far. There is still food
THE DAUGHTER. But what sort of food?
THE LAWYER. Cabbage is cheap, nourishing, and good to eat.
THE DAUGHTER. For those who like cabbage—to me it is repulsive.