Born in Sweden in 1849--the child of a barmaid and a businessman who married only a few months before his birth--August Strindberg was raised in poverty. At one time, more than ten people lived in the family's small three-room house. As a child, August resented discipline of any kind. He was sensitive, suspicious, and irritable--especially after the death of his mother when he was thirteen. His fortunes did not improve when he went off to school. He left for the University of Uppsala at the age of eighteen only to freeze and go hungry in a tiny attic. After a single semester, he was forced to drop out of school.
In his early twenties, despondent over his failures as an actor, August Strindberg determined to take his life. He climbed up into the small attic in which he lived and swallowed an opium pill, expecting to die. But he did not die. Instead, he fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke his mind was seething with memories of childhood. He began to arrange his thoughts feverishly on paper, and in four days he completed his first play. It was then that he knew he would be a writer.
One of Strindberg's early plays, The Outlaw, set in ancient Ireland, won him a stipend from Charles XV and allowed him to return to the university, but he quickly began to quarrel with his instructors and dropped out again, eventually retiring to an island and devoting himself to writing. Unfortunately, Master Olaf, the play he composed there, was something of a disappointment. The young playwright once again found himself floundering in a deep depression and almost determined to give up writing entirely.
It was then that he fell in love with Baroness Wrangel, a married woman who divorced her husband for the young playwright. Under her influence, he returned to his writing and experienced his first real success. He soon staged a revival of Master Olaf, and wrote a number of fairly successful romantic plays. He also composed a series of short stories entitled Married which took an uncompromising look at modern matrimony. This collection of stories caused quite a stir among conservatives. The publisher was brought to court and charged with indecency--causing the stories, of course, to become even more popular with the younger generation, especially when Strindberg voluntarily took the publisher's place in court and won the case. These stories contained the seeds for what would become Strindberg's most engaging dramas. He had discovered his subject matter: the constant and consuming battle for power between the sexes.
In Strindberg's best work, his male and female characters are inevitably bound together in a perverse and dependent relationship, torn between their desire to destroy one another and an equally strong, nymphomaniacal desire for physical possession. In 1887, he explored this theme in The Father, one of the most gripping psychological dramas of the modern theatre. He would go on to explore the same theme in such masterpieces as Miss Julie and The Dance of Death. A master of both naturalism and symbolism, and a forerunner of the expressionism of the post-war theatre, Strindberg continued to write of the alienated modern man, desperate and alone in a forsaken universe until his death in 1912. Henrik Ibsen kept a portrait of the younger writer above his desk, and is said to have remarked, "I cannot write a line without that madman standing and staring down at me with those mad eyes."