Tuesday, June 11, 2019

August Strindberg: Gustav Vasa (1899)

Måns Nilsson and his wife, polishing silver (opening of Act I)

[Image source: https://www.malmostadsteater.se/arkiv/storan-48-49/gustav-vasa . From a 1948-49 production at Malmö Stadsteater.]

A dark, wintry afternoon: four o'clock. The dalesmen gather at Måns Nilsson's house at Kopparberg. The king is coming to Kopparberg, but no-one knows why. The dalesmen supported him in the struggle against Kristian and the Danes; some of them are his personal friends. But they are an independent lot and haven't appreciated the heavy exactions (such as church bells) needed to satisfy the king's Lübeck paymasters. Some say (though this is quickly shushed) that perhaps they picked the wrong side; Kristian certainly made the Swedish nobles suffer, but Gustav makes the Swedish people suffer.

A knock at the door. It isn't the king, but his acting secretary, the reformer Olaus Petri. With him comes Herman Israel the Lübecker, who takes a keen interest in the silver on display. Olaus engages the dalesmen in small talk: How's the mining, how did you cope during the famine? One of the dalesmen is summoned to an interview with the king; then another. The atmosphere becomes increasingly tense. What's happening to our friends? And it becomes ever clearer that Olaus's unruffled chat is leading the dalesmen into making foolish concessions. Then a third summons...

OLAUS (goes to meet the MESSENGER, who whispers to him). Master Stig Larsson [the pastor]  is ordered to go to the King at once!
STIG. Ordered? Who gives orders here?
OLAUS. The King.
MÅNS (springing to his feet). Treachery!
OLAUS. Precisely, treachery and traitors! -- Go, Master, at once, or you'll have to ride bareback!
STIG. Hell!
OLAUS. To Hell! -- Begone!
(MÅNS NILSSON and ANDERS PERSSON rise and make for the door.)
MÅNS. Do you know who I am? that I am a free miner, a friend of the King?
OLAUS. Sit down, then, and be peaceable; if you are the King's friend there's been some mistake! Anders Persson and Måns Nilsson, sit down! No harm shall come to you, nor to anyone else who is innocent! Let the Master go, and don't get excited! What hint has there been of violence here, except from your own bad conscience?
STIG. True! We've done nothing wrong, and no-one has threatened us. -- Calm yourselves, good friends; I shall soon be back! (Goes out.)
MÅNS. You're right!
OLAUS. Throw a stick at the pack and . . .
ANDERS (to MÅNS). We made fools of ourselves! Just keep calm! (Aloud.) You see, Master, one grows suspicious as one gets older, especially when one has seen faith and promises broken one after the other. . . .
OLAUS. I think I see. In times like these, when people change masters as snakes change their skins, a kind of mental unsteadiness may easily arise, pardonable perhaps in the young, but unpardonable in the old and experienced!
MÅNS. One can't talk of old age in connection with the King. He's in the prime of life . . .
OLAUS. And therefore pardonable. . . .
MÅNS (to ANDERS PERSSON). It must be the devil himself!
ANDERS (to MASTER OLAUS). How long have we got to sit here waiting? And what are we waiting for?
OLAUS. For the King's orders, as you know.

A few minutes later, the messenger comes back. He throws three blood-stained coats onto the table.

(text from Gustav Vasa Act I, in C. D. Locock's translation)


It's a stunning opening scene, an extraordinary way to begin a play about, as Strindberg claimed,  the only Swedish monarch he unreservedly admired (perhaps he was still in his Nietzsche phase). Not the least of its shocks is the presentation of Olaus Petri, transformed -- and yet not entirely transformed -- from the zealous youth of Strindberg's early play Master Olof. This Olaus (in defiance of historical chronology*) is perceptibly older, a hard-bitten servant of government with the cold eyes of a snake. But not without humanity, nor self-disgust at his own compromises. Strindberg's characters are convincingly many-sided, impossible to reduce to a label.

[*Olaus Petri's recantation and pardon (the basis of Act V of Master Olof) took place in 1540. The Bell rebellion in Dalarna (the basis of Act I of Gustav Vasa) took place seven years earlier, in 1533.]


The next scene is the Lübeckers' office in Stockholm.

JAKOB [Jakob Israel, Herman's son] (coldly and slyly). I -- will -- come.
ERIK [Prince Erik, Gustav Vasa's son]. Thanks, friend! (Getting up.) This place really looks like a pawnbroker's!
JAKOB (sharply). Just what I meant before!
ERIK. Then we're agreed on that point at any rate! -- All right: this evening! Do you know Agda?
JAKOB (shortly). No!
ERIK (superciliously giving him two fingers to shake: JAKOB pretends not to notice it). Good-bye! -- Which way did the little pawnbrokers go? (JAKOB does not answer. Haughtily.) Good-bye, Baruch! -- Have you read the book of Baruch? (Goes towards the background, jingling the church vessels as he passes them.)

(from Act II Scene 1)

Erik is a bit unhinged, unfortunate, alienated: the kind of person who is often offensive and aggressive, yet gets forgiven because he's vulnerable and in a confused way intelligent. His sardonic reference to Baruch is typically overdetermined. It might refer to the Lübeckers' collecting of money and silver vessels (cf. Baruch 1:6-8) or perhaps to his "friend"'s name: "He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it to Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved" (Baruch 3:36 (KJV)).

In a later scene outside the office:

ERIK. ... Well, Agda or Magda; where's your pawnbroker to-day? (AGDA does not answer.) Do you know the Hansa people are in the habit of butchering little boys in there, and sending them to the Turkish swine?
AGDA. Is that true?
ERIK. Partly, I expect.

(from Act IV, Scene 1)

In Erik's typical scatter-gun offensive way, he seems to be invoking the "blood libel" stories that were a familiar component of medieval (and later) anti-Semitism. Well, the Lübeckers were unpopular foreigners in the Swedish capital, and their business was lending money. (When Jakob first appears, his head is bandaged, the result of an encounter with a street thug.) But Herman Israel (= Harmen Israhel on Wikipedia) was not a Jew: Lübeck, like other free cities in the Hanseatic League, had banned Jews centuries before.


The surprising thing is that, after that grisly opening -- and further revelations about, e.g. Gustav's violence to Erik's late mother --, Strindberg does succeed in winning us to some empathy with the king.  One more extract:

(The KING has come in, reading a document. The QUEEN [Gustav's second wife, mother of Johan and Karl] goes towards him with a supplicating gesture.)
KING (hotly).Margareta, if you have any faith in me, cease trying to be a judge in this matter of State. I have investigated it for two years and have not yet come to any conclusion; how then could you understand the matter? -- Go in to the children! I have a word to say to Erik! (The QUEEN goes out.) If you could see yourself now, Erik, you would loathe yourself!
ERIK. I do that, anyhow!
KING. Mere bragging; if you loathed yourself as you are, you would change your ways.
ERIK. I can't remake myself.
KING. Have you tried?
ERIK. I have tried!
KING. Then it's the bad company you keep that works against your good intentions.
ERIK. Göran is no worse than his fellows; but he has the merit of seeing he's no better.
KING. Do you ever consider the fact that you will be King some day?
ERIK. If I do become King all the old bad habits will be forgotten.
KING. There you are wrong again. I have still to go about tidying up what I have spilt. However, if you're unwilling to obey your father as a son, you must do so as a subordinate.
ERIK. The heir to the throne is not a subject!
KING. That is why I said subordinate. All are subordinate to the King.
ERIK. Must one obey blindly?
KING. Yes, so long as you are blind, you mst obey blindly; when your eyes are opened you will obey with open eyes; but obey you shall! -- Wait till it's yours some day to command, and you'll see how much harder that is, and how full of responsibility!
ERIK (mockingly). Aha!
KING (angrily). Idiot! -- Go and wash the dirt off yourself and have your hair combed. Above all, wash that filthy mug of yours and don't go about making my rooms stink. Go! or you shall have a week in the tower to sleep off your debauch; and if that isn't enough you shall lose your ears, so that you can never wear a crown! Is this language you can understand?
ERIK. The law of succession . . .
KING. I arrange my successions as I please! Now you know! -- That's all! Get out!

(from Act III)


Gustav Vasa is the first of Strindberg's later historical plays.* He began writing them in 1899, after his recovery from the Inferno period. He turned out the new history plays in quick succession, partly with the intention of establishing himself once for all as Sweden's national author.

[*Some sources say Folkungasagan was written before it, in 1898.]

It's taken me a little while to get accustomed to the way these later history plays go about things. Strindberg is as cavalier about accurate dates and details as Shakespeare was.  He isn't concerned with the elegant plotting of a well-made play. He shows us people talking in modern Swedish, he doesn't trouble himself with archaism or period trappings; he's not very interested in bringing us the flavour of a historical place and time, in the way that e.g. Scott is. At the same time, he does want to tell a story; backgrounds are filled in, with relish, when this arises naturally. The scenes are all dramatic, but not naturalistic. Typically there's some kind of conflict between the actors on stage, not necessarily an open or full-blooded one. There are no moral signposts; people who behave well at one time behave badly at another. The ruthless action of Gustav Vasa is just there. It's uncomfortable that characters we would like to sympathize with often have blood on their hands.

Despite this, Strindberg's hopes were realized, at any rate so far as Gustav Vasa was concerned. While his other late history plays are rather neglected, this one was enthusiastically embraced as a national drama suitable for "blue-yellow" (blå-gula)  occasions. The titanic figure of the King, in his very weaknesses, was a suitable symbol of a heroic past, and the play's wide-flung scenes gave glorious opportunities for a celebration of Merrie Sweden.  Only more recently has the play been seen to have the potential for quite other kinds of treatment.


The images below are sourced from: https://www.malmostadsteater.se/arkiv/storan-70-71/gustav-vasa . They come from a production of Gustav Vasa at Malmö Stadsteater in 1970-1971.]

The king Gustav I (Gustav Vasa)

A drunk Prince Erik (right) quarrels with Jakob Israel; Erik's friend Göran Persson in the background (Act II, Scene 2)

Prince Erik is arrested (Act II, Scene 2)

Herman Israel and his son Jakob, with Gustav Vasa in the background (Act III)

Prince Erik "crowns" the flower-seller Karin (Act IV, Scene 1)

Agda talking to Prince Erik's Secretary Göran Persson (Act IV, Scene 1)

Olaus Petri in his study (right), with his son Reginald and wife Kristina (Act IV, Scene 2)


"I took as my task, following my master Shakespeare, to depict people both in large and small [i.e. in great matters of state, and in intimate life], not to mince words, to let the history be in the background and to compress historical lengths of time,  in line with the modern theatre's demands to avoid the undramatic form of chronicles and historical narratives .... I've never committed undue violence to historical fidelity, where it concerned things that are common knowledge, because I dislike that way of fabricating historical data and facts. But to compress historical events in a distant period, after the great examples [of Shakespeare, etc], this I have always permitted myself."  (Öppna brev till Intima teatern)


Strindberg's plays about Swedish history:

Mäster Olof (1872)
Gillets hemlighet (The Secret of the Guild) (1880)

Gustav Vasa (1899)
Erik XIV (1899)
Folkungasagan (The Saga of the Folkungs) (1899  -- written 1898?)
Gustav Adolf  (1900)
Engelbrekt (1901)
Kristina (1901)
Karl XII (1901)
Gustav III (1902)

A century ago it was a commonplace that Gustav Vasa was the best of the later histories, the others in differing degrees inferior. But that view has gradually shifted. Erik XIV, a brilliant play, has proved the most popular on mainland Europe and in Russia. Some claim Folkungasagan as one of the author's masterpieces. And each of the other plays now has its admirers, with perhaps the exception of Engelbrekt.


Joan Bulman, in her 1933 book Strindberg and Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Influence on Strindberg's Historical Drama, said that when it came to history plays Strindberg was Shakespeare's undisputed heir. It's an interesting thought.

Strindberg knew Shakespeare's plays well, and Shakespeare's influence is all over Strindberg's history enterprise: for example, the whole conception of a sequence of plays named after successive kings; the range of characters and settings; the mingling of solemnity and comedy. In the case of Gustav Vasa, Strindberg said that one of his models was the domestic scenes in Julius Caesar; you might also be reminded of Henry IV (e.g. in Gustav's interview with Erik, quoted above), or Henry V (Henry's resolute sentencing of Scroop, Cambridge and Grey, his erstwhile friends). Yet the effect is different too. Shakespeare's plays contain a lot of quiet normative signposts, persuading us in what light to regard the various characters and their actions. Strindberg largely eliminates those. His characters retain the capacity to do both good and evil, in the future as well as in the past. (To be fair, you might claim that this is also Shakespearean, if you think of Hamlet.)


Vilhelm Moberg wrote:

The Swedish public's view of Gusta Vasa has been deeply influenced by Strindberg's play about this king. The finest of all Strindberg's historical plays, it is my belief that even historians have been swayed by it. The strong man who appears on the stage with a hammer in his hand had a certain basis in reality, and his utterances are cast in the authentic style of the king's own letters. It all sounds thoroughly genuine. Gustav, in his lifetime, may well have spoken just like this. But in one respect this kingly figure is utterly unhistorical. He thanks the All Highest for having punished him; and this is something utterly untypical of the real Gustav. In none of the sources are we told that he ever felt the least remorse for any of his actions, or regarded himself as deserving to be punished for them. None of his broken oaths, none of his sacred promises or solemn assurances, seem ever to have caused him the least twinge of conscience. And indeed on one occasion he expressly defended his actions when he wrote: 'Necessity knows (bryter - lit. 'breaks') no law; not the law of man and at times not even the law of God'. That is to say, he did not even acknowledge God as his judge or as having the right to punish him.

Even on his deathbed there was nothing of the remorseful penitent about Gustav. When his private chaplain and confessor Master Hans came to his death bed and required him to confess his sins, Gustav sent him packing.   ...

A History of the Swedish People, Volume Two translated by Paul Britten Austin (1973; original Swedish publication 1971)


August Strindberg, guitarist

[Image source: https://www.wannart.com/ruhunu-kalemine-akitan-yazar-august-strindberg/ ]

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