Center Theater

August Strindberg is the genius you would least want living in the apartment upstairs. First the genius part: he was playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, musician, painter, and alchemist; he held virtually every political, philosophical, and religious position available to a 19th-century intellectual, moving from social radical to Rousseauean progressivist to apolitical skeptic to draconian conservative (he admired Bismarck’s proto- Nazi Germany) and returning, at the age of 60, to social-liberal democrat. He dabbled in Unitarianism, Darwinism, and Roman Catholicism, despaired of understanding Kierkegaard and Kant, abandoned theosophy upon learning that its founder was a woman, and clung to the mysticism of Swedenborg throughout it all. He was also oedipal, misogynistic, romantic, paranoid, and beset by psychic “electrical” attacks generated by “invisible powers” resembling the strict and merciless Old Testament God. Oh yes, there’s plenty of material in Strindberg’s life for exciting drama, with enough left over for a year’s worth of scandal sheets.

Take his first marriage, for instance, the background against which The Night of the Tribades, currently being staged by Center Theater, is set: as long as Siri von Essen was married to somebody else, Strindberg adored her. In a letter he called it “a love which is not sensual and that is not consummated and does not wish to be consummated . . . showing me that angels exist, even among human beings . . .” When their relationship became openly adulterous, he kept his platonic ideals; but once they were married, when he discovered all the human imperfections inevitable to intimate contact, his conflicting feelings toward women came out. Woman was both loving mother and wanton vampire, which led him to see himself as the innocent victim “ruined by a married whore,” to suspect that their child was fathered by Siri’s ex-husband, to accuse her of conspiring with a “league of women” to have him committed to an insane asylum. He also accused her of drunkenness, infidelity, uncleanliness, neglect, domination–and lesbianism.

Per Olov Enquist, the author of The Night of the Tribades, finds it dramatically convenient to assume that Siri did indeed have an affair with one Marie Caroline David. Thus, when the play opens, at a rehearsal of Strindberg’s new play The Stronger (a two-woman piece intended as a vehicle for Siri’s return to the stage after the failure of her marriage to August), she and Marie immediately begin to make eyes at each other. Her soon-to-be-ex-husband as immediately begins to vilify them as individuals, as a couple, and as a sex, aligning himself with an embarrassed male actor. (The purpose of this character, Viggio Schiwe, is never completely clear–The Stronger has no male role–but he does act as a naive foil for the others.) In fact, most of the first act is taken up with August’s vilification of the women, delivered in the sort of sustained tantrum we associate with British comedian John Cleese. Occasionally he pauses to pose in sulky grandeur, while the other characters, instead of walking out, smile and take it. (The frightened Schiwe asks what seems to me a very reasonable question: “Is it necessary to talk of these things?”)

Just when we have decided this is Fawlty Towers, it suddenly changes to All in the Family. In the second act, we see that the playwright has blown up this heaving windbag so that the women can get drunk and deflate him. August’s main antagonist is the strong-minded Marie. But she eventually admits that she actually likes him, whereupon he declares that he has a kind of sympathy and respect for her, after which the two agree that freedom is an illusion and that they are both victims of an oppressive society. Siri then reads the hate speech from The Stronger and transforms it into a love song to Marie, the two women hug and kiss one another, and August sheepishly confesses that he tries only to write things as he wishes they were–among them, that women instead of loving each other loved him enough to fight over him.

And how dare these cruel, insensitive women refuse to conform to his wishes? The eternal frustration of the artist trying to reconcile his vision with the realities around him evokes little sympathy when the artist demands a mother to come and fix it all. What makes this play all the more sinister is that she does–Marie ultimately emerges as the all-powerful Magna Mater who understands, forgives, and comforts. Is it, then, the human condition, as Enquist writes, for men to “pursue as an enemy, slander and fight” women, and for women to accept that as “the way it must be”? Is a homosexual female the only one strong enough to stand up to and gain the respect of a testosterone-enslaved male? Is the weak and passive Siri trading in a Big Daddy for a Big Mommy? Strindberg himself would probably have endorsed all these ideas–but is Enquist grinding the same ax? And are we expected to understand and forgive his enfant terrible merely because he gets all humble and cuddly at the end?

The biggest problem with the script is the intermingling of Enquist’s ideological argument–that society forces men and women to be enemies–with the biographical details of Strindberg’s life. I found myself asking over and over: Why did Enquist write this play? If the object was to make a social/political statement, it could have been made far more clearly without involving a documented fruitcake like Strindberg. If Enquist wanted a psychological study of the artist, he shouldn’t have had everyone talk about Strindberg and leave the character with nothing left for us to discover.

And if Enquist wanted to redeem Strindberg’s reputation as the most charmless artist in literary history, he does his protagonist no good. August responds to a childish taunt about the size of his penis in an even more buffoonish and vulgar manner. (Which brings me to another question: since this translation of Tribadernas Natt includes such modern colloquialisms as “Dry off your cunt,” why not just say “lesbians” instead of the euphemistic “tribades”?) Indeed, Enquist seems so anxious to get his encounter-group session under way that he draws August with a house-painting brush. It’s impossible to see the character as anything but a cartoon–a Mel Brooks villain so easily defeated that we can take no pleasure in seeing him get his comeuppance, let alone take his arguments seriously. The translation into English doesn’t help: many of August’s speeches are lifted directly from Strindberg’s correspondence, but the 19th-century written word doesn’t always lend itself to use as everyday spoken language.

Night of the Tribades, with its operatic proportions, appears to have been written for a much larger playing space than Center’s intimate little theater can provide. Sheryl Nieman, Kathy Scambiatterra, and R.J. Coleman, speaking in flawless Masterpiece Theatre accents, and Dan LaMorte, speaking in a strange melodramatic whine like Robert De Niro doing Elmer Fudd, are all excellent actors who carry out their tasks admirably; but they seem painfully restricted by an acting area that doesn’t allow more than a few steps in any direction and in which an actor standing downstage blocks the audience’s view of anything happening behind him. Director Randi Collins-Hard does what she can to fit this ten-gallon play into a five-pint container, but she succeeds only part of the time. The audience wishes as claustrophobically for more distance from the action as the actors must wish for distance from each other.

So what did Enquist have in mind? It’s doubtful that anyone now cares whether Siri von Essen’s sexual proclivities were anything more than the fabrication of a jealous husband. Whatever more the play may have been trying to say, and however relevant it may have been to Swedish audiences in 1975, its message is hopelessly muddy to an American audience in 1989. “We are not completely useless,” says August at one point in the play, but I can think of few things more useless than the abundantly talented Center Theater company spending their time and effort on this play.