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Peter Birro, August

Leopard förlag,  2008. ISBN: 9789173430807

Reviewed by Eivor Martinus in SBR 2008:2

August is the latest drama about Strindberg to hit the television screens in Sweden. It was shown in four episodes last Christmas and was, on the whole, well reviewed.

Some twenty years ago P. O. Enquist wrote another television series about Strindberg, covering most of his life, with a great number of fictional additions to spice up the story and emphasise Enquist’s own angle on this controversial genius.

This time Peter Birro has concentrated on August’s early life and rather than invent totally new material he has chosen to mix Strindberg’s own works with a biographical account. It creates some rather confusing scenes at times and to people who are not familiar with Strindberg’s works the real story is shrouded in mystery and myth. When you start mixing dates and facts with fiction the whole fabric of a "biographical" work begins to burst at the seams. Who is this August? A figment of Birro’s imagination, a demon whom Birro has to conquer?

We are, for instance, introduced to the characters of Strindberg’s novel The Red Room as if they were his real-life companions and when August attempts suicide with a rope Birro allows him to walk around with that rope around his neck for an incredibly long time, a pathetic figure open to ridicule, a cause of great mirth. The leading character who emerges from this drama is a scruffy, neurotic megalomaniac, in other words a predictable, simplified portrait which makes good immediate drama. It is also an unsubtle characterisation which is not helped by the stereotyped rendering of Siri von Essen as the superficial, flighty upper-class woman. Siri, in real life, was a talented woman, a good writer, a charming actress and a very competent pianist. She had studied singing and hoped to become a professional singer but due to a severe throat infection she had to abandon her plans early on. Siri’s and August’s relationship was a lot more complex and interesting than this drama suggests.

Undoubtedly, this TV series and the accompanying book will be translated into several languages and the view of Strindberg as a madman with sexual problems will persist. It is almost as if some male writers deliberately set out to emasculate and ridicule Strindberg, making a big thing out of a normal, possibly highly strung character. I would be very interested to know why Birro has included a scene in a brothel where Strindberg is having difficulties getting an erection. The prostitute pulls him by the rope which is still hanging around his neck after his failed suicide attempt. What is the point of this scene if not to titillate? Lay into him, pull him down, castrate him, make him smaller so that you yourself might tower above him. But what purpose does it serve? And who is this drama aimed at?

Read Strindberg’s own works – autobiographical, semi-autobiographical dramas, novels, short stories, poems, essays, letters and articles. They are much more interesting.

Eivor Martinus

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