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PREVIEW: Art will surely imitate Strindberg’s life in ‘Creditors’

The play explores one of Strindberg's other favorite themes: the question of the viability of marriage as an institution. The ending isn't a happy one. I'll leave it at that.

Lenox — It has been said before that if Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is the father of modern drama, then his Swedish colleague August Strindberg is the “art form’s first revolutionary.” 

If true, theatre-goers in the Berkshires will get a taste of the revolution when Strindberg’s dark comedy “Creditors” opens for a four-week engagement at Shakespeare & Company starting Thursday, July 19. 

Swedish playwright August Strindberg

Strindberg, who wrote plays and novels with equal dexterity, was one of those writers who, even more so than most, drew on his own experiences to inform his work. Now forgive me for doing the same. 

As a theater major at a small Canadian university, I auditioned in 1980 for the fall drama production and, unbeknownst to me, landed the role of a lifetime. The quirky but brilliant drama department chairman, London Green, was an admirer of Strindberg but, instead of staging a production of one of Strindberg’s classics, such as “The Father” or “Miss Julie,” he found an obscure play not authored by Strindberg but whose subject was Strindberg himself. 

The Night of the Tribades was a recent and bizarre work by another Swedish writer. The play focused on Strindberg’s turbulent life in the late 1880s (his post-Inferno period). I landed the role of Strindberg largely by default (the best actor in the department was deemed too youthful to play the then-aging Swedish dramatist). So off I went.

It was by far my largest role ever. There were perhaps a dozen lengthy speeches I had to learn just to keep my head above water during the course of the two-act work. There was the endless blocking to remember on the set, which depicted a theater and actors rehearsing one of Strindberg’s play in a experimental independent theater he was trying to start in Denmark.

There were lots of sharp exchanges with other characters, most notably Strindberg’s wife and her drunken lesbian lover. But as I started to research the character, I learned two things about Strindberg that struck me like a thunderbolt: The miserable Swede despised women and he was an anti-Semite.

A lonely bound copy of the writer’s thesis on Strindberg. For some reason, it was not a bestseller. Photo: Terry Cowgill

As a graduate student at Wesleyan University almost 10 years later, I found myself searching for a thesis topic. I had just finished a course on biography and was fascinated by the story of Harry Crosby. I knew little about Crosby aside from what I had read in his biography and the fact that we had attended the same prep school about 60 years apart. But I knew a lot about Strindberg. So off I went again.

The thesis, “Strindberg and Autobiography: A Study in Misogyny,” attempted to examine how Strindberg’s literary works — which he has acknowledged are highly autobiographical —square up against the reality of his miserable but brilliant life. I won’t bore you with the details, but I concluded that he was largely accurate.

The cast of the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Creditors’ at the first rehearsal and costume presentation in Lenox. Photo courtesy Shakespeare & Company

In the press release Shakespeare & Company put out announcing “Creditors,” you won’t see anything about Strindberg’s misogyny, his anti-Semitism or his gynophobia (which I am told is what causes misogyny). But that’s to be expected. Theater-goers are typically more interested in the contents of the play specifically and the playwright generally.

I have never seen “Creditors” performed and it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I can scarcely recall its content. For the play’s run in Lenox, director Nicole Ricciardi has selected an adaptation and translation of Strindberg’s play by Scottish dramatist David Greig. Ricciardi first saw the adaptation 10 years ago. 

Ryan Winkles plays Adolph in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Creditors.’ Photo courtesy Shakespeare & Company

Like many of Strindberg’s plays, “Creditors” has a very small cast. A production of Grieg’s adaptation received a gushing review in the New York Times in 2010 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, so it must have something going for it.

The advance release from Shakespeare & Company goes out of its way to avoid spoiler material. It merely calls Strindberg “the master of the psychological chess match that is inhabiting each other’s minds” and adds that, “For Strindberg the cost of love runs deep, honesty is a disguise and everyone owes something to someone.”

The Wikipedia entry for “Creditors” uses as its primary source one of my favored translators and scholars from my Wesleyan days: the late Strindberg biographer Michael Meyer. So I’d say it’s pretty accurate. 

Jonathan Epstein plays Gustav in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Creditors.’ Photo courtesy Shakespeare & Company

“Creditors” is a three-handed piece with two men at odds over a woman, though one of them doesn’t even seem to know it. A weak-minded artist is befriended by a man who laters turns out to be his wife’s ex. The play includes one of Strindberg’s other favorite themes: the question of the viability of marriage as an institution. The ending isn’t a happy one. I’ll leave it at that.

The cast is comprised of three Shakespeare & Company veterans: Jonathan Epstein, Ryan Winkles and Kristin Wold. Like many of Strindberg’s plays, this one is grim but no doubt powerful. If you liked Shakespeare’s Iago, you’re bound to love Jonathan Epstein’s Gustav, for Ryan Winkles’ Adolph will surely be putty in his hands.

In some ways, as I wrote in my now-dusty thesis, Strindberg was the anti-Ibsen. He answered the feminism of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” with “Comrades,” in which a husband is so tormented by his wife that he is forced to reject her. If Ibsen was the forerunner of #MeToo, then Strindberg is Donald Trump with a brain.

Kristin Wold plays Tekla in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Creditors.’ Photo courtesy Shakespeare & Company

Indeed, in Per Enquist’s “Night of the Tribades,” Strindberg’s wife, Siri, compares him to Ibsen, which prompts the Swede to explode in indignation. But he reserved his most biting rhetoric to express his disdain for women, as when he acknowledges his love for Siri but only when pressed by her lesbian lover:

Naturally, I love her, and naturally, I will continue to love her … But surely that’s nothing that she should consider a merit? When one loves someone, it’s something … something that just comes. Like cancer. Or bubonic plague. 

“The Stronger,” the one-act play being rehearsed in “Night of the Tribades,” closed after one night and Strindberg’s experimental theater didn’t last much longer. Siri divorced him and moved in with her lesbian lover. Strindberg didn’t work as a playwright for three years. 

I expect the director, cast and crew at Shakespeare & Company will experience a much happier ending when the production of “Creditors” closes on “August” 12.

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“Creditors” runs from Thursday, July 19, to Sunday, Aug. 12, at Shakespeare & Companys Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. For tickets and more information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar.

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But Not To Produce.