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Strindberg in China

An audience of hundreds of Chinese was conquered by one Swede who held them rapt in a 40-minute solo show.

The man was Reine Brynolfsson from the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater/ Elverket and the play, the powerful monologue Paralysie Generale adapted by playwright Jacob Hardwall from fragments of August Strindberg's letters, novels and dramas.

In a black shirt and suit, Brynolfsson, alone on the empty stage and under simple lighting, held the audience with his commanding presence, from the very beginning when he walked out on stage, lay down and sketched the outline of his body on the floor with white chalk; to when he took out a carton of yoghurt which he drank while speaking; to his swallowing of two raw eggs and the twisting and smashing of their shells; to the very last action, when he prostrated himself once again on the floor, one arm stretched high, skywards.

Although the language barrier did make it difficult for the local audience to fully understand the play, Brynolfsson's magic, but convincing body language and well-controlled mood entranced them throughout.

Indeed, his monologue and acting did help the Chinese audience feel the versatility of Strindberg's genius, his quest for freedom, as opposed to his need for, and dependence on others, his ambiguous relationship to women, and to Sweden, his native country.

August Strindberg (1849-1912) is relatively unknown in China now, but thanks to the year-long event Strindberg in China launched by the Swedish Embassy, the famous playwright, writer and painter who revolutionized world drama with his realist and post-modern works, will soon establish his name in the country.

Strindberg prophetically once said of himself: "My fire is the largest in Sweden." Now the fire is spreading to China.

And Paralysie Generale performed by Brynolfsson at the North Theatre in Beijing from Monday to Wednesday and today in Shanghai raises the curtain on the Swedish cultural event.

"In the theatre world, Strindberg is as great as Ibsen, Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill. I am convinced that his plays such as Father and Miss Julie will be being staged even in 200 years time," said Borje Ljunggren, the Swedish Ambassador to China ahead of the play's Beijing premiere.

"Once you are touched by his plays, you could never live a life without him," added Ljunggren.

Meanwhile, a five-volume collection of Strindberg's works translated by Li Zhiyi has been published by the People's Literature Publishing House and reached bookstores across China last Tuesday.

And a separate edition of A Madman's Defence and the Chinese translation of Olof Lagercrantz's classic biography of Strindberg, translated by Gao Ziyang, have also been re-launched and republished.

The translator describes Strindberg as "the Swedish Lu Xun" and remarks it is a pity Chinese readers could not have known more about him earlier.

"He is a timeless writer, as the new experiences and all the 'isms' of the 20th century psychoanalysis, expressionism, absurdism and existentialism were to discover to the fullest," said Li.

Strindberg's plays have been rarely performed on China's stage, explains Li, because the few Chinese translations that did exist were not very true to the original works.

"But theatre insiders have known him well and some of his plays such as Miss Julie, Father, and A Dream Play have been staged. The now popular actor Zhang Guoli won the national 'Blossom Award' for his part in Miss Julie in the early 1980s, before he moved to stardom on the big screen," said Li.

In the second half of 2005, Strindberg is set to be a hot theme in Chinese drama circles, as leading theatre directors, including Lin Zhaohua, Li Liuyi and Zhao Lixin are all working on Strindberg plays.

In August, the annual nationwide college students drama festival will present quite a few of Strindberg's works in Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu.

A high-level academic seminar on the writer is also planned for October, organized by the Swedish Academy, the Swedish Embassy, the People's Literature Publishing House and Peking University.

Controversial figure

Strindberg is known for his contributions to the naturalist, symbolist and expressionist theatre, as well as his contempt for the emancipated woman. He was also interested in science and the occult and defiant in his struggles with God over personal justice and salvation.

Thrice-married, several of his plays drew on the problems of his marriages and reflected his constant interest in self-analysis.

A sensitive artist and controversial figure who suffered from the hostility of his critics, Strindberg epitomized the 19th-century diktat that the goal of life is to become art.

He wrote more than 70 plays as well as novels, short stories and studies of Swedish history and his influence has been far-reaching. His impact can be seen in the works of many modern dramatists who are familiar to Chinese theatergoers, although police intervention, censorship, bans and uncomprehending criticism, long cast a shadow over his work both in his homeland and abroad.

Many fellow dramatists highly value his contribution to modern plays.

Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt has summarized Strindberg's importance to the international stage thus: "We have never got beyond the second scene in The Ghost Sonata."

Franz Kafka said of him: "We are Strindberg's contemporaries and successors."

While Eugene O'Neill had this to say: "I am only too proud of my debt to Strindberg For me, he remains, as Nietzsche remains in his sphere, the Master, still to this day more modern than any of us, still our leader."

(China Daily May 26, 2005)

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