On the surface, there’s nothing particularly complicated about Strindberg’s play ‘The Stronger’. Two women – two actresses – run into each other in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. One is married and has been out shopping for presents for her family, the other is unmarried and is sitting alone in the restaurant reading magazines and drinking. We are told almost nothing about these women – they are not even important enough to have names; Strindberg calls them simply Mrs. X and Miss Y. And the entire play (all 6 pages of it) consists of nothing more than a single conversation between these two women. There is no action, no real plot development, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, one of the women, Miss Y, doesn’t even speak in the entire performance.
And yet, in this one simple scene Strindberg creates an episode of incredible, poetic power – a snapshot of life so intense, so powerful, that it rivals Beckett at his best. Like a Kafka short story, ‘The Stronger’ is rich in allegory and lends itself to many layers of interpretation; it is a play that takes little more than ten minutes to read / perform, but that one can easily spend hours thinking about afterwards. It is moreover, a powerful play, one that makes a deep impression, and leaves one with the illusion that one has travelled far and seen much, even though the entire thing is actually incredibly short.
What is it that makes the play so powerful? To begin with, it is an immaculate piece of stagecraft. It is a tribute to Strindberg’s genius that despite the fact that Miss Y says nothing right through the play, the interaction between her and Mrs X is in every sense of the term a dialogue. Strindberg uses a combination of stage directions and reactions from Mrs. X to ensure that Miss Y is more than a passive listener and that her responses (or at any rate, Mrs. X’s interpretations of her responses) influence and guide the thread of the scene.
Second, ‘The Stronger’ is one of those fascinating pieces of writing that lend themselves to multiple (and conflicting) interpretations. As the play progresses, we discover that Miss Y and Mrs. X are rivals for more than theatre roles – Miss Y is having / has had an affair with Mrs. X’s husband. Except that the play never really corroborates this – we only know that by the end of the scene Mrs. X believes that this is true. So the play lends itself to two very different readings: in the first, Mrs. X is an astute wife who discovers the truth about Miss Y and her husband; in the second, Mrs. X is a pathetic and paranoid woman who’s insecurity about her marriage has brought her to slander. This in turn, leaves the question of who is ‘The Stronger’ one (which is, after all, the key to the play) open. Is Miss Y, who chooses to maintain her silence against Mrs X’s accusations (whether false or true) stronger in her independence? Or, as Mrs. X would have it, is she the stronger one, because she has accepted the truth about her husband and found a way to go on?
This divergence of interpretation brings us to the first of the allegories implicit in the play – the debate about gender roles. In this simple little episode, Strindberg captures wonderfully the fundamental duality of the role women play in society. In Mrs. X we have the woman as caring mother and devoted wife, a person who has lost all individuality and been completely reshaped by the demands of her husband, a woman who glories in the stability and warmth of the family life she has achieved. On the other hand, we have Y, who is the independent woman, who lives her life her own way and is able, because of her independence to shape others to her personality, but who ultimately ends up alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. Obviously these are stereotypes, but Strindberg’s point is precisely to make them stereotypes and set them off against each other, so that what is essentially a quarrel between two women, becomes a larger debate about the role of women in society. What makes this particularly interesting, of course, is that Strindberg is not a writer one associates with sensitive portrayals of women (see for instance, the grotesque caricature that is Miss Julia).
But there is, I think, a deeper allegory here. In choosing to silence the character of Miss Y and showing us how Mrs X is able to carry on a conversation (making accusations, drawing inferences) with someone who never actually speaks to her at all, Strindberg has created an image of man’s interaction with God. In the play, Miss Y is not really an individual, but more a sort of human mirror that Mrs X uses to understand and interpret her own life, surfacing her discontent and insecurity and reconciling herself to them by means of a dialogue that is entirely one sided. Miss Y does not need to say anything, and what she thinks or knows has no part in the development of the story. Even the facts are irrelevant here – by the end of the play we do not know what has actually happened, we only know what Mrs. X believes. ‘The Stronger’ is thus a fascinating portrait of both the way individuals can think through the contradictions in their own lives, using another (or the idea of another) as a mere sounding board for their own thought processes, and of the fundamentally conditional nature of truth.
(‘The Stronger’: A Scene. 1890. August Strindberg. Included in ‘Eight Best Plays’ Urwin Brothers, 1979. Translation by Edwin Bjorkman)