This article appeared in the 2012:2 issue.
August Strindberg’s fame as a dramatist is known the world over thanks to some of his most frequently performed plays, such as The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and A Dream Play (1901). What is less known, however, is how he achieved his breakthrough as a dramatist. Strindberg’s first play to be accepted by and performed at The Royal Theatre in Stockholm (Dramaten) was a one-act rhymed drama entitled I Rom (In Rome, 1870), in which the famous Danish sculptor Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) is represented as a young artist in the making. This play, which was performed at Dramaten eleven times from September to November 1870, became part of the celebration of the centenary of Thorvaldsen’s birth.
The central theme of I Rom can be summarised with a simple question that must have been very topical for young Strindberg: How does an artist become an artist? To find an answer to this question Strindberg turns to the story of one of the most successful and celebrated artists of his time. Having spent over forty years in Rome and undertaken commissions for public monuments in many of the great cities of Europe, Thorvaldsen was welcomed back to Denmark as a hero in 1838. In his commemorative play Strindberg goes back to the beginning of Thorvaldsen’s career. He shows how the process of becoming an artist is full of difficult choices and sacrifices. However, if the talent of the artist is genuine it will be discovered in the end and celebrated even after his death.
At the beginning of the plot, seven years have already passed from Thorvaldsen’s arrival in Rome, where he has travelled to continue his apprenticeship. The sculptor is disappointed about the results of his work in the Italian city and, throughout the drama, is faced with a difficult choice: he can follow the advice he receives from his father in a letter, that is to give up sculpture, travel back to Denmark and accept a job as a craftsman; or alternatively, he can stay in Rome and keep on trying to become a triumphant and famous artist. By the end of the drama, Thorvaldsen is saved by an English benefactor, Sir Thomas Hope, who commissions from him a copy of the artist’s marble statue of Jason with the Golden Fleece. In other words, the end of the drama coincides with the beginning of Thorvaldsen’s successful career.
There is no doubt that if we consider the plot of I Rom on its own, the text is indeed a brief, anecdotal account of Thorvaldsen’s legendary breakthrough as an artist. Although critics of the time wrote positive reviews of this short play, Strindberg himself was rather disappointed with his own work, which he called ‘childish’, ‘pious’ and ‘art-indulgent’. What saves the play from banality are the dramatic effects and mechanisms employed to favour the artist’s success, namely the Italian setting and Thorvaldsen’s plaster statue of Jason with the Golden Fleece. Italy and the statue of Jason are in fact not merely background ornaments, but active co-authors of the artist’s ascent to success.
Let us begin with Italy and with the Italian-Nordic cultural tradition it stands for in this play. Thorvaldsen’s breakthrough takes place in Rome in 1803. In the play we don’t really see very much of this Italian city, and the setting is only briefly sketched out in the first stage direction: we are in Thorvaldsen’s studio and ‘an Italian landscape’ is visible from the two windows. This is all that is said in the play about the Roman surroundings. Other references are made throughout the work to Italian are made throughout the work to Italian elements and especially to the osteria (the tavern) and to various types of Italian wine such as the ‘moscatello’ and the ‘Montefiascone’, considered the best remedy to forget sorrows and the most suitable way to celebrate an achievement. Marianne, Thorvaldsen’s Italian friend, also represents Italy, and as she enters the stage she is carrying a basket full of food and fruit for the artist, all products of the fertile Italian soil.
But the Rome of Strindberg’s drama is much more than a view visible from the windows of the studio. Here, Rome is represented as the city of History and Art par excellence. Strindberg’s first staged drama opens a window to the reality of Nordic artists travelling to Italy from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. Following the Grand Tour tradition, Italy and in particular Rome had become an obligatory destination in the journeys of Northerners to the South for pleasure and education, and remained thereafter, in particular for artists, the place where they could come into direct contact with classical culture and Renaissance art. Thorvaldsen was one of the pioneers among these Nordic travellers and anecdotes from his successful stay in Rome from 1797 to 1838 fascinated many. Throughout the nineteenth century, sources of information about Italy and the Nordic milieu in Rome were so well-known and wide-ranging that they even reached those who had never travelled to Italy themselves. At the time when he wrote I Rom, Strindberg himself had not been to Italy, a country that he was not to visit in person for another ten years.
The meanings attached to Rome in Strindberg’s drama are shaped by this Italo-Nordic tradition. Rome, the city where Thorvaldsen has to stay if he wishes to continue being a sculptor, is represented as the place to which those in search of Art should travel. To exemplify this point, we only need to go back to the first stage direction and consider it in its entirety. The description of the studio with the Italian landscape that seems to peep in through the windows is accompanied by a further explanation: In the room ‘an artistic atmosphere reigns’. Rome is the place where art thrives and where everybody can be influenced by this impalpable but powerful artistic inspiration. In the drama this argument is stretched to an extreme point. As Thorvaldsen’s friend Axel Pedersen states, it is much easier to write a poem in Rome than anywhere else. It seems that thanks to the Italian capital, rhymes come naturally, as they practically grow on trees. Petersen experiences a sudden creative rapture in which he exemplifies his point: ‘alm – palm’, ‘anemon – citron’, ‘pinjer – vigner’ (elm – palm, anemone – lemon, pines – vineyards).
This is not the only comical improvisation composed by Thorvaldsen’s friend in the course of his artistic intoxication. One minute Pedersen is a poet and the next he is a musician, strumming on his guitar as he starts improvising a song. Yet he does not go very far with this composition as he stops after the first line: ‘På Arnos strand en lilja stod’ (On the Arno’s shore a lily stood). The irony of this passage becomes clearer and clearer: the equation Rome = Art can be oversimplified easily. Pedersen’s artistic compositions are not very impressive and, as Thorvaldsen remarks in the play, belong more to the world of botany than to that of art. It is certainly not as easy as he claims to become an artist. It is not only a matter of breathing in the Roman air, but also of producing real works of art. Real talent will always be recognised and rewarded in the end. With his commission of a marble statue of Jason with the Golden Fleece, the passer-by Sir Thomas Hope sets Thorvaldsen on course for a successful career in Rome. The figure of Thorvaldsen, according to the legendary events in Strindberg’s drama, is represented as a model for many artists of the time; of the many artists looking for fame, he succeeded. And because of his achievements in Rome, Thorvaldsen acquires the traits of a hero, of a mythical character like Jason, and his life becomes a victorious search for the Golden Fleece.
The other element that plays an active part in Thorvaldsen’s success, alongside the Italian setting, is his own creation, the statue of Jason with the Golden Fleece. Like the Italian view visible from the windows, the statue of Jason is also constantly present on the stage. While the human characters move, Jason is always there, fixed and immovable. Or is he? And no, I am not referring to any special effects showing the statue actually coming alive and stepping down from its pedestal. Jason does come alive, but only in Thorvaldsen’s head. As Strindberg himself later commented, this scene is the highlight of his short drama as it contains ‘the dramatic effect that saves this whole meagre play’: Thorvaldsen is standing alone in front of Jason expressing his despair. In a fit of rage he takes his hammer and is about to destroy the statue, but he stops. For a moment, the fantasy of the moving statue becomes to him a reality. The statue is looking at him with sorrowful eyes; it is nodding at him with a friendly and wary expression. His hand paralysed, Thorvaldsen cannot hit his own child:
Runs towards Jason to smash him, but he suddenly stops.
Why do you look at me with sorrowful eyes
And kindly warning me you nod towards me?
My hand is paralysed. – He throws the hammer away
No! I cannot hit
My own child, because this is still what you are.
Springer mot Jason för att krossa honom, men stannar plötsligen.
Vi ser du på mig så med sorgsna blickar
Och vänligt varnande emot mig nickar?
Min hand förlamas. – Han kastar bort hammaren
Nej! Jag kan ej slå
Mitt eget barn, ty så du är ändå.
(Strindberg 1991: 29-30).
Thanks to his sudden awakening, his ‘child’ is spared: its movement, which leaves Thorvaldsen puzzled, saves it from the hammer. Only a few minutes later Sir Thomas Hope enters Thorvaldsen’s studio by chance. Thanks to Jason’s presence Thorvaldsen’s career is saved and he can finally hope to become a famous sculptor. In this drama the creation becomes an autonomous character able to act, capable of coming to the rescue of his creator not only by simply being the demonstration of his talent but also by communicating directly with him. As the play concludes, Thorvaldsen, saved by his own statue, takes his first steps towards becoming a worldfamous artist. In 1870 Strindberg found it fitting to celebrate the Thorvaldsen centenary with a play about this pivotal moment, which was to determine the sculptor’s life and career. So it is only appropriate to celebrate this year’s Strindberg centenary by remembering Strindberg’s own tentative beginning as a dramatist. After all, for Strindberg himself it all began with a centenary...