Creditors: A Tragicomedy by August Strindberg

TRANSLATED FROM THE SWEDISH, WITH INTRODUCTIONS BY EDWIN BJORKMAN

INTRODUCTION

This is one of the three plays which Strindberg placed at the head of his dramatic production during the middle ultra-naturalistic period, the other two being “The Father” and “Miss Julia.” It is, in many ways, one of the strongest he ever produced. Its rarely excelled unity of construction, its tremendous dramatic tension, and its wonderful psychological analysis combine to make it a masterpiece.

In Swedish its name is “Fordringsagare.” This indefinite form may be either singular or plural, but it is rarely used except as a plural. And the play itself makes it perfectly clear that the proper translation of its title is “Creditors,” for under this aspect appear both the former and the present husband of Tekla. One of the main objects of the play is to reveal her indebtedness first to one and then to the other of these men, while all the time she is posing as a person of original gifts.

I have little doubt that Strindberg, at the time he wrote this play–and bear in mind that this happened only a year before he finally decided to free himself from an impossible marriage by an appeal to the law–believed Tekla to be fairly representative of womanhood in general. The utter unreasonableness of such a view need hardly be pointed out, and I shall waste no time on it. A question more worthy of discussion is whether the figure of Tekla be true to life merely as the picture of a personality–as one out of numerous imaginable variations on a type decided not by sex but by faculties and qualities. And the same question may well be raised in regard to the two men, both of whom are evidently intended to win our sympathy: one as the victim of a fate stronger than himself, and the other as the conqueror of adverse and humiliating circumstances.

Personally, I am inclined to doubt whether a Tekla can be found in the flesh–and even if found, she might seem too exceptional to gain acceptance as a real individuality. It must be remembered, however, that, in spite of his avowed realism, Strindberg did not draw his men and women in the spirit generally designated as impressionistic; that is, with the idea that they might step straight from his pages into life and there win recognition as human beings of familiar aspect. His realism is always mixed with idealism; his figures are always “doctored,” so to speak. And they have been thus treated in order to enable their creator to drive home the particular truth he is just then concerned with.

Consciously or unconsciously he sought to produce what may be designated as “pure cultures” of certain human qualities. But these he took great pains to arrange in their proper psychological settings, for mental and moral qualities, like everything else, run in groups that are more or less harmonious, if not exactly homogeneous. The man with a single quality, like Moliere’s Harpagon, was much too primitive and crude for Strindberg’s art, as he himself rightly asserted in his preface to “Miss Julia.” When he wanted to draw the genius of greed, so to speak, he did it by setting it in the midst of related qualities of a kind most likely to be attracted by it.

Tekla is such a “pure culture” of a group of naturally correlated mental and moral qualities and functions and tendencies–of a personality built up logically around a dominant central note. There are within all of us many personalities, some of which remain for ever potentialities. But it is conceivable that any one of them, under circumstances different from those in which we have been living, might have developed into its severely logical consequence–or, if you please, into a human being that would be held abnormal if actually encountered.

This is exactly what Strindberg seems to have done time and again, both in his middle and final periods, in his novels as well as in his plays. In all of us a Tekla, an Adolph, a Gustav–or a Jean and a Miss Julia–lie more or less dormant. And if we search our souls unsparingly, I fear the result can only be an admission that–had the needed set of circumstances been provided–we might have come unpleasantly close to one of those Strindbergian creatures which we are now inclined to reject as unhuman.

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Here we have the secret of what I believe to be the great Swedish dramatist’s strongest hold on our interest. How could it otherwise happen that so many critics, of such widely differing temperaments, have recorded identical feelings as springing from a study of his work: on one side an active resentment, a keen unwillingness to be interested; on the other, an attraction that would not be denied in spite of resolute resistance to it! For Strindberg DOES hold us, even when we regret his power of doing so. And no one familiar with the conclusions of modern psychology could imagine such a paradox possible did not the object of our sorely divided feelings provide us with something that our minds instinctively recognise as true to life in some way, and for that reason valuable to the art of living.

There are so many ways of presenting truth. Strindberg’s is only one of them–and not the one commonly employed nowadays. Its main fault lies perhaps in being too intellectual, too abstract. For while Strindberg was intensely emotional, and while this fact colours all his writings, he could only express himself through his reason. An emotion that would move another man to murder would precipitate Strindberg into merciless analysis of his own or somebody else’s mental and moral make-up. At any rate, I do not proclaim his way of presenting truth as the best one of all available. But I suspect that this decidedly strange way of Strindberg’s–resulting in such repulsively superior beings as Gustav, or in such grievously inferior ones as Adolph–may come nearer the temper and needs of the future than do the ways of much more plausible writers. This does not need to imply that the future will imitate Strindberg. But it may ascertain what he aimed at doing, and then do it with a degree of perfection which he, the pioneer, could never hope to attain.

1889

PERSONS

TEKLA

ADOLPH, her husband, a painter

GUSTAV, her divorced husband, a high-school teacher (who is travelling under an assumed name)

SCENE

(A parlor in a summer hotel on the sea-shore. The rear wall has a door opening on a veranda, beyond which is seen a landscape. To the right of the door stands a table with newspapers on it. There is a chair on the left side of the stage. To the right of the table stands a sofa. A door on the right leads to an adjoining room.)

(ADOLPH and GUSTAV, the latter seated on the sofa by the table to the right.)

ADOLPH.
[At work on a wax figure on a miniature modelling stand; his crutches are placed beside him]

–and for all this I have to thank you!

GUSTAV.
[Smoking a cigar]

Oh, nonsense!

ADOLPH.
Why, certainly! During the first days after my wife had gone, I lay helpless on a sofa and did nothing but long for her. It was as if she had taken away my crutches with her, so that I couldn’t move from the spot. When I had slept a couple of days, I seemed to come to, and began to pull myself together. My head calmed down after having been working feverishly. Old thoughts from days gone by bobbed up again. The desire to work and the instinct for creation came back. My eyes recovered their faculty of quick and straight vision–and then you showed up.

GUSTAV.
I admit you were in a miserable condition when I first met you, and you had to use your crutches when you walked, but this is not to say that my presence has been the cause of your recovery. You needed a rest, and you had a craving for masculine company.

ADOLPH.
Oh, that’s true enough, like everything you say. Once I used to have men for friends, but I thought them superfluous after I married, and I felt quite satisfied with the one I had chosen. Later I was drawn into new circles and made a lot of acquaintances, but my wife was jealous of them–she wanted to keep me to herself: worse still–she wanted also to keep my friends to herself. And so I was left alone with my own jealousy.

GUSTAV.
Yes, you have a strong tendency toward that kind of disease.

ADOLPH.
I was afraid of losing her–and I tried to prevent it. There is nothing strange in that. But I was never afraid that she might be deceiving me–

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GUSTAV.
No, that’s what married men are never afraid of.

ADOLPH.
Yes, isn’t it queer? What I really feared was that her friends would get such an influence over her that they would begin to exercise some kind of indirect power over me–and THAT is something I couldn’t bear.

GUSTAV.
So your ideas don’t agree–yours and your wife’s?

ADOLPH.
Seeing that you have heard so much already, I may as well tell you everything. My wife has an independent nature–what are you smiling at?

GUSTAV.
Go on! She has an independent nature–

ADOLPH.
Which cannot accept anything from me–

GUSTAV.
But from everybody else.

ADOLPH.
[After a pause]

Yes.–And it looked as if she especially hated my ideas because they were mine, and not because there was anything wrong about them. For it used to happen quite often that she advanced ideas that had once been mine, and that she stood up for them as her own. Yes, it even happened that friends of mine gave her ideas which they had taken directly from me, and then they seemed all right. Everything was all right except what came from me.

GUSTAV.
Which means that you are not entirely happy?

ADOLPH.
Oh yes, I am happy. I have the one I wanted, and I have never wanted anybody else.

GUSTAV.
And you have never wanted to be free?

ADOLPH.
No, I can’t say that I have. Oh, well, sometimes I have imagined that it might seem like a rest to be free. But the moment she leaves me, I begin to long for her–long for her as for my own arms and legs. It is queer that sometimes I have a feeling that she is nothing in herself, but only a part of myself–an organ that can take away with it my will, my very desire to live. It seems almost as if I had deposited with her that centre of vitality of which the anatomical books tell us.

GUSTAV.
Perhaps, when we get to the bottom of it, that is just what has happened.

ADOLPH.
How could it be so? Is she not an independent being, with thoughts of her own? And when I met her I was nothing–a child of an artist whom she undertook to educate.

GUSTAV.
But later you developed her thoughts and educated her, didn’t you?

ADOLPH.
No, she stopped growing and I pushed on.

GUSTAV.
Yes, isn’t it strange that her “authoring” seemed to fall off after her first book–or that it failed to improve, at least? But that first time she had a subject which wrote itself–for I understand she used her former husband for a model. You never knew him, did you? They say he was an idiot.

ADOLPH.
I never knew him, as he was away for six months at a time. But he must have been an arch-idiot, judging by her picture of him. [Pause] And you may feel sure that the picture was correct.

GUSTAV.
I do!–But why did she ever take him?

ADOLPH.
Because she didn’t know him well enough. Of course, you never DO get acquainted until afterward!

GUSTAV.
And for that reason one ought not to marry until– afterward.–And he was a tyrant, of course?

ADOLPH.
Of course?

GUSTAV.
Why, so are all married men. [Feeling his way] And you not the least.

ADOLPH.
I? Who let my wife come and go as she pleases–

GUSTAV.
Well, that’s nothing. You couldn’t lock her up, could you? But do you like her to stay away whole nights?

ADOLPH.
No, really, I don’t.

GUSTAV.
There, you see!

[With a change of tactics]
And to tell the truth, it would only make you ridiculous to like it.

ADOLPH.
Ridiculous? Can a man be ridiculous because he trusts his wife?

GUSTAV.
Of course he can. And it’s just what you are already–and thoroughly at that!

ADOLPH.
[Convulsively]

I! It’s what I dread most of all–and there’s going to be a change.

GUSTAV.
Don’t get excited now–or you’ll have another attack.

ADOLPH.
But why isn’t she ridiculous when I stay out all night?

GUSTAV.
Yes, why? Well, it’s nothing that concerns you, but that’s the way it is. And while you are trying to figure out why, the mishap has already occurred.

ADOLPH.
What mishap?

GUSTAV.
However, the first husband was a tyrant, and she took him only to get her freedom. You see, a girl cannot have freedom except by providing herself with a chaperon–or what we call a husband.

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ADOLPH.
Of course not.

GUSTAV.
And now you are the chaperon.

ADOLPH.
I?

GUSTAV.
Since you are her husband.

(ADOLPH keeps a preoccupied silence.)

GUSTAV.
Am I not right?

ADOLPH.
[Uneasily]

I don’t know. You live with a woman for years, and you never stop to analyse her, or your relationship with her, and then–then you begin to think–and there you are!–Gustav, you are my friend. The only male friend I have. During this last week you have given me courage to live again. It is as if your own magnetism had been poured into me. Like a watchmaker, you have fixed the works in my head and wound up the spring again. Can’t you hear, yourself, how I think more clearly and speak more to the point? And to myself at least it seems as if my voice had recovered its ring.

GUSTAV.
So it seems to me also. And why is that?

ADOLPH.
I shouldn’t wonder if you grew accustomed to lower your voice in talking to women. I know at least that Tekla always used to accuse me of shouting.

GUSTAV.
And so you toned down your voice and accepted the rule of the slipper?

ADOLPH.
That isn’t quite the way to put it. [After some reflection] I think it is even worse than that. But let us talk of something else!–What was I saying?–Yes, you came here, and you enabled me to see my art in its true light. Of course, for some time I had noticed my growing lack of interest in painting, as it didn’t seem to offer me the proper medium for the expression of what I wanted to bring out. But when you explained all this to me, and made it clear why painting must fail as a timely outlet for the creative instinct, then I saw the light at last–and I realised that hereafter it would not be possible for me to express myself by means of colour only.

GUSTAV.
Are you quite sure now that you cannot go on painting– that you may not have a relapse?

ADOLPH.
Perfectly sure! For I have tested myself. When I went to bed that night after our talk, I rehearsed your argument point by point, and I knew you had it right. But when I woke up from a good night’s sleep and my head was clear again, then it came over me in a flash that you might be mistaken after all. And I jumped out of bed and got hold of my brushes and paints–but it was no use! Every trace of illusion was gone–it was nothing but smears of paint, and I quaked at the thought of having believed, and having made others believe, that a painted canvas could be anything but a painted canvas. The veil had fallen from my eyes, and it was just as impossible for me to paint any more as it was to become a child again.

GUSTAV.
And then you saw that the realistic tendency of our day, its craving for actuality and tangibility, could only find its proper form in sculpture, which gives you body, extension in all three dimensions–

ADOLPH.
[Vaguely]

The three dimensions–oh yes, body, in a word!

GUSTAV.
And then you became a sculptor yourself. Or rather, you have been one all your life, but you had gone astray, and nothing was needed but a guide to put you on the right road–Tell me, do you experience supreme joy now when you are at work?

ADOLPH.
Now I am living!

GUSTAV.
May I see what you are doing?

ADOLPH.
A female figure.

GUSTAV.
Without a model? And so lifelike at that!

ADOLPH.
[Apathetically]

Yes, but it resembles somebody. It is remarkable that this woman seems to have become a part of my body as I of hers.

GUSTAV.
Well, that’s not so very remarkable. Do you know what transfusion is?

ADOLPH.
Of blood? Yes.

GUSTAV.
And you seem to have bled yourself a little too much. When I look at the figure here I comprehend several things which I merely guessed before. You have loved her tremendously!

ADOLPH.
Yes, to such an extent that I couldn’t tell whether she was I or I she. When she is smiling, I smile also. When she is weeping, I weep. And when she–can you imagine anything like it?– when she was giving life to our child–I felt the birth pangs within myself.

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GUSTAV.
Do you know, my dear friend–I hate to speak of it, but you are already showing the first symptoms of epilepsy.

ADOLPH.
[Agitated]

I! How can you tell?

GUSTAV.
Because I have watched the symptoms in a younger brother of mine who had been worshipping Venus a little too excessively.

ADOLPH.
How–how did it show itself–that thing you spoke of?

[During the following passage GUSTAV speaks with great animation, and ADOLPH listens so intently that, unconsciously, he imitates many of GUSTAV’S gestures.]

GUSTAV.
It was dreadful to witness, and if you don’t feel strong enough I won’t inflict a description of it on you.

ADOLPH.
[Nervously]

Yes, go right on–just go on!

GUSTAV.
Well, the boy happened to marry an innocent little creature with curls, and eyes like a turtle-dove; with the face of a child and the pure soul of an angel. But nevertheless she managed to usurp the male prerogative–

ADOLPH.
What is that?

GUSTAV.
Initiative, of course. And with the result that the angel nearly carried him off to heaven. But first he had to be put on the cross and made to feel the nails in his flesh. It was horrible!

ADOLPH.
[Breathlessly]

Well, what happened?

GUSTAV.
[Lingering on each word]

We might be sitting together talking, he and I–and when I had been speaking for a while his face would turn white as chalk, his arms and legs would grow stiff, and his thumbs became twisted against the palms of his hands–like this.

[He illustrates the movement and it is imitated by ADOLPH]
Then his eyes became bloodshot, and he began to chew– like this.

[He chews, and again ADOLPH imitates him]
The saliva was rattling in his throat. His chest was squeezed together as if it had been closed in a vice. The pupils of his eyes flickered like gas-jets. His tongue beat the saliva into a lather, and he sank–slowly–down–backward–into the chair–as if he were drowning. And then—

ADOLPH.
[In a whisper]

Stop now!

GUSTAV.
And then–Are you not feeling well?

ADOLPH.
No.

GUSTAV.
[Gets a glass of water for him]

There: drink now. And we’ll talk of something else.

ADOLPH.
[Feebly]

Thank you! Please go on!

GUSTAV.
Well–when he came to he couldn’t remember anything at all. He had simply lost consciousness. Has that ever happened to you?

ADOLPH.
Yes, I have had attacks of vertigo now and then, but my physician says it’s only anaemia.

GUSTAV.
Well, that’s the beginning of it, you know. But, believe me, it will end in epilepsy if you don’t take care of yourself.

ADOLPH.
What can I do?

GUSTAV.
To begin with, you will have to observe complete abstinence.

ADOLPH.
For how long?

GUSTAV.
For half a year at least.

ADOLPH.
I cannot do it. That would upset our married life.

GUSTAV.
Good-bye to you then!

ADOLPH.
[Covers up the wax figure]

I cannot do it!

GUSTAV.
Can you not save your own life?–But tell me, as you have already given me so much of your confidence–is there no other canker, no secret wound, that troubles you? For it is very rare to find only one cause of discord, as life is so full of variety and so fruitful in chances for false relationships. Is there not a corpse in your cargo that you are trying to hide from yourself?– For instance, you said a minute ago that you have a child which has been left in other people’s care. Why don’t you keep it with you?

ADOLPH.
My wife doesn’t want us to do so.

GUSTAV.
And her reason? Speak up now!

ADOLPH
.
Because, when it was about three years old, it began to look like him, her former husband.

GUSTAV.
Well? Have you seen her former husband?

ADOLPH.
No, never. I have only had a casual glance at a very poor portrait of him, and then I couldn’t detect the slightest resemblance.

GUSTAV.
Oh, portraits are never like the original, and, besides, he might have changed considerably since it was made. However, I hope it hasn’t aroused any suspicions in you?

ADOLPH.
Not at all. The child was born a year after our marriage, and the husband was abroad when I first met Tekla–it happened right here, in this very house even, and that’s why we come here every summer.

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GUSTAV.
No, then there can be no cause for suspicion. And you wouldn’t have had any reason to trouble yourself anyhow, for the children of a widow who marries again often show a likeness to her dead husband. It is annoying, of course, and that’s why they used to burn all widows in India, as you know.–But tell me: have you ever felt jealous of him–of his memory? Would it not sicken you to meet him on a walk and hear him, with his eyes on your Tekla, use the word “we” instead of “I”?–We!

ADOLPH
. I cannot deny that I have been pursued by that very thought.

GUSTAV
. There now!–And you’ll never get rid of it. There are discords in this life which can never be reduced to harmony. For this reason you had better put wax in your ears and go to work. If you work, and grow old, and pile masses of new impressions on the hatches, then the corpse will stay quiet in the hold.

ADOLPH
. Pardon me for interrupting you, but–it is wonderful how you resemble Tekla now and then while you are talking. You have a way of blinking one eye as if you were taking aim with a gun, and your eyes have the same influence on me as hers have at times.

GUSTAV.
No, really?

ADOLPH.
And now you said that “no, really” in the same indifferent way that she does. She also has the habit of saying “no, really” quite often.

GUSTAV.
Perhaps we are distantly related, seeing that all human beings are said to be of one family. At any rate, it will be interesting to make your wife’s acquaintance to see if what you say is true.

ADOLPH.
And do you know, she never takes an expression from me. She seems rather to avoid my vocabulary, and I have never caught her using any of my gestures. And yet people as a rule develop what is called “marital resemblance.”

GUSTAV.
And do you know why this has not happened in your case?– That woman has never loved you.

ADOLPH.
What do you mean?

GUSTAV.
I hope you will excuse what I am saying–but woman’s love consists in taking, in receiving, and one from whom she takes nothing does not have her love. She has never loved you!

ADOLPH.
Don’t you think her capable of loving more than once?

GUSTAV.
No, for we cannot be deceived more than once. Then our eyes are opened once for all. You have never been deceived, and so you had better beware of those that have. They are dangerous, I tell you.

ADOLPH.
Your words pierce me like knife thrusts, and I fool as if something were being severed within me, but I cannot help it. And this cutting brings a certain relief, too. For it means the pricking of ulcers that never seemed to ripen.–She has never loved me!–Why, then, did she ever take me?

GUSTAV.
Tell me first how she came to take you, and whether it was you who took her or she who took you?

ADOLPH.
Heaven only knows if I can tell at all!–How did it happen? Well, it didn’t come about in one day.

GUSTAV.
Would you like to have me tell you how it did happen?

ADOLPH.
That’s more than you can do.

GUSTAV.
Oh, by using the information about yourself and your wife that you have given me, I think I can reconstruct the whole event. Listen now, and you’ll hear.

Adolph! My own child! Are you still alive–oh, speak, speak!- -Please forgive your nasty Tekla! Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me!–Little brother must say something, I tell him!–No, good God, he doesn’t hear! He is dead! O God in heaven! O my God! Help!

GUSTAV.
Why, she really must have loved HIM, too!–Poor creature!

(Curtain.)

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