August Strindberg.

Master Olof : a Drama in Five Acts online

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Produced by Nicole Apostola



By August Strindberg


The original prose version of Master Olof, which is here presented for
the first time in English form, was written between June 8 and August
8, 1872, while Strindberg, then only twenty-three years old, was living
with two friends on one of the numerous little islands that lie between
Stockholm and the open sea.

Up to that time he had produced half-a-dozen plays, one of which had
been performed at the Royal Theatre of Stockholm and had won him the
good-will and financial support of King Carl XV. Thus he had been able
to return to the University of Upsala, whence he had been driven a year
earlier by poverty as well as by spiritual revolt. During his second
term of study at the old university Strindberg wrote some plays that
he subsequently destroyed. In the same period he not only conceived the
idea later developed in Master Olof, but he also acquired the historical
data underlying the play and actually began to put it into dialogue.

During that same winter of 1871-72 he read extensively, although his
reading probably had slight reference to the university curriculum. The
two works that seem to have taken the lion's share of his attention were
Goethe's youthful drama Goetz von Berlichingen and Buckle's History of
Civilization in England. Both impressed him deeply, and both became in
his mind logically connected with an external event which, perhaps, had
touched his supersensitive soul more keenly than anything else: an event
concerning which he says in the third volume of The Bondwoman's Son,
that "he had just discovered that the men of the Paris Commune merely
put into action what Buckle preached."

Such were the main influences at work on his mind when, early in
1872, his royal protector died, and Strindberg found himself once more
dependent on his own resources. To continue at the university was out
of the question, and he seems to have taken his final departure from it
without the least feeling of regret. Unwise as he may have been in other
respects, he was wise enough to realize that, whatever his goal, the
road to it must be of his own making. Returning to Stockholm, he groped
around for a while as he had done a year earlier, what he even tried to
eke out a living as the editor of a trade journal. Yet the seeds sown
within him during the previous winter were sprouting. An irresistible
impulse urged him to continue the work of Buckle. History and philosophy
were the ultimate ends tempting his mind, but first of all he was
impelled to express himself in terms of concrete life, and the way had
been shown him by Goethe. Moved by Goethe's example, he felt himself
obliged to break through the stifling forms of classical drama.
"No verse, no eloquence, no unity of place," was the resolution he
formulated straightway. [Note: See again The Bondwoman's Son, vol. iii:
In the Red Room.]

Having armed himself with a liberal supply of writing-paper, he joined
his two friends in the little island of Kymmendö. Of money he had so
little that, but for the generosity of one of his friends, he would have
had to leave the island in the autumn without settling the small debt
he owed for board and lodging. Yet those months were happy indeed - above
all because he felt himself moved by an inspiration more authentic than
he had ever before experienced. Thus page was added to page, and act to
act, until at last, in the surprisingly brief time of two months, the
whole play was ready - mighty in bulk and spirit, as became the true
firstling of a young Titan.

Strindberg had first meant to name his play "What Is Truth?" For a while
he did call it "The Renegade," but in the end he thought both titles
smacked too much of tendency and decided instead, with reasoned
conventionalism, to use the title of Master Olof after its central
figure, the Luther of Sweden.

From a dramatic point of view it would have been hard to pick a more
promising period than the one he had chosen as a setting for his play.
The early reign of Gustaf Vasa, the founder of modern Sweden, was marked
by three parallel conflicts of equal intensity and interest: between
Swedish and Danish nationalism; between Catholicism and Protestantism;
and, finally, between feudalism and a monarchism based more or less on
the consent of the governed. Its background was the long struggle for
independent national existence in which the country had become involved
by its voluntary federation with Denmark and Norway about the end of the
fourteenth century. That Struggle - made necessary by the insistence of
one sovereign after another on regarding Sweden as a Danish province
rather than as an autonomous part of a united Scandinavia - had reached a
sort of climax, a final moment of utter blackness just before the dawn,
when, at Stockholm in 1520, the Danish king, known ever afterward as
Christian the Tyrant, commanded the arbitrary execution of about eighty
of Sweden's most representative men.

Until within a few months of that event, named by the horror-stricken
people "the blood-bath of Stockholm," the young Gustaf Eriksson Vasa had
been a prisoner in Denmark, sent there as a hostage of Swedish loyalty.
Having obtained his freedom by flight, he made his way to the inland
province of Dalecarlia, where most of the previous movements on behalf
of national liberty had originated, and having cleared the country of
foreign invaders, chiefly by the help of an aroused peasantry that had
never known the yoke of serfdom, he was elected king at a Riksdag held
in the little city of Strängnäs, not far from Stockholm, in 1523.

Strängnäs was a cathedral city and had for several years previous been
notorious for the Lutheran leanings of its clergy. After the death of
its bishop as one of the victims of King; Christian, its temporary head
had been the archdeacon, the ambitious and learned Lars Andersson - or
Laurentius Andreae, as, in accordance with the Latinizing tendency
of the time, he was more frequently named. One of its canons was Olof
Pedersson - also known as Olaus Petri, and more commonly as Master Olof
(Master being the vernacular for Magister, which was the equivalent
of our modern Doctor) - who, during two years spent in studies at the
University of Wittenberg, had been in personal contact with Luther, and
who had become fired with an aspiration to carry the Reformation into
his native country. By recent historians Master Olof has been described
as of a "naively humble nature," rather melancholy in temperament,
but endowed with a gift for irony, and capable of fiery outbursts when
deeply stirred. At Strängnäs he had been preaching the new faith more
openly and more effectively than any one else, and he had found a pupil
as well as a protector in the temporary head of the diocese.

Immediately after his election, the new King called Lars Andersson from
Strängnäs to become his first chancellor. Later on, he pressed Olof,
too, into his service, making him Secretary to the City Corporation
of Stockholm - which meant that Olof practically became the chief
civil administrator of the capital, having to act as both clerk and
magistrate, while at the same time he was continuing his reformatory
propaganda as one of the preachers in the city's principal edifice,
officially named after St. Nicolaus, but commonly spoken of as
Greatchurch. As if this were not sufficient for one man, he plunged also
into a feverish literary activity, doing most of the work on the Swedish
translations of the New and Old Testaments, and paving the way for the
new faith by a series of vigorous polemical writings, the style of which
proclaims him the founder of modern Swedish prose. Centuries passed
before the effective simplicity and homely picturesqueness of his style
were surpassed. He became, furthermore, Sweden's first dramatist. The
Comedy of Tobit, from which Strindberg uses a few passages in slightly
modernized form at the beginning of his play, is now generally
recognized as an authentic product of Olof's pen, although it was not
written until a much later period.

Strindberg's drama starts at Strängnäs, at the very moment when Olof has
been goaded into open revolt against the abuses of the Church, and when
he is saved from the consequences of that revolt only by the unexpected
arrival of King Gustaf and his own appointment as City Secretary. From
the slightly strained, but not improbable, coincidence of that start
to the striking climax of the last act, the play follows, on the whole,
pretty closely the actual course of events recorded in history. To
understand this course, with its gradually intensified conflict between
the King and Olof, it is above all necessary to bear in mind that the
former regarded the Reformation principally as a means toward that
political reorganization and material upbuilding of the country which
formed his main task; while to Olof the religious reconstruction assumed
supreme importance. This fundamental divergence of purpose is clearly
indicated and effectively used by Strindberg, and we have reason to
believe that he has pictured not only Gustaf Vasa and Master Olof, but
also the other historical characters, in close accordance with what
history has to tell us about them. Among the chief figures there is only
one - Gert the Printer - who is not known to history, and one - the wife of
Olof - who is so little known that the playwright has been at liberty to
create it almost wholly out of his own imagination.

At the juncture represented by the initial scenes of the play, Olof was
in reality thirty-one years old, but he is made to appear still younger.
The King should be, and is, about twenty-seven, while Lars Andersson is
about fifty-four, and Bishop Brask about seventy. Gert must be thought a
man of about sixty, while Christine must be about twenty. The action
of the play lasts from 1524 to 1540, but Strindberg has contracted the
general perspective, so to speak, giving us the impression that the
entire action takes place within a couple of years. I have tried to work
out a complete chronology, and think it fairly safe to date the several
parts of the play as follows:

The first act takes place on Whitsun Eve, 1524, which means that the
exact date must fall between May 10 and June 13 of that year, and
probably about June 1.

The first scene of the second act occurs in the early evening of a
Saturday in the summer - probably in June - of 1524. The second scene is
fixed at midnight of the same day, and the third scene on the following
morning, which, in view of the fact that Olof is to preach, we may
assume to be a Sunday.

The first scene of the third act seems to take place four days later,
but Olof was not married until February, 1525, - to "Christine, a maiden
of good family," - and it was only during the winter of 1526-27 that the
Church reformers were given free rein by the King, and Olof himself was
despatched to the University of Upsala for the purpose of challenging
Peder Galle, the noted Catholic theologian, to a joint discussion. This
was also the time when the first Swedish version of the New Testament
was completed by Olof and Lars Andersson - an event referred to in the
scene in question.

The exact date of the second scene of the third act is St. John's
Eve, or June 24, 1527, at which time occurred the important Riksdag at
Vesterås, where the King broke the final resistance of the nobility and
the Catholic clergy by threatening to abdicate. The debate between Olof
and Peder Galle took place at the Riksdag, Galle having evaded it as
long as he could.

The date of the fourth act is very uncertain, but it seems safe to place
it in the summer of 1539, when Stockholm was ravaged by an epidemic of a
virulent disease known as "the English sweat."

The first scene of the fifth act is laid on New Year's Eve, 1539, when
Olof and Lars Andersson were arrested and charged with high treason for
not having informed the proper authorities of a plot against the King's
life. This plot was an old story, having been exposed and punished
in 1536. Their defence was that they had learned of it through secret
confession, which they as ministers had no right to reveal. The trial
took only two days, and on January 2, 1540, both were sentenced to

The second scene of the final act must be laid in the spring of 1540, as
the ceremony of confirmation has generally taken place about Easter ever
since the Swedish church became Lutheran.

While, in the main, Strindberg made the events of his play accord
with what was accepted as historical fact when he wrote, there are
anachronisms and inaccuracies to be noted, although to none of them
can be attached much importance. When, in the first and second acts, he
represents the Anabaptist leaders, Rink and Knipperdollink, as then
in Stockholm and actually introduces one of them on the stage, he has
merely availed himself of a legend which had been accepted as truth
for centuries, and which has been exploded only by recent historical
research. We know now that Rink and Knipperdollink could never have been
in Sweden, but we know also that a German lay preacher named Melchior
Hofman appeared at Stockholm about the time indicated in the play, and
that, in 1529, another such preacher, named Tilemann, made Olof himself
the object of his fierce invectives. These instances serve, in fact, to
prove how skilfully Strindberg handled his historical material. He is
never rigid as to fact, but as a rule he is accurate in spirit. Another
instance of this kind is found in the references in the first act to the
use of Swedish for purposes of worship. It is recorded - and by himself,
I think - that Olof once asked his mother whether she really understood
the Latin prayers, since she was so very fond of them. She answered:
"No, I don't understand them, but when I hear them I pray devoutly to
God that they may please Him, which I don't doubt they do."

On the other hand, what maybe regarded as rather an awkward slip is
found in the first scene of the fifth act, where Gert cries exultantly
to Olof: "You don't know that Thomas Münster has established a new
spiritual kingdom at Mühlhausen." The name of the great Anabaptist
"prophet" was Thomas Münzer, and the place where he established his
brief reign was Münster. Strindberg's habit was to fill his head with
the facts to be used, and then to rely on his memory. Marvellous as his
memory was, it sometimes deceived him, and checking off names or dates
seems to have been utterly beyond him. Thus it is quite probable that
the passage in question represents an unconscious error. At the same
time it is barely possible that the mistake may have been purposely laid
in the mouth of a fanatic, from whom exactness of statement could hardly
be expected. Thus, in the first act, Gert remarks that "Luther is
dead." We understand, of course, that this expression is metaphorical,
signifying that Luther has done all that can be expected of him, but it
is nevertheless characteristically ambiguous.

The second scene of the third act is apparently laid in Olof's house
at Stockholm, although the location of the building is not definitely
indicated. We find him waiting for a messenger who is to announce the
results of the Riksdag then in session. But the Riksdag was held at
Vesterås, and we know that Olof was one of two delegates sent by the
burghers and the peasants to the King, whom they implored "on their
knees and with tears" to withdraw his abdication. The Courtier's
reference to Olof's debate with Galle renders it still more uncertain
whether we are in Stockholm or in Vesterås. The Courtier also informs
Olof of his appointment as pastor of Greatchurch, the facts being that
Olof was not ordained until 1539 and received his appointment a year
after the events described in the last act of the play. In the metrical
version, Strindberg makes his most radical departure from the historical
course of events by letting Luther's marriage precede and influence
that of Olof, although in reality Olof's anticipated that of Luther by
several months.

The complaints of the Man from Småland in the first scene of the second
act could scarcely have been warranted in 1524, when that act takes
place. The hold of the young King was far too precarious at that
early date to permit any regulations of the kind referred to. The
establishment of a maximum price on oxen does not seem to have occurred
until 1532, and a prohibition against the shooting of deer by the
peasants was actually issued in 1538, both measures helping to provoke
the widespread uprising that broke out in Småland in 1541. It was named
the "Dacke feud" after its principal leader, the peasant-chieftain
Nils Dacke, to whom the Sexton refers in the second scene of the last
act - also a little prematurely.

Whether these be conscious or unconscious anachronisms, they matter very
little when the general accuracy of the play is considered. From the
moment the Danes had been driven out of the country, one of the most
serious problems confronting the King was the financial chaos into which
the country had fallen, and his efforts, first of all to raise enough
means for ordinary administrative purposes, and secondly to reorganize
trade and agriculture, brought him almost immediately into conflict with
the peasants, who, during the long struggle for national independence,
had become accustomed to do pretty much as they pleased. The utterances
of the Man from Småland are typical of the sentiments that prevailed
among the peasants throughout the country, not least when he speaks of
the King's intention to "take away their priests and friars," for
the majority of the Swedish people were at that time still intensely
Catholic, and remained so to a large extent long after the Reformation
officially had placed Sweden among Protestant countries.

Much more serious than any liberties taken with dates or facts, I deem
certain linguistic anachronisms, of which Strindberg not rarely becomes
guilty. Thus, for instance, he makes the King ask Bishop Brask: "What
kind of phenomenon is this?" The phrase is palpably out of place, and
yet it has been used so deliberately that nothing was left for me to
do but to translate it literally. The truth is that Strindberg was not
striving to reproduce the actual language of the Period - a language of
which we get a glimpse in the quotations from The Comedy of Tobit. Here
and there he used archaic expressions (which I have sometimes reproduced
and sometimes disregarded, as the exigencies of the new medium happened
to require). At other times he did not hesitate to employ modern
colloquialisms (most of which have been "toned down"). He did not regard
local color or historical atmosphere as a supreme desideratum. He wanted
to express certain ideas, and he wanted to bring home the essential
humanity of historical figures which, through the operations of
legendary history, had assumed a strange, unhuman aspect. The methods
he employed for these purposes have since been made familiar to the
English-speaking public by the historical plays of Bernard Shaw and the
short stories and novels of Anatole France.

In his eagerness, however, to express what was burning for utterance in
his own breast, the second purpose was sometimes lost sight of; and at
such times Strindberg hesitated as little to pass the bounds imposed
by an historical period as to break through the much more important
limitations of class and personal antecedents. Thus, for example,
the remarks of Olof's mother are at one moment characterized by the
simplicity to be expected from the aged widow of a small city tradesman
in the early part of the sixteenth century, while in the next - under
the pressure of the author's passion for personal expression - they
grow improbably sophisticated. Yet each figure, when seen in proper
perspective, appears correctly drawn and strikingly consistent with
the part assigned to it in the play. In his very indifference to minor
accuracies, Strindberg sometimes approaches more closely to the larger
truth than men more scrupulous in regard to details. How true he can be
in his delineation of a given type is perhaps best shown by the figure
of Gert. The world's literature holds few portrayals of the anarchistic
temperament that can vie with it in psychological exactness, and it is
as true to-day as it was in 1524 or in 1872.

This verisimilitude on a universal rather than a specific plane assumes
still greater significance if we consider it in the light of what
Strindberg has told us about his purpose with the main characters of his
first great play. As I have already said, those characters were meant
to be both mouthpieces of the author and revived historical figures, but
they were also meant - and primarily, I suspect - to be something else:
embodiments of the contradictory phases of a single individual, namely
the author himself.

"The author meant to hide his own self behind the historical
characters," Strindberg tells us, apropos of this very play. [Note: In
one of his biographical novels, The Bondwoman's Son, vol. iii: In
the Red Room.] "As an idealist he was to be represented by Olof; as a
realist by Gustaf; and as a communist by Gert." Farther on in the same
work, he continues his revelation as follows: "The King and his shadow,
the shrewd Constable, represented himself [the author] as he wished to
be; Gert, as he was in moments of aroused passion; and Olof, as, after
years of self-scrutiny, he had come to know himself: ambitious and
weak-willed; unscrupulous when something was at stake, and yielding
at other times; possessed of great self-confidence, mixed with a deep
melancholy; balanced and irrational; hard and gentle."

Finally, he gives us this illuminating exposition of his own views on
the moral validity of the main characters, thus disposing once for all
of the one-sided interpretations made by persons anxious to use this
or that aspect of the play in support of their own political or social
idiosyncrasies: "All the chief characters are, relatively speaking, in
the right. The Constable, from the standpoint of his own day, is right
in asking Olof to keep calm and go on preaching; Olof is right in
admitting that he had gone too far; the scholar, Vilhelm, is right when,
in the name of youth, he demands the evolution of a new truth; and Gert
is right in calling Olof a renegade. The individual must always become
a renegade - forced by the necessity of natural laws; by fatigue; by
inability to develop indefinitely, as the brain ceases to grow about the
age of forty-five; and by the claims of actual life, which demand that
even a reformer must live as man, mate, head of a family, and
citizen. But those who crave that the individual continue his progress
indefinitely are the shortsighted - particularly those who think that the
cause must perish because the individual deserts it.... It is an open
question, for that matter, whether Olof did not have a better chance to
advance his cause from the pulpit of the reformed Greatchurch than he
would have had in low-class taverns."

These passages were written by Strindberg fourteen years after the
completion of the play to which they refer. We have other evidence,
however, that, while he might have seen things more clearly in
retrospect, he had not been lured by the lapse of time into placing his
characters in a light different from that in which they were conceived.
On the list of characters forming part of the original handwritten
manuscript of the first version of Master Olof, now preserved in the
Public Library of Gothenburg, Sweden, the author has jotted down certain
very significant notes opposite the more important names. Thus he has
written opposite the name of the King: "To accomplish something in this
world, one has to risk morality and conscience;" opposite the name
of Olof: "He who strives to realize an idea develops greatness of
personality - he accomplishes good by his personal example, but he is
doomed to perish;" opposite that of Bishop Brask: "There is movement in
whatever exists - whatever stands still must be crushed;" and opposite
that of Gert: "He who wills more than his reason can grasp must go mad."

Such was the play with which the young Strindberg returned to the
Swedish capital in the fall of 1872; and let us remember in this
connection, that up to the time in question no dramatic work of similar
importance had ever been produced in Sweden. Its completion was more
epoch-making for Sweden than that of Brand was for Norway in 1865 - since
the coming of Ibsen's first really great play was heralded by earlier

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