Theatre Review from the April 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
Easter by August Strindberg
Playwrights, like ordinary mortals, are creatures of their time. Whether unconsciously or as a matter of intention, most playwrights reveal in their story-lines and their dramatic pre-occupations, their characters and their dialogue, a view of the society of which they are a part.
August Strinberg's Easter (RSC, Barbican) is full of symbolism and illusion. It describes events in the life of Elis Heyst, a manic-depressive Norwegian schoolteacher in three fateful days between Maundy Thursday and the Saturday before Easter Sunday. It is filled with references to Christian suffering and the possibilities if redemption; to the coming of spring after a Scandinavian winter; to guilt associated with a father's imprisonment for embezzlement; and, finally—so it seems—to forgiveness and charity. It is marvellously presented by a gifted cast in the crucible-like atmosphere of The Pit, to the echoing sounds of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion and against a slide-show of paintings from The Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The atmosphere of religiosity is tangible.
Critics in the national press have responded to the moving last act as well they might. The ideas of forgiveness and charity might have been appropriated by Strindberg and given expression in the world of late nineteenth-century capitalism and Christian belief, but their benevolent, life-enhancing notions have a universal, timeless relevance. Indeed socialists see them as part of the common currency of life in a world based on co-operation rather than competition, happiness rather than angst.
What is especially interesting in both the play and also the reactions of the audience (and the critics) to it, is the way in which forgiveness and charity have been stolen and given expression within the values of capitalist society. Several times an apparently merciful redeemer makes clear to the unfortunate Elis that "it all comes back": that he (Elis) is to be forgiven because long ago his father—and languishing in jail—behaved charitably to the redeemer. This makes forgiveness not so much a gesture of magnanimity as a commodity to be exchanged on an "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch my back" basis.
This marketing of forgiveness and charity escaped the notice of the critics in the national newspapers. Clearly it isn't only playwrights who are ensnared by the ideological beliefs of the society of which they are a part. Most of the audience and the critics are victims of the same kind of prejudices.