Creditors is one mean mother of a play, written during the summer of 1888 at a castle in Denmark called Skovlyst. Here, according to Olof Lagercrantz, in his biography August Strindberg, the playwright also wrote The Romantic Sexton of Rano and Miss Julie, the dramatic masterpiece, which may have been inspired by two she-goats. Caroline and Mathilde were named after an eighteenth century Danish Queen who used both names: She took her physician as a lover only to be imprisoned and forced to leave the country. The play also refracts elements of Strindberg’s own illicitness during the period as the tenant of Skovlyust’s owner, a countess on the verge of bankruptcy (the decaying property was overwhelmed by animals she didn’t tend). Strindberg believed the countess was involved with her steward: whatever their level of intimacy, however, Magister Torner did turn out to be her half brother. We also know he had a full sister, sixteen years of age, who began an affair with Strindberg. The steward spread rumors about the playwright fathering a child with the girl (she wasn’t pregnant, though). Explaining the situation to Strindberg’s wife Siri (they were separated at the time, and she thought he was crazy anyway), Strindberg said he had been celibate for six months—a number of particular interest with regard to the play Creditors; it’s the recommended amount of time for Adolph (Tom Burke) to refrain from having sex with his wife.
Of course, there’s more to the story of that summer, accusations, an arrest, and a day in court. Strindberg was wildly jealous with regard to his wife, whom he wanted to make his mistress—and he continued to appraise masculinity—his own as well as others. Whatever we make of his personal life or his tortured and torturing characters, though, Strindberg is the master we keep forgetting to admire. Although his men are dangerous, too—you’ll see this in Creditors–Strindberg is labeled a misogynist because, as Germaine Greer writes, “the women in his plays behave so badly.” Actually, although it is tough to get around Laura in The Father—she has her husband placed in a straightjacket and taken away—I quite like Eleanora in Easter, who knows the language of the flowers, and, of course, Indra’s Daughter in A Dream Play. If Shakespeare invented the human as Harold Bloom tells us, Strindberg examined our entrapment in it. God’s child is sent to live on earth in A Dream Play, a female Christ figure who does marry and bear children—and, here, Strindberg looks at the trampling of the divine spark. “People are not born wicked,” he writes, “but life makes them wicked. So life cannot be an education, nor can it be a punishment (which improves); it is simply an evil.” Here’s how the thought was rendered in terms of dramatic poetry (Michael Meyer translation):
The earth is not clean,
Life is not good.
Men are not evil,
Nor are they good.
They live as they can
A day at a time.
The sons of dust in dust must wander.
Miss Julie traces the destruction of a young aristocratic woman; Creditors looks at the psychic murder of a young artist—somehow, without them, I don’t think America ever would have gotten Blanche Dubois. Of course, Creditors isn’t known the way Julie is, which is part of the reason to see this play at BAM—here’s how Strindberg describes it:
[The intruder] becomes a nightmare to disturb their [the couple’s] amorous sleep, a creditor who knocks on the doors, and they see his black hand between their own when they dip into the bowl, they hear his disagreeable voice in the stillness of the night, which only their throbbing pulses were to disturb. He does not prevent them from joining one another, but he does disturb their happiness. And when they recognize his invisible power to disturb their joy, when they finally flee—but flee in vain from the memory pursuing them, from the debt they have left behind, and the opinion that frightens them, and they do not have the strength to carry the burden of guilt, then they have to go to the pasture to find a scapegoat and butcher it!
Another reason to see this Creditors, in the new translation by playwright David Greig, is to watch the acting. It’s a story that becomes more gripping as you watch–you may not register the acceleration until you realize the overdrive in which Owen Teale is working (Strindberg can seem glassy eyed and crazed in some of the pictures that were taken of him, and that wild intensity is where the director, Alan Rickman, has this production aimed—body on top of body). I’m certain this will not be the last time we’ll hear from Tom Burke; Anna Chancellor hasn’t created a woman anyone could hate, even Strindberg.
The power of the final images in Creditors reverses the weak overanalyzed playwriting you think you’re hearing as the show runs—and the laughs that you think are being had at Strindberg’s expense. The truth is that it’s all a setup; you think you’re watching one play and then you realize it’s another. Make fun of this great dramatist and his antiquated theories of masculinity and women, his lack of political correctness; think of one character here, as I did, as a bad contemporary and forerunner of Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason, solving crimes in a hackneyed case set in a faded white honeymoon suite on the Swedish coast. Without giving more away, be prepared to watch Strindberg fend for himself—and grab your throat.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Part of the 2010 Spring Season
Apr 16—May 16
Tue—Sat at 7:30pm
Sun at 3pm
Presented by BAM and Donmar Warehouse
By August Strindberg
In a new version by David Greig
Directed by Alan Rickman
“These are A-list performances, pulsating with pain and hard as diamonds.” —The Times (UK)
Directed by Alan Rickman, this fiercely modern battle of the sexes comes to BAM following a sold-out run at London’s Donmar Warehouse (RED, Jude Law’s Hamlet, Frost/Nixon). A darkly comic tale of vengeance, jealousy, and psychological warfare, Creditors unfolds as a young husband (Tom Burke, in his New York debut), anxiously awaiting the return of his new wife (Olivier Award-nominee Anna Chancellor), falls under the sway of a mysterious stranger (Tony Award-winner Owen Teale).
BAM Harvey Theater
90min, no intermission
Subscription tickets: $20, 36, 52, 60
Full price: $25, 45, 65, 75
Set design by Ben Stones
Costume design by Fotini Dimou
Lighting design by Howard Harrison
Composer and sound design by Adam Cork
Review: The New York Times on Creditors
"Thrilling… you're likely to feel you've had the breath knocked out of you."
Review: Theatermania on Creditors
"The production consistently intrigues from start to finish."
Review: New York Post on Creditors
"Riveting from every angle."
Review: Entertainment Weekly on Creditors
"The actors…find heaps of comedy in this dreadfully unhappy scenario."
Review: Backstage on Creditors
"[This] three-person battle is precisely and expertly staged."
Review: Time Out New York on Creditors
"A roller-coaster of sex, lies and revenge "
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