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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Night of the Tribades

Per Olov Enquist

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Title: The Night of the Tribades
Author: Per Olov Enquist
Genre: Drama
Written: 1975 (Eng. 1977)
Length: 84 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Night of the Tribades
  • A Play from 1889
  • Swedish title: Tribadernas natt
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Ross Schideler

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Our Assessment:

A : surging and searching drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       August Strindberg was an unusual author and man. A few of his plays -- though only a fraction of the many he wrote -- remain well-known and are still often produced. He also wrote many noteworthy novels, though these aren't in vogue in the English-speaking world at this time. He also was something of a misogynist -- though the label is too simplistic a reduction of his complex feelings towards and about the female sex (and the institution of marriage).
       The Night of the Tribades is a portrait of the man. It is an historical drama. Enquist takes some liberties, but the play is based on fact. The main characters are Strindberg, his estranged wife, Siri von Essen, and her alcoholic lesbian friend, Marie Caroline David. There is an outsider, Viggo Schiffe, present for most of the play, but his role remains peripheral -- observer and foil. The only other character is a photographer, but he appears only at the very end of the play, to fix the moment in time.
       The time is 1889, the setting is the Dagmar Theater in Copenhagen. Strindberg had completed some of his best-known plays -- The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888) -- and now was trying to establish an independent experimental theatre in Denmark. His play, The Stronger, is in rehearsal. It is an unusual play: two women meet in a teashop, the wife and the mistress of a man. Only the wife speaks; the other woman remains silent throughout the play. Marie comments:

This is a strange play, anyway. It's like reading something that keeps concealing itself. Disguising itself. Everything important exists outside the script.
       Much the same could be said about practically all of Strindberg's work, and it is something Enquist emphasizes.
       The Stronger is autobiographical, Enquist's Strindberg admits -- "A pure documentary truth !", he ultimately insists. And: "The absent man is the central figure !" the playwright insists. "Both love him, and fight for him !" -- and one of the central questions, in both plays, is which of the two women is stronger.
       In The Night of the Tribades love is barely at issue: Strindberg acknowledges loving Siri, but it is not something that gives him much satisfaction:
Naturally, I love her, and naturally, I will continue to love her ... But surely that's nothing that she should consider a merit ? When one love's someone, it's something ... something that just comes. Like cancer. Or bubonic plague.
       Siri von Essen plays the wife -- "the Queen of the Night", Strindberg says; it is her hope to here regain her independence, both professionally and personally, after she has wasted years in domestic unhappiness. Marie plays the other woman -- "the queen of the tribades", Strindberg has it. ("Tribade", incidentally, is another word for lesbian -- colourfully taken from the Greek, 'to rub'.)
       During the course of the rehearsal, Strindberg's strong feelings and opinions are at the fore. He was a passionate man, and he expresses himself passionately here.
       Strindberg's art was personal, coming from within. At the beginning of rehearsals he asks that the private difficulties between Siri and him be "kept in the family". Siri is somewhat surprised by the request:
I thought you earned your daily bread by respectably shoveling together all the private shit about us you could find and publishing it in book form ...

(Shouts) But that is art ! Literature !
       Strindberg has a complicated love-hate relationship with Siri: "You are so terrifyingly ... irrationally ... strong", he says. He is less upset about her having taken other lovers -- men and women -- than the fact that it was: "Never anyone I could respect !"
       Strindberg has little respect for women. The weaker sex disappoints him, primarily, he claims, because they don't take action.
Do you know that it is already 1889. And these damn emancipation women have talked, decade after decade, about women's liberation. But they don't do anything. Over half of the earth's population are women. But the cowards have not freed themselves. History is full of examples of oppressed men who have rebelled against the oppressors and fought their way free. Women only talk. That is what drives me crazy.
       His feelings are not simply reducible to pro and contra, support and opposition:
The baboons chatter on ! The day they took their freedom, I would respect them !

And stand on their side ?

(Completely amazed) Naturally not ! Fight them more than ever ! But with respect !
       The play progresses with increasing intensity, an impressive sustained crescendo. "Act, don't talk !" a frustrated Strindberg finally implores the women on the stage, but they will not let themselves be used as Strindberg wishes. Marie acknowledges her weakness, admits to her alcoholism. Siri, escaping from Strindberg's needy clutches, grasps for an independence that Strindberg doesn't want to grant her. Art, not reality, is Strindberg's only recourse, the only place he can exert control:
You ! You ! I will silence you to death in my books in the future ! That will be your punishment !
       Strindberg knows: "The theater offers no consolation", but reality, too, defeats him. He can only recast it again and again in his books and plays, scribbling constantly away: "I plunge into my work and I come up in six months with two plays, a novel, and fifteen articles in my hand, and those women are still talking." But his work, too, is only words, words, words. He tries to rewrite life, and love, to come to understand (and control) it -- but here, as always, reality and art escape him. The Stronger, too, is a failure -- it is performed once and then closes. Strindberg's divorce is finalized, and Siri moves in with Marie.

       The Night of the Tribades is a powerful, dramatic play, using much of Strindberg's own writing in building a novel piece on an historical basis. Enquist portrays the complex man and his charged opinions well, convincingly echoing the fire of Strindberg's own work, and adeptly conveying Strindberg's often ugly thoughts.
       Ross Schideler's brief introduction and notes are also helpful.
       Highly recommended.

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The Night of the Tribades:
  • Dieter Dorn's 1977 production at Munich Kammerspiele (German)
August Strindberg: Per Olov Enquist: Other books by Per Olov Enquist under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Scandinavian literature at the complete review
  • See Index of Drama under review

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Per Olov Enquist was born in 1934.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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