Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Strindberg in Friedrichshagen

Since I went to see and write about Dances of Death, Howard Brenton's Strindberg adaptation at the Gate Theatre Notting Hill, the peculiar Swedish master - self-photographed above circa 1892* - has been popping up in various contexts. The first was musical, which I'll relate as a listenable footnote. The second was to find that he'd once, very briefly, stayed in a house virtually at the bottom of the garden owned and so beautifully tended by our Berlin-based friend and soprano extraordinaire Debbie along with husband Derek whom we've yet to meet (he was off working on the Ring in Milan).

Friedrichshagen, founded as its name suggests by Frederick the Great in 1753 to encourage cotton spinners from Silesia and Bohemia by giving them five-window houses with plots of land and planting lots of mulberry trees, was merged into Berlin in 1920, but still feels like a place apart, surrounded by woods and water. That's especially the case when you reach the end of Bölschestrasse (named after natural history writer Wilhelm Bölsche, central figure of the 'Friedrichshagener Dichterkreis'), take a left turn by what was once Berlin's biggest private brewery and the Müggelsee, Berlin's biggest lake in and out of which flows the River Spree, lies before you.

As I can think of few things more delicious than lake bathing, I was determined to take a dip in the Müggelsee on the evening of the most delightful birthday I can remember. The mosquitos had to be braved, but there was no problem about freezing water; the temperature, once in, turned out to be just right. The below shot's just about distant enough to pass muster for public consumption. You will note that I am not in the buff, as was the wont of Rudolf Steiner, another distinguished Friedrichshagen resident who arrived there in 1897 and walked around the lake starkers. The Germans still think nothing of it.

Strindberg came here in the autumn of 1892, taking the S-Bahn just as we did from Friedrichstrasse (in our case after a disappointing Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle performance of Britten's War Requiem, which was after all only an optional extra in the little holiday shared between Berlin and Dresden). The old, 'zerissene Berlin' map which hangs above the sofa in Debbie and Derek's biggest room shows you how far out Friedrichshagen was, and is, from the centre. It's defined here by its nearest neighbour, the similarly left-wing, free-spirited Köpenick where residents put up such a brave and, of course, fatal resistance to Hitler.

Strindberg lodged with fellow-writers Ola Hansson and his German-Baltic wife Laura Marholm at 2 Lindenallée. 'My boldest hopes exceeded here!' he wrote home, noting 'a little more air under my wings now I have a bigger fatherland than frightful Sweden'. Berlin lionized him and his plays, but personal relationships were as fragile as ever: after six weeks, surprise, surprise, he fell out with the Hanssons and moved on, holding court at an ordinary pub he called 'Zum schwarzen Ferkel' ('At the Black Porker'). The home at Lindenallée, however, handsomely restored after the fall of the wall, is the only Strindberg residence in Berlin to have survived the bombings of the Second World War, so this plaque is to be treasured.

I'm indebted for much of the above information, incidentally, to a book full of the most beautifully reproduced images - was there ever a more  photographed turn-of-the-century artist than Strindberg? - given to us by Swedish friend Carl Otto, The Worlds of August Strindberg. The pictures of productions at the Intimate Theatre in the early 1900s are especially startling, and the text is full of salacious new details.

At our household on Fürstenwalder Damm, all was exceptionally natural and harmonious. How could it not be, spending most of the birthday as we did in the garden surrounded by peonies


and Johnson's Blue geraniums in full bee-adored midsummer glory.

Here's a shot towards the house, a massive project bought for a song - and as much for the garden as anything - which can be a little spooky when you're living on floors between ghosts. Very forbidding from the main road, but not at all from the haven at the back. And so much light, too.

Table decorations newly gathered for the day, my only duty, were a necessity

and then our guests arrived: the famous Wanderer (strictly speaking lower-case 'w'), Australian blog-ally and now very real friend along with partner Kim, who had ferried us to Dresden and back, and in whose company we spent three very happy days, and Debbie's UNESCO friend Annie. I have some lovely portrait shots, but they'd be out of place here, so let's make do with a distant shot from the stairwell of the big house:

Sustenance was simple** but of the essence and absolutely fresh: white asparagus, potatoes, salad from the garden, later strawberries, cherries and cakes from one of no less than three quality bakers on the main street. The Oz-men departed for their dose of War Requiem - their later verdict was much the same as mine the previous evening - and our dear Orfeuo, who has just started work in Berlin, arrived in time for our evening jaunt around the Müggelsee.

Bliss. Even the few mosquito bites I'm trying not to scratch are pleasant souvenirs. And now, back to Strindberg's married bloodsuckers and their favourite music, though it hardly suggests more than a little genteel barbarity. We have a vivid report from the director of the Intimate Theatre, August Falck, of Strindberg acting out the role of the Captain in The Dance of Death (to give its original title):

What he particularly liked to act  was the powerful scene when Alice [the wife in the nearly 30 year old central relationship], with a bored expression, plays the march 'The Dance of the Boyars' [sic] which incites and hypnotises the Captain [her husband] to dance - wildly and clumsily, terrifyingly. At such moments he was an excellent actor - a great dramatic talent. His vivid impersonation remains for ever in my mind's eye and echoes in my ear.

I found this in the Michael Meyer biography only a day after I'd been working on notes for an EMI 13-CD box of performances by the late, great Paavo Berglund. And I'd been especially struck by a work I'd never heard before, Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen's Entry March of the Boyars. Inspired by a visit to Romania, Halvorsen's encore-worthy number was also arranged for piano by Grieg.

This is the piece to which Falck refers. Strindberg felt it was integral to any production, though the fact that there's no music at all in the Gate Dances of Death, only handclapping and footstomping, is perhaps even more effective. Berglund's performance isn't on YouTube, but the below one from Iceland will do. Entry March of the Boyars is halfway to being Wild Rumpus music for Where the Wild Things Are - though nothing will replace the favourite I play alongside readings to infants, the Dance of Chuzhbog and the Seven Monsters from Prokofiev's Scythian Suite.

*very proto-Expressionistic, isn't it? But then little about Berlin in the 1920s, the era seized on for the image of Weimar decadence, wasn't happening in the 1890s. Strindberg visited a gay dance bar and wrote about it with extreme distaste (probably because he was a bit of a closet case).

**somewhat indignantly, J reminds me that this was his first attempt at making a far from simple Hollandaise sauce for the asparagus, so under the cosh I add - albeit sincerely - that it was delicious.


wanderer said...

We are still pinching ourselves (our own little memory bites) that we were there. I'm tempted to say it seems almost other worldly, when in fact it's just the opposite, and of course was a watermark, a new flood line, a wonderful escalation in friendship and brotherhood. These things are rare jewels in a life, and while hyperbole may be my middle name, I exaggerate not one iota here.

For others not so lucky, David as usual paints the picture with words and photos as only he can, and does, but you know what - you hadda be there!

David said...

There has, for the rest of you all's information, been such a three-way love-in since the day between we two in London, the great soprano and the two from Down Under but it has ALL of it been utterly sincere (I speak for my own part, and don't doubt the others). The Oz-men have also had the weird good fortune to meet the celebrated Derek (in Milan) before we have...

So unreally wonderful, and yet so very real in another way: you've put it even better above, wanderer. I'm looking forward to your own inimitable reports.

Debbie said...

Very beautifully captured David. I am curious now to find out more about our Dichterkreis...

David said...

Bo(e)lsche seems rather fascinating. I jumped a bit when I read that he 'was an important instigator for the “Lebensreformbewegung” (Humanistic naturalism – key note: “Back to Nature”)in Germany' and thought it might have something to do with the celebrated Friedrichshagen nudism, but sadly not. Maybe you could do some research on that....

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, David, wanderer, what a wonderful holiday you have had, and how glad I am to get this glimpse at least. How glorious that the sun shone on you as it did. I love everything about this post, the joy of it, not to mention the fascinating stories . . . and somehow the Entry March of the Boyars seems so perfect to celebrate the occasion. But perhaps what I love best are the table decorations you, David, gathered, such a loving and lovely touch they are.

David Damant said...

What a welcome ( nice little houses etc) Frederic the Great gave to so many; and not only cotton spinners but others - including Masons, which may allow us to identify him with Sarastro in the Flute. But he is "The Great" because, in Macauley's words, he attacked ( seizing Silesia) a neighbour he had promised to defend, so that brown men killed one another on the banks of the Ganges, and red men scalped one another on the shores of the Great Lakes of North America. Well, it was the sort of thing done in those days. And now he is buried with his dogs, on the terrace of his masterpiece Sans Souci

David said...

Thank you, Sue. Your presence would have made perfect. If only you could have tasted the in-season white asparagus (with, as the diplo-mate reminds me, his first attempt at Hollandaise sauce, adding a touch of complexity which I need to acknowledge above).

I had never thought of flower arranging as a personal skill, but I suppose it was an intuitive thing as I drifted round the garden of a thousand flowers, snipping whatever took my fancy. Thank you for the thumbs-up. As I've just deleted the silly 'commendations' section from my new LinkedIn page, I can't add it as a skill acknowledged by S Scheid.

Sir David - Debbie promises that on our next visit we will all cycle to Potsdam, near the top of my list of Great Unvisiteds

David Damant said...

Sand Souci is certainly worth a long voyage. The only problem is the crowds. There are other buildings and super gardens at Potsdam,to flesh out the visit, but nothing so sensational.It is a building of consummate genius. For myself I can always appreciate a house in which the principal and central room is the dining room

The chair in which Frederic died is there. "I suppose" he said to his doctor" that you have helped many men into the next world". "Yes" was the reply " but not so many as Your Majesty and with far less glory"

toubab said...

So pleased you are giving your attention to my countryman August Strindberg!Much love to you and JxSophie

David said...

Sand Souci, Davis? Isn'that's more a Franglais term for the Mueggelsee where the sand turns to mud and brings its cares? A royal's Ohne (Sans) Sorgen is possibly what you mean.

Sophie, dahling, do you and August share a love of a good scene? Oh my goddddd... I hope you are having a serene time at the moment in the wake of the arms-folded ambassador's state visit.