Part 02, Chapter 4 : Comrades
Part 02, Chapter 4
ALTHOUGH COMRADES was written in 1888, it is in a measure the most up-to-date play of Strindberg,-so thoroughly modern that one at all conversant with the milieu that inspired " Comrades " could easily point out the type of character portrayed in the play.
It is a four-act comedy of marriage - the kind of marriage that lacks social and legal security in the form of a ceremony, but retains all the petty. conventions of the marriage institution. The results of such an anomaly are indeed ludicrous when viewed from a distance, but very tragic for those who play a part in it.
Axel Alberg and his wife Bertha are Swedish artists residing in Paris. They are both painters. Of course they share the same living quarters, and although each has a separate room, the arrangement does not hinder them from trying to regulate each other's movements. Thus when Bertha does not arrive on time to keep her engagement with her model, Axel is provoked; and when he takes the liberty to chide her for her tardiness, his wife is indignant at the " invasiveness " of her husband, because women of the type of Bertha are as sensitive to fair criticism as their ultra-conservative sisters. Nor is Bertha different in her concept of love, which is expressed in the following dialogue:
Bertha. Will you be very good, very, very good?
Axel. I always want to be good to you, my friend.
Bertha, who has sent her painting to the exhibition, wants to make use of Axel's "goodness" to secure the grace of one of the art jurors.
Bertha. You would not make a sacrifice for your wife, would you?
Axel. Go begging? No, I don't want to do that.
Bertha immediately concludes that he does not love her and that, moreover, he is jealous of her art. There is a scene.
Bertha soon recovers. But bent on gaining her purpose, she changes her manner.
Bertha. Axel, let's be friends! And hear me a moment. Do you think that my position in your house -for it is yours -is agreeable to me? You support me, you pay for my studying at Julian's, while you yourself cannot afford instruction. Don't you think I see how you sit and wear out yourself and your talent on these pot-boiling drawings, and are able to paint only in leisure moments? You haven't been able to afford models for yourself, while you pay mine five hard-earned francs an hour. You don't know how good-how noble-how sacrificing you are, and also you don't know how I suffer to see you toil so for me. Oh, Axel, you can't know how I feel my position. WHat am I to you? Of what use am I in your house? Oh, I blush when I think about it!
Axel. What talk! Isn't a man to support his wife?
Bertha. I don't want it. And you, Axel, you must help me. I'm not your equal when it's like that, but I could be if you would humble yourself once, just once! Don't think that you are alone in going to one of the jury to say a good word for another. If it were for yourself, it would be another matter, but for meForgive me! Now I beg of you as nicely as I know how. Lift me from my humiliating position to your side, and I'll be so grateful I shall never trouble you again with reminding you of my position. Never, Axel!
Yet though Bertha gracefully accepts everything Axel does for her, with as little compunction as the ordinary wife, she does not give as much in return as the latter.. On the contrary, she exploits Axel in a thousand ways, squanders his hardearned money, and lives the life of the typical wifely parasite.
August Strindberg could not help attacking with much bitterness such a farce and outrage parading in the disguise of radicalism. For Bertha is not an exceptional, isolated case. To-day, as when Strindberg satirized the all-too-feminine, the majority of so-called emancipated women are willing to accept, like Bertha, everything from the man, and yet feel highly indignant if he asks in return the simple comforts of married life. The ordinary wife, at least, does not pretend to play an important role in the life of her husband. But the Berthas deceive themselves and others with the notion that the " emancipated " wife is a great moral force, an inspiration to the man. Whereas in reality she is often a cold-blooded exploiter of the work and ideas of the man, a heavy handicap to his life-purpose, retarding his growth as effectively as did her grandmothers in the long ago. Bertha takes advantage of Axel's affection to further her own artistic ambitions, just as the Church and State married woman uses her husband's love to advance her social ambitions. It never occurs to Bertha that she is no less despicable than her legally married sister. She cannot understand Axel's opposition to an art that clamors only for approval, distinction and decorations.
However, Axel can not resist Bertha's pleadings. He visits the patron saint of the salon, who, by the way, is not M. Roubey, but Mme. Roubey; for she is the " President of the Woman-Painter Protective Society." What chance would Bertha have with one of her own sex in authority? Hence her husband must be victimized. During Axel's absence Bertha learns that his picture has been refused by the salon, while hers is accepted. She is not in the least disturbed, nor at all concerned over the effect of the news on Axel. On the contrary, she is rather pleased because " so many women are refused that a man might put up with it, and be made to feel it once."
In her triumph Bertha's attitude to Axel becomes overbearing; she humiliates him, belittles his art, and even plans to humble him before the guests invited to celebrate Bertha's artistic success.
But Axel is tearing himself free from the meshes of his decaying love. He begins to see Bertha as she is: her unscrupulousness in money matters, her ceaseless effort to emasculate him. In a terrible word tussle he tells her: " I had once been free, but you clipped the hair of my strength while my tired head lay in your lap. During sleep you stole my best blood."
In the last act Bertha discovers that Axel had generously changed the numbers on the paintings in order to give her a better chance. It was his picture that was chosen as her work. She feels ashamed and humiliated; but it is too late. Axel leaves her with the exclamation, " I want to meet my comrades in the cafe, but at home I want a wife. "
A characteristic sidelight in the play is given by the conversation of Mrs. Hall, the divorced wife of Doctor Ostermark.. She comes to Bertha with a bitter tirade against the Doctor because he gives her insufficient alimony.
Mrs. Hall. And now that the girls are grown up and about to start in life, now he writes us that he is bankrupt and that he can't send us more than half the allowance. Isn't that nice, just now when the girls are grown up and are going out into life?
Bertha. We must look into this. He'll be here in a few days. Do you know that you have the law on your side and that the courts can force him to pay? And he shall be forced to do so. Do you understand? So, he can bring children into the world and then leave them empty-handed with the poor deserted mother.
Bertha, who believes in woman's equality with man, and in her economic independence, yet delivers herself of the old sentimental gush in behalf of " the poor deserted mother," who has been supported by her husband for years, though their relations had ceased long before.
A distorted picture, some feminists will say. Not at all. It is as typical to-day as it was twentysix years ago. Even to-day some " emancipated " women claim the right to be self-supporting, yet demand their husband's support. In fact, many leaders in the American suffrage movement assure us that when women will make laws, they will force men to support their wives. From the leaders down to the simplest devotee, the same attitude prevails, namely, that man is a blagueur, and that but for him the Berthas would have long ago become Michelangelos, Beethovens, or Shakespeares; they claim that the Berthas represent the most virtuous half of the race, and that they have made up their minds to make man as virtuous as they are.
That such ridiculous extravagance should be resented by the Axels is not at all surprising. It is resented even by the more intelligent of Bertha's own sex. Not because they are opposed to the emancipation of woman, but because they do not believe that her emancipation can ever be achieved by such absurd and hysterical notions. They repudiate the idea that people who retain the substance of their slavery and merely escape the shadow, can possibly be free, live free, or act free.
The radicals, no less than the feminists, must realize that a mere external change in their economic and political status, cannot alter the inherent or acquired prejudices and superstitions which underlie their slavery and dependence, and which are the main causes of the antagonism between the sexes.
The transition period is indeed a most difficult and perilous stage for the woman as well as for the man. It requires a powerful light to guide us past the dangerous reefs and rocks in the ocean of life. August Strindberg is such a light. Sometimes glaring, ofttimes scorching, but always beneficially illuminating the path for those who walk in darkness, for the blind ones who would rather deceive and be deceived than look into the recesses of their being. Therefore August Strindberg is not only " the spiritual conscience of Sweden," as he has been called, but the spiritual conscience of the whole human family, and, as such, a most vital revolutionary factor.
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