strindberg’s ‘easter’ and absolution

I think about August Strindberg’s play Easter fairly often. I first read it when I was about eighteen, at a time in my life when I really enjoyed reading a play in a single sitting, usually in the afternoons. I lived in a room above a bookstore that received the full brunt of afternoon sunlight, and I’d sit there with the curtains drawn drinking strong coffee that I’d only just learned how to brew, half naked and sweating profusely. There was something oddly psychedelic about the whole setting, although it’s hard to pinpoint why – I think a large part of it, beyond the inhuman heat and my intolerance for caffeine, was that it was a time in my life when I first realised (and realised in a bodily, visceral level) that life is just irreducibly strange (even when not that strange at all, on the surface) and that the mere fact of being and existing can be heavy. “The great fragmentation of maturity” was a line I read at the time from (I think) Henry Miller and it made and makes a lot of sense: the moment of shattering, where you begin to understand that life doesn’t loop back or stand still or tie itself up, but instead, just goes on…

Anyway, I digress. Easter was one of the plays that I read in this period, and for such a simple story, it’s never left me. The action of the play takes place over (surprise) Easter, and the central theme is of the main characters (in particular the young man Elis)  struggling with the guilt they carry from past actions, and the suffering they go through as these things are remembered and relived. The chief conduit for this recurring suffering, and the emblem of this theme, is the old enemy Lindkvist, who stalks the outside of the characters’ house, remaining shadowy and unseen until the end of the third act. Lindkvist has old scores to settle with the family, but it’s not anything he says that causes pain – it’s his mere presence: his shadow falling across the windows is enough to invoke, in the long-suffering Elis, all the horrors of the past that reach their fingers into the present day.

Knowing only a bit of Strindberg’s biography, it’s hard not to see something of self-portrait in Elis: his paranoia, fearfulness and suffering seem to mirror the playwright’s own tortured attitude towards life and equal feelings of victimisation and guilt.  It’s the sense that no skeleton stays in the closet for long, that no accounts remain unsettled – indeed, this “settling of accounts” is a recurring metaphor for guilt in the play: not just the real monetary debts owed to Lindkvist, but the “spiritual” debt following on, and the wider sense of accounts and debts as is invoked by the religious holiday itself.

As an unseen force, Lindkvist makes a powerful character, but even more striking is when he does appear onstage to resolve the drama and effectively end the play. By act III, all suspicions and anticipation of sadness and pain have come to a head, and there is a sense that what has been sowed will finally be reaped: Lindkvist’s knock on the door comes as a terrible omen. However, this isn’t how things turn out. Lindkvist is forgiving and kindly, and arrives only to relieve Elis and the others of their guilt: to wipe clean the slate, and to allay all fears.

This, I think, is the most compelling part of the play. There’s something almost naive about this unlikely scenario of absolution: something almost painful in Lindkvist’s deliverance from fear. It reads like an imagined, timeless moment – the eschatological Easter Sunday, maybe – where all fears are proved false and all hopes are realised: a moment craved for in secret, whispered in dreams, where the many fragments of life come together again, where all ends meet, and where salvation is offered unreservedly to all we sinners. It’s framed by a religious feeling in the play, but to me the scene with Lindkvist goes deeper:, almost to something childlike: the desire to be cradled, to be absolved of all pain and frailty, to be told that everything is alright.