In 1888, August Strindberg wrote a letter to his publishers, urging them to circulate his new play. “Creditors is modern right through,” he said. “Humane, loveable, all of its characters sympathetic.” As the current revival at BAM, on loan from London’s Donmar Warehouse, ably demonstrates, Creditors is modern—painfully so. But humane, lovable, sympathetic? Adjectives such as “vicious,” “distressing,” and “diabolical” provide a far more accurate description. Written in the same high-naturalist style as The Father and Miss Julie, but far less seldom performed, Creditors portrays marriage as a uniquely brutal system of exchange. Thought the collapse of banking was bad? It’s nothing compared to wedlock.
The play takes place in a single room at a seaside resort. If there were a magazine titled Mildly Grubby Scandinavian Interiors, it might make the cover. Years before the opening scene, married authoress Tekla (Anna Chancellor) had met Adolph (Tom Burke) at this inn and deserted her first husband, Gustav (Owen Teale), for him. Adolph and Tekla have returned for a holiday, and when Tekla departs for several days, Adolph falls under the sway of Gustav, who has also returned. Gustav pretends friendship, but intends destruction. Indeed, much of the play might be seen as a dramatic illustration of an essay Strindberg had written the previous year, “On Psychic Murder,” in which he contends that a man no longer kills in civilized fashion, but instead tortures someone to death through lies or drives them insane.
Sexy and savage, as a study of human cruelty the play frankly scintillates. Those who would condemn Strindberg as a misogynist nonpareil will find ample supporting evidence in the script, rendered in wonderfully venomous language by the Scottish playwright David Grieg. Here, for example, is Gustav’s description of the female form: “A fat boy with overdeveloped breasts, that’s what you see. Basically, a badly made youth. A child who’s somehow managed to shoot up to adult height without growing any muscle—a chronic anaemic who haemorrhages regularly thirteen times a year.” David Mamet or Neil LaBute might seem like NOW board members by comparison. Gustav manages to convince Adolph of his belief (Strindberg’s own, at the time) that women are vampiric, bleeding men of strength and talent. “It’s cannibalism,” says Gustav. “This woman is consuming you like a savage.”
Though director Alan Rickman blunts none of these antifeminist outbursts, the genius of his production and, to a lesser extent, the play itself is to demonstrate that these are hardly empirical depictions of women, but rather products of men’s massed anxieties. (These same anxieties led Strindberg, at the time of Creditors‘ writing, to have his penis measured by a doctor and an attendant prostitute, who both “confirmed its normal size.”)
Crucially, Rickman has cast Chancellor as Tekla, an actress so formidable that she will not be constrained by the play’s antifeminism. With her proud bearing, knifelike features, and air of fierce intelligence, Chancellor’s Tekla trumps the stupid coquette that her past and current husbands describe. A toss of her head and a sway of her skirts, and Chancellor reduces her able co-stars to near inarticulacy. She’s particularly brilliant in the moment when Tekla mocks the play’s central metaphorical conceit. When Burke’s Adolph whines that Tekla is forever in his debt, Chancellor fixes him with a withering stare and asks, “What do you want—a receipt?”