Bosse, Harriet (1878–1961)

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Bosse, Harriet (1878–1961)

Norwegian-born Swedish actress, third wife of playwright August Strindberg, who pioneered a modern style of acting in Sweden. Name variations: Mrs. August Strindberg. Born Harriet Bosse on February 19, 1878, in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway; died on November 2, 1961, in Oslo; one of 13 children of Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Bosse (1836–1896, a publisher and bookseller) and Anne Marie Lehman Bosse (1836–1893); attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm, 1894–97; married August Strindberg (1849–1912, the playwright), on May 6, 1901 (divorced 1904); married Gunnar Wingard, in 1908 (divorced 1911); married Edvin Adolphson, in 1927 (divorced 1932); children: (first marriage) daughterAnne Marie Strindberg (b. 1902); (second marriage) a son (b. January 1909).

Began acting career (1896); had starring role in Strindberg's To Damascus I, Stockholm (1900); besides performing starring roles in Strindberg's plays, became a leading actress in plays by Maeterlinck, Sudermann, von Hofmannsthal and other major playwrights of the early years of the 20th century; her enduring influence is to be found in the late work of Strindberg, whom she inspired, and in the modern style of acting she pioneered in Sweden.

Although she was born and died in Oslo, Norway, Harriet Bosse, one of the greatest Scandinavian actresses of modern times, considered herself Swedish rather than Norwegian. Bosse is a major figure in the history of the Swedish stage, but it is her brief marriage to the eminent playwright August Strindberg that continues to fascinate biographers and readers alike. She was born in Christiana (now Oslo), Norway, on February 19, 1878, into the large family (13 siblings, of whom 7 survived childhood) of German-born publisher and bookseller Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Bosse and Danish-born Anne Marie Lehman Bosse . Harriet's first love was music, and, because her older sister Dagmar had become an opera singer in Stockholm, she too went to that city to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music. This period of intensive study was to be her only formal preparation for the acting career to follow. Another older sister, Alma, was an actress in Christiania and it was through her influence that Harriet launched her career. An affair with Alma's actor-husband Johan Fahlstrom led to a permanent break between the sisters; they never saw one another again.

By 1900, the delicate, petite ingenue was appearing on stage at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater, fascinating audiences with her dark hair, almond-shaped eyes and silvery voice. That November, Bosse appeared as the female lead in Strindberg's To Damascus I. Although she was at the time romantically involved with the play's leading man, she responded to the pursuits of Strindberg who had fallen in love with her. By the time he met Harriet Bosse, Strindberg had two failed marriages behind him, the first of which had produced four children. His involvement with women led to grief but seemed to stimulate his artistic creativity. His 1877 marriage to Siri von Essen, the unhappy spouse of a guards officer, had resulted in his first novel The Red Room, which made Strindberg nationally famous. His brief marriage of 1893–95 to the young Austrian journalist Frida Uhl brought him to the point of insanity though he expanded

his intellectual horizons with experiments in alchemy and the study of theosophy.

After a whirlwind courtship, Harriet Bosse and August Strindberg were married on May 6, 1901. In addition to the 30-year difference in their ages, their personalities were radically dissimilar. The marriage proved an exceptionally disastrous union, and even the birth of a daughter, Anne Marie, on March 25, 1902, did little to calm down their turbulent relationship. Although their personal affairs were chaotic, Strindberg's exhortation to Bosse as an actress—to "Become now for us the actress of the new century"—was taken seriously. Despite her youth, she rapidly matured as an artist. Strindberg was not only infatuated with Bosse, but he had also detected a great talent in her, regarding her as having been "born with all the fresh ideas of the new century." The style of acting she evolved, a subdued intimate realism, anticipated a more modern style of dramatic presentation, exemplified by Constantin Stanislavski and Eleonora Duse . After their marriage ended in divorce in 1904, she remained strongly linked with Strindberg. For a while after the divorce, they remained physically intimate, and Bosse took Anne Marie to see her father on a regular basis. Bosse remained Strindberg's Muse and served as inspiration for themes and motifs in his late works, including the poems "The Golden Eagle" and "The Dutchman." She sent a flower anonymously each day during Strindberg's final illness in 1912.

By 1908, when she married Gunnar Wingard, her co-star from Romeo and Juliet, Bosse had become one of the pillars of the Stockholm stage. This second marriage proved more tragic than the first. By 1911, after giving birth to a son in January 1909, she and Wingard were divorced. In October 1912, only a few months after Strindberg's death, Wingard committed suicide.

Despite her personal grief, these were years of professional triumphs, as Bosse added nuances to her already masterful interpretations of not only Strindberg, but the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck, Hermann Sudermann, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Although she was aging well and had retained the full range of her acting skills, fewer roles were available to Harriet Bosse in the 1920s. In 1927, she made a third and final attempt at marriage. Her union with Edvin Adolphson, which lasted until 1932, was another mismatch, one which ended with Bosse smashing a mirror over Adolphson's head after he accused her of doing "a confounded injustice" to Strindberg by hiding his letters to her.

By the 1930s, Bosse was playing small roles at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater. Her main concern at this point was to function as the guardian of the Strindberg heritage. This she did by granting interviews to scholars and generally assisting those working in the field of Strindberg studies. Although she had burned her own letters to Strindberg after his death when they were returned to her, his letters to her survived, and she assisted in their publication. After giving her final stage performances in April 1943, Harriet Bosse appeared in several Swedish motion pictures. In one of these, the film Appassionata, she played a cameo role opposite the female lead, the young Viveca Lindfors . When the film was shown on Swedish television in the 1980s, Bosse's superb acting was acknowledged. In her final years, Harriet Bosse returned to her native Oslo, where she died on November 2, 1961. With her death, one of the last representatives of an extraordinarily creative period of European theatrical history passed from the scene.


"Harriet Bosse is Dead," in The New York Times. November 7, 1961, p. 33.

Lagercrantz, Olof. August Strindberg. Translated by Anselm Hollo. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Meyer, Michael. Strindberg. NY: Random House, 1985.

Strindberg, August. Letters of Strindberg to Harriet Bosse: Love Letters from a Tormented Genius. Edited and translated by Arvid Paulson. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1959.

Waal, Carla. Harriet Bosse: Strindberg's Muse and Interpreter. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia