In Sweden, Strindberg is known as an essayist, painter, poet, and especially as a novelist and playwright, but in other countries he is known mostly as a playwright.
The Royal Theatre rejected his first major play, Master Olof, in 1872; it was not until 1881, at the age of thirty-two, that its première at the New Theatre gave him his theatrical breakthrough. In his plays The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and Creditors (1889), he created naturalistic dramas that – building on the established accomplishments of Henrik Ibsen's prose problem plays while rejecting their use of the structure of the well-made play – responded to the call-to-arms of Émile Zola's manifesto "Naturalism in the Theatre" (1881) and the example set by André Antoine's newly established Théâtre Libre (opened 1887). In Miss Julie, characterisation replaces plot as the predominant dramatic element (in contrast to melodrama and the well-made play) and the determining role of heredity and the environment on the "vacillating, disintegrated" characters is emphasized. Strindberg modeled his short-lived Scandinavian Experimental Theatre (1889) in Copenhagen on Antoine's theatre and he explored the theory of Naturalism in his essays "On Psychic Murder" (1887), "On Modern Drama and the Modern Theatre" (1889), and a preface to Miss Julie, the last of which is probably the best-known statement of the principles of the theatrical movement.
During the 1890s he spent significant time abroad engaged in scientific experiments and studies of the occult. A series of psychotic attacks between 1894 and 1896 (referred to as his "Inferno crisis") led to his hospitalization and return to Sweden. Under the influence of the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, he resolved after his recovery to become "the Zola of the Occult". In 1898 he returned to play-writing with To Damascus, which, like The Great Highway (1909), is a dream-play of spiritual pilgrimage. His A Dream Play (1902) – with its radical attempt to dramatize the workings of the unconscious by means of an abolition of conventional dramatic time and space and the splitting, doubling, merging, and multiplication of its characters – was an important precursor to both expressionism and surrealism. He also returned to writing historical drama, the genre with which he had begun his play-writing career. He helped to run the Intimate Theatre from 1907, a small-scale theatre, modeled on Max Reinhardt's Kammerspielhaus, that staged his chamber plays (such as The Ghost Sonata).
Strindberg was born on 22 January 1849 in Stockholm, Sweden, the third surviving son of Carl Oscar Strindberg (a shipping agent) and Eleonora Ulrika Norling (a serving-maid). In his autobiographical novel The Son of a Servant, Strindberg describes a childhood affected by "emotional insecurity, poverty, religious fanaticism and neglect.". When he was seven, Strindberg moved to Norrtullsgatan on the northern, almost-rural periphery of the city. A year later the family moved near to Sabbatsberg, where they stayed for three years before returning to Norrtullsgatan. He attended a harsh school in Klara for four years, an experience that haunted him in his adult life. He was moved to the school in Jakob in 1860, which he found far more pleasant, though he remained there for only a year. In the autumn of 1861, he was moved to the Stockholm Lyceum, a progressive private school for middle-class boys, where he remained for six years. As a child he had a keen interest in natural science, photography, and religion (following his mother's Pietism). His mother, Strindberg recalled later with bitterness, always resented her son's intelligence. She died when he was thirteen, and although his grief lasted for only three months, in later life he came to feel a sense of loss and longing for an idealized maternal figure. Less than a year after her death, his father married the children's governess, Emilia Charlotta Pettersson. According to his sisters, Strindberg came to regard them as his worst enemies. He passed his graduation exam in May 1867 and enrolled at the Uppsala University, where he began on 13 September.
Strindberg spent the next few years in Uppsala and Stockholm, alternately studying for exams and trying his hand at non-academic pursuits. As a young student, Strindberg also worked as an assistant in a pharmacy in the university town of Lund in southern Sweden. He supported himself in between studies as a substitute primary-school teacher and as a tutor for the children of two well-known physicians in Stockholm. He first left Uppsala in 1868 to work as a schoolteacher, but then studied chemistry for some time at the Institute of Technology in Stockholm in preparation for medical studies, later working as a private tutor before becoming an extra at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm. In May 1869, he failed his qualifying chemistry exam which in turn made him uninterested in schooling.