The Dance of Death I (there is a sequel I have not read), from 1900, a year when August Strindberg wrote six plays. The next year he wrote seven. Eighteen plays in four years . One might suspect Strindberg of being a hack, but this is just how his creativity functioned, years of nothing and then an outpouring.
These are the years when Strindberg created his dream plays, radically detached from even the conventions of theatrical realism. The Dance of Death is a blend of the dream play with the warring couples of The Father and Miss Julie, as a rotten marriage jerks from plausibility to mannerism without warning. Beckett’s Happy Days or Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or maybe Sartre’s No Exit, those are descendants of The Dance of Death.
The husband this time is the Captain, author of a “rifle manual” and in some position of authority on an island fortress; the wife is Alice; Kurt is an old friend whose appearance catalyzes the action of the play, which means he becomes a weapon the man and woman try to use to destroy each other. I guess, unlike in the earlier plays, neither clearly succeeds.
This is what I remember most vividly from seeing Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren do the play:
ALICE plays ‘The Entry of the Boyars’, while the CAPTAIN performs a kind of Hungarian dance behind the desk, his spurs jangling. Then he slumps to the floor, unnoticed by KURT and ALICE, who continues to play the piece to the end.
ALICE [without turning round]: Shall we take it again?
ALICE [turns round and sees the CAPTAIN lying unconscious, concealed from the audience by the desk]. Good God!
She stands with her arms crossed over her breast, and gives a sigh as of thankfulness and relief. (136)
But it is much too early in the play for her to remain happy. The word “slump” does not convey the surprise and comedy of McKellen’s collapse; “sigh” gestures towards whatever Mirren was doing. The Captain and Alice are both juicy ham parts that reward big acting. I suppose there is also a way to play them small.
CAPTAIN [sits again]. So you didn’t escape this time. But you didn’t get me put away either! [ALICE is amazed] Oh, I knew you wanted to have me put in prison; but I’ll cross that out!– – –You’ve probably done worse things than that.– – –[ALICE is speechless] And I wasn’t guilty of embezzlement!
ALICE. And now I’m to be your nurse?
CAPTAIN. If you wish.
ALICE. What else can I do?
CAPTAIN. I don’t know.
ALICE [sits down apathetically in despair]. This must be everlasting hell! Is there no end, then?
CAPTAIN. Yes, if we’re patient. Perhaps when death comes, life begins.
ALICE. If only that were so! (173)
See, I said it was like No Exit. This is on their silver wedding anniversary. Mature Strindberg has renounced the satisfying closure of tragedy.
The triple dash (– – –) is a common feature in Strindberg’s late plays. I used two different translations, and it is in both, so it must be in the Swedish. I wonder what it means.
Page numbers have all been to the Oxford World’s Classics Miss Julie and Other Plays, tr. Michael Robinson.