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From this collection, this review is about The Dance of Death (I)
Imagine for a moment Hell as a viciously bad and eternal marriage, an unrelenting war between partners yearning for release, nearly achieving that release only to be pulled back into the marriage for another spin on the dance floor of mutual abuse. There, in a nutshell, you have Strindberg's often-produced, greatly admired, and quite influential The Dance of Death (I). Should you ever have the opportunity to see it performed, seize it, for it is more than a play; it is an experience. Better still, if that opportunity presents itself as a small venue, like a one hundred- or fifty-seat house, you'll enjoy the play even more.That's because you'll feel as if you are in someone's sitting room witnessing the most vicious exchanges between marital partners. To put a finer point on it, it will be like tagging along with George and Martha as they drunkenly thrash each other in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play informed by Strindberg's.
Should this all sound off-putting and dreary to you, realize Strindberg had a gift for injecting humor into the most dire of circumstances. It's of the very black type that makes you titter with personal knowledge, or embarrassment, or gratitude you are not his inspiration, especially if those inspirations are playing out the drama at your very feet.
On the subject of man and woman together in marriage, in the war between man and woman, he knew of what he wrote. The man managed to alienate three wives (marriages resulting in five children, a boy and four girls). His genius, though, and sharply tuned radar for hypocrisy allowed him a clear view of the relationship and legal problems of his day regarding marriage, divorce, and child custody, all reflected in this play.
As for the play, it concerns Edgar, an old army officer, and his wife Alice, a thwarted actress, on the cusp of celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They live on an island quarantine station (common in the period to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the time before antibiotics). Though there is a garrison on the island, they aren't very popular, particularly Edgar; the result is no friends and even greater isolation. Edgar speaks constantly of dying, that being his escape hatch from the marriage. Alice continually demonstrates her bitterness about her marriage to him and what he forced her to give up. They have children who do not live with them because they each turned the children against the other. Thus, they find themselves locked in constant warfare, unable to give each other up, except, of course, with the final release of death. Alice does see a chance at freedom when her cousin Kurt shows up, the very cousin who introduced the pair. In Edgar's absence, their liking for each other devolves into an all out sexual assault upon each other (quite the spectacle in a small venue, for sure), with Alice seeing Kurt as her salvation. Kurt , however, comes to his senses, leaves them, and they go on as before.
Worth reading, and most definitely a must-see if a theatre group mounts a production near you.