Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1190
This particular play was written in two parts, in a way that is comparable to the two parts of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (c. 1597-1598) in that Henry IV is two plays for the most part because it is too long to be one. The first part of The Dance of Death deals with the parents and the second with their children.
August Strindberg’s specialty in his plays was the stripping bare of “that yawning abyss which is called the human heart,” as one of his characters calls it. Perhaps only Fyodor Dostoevski in modern literature has penetrated equally to the depths of psychological torment. His characters say things that most people feel at times, but which they restrain themselves from expressing or even admitting to themselves. Strindberg was obsessed with the dual nature of the human brain, with the contrast between inner feelings and their outer expression. The power and horror of The Dance of Death comes from this expression of the normally suppressed thoughts of the characters. This startling honesty seems to shatter moral and social conventions and to leave both characters and audience vulnerable and exposed. “It’s horrible,” says one of the characters in one of Strindberg’s later plays, “don’t you find life horrible?” The reply is, “Yes, horrible beyond all description.” The endurance of the characters in the face of madness and violence suggests that they see, in spite of everything, that there is no acceptable alternative.
From the first lines of The Dance of Death, one is struck by the intensity of the speeches. Alice and Edgar are caught in the midst of a duel, or, rather, in the last and brutally final stages of a duel. When the play opens, the conflict is only verbal, but it soon becomes more passionate and more violent. At times, the dialogue seems to be on the verge of becoming no more than an insane ranting, and yet there are moments when Strindberg rises above his fury and sums up the tragedy of life in a few sentences.
It is vital to understand the intimate relationship between Strindberg’s life and work to comprehend fully his dramas, particularly The Dance of Death. Essentially pessimistic, Strindberg lived a tortured existence, from a childhood of poverty and insecurity to years as a minister and then a medical student to a period as a journalist. His first major play, a historical drama, was rejected by the Swedish Royal Theatre. He became famous with the publication of his first novel, Röda rummet(1879; The Red Room, 1913) but he continued writing plays. The conflict between the sexes inspired some of his most intense dramas, including Fadren(1887; The Father, 1899) and Fröken Julie(1888; Miss Julie, 1912), and, ultimately, The Dance of Death. Although Strindberg was married three times, the central relationship of his life was his violent and tormented first marriage. Like D. H. Lawrence, Strindberg was obsessed with the idea of the lower-class male, himself, marrying the aristocratic lady and then bringing her down to his own level. This obsession is reflected in Miss Julie and in the relationship between Alice and Edgar in The Dance of Death. The disaster of his marriage and the loss of his four children drove him into alcoholism, and, despite his growing fame as a writer, he became a lonely and unhappy man, unable to find steady employment.
In his later plays, Strindberg combined the techniques of naturalism with his unique vision of psychology. These bold dramas, with realistic dialogue, highly wrought symbols (such as the wedding ring, the fortress, the wreaths, and the piano in The Dance of Death), and stark settings, brought about a revolution in European drama. One of his last and greatest plays, The Dance of Death reflects his first marriage and the collapse of his life afterward. All of his work possesses extraordinary vitality, but in The Dance of Death, Strindberg transforms essentially autobiographical material into a drama of exceptional power. His work influenced later playwrights such as Elmer Rice, Eugene O’Neill, Luigi Pirandello, and Edward Albee.
Strindberg has been accused of hating his female characters, and no character has prompted this statement more than Alice in The Dance of Death. Were Strindberg’s greatest plays the product of a dangerous and intense misogyny? Is this what gives his brilliant psychological dramas their peculiarly perverse power? No doubt he did suffer from paranoia, brought on by his many personal problems, and his writing suggests, in places, paranoiac tendencies. The women in the plays, such as Julie and Alice, tend to be strong and vengeful creatures, who deliberately try to lead men to destruction. The power of The Dance of Death and other dramas of this late period must be due, also, to a deep introspective analysis of his sufferings, for, between his bouts of madness, Strindberg was able to examine his mental disturbance and to make use of the knowledge he gained from such examinations. From a reckless, Bohemian existence, he emerged, in his last years, into a guilt-ridden form of Christianity, Swedenborgian mysticism, and a Schopenhauerian pessimism according to which the real world exists outside human understanding. His third marriage, to the young actress Harriet Bosse, dissolved after less than three years, and he discovered that he had inoperable cancer. Then, suddenly, the Swedish people recognized his greatness and began speaking of a Nobel Prize for him. “The anti-Nobel Prize is the only one I would accept,” he retorted. When his first wife died in 1912, he collapsed, although he had not seen her for twenty years. Three weeks later, he was dead.
Some critics have said that both Edgar and Alice are monsters battling to the death, like a pair of dinosaurs clashing in some ancient swamp, but the fact is that they are not monsters any more than are the characters of The Father or Miss Julie or any other of his plays. They are two trapped individuals struggling desperately to survive, but not knowing what to do; every frantic gesture that they make only wounds them more. They are, perhaps, two of the most pitiful characters in modern literature. The scenes in which Alice plays the Hungarian dance on the piano and Edgar performs the violent jig with his jangling spurs and in which Alice hurls her wedding ring at Edgar are excruciatingly painful, cutting beneath the layers usually left by more conventional playwrights. Alice and Edgar are bound together by a love-hate relationship that neither can escape, except into death. As Strindberg knew, distance and time cannot release a man or woman from certain types of bondage. At the end of the first part of the play, Edgar realizes how hopelessly he and his wife are bound, and laughs that they might as well celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. “Let us pass on,” he cries. Somehow, they endure, and that, perhaps, is the message of the play. Alice, when Edgar dies at the end of the second part, finally understands that she loved Edgar, as well as hated him, and she prays for peace for him. By implication, she also prays for herself.
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