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...
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