Part I

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Edgar, a captain of the coast artillery. He and his family live in a fortress on a removed island, physically and emotionally isolated from others. His marital tyranny makes his wife a prisoner and her life miserable. He continually battles for dominance, not only with her but also with everyone, because he is contemptuous of all others. Convinced of his own superiority, he refuses to buy food, pay his bills, or hire servants and pay them. Subsequent attacks of a severe illness convince him that there is life after death. Malicious by nature, he previously instigated Curt’s divorce, which resulted in the loss of Curt’s money and family, yet he clings to Curt during the most severe of his attacks. He threatens to divorce his wife to keep her under his power but resigns himself to being with her after learning that he has not long to live.


Alice, his wife, a former actress. She wants freedom from her domineering husband, who constantly humiliates her. Without servants or money, she does the best she can. Kept in isolation from even her children, Alice has learned secretly to communicate by telegraph to keep in contact with the world. Praying that her husband’s illness will be fatal, she allows him to see her making romantic advances toward her cousin, Curt. After he threatens her with divorce, she enlists Curt to help her discredit her husband with charges of embezzlement. After Curt rebuffs her advances, she is relieved when the case is dropped. Hopeless, she stops dyeing her hair and resigns herself to her existence.


Curt, the master of quarantine and Alice’s cousin. He introduced Edgar and Alice. He has survived divorce and bankruptcy but still believes in the essential nobility of humanity. Newly assigned to the island as subordinate to Edgar, Curt comforts him during his illness. Curt even forgives Edgar for plotting the divorce that ruined him. Curt manages to resist Alice’s blandishments but attempts to aid her in discrediting Edgar, who despises him. Curt is the personal and moral antithesis to Edgar.


Jenny, a maid. She quits, leaving Alice to do her work.

Old woman

Old woman, a resident of the poorhouse. Although she has no material possessions, she has good will.

The sentry

The sentry, a soldier. He is seen throughout the entire play, pacing back and forth. His presence emphasizes the prisonlike atmosphere.

Part II

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Edgar, who sets out to destroy Curt by taking away his son, belongings, and reputation. He takes Curt’s ideas and writes articles claiming them as his own, gives Curt bad financial advice, and runs against Curt for public office. He even takes up a public subscription for Curt without his knowledge or permission. He buys Curt’s possessions at public auction and schemes to send Curt’s son, Allan, to a far-off garrison. Edgar believes his is the upper hand because the colonel wants to marry Edgar’s daughter, Judith. When Edgar learns that Judith has refused the colonel in favor of Allan, he suffers a fatal attack.


Alice, who despises Edgar more than ever but is totally in his power. She attempts to use Judith to her own ends and encourages her to fall in love. After Edgar’s death, she remembers her first love for him and all that made him as he was.


Curt, who manages to survive his ruin with dignity. He has, at last, been reunited with his son, only to have the boy taken over by Edgar, his captain. This is an insult he cannot forgive. On the captain’s demise, Curt and Alice console each other with positive memories.


Judith, Edgar and Alice’s daughter. Returned to the island after finishing school, Judith is secure in her future as the colonel’s lady. Never in love, she enjoys tormenting her two suitors. When she realizes the intensity of her love for Allan, she turns her back on her father and the colonel and gives her entire trust to Allan.


Allan, Curt’s son. Allan, who is in love with Judith, is used as a pawn by Edgar to hurt Curt. Inadvertently, he causes the captain’s destruction.

The lieutenant

The lieutenant, an officer, Allan’s rival for Judith. The two become friends through their misery.

Places Discussed

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Tower. Island home of Alice and her husband Edgar, a captain in the Swedish army. Part of an ancient fortress that was once a prison, the tower is still a prison for Edgar and Alice, who are cut off from the mainland and from the other officers and officials on the island. Edgar believes himself superior in rank, intelligence, and general character to any others on the island. It is clear that Edgar and Alice have grown to dislike each other intensely; it is also clear that Edgar is not well. There is so much bickering between the two that all the servants have left. Into this isolated place comes Alice’s cousin Kirk, who brings further proof of isolation as he announces that he has been sent by the government to oversee a quarantine of the entire island because of an infectious disease. The sense of isolation and entrapment is intensified when Edgar has a heart attack and it becomes obvious that he is dying. Alice and Kirk renew an old love interest as they care for the dying Edgar. Alice tells her lover that prisoners used to call the fortress “hell” and that they are now the “devils” living in hell. When Edgar confronts the lovers, Kirk runs off into the night, deserting Alice. She and her husband must now do the final measures of his “dance of death” alone in the fortress known as “hell.”


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Brady, Philip. “The Dance of Death.” Times Literary Supplement, February 10, 1995, 18. Brief review affirms the relevance of the play in the twentieth century. Argues that the drama moves beyond the warring of the sexes to the inefficacy of life.

Hildeman, Karl-Ivan. “Strindberg, The Dance of Death, and Revenge.” Scandinavian Studies 35, no. 4 (November, 1963): 267-294. Asserts that character sketches and events in The Dance of Death are based on Strindberg’s sister and brother-in-law. Concludes that Strindberg created these characters as punishment or revenge for real or imagined injury.

Johnson, Walter. “Strindberg and the Danse Macabre.” In Strindberg: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Otto Reinert. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Discusses Strindberg’s use of the medieval image of Death characterized by the danse macabre (the dance of death) as a symbol in parts 1 and 2. Contends that the dance symbolizes life as an evil dream while death becomes a release from the horrors of hell/life. Includes a detailed bibliography.

Meyer, Michael. Strindberg: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1985. Includes relevant biographical information on many of Strindberg’s major plays, including The Dance of Death. Meyer has translated eighteen of Strindberg’s plays to English and is knowledgeable about the playwright. His biography is concerned primarily with Strindberg’s influence on modern theater. Includes subject index.

Valency, Maurice. The Flower and the Castle: An Introduction to Modern Drama. New York: Macmillan, 1963. Comprehensive discussion of all of Strindberg’s major plays and his contribution to modern theater. Includes subject index and selected bibliography.

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Critical Essays