Dance of Death was written by August Strindburg (1849-1912), a Swedish dramatist who was famous for his realistic writings until the 1890s. It was during this time that he had a bout with insanity. After that, he wrote what came to be known as "dream plays", which usually involved alienated people who were "seeking meaning in an incomprehensible universe." He was the first writer to fully utilize the idea of the subconscious in his plays, and he viewed his characters as tortured and alienated. These elements of his dream plays are evident in Dance of Death.
Strindburg's use of the subconscious arose at about the same time Freudian theories were gaining widespread popularity. It is Freud who gives credibility to Strindburg's work. Both men were trying to explain the realm of the dream state where the subconscious rules the lives of the humans. Strindburg created situations on the stage which are explained using Freudian theories. Without Freud's influence on the general population, particularly during this time period, Strindburg may have been considered a crazy man with no substance to his writing.
It is also known that Strindburg often wrote from his life. He was married three times, each of which started out passionately but ended with Strindburg being bitter and paranoid. It is thought that Dance of Death is the story of his sister, Anna, who had been a musician but gave it all up to be married. Her husband then became critically ill, just as in the story of Dance of Death. Most plausibly, Strindburg took bits and pieces of his marriages along with that of his sister's and blended them together to create this work, a story of a seemingly unhappy marriage.
Dance of Death is the story of Alice and Edgar, who consider their marriage to be the equivalent of hell. They live virtually isolated on an island, for they have driven everyone, including their children from their lives. Alice is an ex-actress and Edgar is a military captain. Together they spend their days trading pointed barbs with one another. Their island is soon to become a quarantine center for those who served in the war, and Alice's cousin Curt, a doctor who has been chosen to help with the quarantine, comes to visit.
We then learn that Edgar is seriously ill and as a result is delirious, incoherent, and paranoid. As Alice eagerly waits for him to die, Edgar announces that he has been to the city and filed for divorce. This shocking news makes Alice reanalyze her life and she ends up having an affair with Curt. In the end, however, Alice and Edgar reconcile. In some bizarre fashion, they do love each other. Alice stays on to nurse her husband and his failing health. They decide to "march on---together."
This play is very dark but it does send forth some powerful messages: One is that love, in any form, is powerful. Alice and Edgar love each other and in the end it is love which keeps them together. Even though they drive each other crazy, that is what forms the basis of their relationship. The thought of divorce drives Alice to madness. However, when she realizes that Edgar had not meant what he said, she is secretely relieved. They return to their life of insults, for that is what they love about each other.
Another message the play imparts is one of not giving up whatever the circumstances. The last words of the play are spoken by Edgar who restates his motto of life, to march on. They have been through a lot of tough times in their 25 years of marriage. Through all those tough times they have just continued living, marching on. They did not allow any of the bad times to ruin their lives completely.
I think it is also noteworthy to point out the symbolism of the quarantine island. Their home is going to become a place where contagious sick people come for respite. What poignant imagery for this couple. They have imposed a kind of quarantine on themselves over the years by driving everyone away, yet they still thrive. They feed off of each other. They keep each other sane. This is what the island will do for those sick from the war.
I found the acting of the five people on the stage to be mixed with some good performances and some bad. The two main characters were fascinating to watch, for they each were full of personal quirks and subtle nuances that make characters come alive. Their interactions with each other were almost funny, for they were both so absurd in their own ways. I got a strong sense of their history by the way in which they interacted. The actor playing Curt did little for me. He was uninteresting to watch and at times almost annoying. I did not see any thought processes going on in his mind. The two lesser utilized performers, one male and one female, were compelling in their own ways. From the beginning, the male sentry walked back and forth behind the set with slow and exact precision. That must have taken incredible concentration. The female played two roles, the more fascinating of the two being Margaret, the widow of the undertaker. In my opinion she symbolized death and she did it very convincingly. Her movements and speech were eerie and she made her appearance to symbolize death looming about.
The scenic elements of this show were outstanding. The set was visually interesting and complex. The floor was sloped in various directions thus making it impossible for any two characters to be on equal footing. At the back of the stage were two sets of windows and a set of doors which led to the outside world. Their exaggerated size and looming presence hints at the size of the world which does lay outside the walls of their home. The use of light and shadow were exquisite. I would say that the scenic elements were the best part of the show. We got a sense of being close to water and yet in an old building, which incidently used to be a prison (more symbolism). I was especially impressed with the scrim which continually changed color with the setting and rising of the sun. None of the scenic elements were obtrusive to the action going on around them. They added beautifully to the overall mood of the piece.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the costuming in this show. Alice and Edgar had essentially one outfit for 90\% of the show and only briefly appeared on stage wearing something much dressier. Curt changed his vest only once. The costume plot was very simple as were the clothes. If anything, I think the clothing was supposed to reflect the desolation and isolation of the characters but I don't think it managed to convey that at all. I was constantly perplexed by what they were wearing. For example, I was distracted by the fact that Alice had on green tights with her red dress. Costuming should add to a show, and not distract the audience.
Fortunately there were moments which almost magically brought the audience back into the world of the characters. In the second act there was a moment that I found to be highly effective. It occurred after Edgar has announced the pending divorce and Alice had gone off with Curt. There was a storm brewing outside and the power had gone out. Edgar, who is afraid of the dark, lights candles. He then takes these candles from center stage and places them around the set, some on Alice's piano and others on a desk. In cand lelight, he proceeds to rip up Alice's picture and clean out the house of things that belonged to her. Then he takes his cigars, alcohol and cards and buries them under the house. It was at this moment that Edgar decided to change his lifestyle in an attempt to prolong his life. Behind him, Margaret (death) who had been lurking outside, closes the doors that lead to his house, thus symbolizing death would not strike now that Edgar had decided to change his ways. The sound of the storm outside symbolized the battle being waged inside Edgar as he gave up the very things that made life worth living for him, in order to live longer. The candle light was beautiful and perhaps symbolic of the fact that Edgar was now alone and his guiding light, Alice, was gone. He must now learn to walk through the very darkness that he fears---alone.
All in all I found Dance of Death to be a highly complex show. I wished I had had an opportunity to talk to the director and ask her about her vision for the show. I am sure that there were subtle moments that went over my head. The physical elements of the show combined with the execution of the actors makes this show worth seeing, even if one leaves with a sense of not totally understanding what they have just seen.