Dance of Death
The Studio Theatre - Niagara-on-the-Lake
by Mike Keenan
Jim Mezon as Edgar, Patrick Galligan as Kurt and Fiona Reid as Alice. Photo by Emily Cooper
Soon it will be all over: We'll be dead, and all that's left is your rotten carcass, and all it's good for is to fertilize the cabbages. (Edgar)
Danse Macabre or Dance of Death is a medieval symbol of the universality of death. Its premise is that no matter one's station in life, the Dance of Death unites us all. Accordingly, we all dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and labourer to represent our collective fate. Thus, as with the angst of existentialist philosophers, we are reminded of fragility and lack of authenticity.
Edgar (Jim Mezon) and Alice (Fiona Reid) do not need this reminder. Their entire marriage, soon to hit a silver anniversary at 25 years, has itself embodied a dance of death, wherein they actually derive pleasure in tormenting one another.
As soon as I enter the set, masterfully crafted by designer William Schmuck and lit by Louise Guinard, I feel gloomy and imprisoned. We are isolated on a small Swedish island in a reclaimed fortress on top of a jail. All the windows exhibit vertical bars while a door opens to the shrieking sound of gulls, exposing a guard who magically ages between sets - at first young and robust, later, old and limping. A symbolic component of the dance.
The prime weapon employed by each spouse is isolation. On the murky island, they deliberately cut themselves off from their children, friends and associates. Their phone has been replaced by telegraph and Morse code. Edgar manages to lose yet another maid/cook early on so the two are left without food, forced to psychologically dine on each other and a guest, Alice's cousin Kurt (Patrick Galligan) who unwittingly drops into their murky mental maelstrom.
August Strindberg's exceedingly dark work, revised by Conor McPherson, is a precursor to Noel Coward's Private Lives, Edward Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Beckett's take in Endgame and Waiting for Godot. All reveal bleak yet comic looks at life, classic examples of black comedy or gallows' humour.
As such, this drama requires an exceptional cast and director, and it is here that Shaw really delivers. Last year on the same stage Jim Mezon played a 72-year-old patriarchal King Lear in The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures. He was Captain Jack Boyle, the Paycock (peacock) in 2014 and Frank, the Faith Healer in 2013, absolutely terrific in each performance, and in Dance of Death, he is the ultimate tour de force, combining Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, (The Honeymooners), Archie Bunker (All in the Family), the strident Strindberg himself and yes, even iconoclastic Donald Trump. Mezon is the quintessential curmudgeon, shouting, shoving, spewing vitriol, perennially plotting yet dancing with glee, contrasted nicely with his fainting and twitching spells as he realizes that his time is short, yet suddenly revived by military music that snaps him to attention while he dons his helmet and full inform, replete with scabbard and blade, rushing out to review the guard under his token command. Amidst this turmoil, he is audaciously funny, even physically as when he engages in a faux fitness regime. Mezon, one of Shaw's most accomplished actors, is a treat to watch in action.
Fiona Reid as Alice (also Kramden's wife's name) must be an equal match for the game to proceed, and she is up to the task, employing cunning and passive-aggressive strategies along with using her body and even her music to control behaviour and effectively deal with Edgar such that he declares their Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner War of the Roses a draw. She cheats at cards; seduces her cousin; turns Edgar in to the police; pretends not to know Morse code, deliberately misreads correspondence that he cannot see and at one point, stands over his body when he collapses on the floor and shouts, "Is he finally dead?" Reid is amazing and resourceful and clearly Edgar's equal. Her Alice also reminds us of Strindberg's three ex-wives, all youthful actresses and each marriage a disaster. Alice is an actress who gave up her career in the theatre to marry Edgar, the alcoholic military strategist whose main claim to fame is an outdated gun manual that Alice cynically remarks - has been read by three people.
Kurt (Patrick Galligan) is the insect getting stuck in their gloomy web. Ironically, he is a doctor who intends to set up a quarantine station on the inhospitable island. At first, he is decent, kind and mannered, but soon after his brief exposure to their contagion, he exclaims, "I thought my marriage was rotten, but this is mind-boggling." Galligan excels at playing the unwitting target who is transformed by their collective nastiness, but he manages to squirm free after being commanded by Alice to first kiss then lick her boot.
Shaw's Studio Theatre has offered audiences striking plays in the past, and I am always eager to see whatever runs there, in contrast to the typical Shavian products. The last few seasons with Topdog/Underdog , The Mountaintop, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures have been riveting and this season, employing Strindberg's battle of the sexes play written in 1900, is no exception. I recommend that you see it.
The Dance of Death plays at the
Studio Theatre until Sept. 10
The program is always packed with interesting material that enriches one's appreciation of the play.
Why aren't they dancing and why doesn't anybody die in this play? by Ross Shideler
August Strindberg's The Dance of Death (1900) might be seen as a metaphor for Strindberg's own life dance, a constant series of moves and transformations that made him one of the foremost experimental authors and playwrights of the 19th century. When he wrote The Dance of Death, Strindberg had already established himself, first, as a young radical who wrote Sweden's first realistic novel, The Red Room (1879), and then later when he wrote his two controversial and often performed plays, The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888). While his earlier work expressed his concern for social justice, the two plays reflect his interest in the supposedly scientific Naturalist school of Emile Zola. Darwin's "survival of the fittest" ideas also provided some background for the plays. But Strindberg had written other novels and short stories which made him popular with the Swedish working and middle classes and very unpopular with the wealthy and the religious. He was prosecuted for heresy because of a humorous, if sacrilegious and shocking, short story about male sexuality in a collection titled Getting Married (1884), which he wrote while living and travelling in Europe with his wife and family. He had to return to Sweden for the trial (he was acquitted), but he blamed conservative Swedish women among others for the accusation. That collection of short stories reflected his lifelong involvement in what came to be called the Battle of the Sexes, a theme central to this play and to his interest in early versions of psychology.
Strindberg wrote the first volume of Getting Married while more or less happily married, but embittered by the trial and a failing marriage, he turned his experiences into a second rather misogynistic volume of short stories. This attitude is reflected in the two plays above for which he is most known today. The plays made him known in Europe, though his fame was not equal to the renown of Ibsen, with whom he competed. Strindberg has often been accused of being a misogynist, and his introduction to Miss Julie, written after the play, certainly justifies the claim. However, such ideas were typical of men of the time. Ironically, over the years Strindberg married three intelligent and independent women, and it is important to recognize that ironic humour is central to his identity. He wrote a highly successful comic novel, The People of Hems a (1887), as a pot boiler about one of the many islands in the Swedish archipelago. It was his most popular work, and the Swedish population in general loved it, but he could never go back to his favourite summer island because its inhabitants disliked his representation of them.
But what makes The Dance of Death so important is its combination of many of the major themes in his earlier writing, yet it is strikingly different and new. Before he wrote it, however, he went through a transition that changed his life. His marriage to Siri von Essen, with whom he had two children, ended officially in 1891. His second marriage in 1893 to a young Austrian journalist, Frida Uhl, ended rather quickly, though they had a daughter. In 1894 in Paris, he met many of the famous artists of the time, but he started to pursue a career first as a chemist, then an alchemist. While he was failing at these projects, he read the 18th-century Swedish scientist, philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). At this time Strindberg experienced what is known as his "Inferno crisis," a transformation that lead him to the study of Swedenborgian mysticism, occultism and theosophy. He published a book written in French and titled Inferno in 1897 describing the experiences which led to his complex conversion. The highly stylized plays, To Damascus I and II (1898), based on the biblical story of St Paul's conversion, reflect his new view of the world, a mixture of Swedenborg, mysticism, Eastern religions and Christianity. To Damascus with its elegant simplicity and emotional power is a forerunner elegant simplicity and emotional power is a forerunner of German Expressionism.
All of these elements, from details of his own life to the Battle of the Sexes and his studies of the human mind and psychology, mysticism and the Bible, are present in The Dance of Death. Strindberg visited quarrelling relatives before writing the play, but he knew that such battles made good drama. Here they come together in a well-written format - a game that has roots in the medieval danse macabre and is played with such skill that I find echoes of it in Edward Albee in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Dance opens with the game underway for a bored married couple in the prison-like enclosure of an old fortress on an island. Their comic-ironic sarcastic conversation could have been written for what will become the Theatre of the Absurd in the 1950s, but perhaps this is just a typical married conversation!
CAPTAIN: Have we any of that Zinfandel left, chilling away down there in the wine cellar?
ALICE: We don't have a wine cellar.
CAPTAIN: What happened to our wine cellar?
ALICE: You mean the laundry room?
CAPTAIN: I mean the wine cellar, where we keep the wine.
ALICE: There is no wine.
Unlike the French tradition of statement and response dialogue, the development of plot and the rationale of character, Strindberg developed and loved using dialogue in which characters misunderstand or talk past each other. Whether it involves playing piano or cards, it's all about mind games and the husband and wife have different rules. Here Alice and the Captain debate celebrating their silver anniversary. Alice wants to hide their misery, but the Captain emphasizes the brevity of life, "Oh come, Alice! We've had fun. Now and then. And soon it will be all over. We'll be dead, and all that's left is your rotten carcass. And all it's good for is to fertilize the cabbages." The Captain's extreme materialism, the end of life is just fertilizer for cabbages, may be Strindberg confronting his youthful Naturalist plays, but the game becomes more interesting when Alice's cousin Kurt arrives as the new Quarantine Master. As Kurt is drawn into the game, he finds himself a participant in their personal hell. The love scene between Kurt and Alice is as close to sexy as Strindberg could get without censorship, but how you interpret the wonderful absurdity of the final reversal is up to you, the director and the cast. Is there hope?
Is there meaning in life, or is it just an endless game? The closest Strindberg can get to an answer will come one year later in his A Dream Play (1901) in which the daughter of Indra descends to earth to discover why humans are unhappy. The part of the daughter was written for his third wife, the young actress Harriet Bosse, and the play attempts to dramatize the multiple aspects of human experience through varied manifestations of a single consciousness. The refrain throughout by this daughter of a god sent to save humanity is: "Humans are to be pitied" The Dance of Death has not quite arrived at that point of sympathy, but the sometimes painful, sometimes comic and absurd dance dramatizes his effort to reach it.
Ross Shideler, a research professor of comparative literature and Scandinavian at UCLA, has written several books including Questioning the Father: From Darwin to Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg and Hardy (Stanford, 1999). His article on Strindberg's Miss Julie appeared in the Cambridge Companion to August Strindberg (Cambridge, 2009).
Director's Notes by Martha Henry
Exactly fifty years ago Strindberg's The Dance of Death was produced at the Avon Theatre
in Stratford. The production was directed by the incomparable Jean Gascon and starred
the soon-to-be Senator Jean-Louis Roux as Kurt, the French-Canadian star Denise Pelletier as Alice and Gascon himself as the Captain. I was a young actress with the Festival and on opening night had a seat in the balcony to watch this stunning trio.
As the evening progressed, I began to be aware of a strange sound coming from the
auditorium. I paid little attention at first but as the play went on the noise became louder.
At first, it sounded like cicadas, then water running in a brook and eventually like a large
bag of coins being counted on a metal tray. As I looked around the theatre I finally realized that what I was hearing during this play about a marriage, was the sound of the wives in the audience, dressed in their opening-night finery, unconsciously playing with the beads and bracelets they had donned for the event.
Strindberg was married three times, always to actresses and always to actresses in their 20s (even as he approached his 60s). Strindberg aged but his wives never did. Biographers talk about his "moods"; in one of his novels (he was prolific) he describes a character, clearly based on himself, as "saturnine". It's likely, were he living today, he would be classified as bipolar. Strindberg's genius was unquestioned but his artistry came from a troubled soul. In fact the Captain discusses his own confusion and distress about living in a way that sounds like Strindberg discussing himself.
The Dance of Death has two parts - that is, Strindberg wrote two plays. The first play is
about the marriage of the Captain and his former actress wife, Alice, with a visitation from
Alice's cousin Kurt; the second is about their children - mostly the girl, Judith, and her
entanglement with Kurt's son Allan. The first play is the one most often performed.
We are fortunate to be working with a recent adaptation by the Irish playwright Conor
McPherson. He is "faithful" to Strindberg in that he has given us the basic story verbatim
and then only very slightly enhanced and pointed the situation. He has modernized some
of the language (compared to earlier translations) and streamlined the arc of the story;
some versions show us the servants - this one, like Sartre's No Exit or Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Albee obviously knew The Dance of Death) gives us only the couple and the intruder. I think the play is stronger for it.
I must finally say that this piece could not be performed by just anyone. The fact that
the Shaw Festival has a company of this caliber means that in Jackie's final year we can do
a The Dance of Death to stand up to the one from 1966. Without these three actors it would
have been impossible. (We've included an homage to the great Gascon.)