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The Absurd World of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death Orley I. Hoitan August Strindberg’s play, or rather pair of plays, The Dance of Death, was written in 1900, at approximately the same time as the strange and tender Easter and after his first venture into expressionism, the first two parts of To Damascus. In both form and content The Dance of Death seems to be a kind of reversion to the intensely realis­ tic The Father of fifteen years before. Like that earlier play, it presents, as one critic has recently put it, “marriage as a grim and ghastly form of hell on earth.” 1 This is certainly a theme of The Dance of Death and the play is, to outward appearances, realistic in form. Nevertheless, I contend that, coming as it does early in the post-inferno period when Strindberg was intensely preoccupied with metaphysical problems, the play is not primarily concerned with marriage or the war between the sexes except as a metaphor for the human condition. Strindberg’s percep­ tions have broadened since The Father; a more comprehensive view of life animates The Dance of Death the nature of which may emerge from a close examination of the text. The Dance of Death is set on an island in the Swedish archipelago where the Captain is commanding officer of the garrison. The building in which he and his wife live is a fortress which has been used in the past as a prison. The metaphorical significance of this fact is reinforced constantly throughout the first part of the play. Alice tells Kurt, for example, that all her life she has been a prisoner in the tower, guarded by a man she has always hated. The Captain refers to himself as Bluebeard and to Alice as his prisoner. The couple had three children, two of whom developed prison pallor and died, according to Alice, for lack of light. Yet it is not she alone who is a prisoner; the Captain is equally isolated and imprisoned. The two have been cut off, or have cut themselves off, from the society of the island. In the course of the play even their maids desert them, leaving them completely alone to torment each other. Since they fear that telephone operators eavesdrop and gossip about the contents of calls, their only connection with the outside world is a telegraph instrument. The only messages that come to them are communicated through the inhuman clicking of the key. To further heighten the metaphor of imprisonment Strind199 200 Comparative Drama berg has provided a sentry who is constantly visible through the center doors. In each succeeding scene his presence is made clear: “The sentry is at his post as before,” “The sentry is marching by his battery as before.” The second part of the play takes place in the freer and more open atmosphere of Kurt’s home, but the ubiquitous sentry is still to be seen. This obvious theme of imprisonment is coupled with one of absolute and unremitting boredom. The note is struck from the very opening of the curtain as Alice and the Captain engage in a trivial and half-hearted bickering: THE CAPTAIN: Won’t you play something for me? ALICE: (Indifferently but not crossly) What shall I play? THE CAPTAIN: What you like. ALICE: You don’t like my repertoire. THE CAPTAIN: Nor you mine. ALICE: (Ambiguously) Do you want the doors left open? THE CAPTAIN: As you wish. ALICE: Let’s leave them then.(Pause) Why aren’t you smoking? THE CAPTAIN: I can’t stand strong tobacco any longer. ALICE: Smoke something milder then. As you say it’s your only joy. THE CAPTAIN: Joy? Whatever’s that? ALICE: Don’t ask me. I know no more if it than you.2 The dialogue continues in this vein, broken only briefly when the Captain waxes mildly enthusiastic over the thought of broiled mackerel and white wine, and again by a desultory card game which only bores them further. Even their little skirmishes seem not to be carried on with any energy, but only out of habit. It is only when Kurt arrives that they exhibit any...


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pp. 199-206
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