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Play Strindberg and the Theater of Adaptation Enoch Brater Adaptations, abridgements, additions, alterations, ameliora­ tions, amplifications, augmentations, conversions, distortions, emendations, interpolations, metamorphoses, modifications, mutilations, revisions, transformations, versions—the same terms Ruby Cohn felt uncomfortable with in trying to generate a criti­ cal vocabulary for her study Modern Shakespeare Offshoots— seem inadequate to describe Durrenmatt’s preoccupation with The Dance of Death in Play StrindbergA James Kirkup, who did the popular English translation published in America by Grove Press in 1973 following the New York premiere at the Forum Theater of Lincoln Center on June 3, 1971, appears to have been similarly baffled. At one point, with no doubt Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears in mind, he even considered an alternative working title, Strindberg Without Tears. Aban­ doning terms like “reworking,” “rewriting,” “adaptation,” and “arrangement,” he finally settled for Durrenmatt’s German title Play Strindberg, this time inventing a curious subtitle of his own: “The Dance of Death Choreographed by Friedrich Durrenmatt.”2 Play Strindberg is, however, as strange a title in English as it is in the original German. A play on Play Bach, Jacques Loussier’s trio which parodied the classics in free-form jazz composition, Durrenmatt’s title reflects, as Timo Tiusanen points out, a similar “modem swing.”3 The analogy with jazz is a liberating one, for it makes us think not only of the possibility of musical arrangement, but also of a more promising term like “variation.” Yet even with the seductive swing of jazz in the background, Durrenmatt’s work defies our attempts to locate a ENOCH BRATER, who teaches at the University of Michigan, has written extensively on Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Brecht, Stoppard, Arthur Miller, film, and modem and contemporary art. 12 Enoch Brater 13 precise definition. At the risk of complicating the matter even further, shall we introduce the specter of Harold Bloom into the argument? I’m afraid not. An academic “map of misreading” or the more rococo “swerve,” however theoretically justifiable, won’t take us vary far when faced with the actuality of Diirrenmatt ’s stagecraftsmanship. Notions like “the anxiety of influence” fall wide of the mark in explaining Diirrenmatt’s tone, style, and intention.4 To accommodate these, we must go back to the work itself as a piece of pure theater in that simultaneously concrete and intangible realm known as performance. Play Strindberg is in many ways a unique work of contem­ porary theater, but it is that much more in terms of design than of execution. For in this play Dürrenmatt has succeeded in elevating a production concept into a literary genre of its own. “I directed it as I wrote it,” he observed recently. “Theater is a composition; it takes place in time. Theater is a practical affair; you can’t do it without others. You can’t do it by your­ self.’^ An act of interpretation becomes in Durrenmatt’s hands an act of sheer invention. The Dance of Death is the raw material for the new creative process or, to use the playwright’s own words, “The dramaturgy of existing materials is replaced by the dramaturgy of invented materials.”6 Let us review for a moment the special circumstances which led to the writing of this play. DUrrenmatt turned his attention to Strindberg in 1968, when he was co-director and dramaturge of the City Theatre in Basel and planned a revival of The Dance of Death. But the plan misfired. “We played it,” said Durrenmatt, “and the actors pro­ tested and were all very depressed.” So I said, “I’ll do it for you and wrote it straightaway. . . . It was as with John,” referring to his earlier adaptation of Shakespeare’s King John, “practical theatre.”7 In production, moreover, the practical elements be­ came even more basic than Durrenmatt’s comments imply, for the cast took an active part in revising the script. Incorporating improvisational techniques, a major portion of the work was done during rehearsals.8 Play Strindberg is, then, an elaborate exercise in collaboration, not only with Durrenmatt’s source material, but perhaps even more significantly with his actors. Here is a piece of theater written with actors, not for...


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