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Tuesday
Jul212009

The Dance of Death

It has been said that destiny steers us just enough for us to ride it, which is a gentler way of claiming that over time we embrace our fate as we recognize its inevitability.  In modern literature many fictional characters have developed the rather annoying habit of realizing that they are nothing more than constructs of some alien imagination and lamenting the prison in which they rot – but this is a boring subject for other pages.  What we can learn from these poor trapped shades is not that they are, in fact, captive and subject to their warden's every whim, but that there are certain moments in each life where we seem to be fulfilling a role unchosen yet scripted in detail.  You will notice such humbug when we tell a departing and disliked colleague that we will miss him, when a schmaltzy film tugs on our heartstrings because it thinks our hearts to be average and submissive, and when we find ourselves laughing at a cruel joke that could not possibly be funny.  Why do we do these things?  Because life shuffles its deck and recommends certain behavioral conformity that elevates minutia into events and obliges us to make the most of every second by filling up our time with overwrought emotions.  It has also been said that there is nothing sweeter than scandal, which brings us to this famous play.

Our setting is fin-de-siècle Sweden and our characters are primarily two.  Edgar, an army captain, and Alice, his wife and a former actress, have been married for twenty-five apparently miserable years and do not hesitate to remind each other of it.  Their barbs have the wicked slant so commonly incident to unhappy marriages whereby each knows every last weakness of the loathsome being who roams his house (in the play's rarely-staged second part, their remote island home is revealed to have once been a prison).  Yet it hardly takes an attentive reader to notice that their vocations are not haphazard: both of them operate exclusively under orders, be it those of a general or a playwright.   As such, everything they say to each other seems to be translated from some unspoken or even secret codex on moral conduct.  The Captain is alternatively portrayed as lazy, aggressive, sick, booming with health, protectively jealous, indifferent, ambitious and brilliant, hopelessly untalented, lascivious, sexless, ascetic, alcoholic, vampiric, passive, recalcitrant and a lockstep soldier.  How can one person be all those things?  The simple answer, of course, is that we all assume these personas – if only very briefly at times – in the course of our lives, which may be crudely equated with the title ("Death demands sacrifices.  Otherwise he comes at once"), but there are also expectations on the part of both spouses.  The Captain would love for his wife to be young because his youth meant being a soldier, active, polished and uniformed; Alice, on the other hand, would like to be an actress, which means, for her at least, that her husband would let her be whoever she wants.  An actress by definition must adapt to the given situation and lend it some modicum of plausibility, but she also may continue to act once the curtain falls just like an old soldier often forgets he will no longer be called to arms.  For that reason we might conclude that whatever the Captain says about Alice is perfectly true, and what Alice says about her husband is complete nonsense.

Why this dichotomy, so often criticized as misogynist?  It is not from any presumption that Alice is a typical female, but from the fact that Alice is a typical failed actress.  In every scene with her husband and her odd, religious but at the same time sinful cousin Kurt, she comes off as bitter (over her uncapitalized beauty) and vindicative (against an old soldier who no longer fancies her looks).  Kurt picks up on the venom in her tone quite rapidly:

But tell me, what do you do in this house?  What happens here?  The walls smell of poison one feels ill the moment one enters.  I'd like to leave, if I hadn't promised Alice to stay.  There are corpses under the floorboards; there's such hatred here, it's difficult to breathe.

That being an actress allows you to circumvent the innumerable rules and regulations that a military upbringing requires is a simple point, yet one that colors the whole play from grumpy, tired beginning to the last pages of the second part in which one of the characters does not manage to evade his lot. Kurt and Alice's relationship is given the caption when we sinned, and there is an active effort on their part to pair off their respective children, Allan and Judith, as if to compensate for a missed opportunity.  This matchmaking despite Alice's repeated claims that Judith despises her and is at the Captain's beck and call.  Alice will spend almost entire scenes trying to convince Kurt, whom she wishes to seduce, as well as her daughter that the Captain has consecrated a large chunk of his off-duty hours to terrorizing her with his peremptory whims and "vampirism" (a term used several times).  Once these secondary characters exeunt, however, the Captain and Alice share a nasty laugh:

But do you remember Adolf's wedding that fellow in the Hussars?  The bride had to wear her ring on her right hand because the bridegroom, in a fit of tender passion, had chopped off the third finger of her left hand with a jewelled penknife.

To which Alice reacts by "holding a handkerchief to her mouth to stifle a laugh" – which may be the most revelatory reaction in the entire play; even more surprising is that her husband treats her laughter as natural and almost pleasant.   What could be more delightful than one failing marriage?  Apparently one that fails even before it officially begins.

Strindberg wrote a bevy of other works but The Dance of Death will remain among his most performed and a perfect reflection of the doubts and nightmares that plagued him at the time of composition.  The most fascinating character in the play is neither the Captain nor Alice, but Kurt.  Having abandoned his family, a point the Captain repeats, Kurt traveled to the U.S. where he bore witness to evils that made him appreciate his everyday life in Sweden.  He returns to Sweden to find the couple still married but ready to harangue each other about the slightest detail, and he alternates between believing Alice's exaggerated accusations and defending the Captain's integrity (which desperately needs defending).  Too bad integrity is one thing that didn't rub off on Kurt.          

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