A Note on The Dance of Death

By Callie Fosburgh, Dramaturg

When August Strindberg wrote The Dance of Death in the spring of 1900, he was already an established name in European theater. Born the son of a merchant and a maidservant in Stockholm, Sweden, 1849, he had spent his youth bouncing back and forth between a multitude of jobs (among them teacher, librarian, journalist, and science writer) before turning to writing in his early thirties. His first publication—a novel called The Red Room— was a quick success, and it wasn’t long before he had branched out into the theater. By the time he reached forty, Strindberg had already become known across Europe as a compelling satirist of societal politics. Plays like The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888) had built his reputation as a writer with a flair for aggressive realism and wit, and he—along with playwrights like Anton Chekov and Henrik Ibsen—was heralded as ushering in a new era of naturalism in drama.

But even as Strindberg was finding artistic success, his personal life was starting to fracture. Increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as the hypocrisy of Swedish society— and frustrated by an accusation of blasphemy leveled against his writing by the highly conservative Stockholm courts—he spent almost two decades in self-imposed exile, travelling through Europe and trying to manage his declining mental health. It was an issue that would follow him for the rest of his life, the result of what some people claimed was great intellectual strain, and others the byproduct of a series of unhappy marriages and unhappier divorces.

Much has been said about Strindberg’s contentious relationship with women—both in his plays and his personal life. Each of his three marriages ended disastrously, and his distrust of the opposite sex often spilled over into his (famously autobiographical) work. “I have worked myself through and out of the woman question,” he said in a letter to his publisher in 1889, and, in the same letter, dismissed Ibsen—the other giant of the Scandinavian stage—as an “ignorant woman’s writer.” But for all of Strindberg’s undeniable misogyny, the women he wrote into being have continued to captivate audiences for more than a century. The Dance of Death’s Alice (herself a loosely disguised portrait of Strindberg’s first wife, actress and former Baroness Siri von Essen), is a perfect object of this enduring fascination: she is a calculating, practical, and above all, deeply human presence; an equal partner to her husband in an absurdist and claustrophobic portrayal of just how bleak marriage might be.

As Strindberg was writing the tripartite dance between Alice, Edgar, and Kurt onto the stage in that spring of 1900, he was in the midst of an artistic transition of his own. Looking beyond the naturalistic drama that had made him famous, he was starting to explore a psychological expressionism that would define later plays like Dream Play and Ghost Sonata. The Dance of Death exists somewhere in between these two poles, carving out a spot for itself in its energetically tight juxtaposition of both styles. It is a unique work of a unique playwright, and one that resonates just as much today as it did at the turn of the twentieth century.

Photo by Joan Marcus