Dance of Death, The, (Parts 1 and 2)

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A: August Strindberg Pf: 1905, Cologne; 1909, Stockholm Pb: 1901 Tr: 1912 G: (1) Drama in 2 acts; (2) Drama in 2 acts; Swedish prose S: Island off the coast of Sweden, 1900s C: (1) 3m, 3f; (2) 4m, 2fPart 1. Edgar, Captain of an artillery fortress, lives in constant enmity with his wife Alice, a former actress. Their bitter isolation is relieved by a visit from Kurt, Alice's cousin and the new Quarantine Master, who senses the evil in their house. Edgar falls into catalepsy, then rushes out. Alice describes to Kurt her 25 years of unhappy marriage. When Edgar returns, Alice plays the piano and, dancing wildly, Edgar collapses again. Kurt tries to summon a doctor, but, alienated by the Captain's arrogance, they refuse to attend him. Even their servants are leaving. Kurt remains at Edgar's bedside all night. The next morning Alice reveals that Edgar had had an affair with Kurt's wife and taught her how to get custody of their children, but Kurt forgives him. Two days later the Captain has been in town, where he arranges for Kurt's son to be posted to his battery. Kurt is alarmed about the power Edgar will have over him. Moreover, Edgar has filed a petition for divorce, so that he may remarry. Alice begs Kurt for protection, especially as she claims that Edgar has already tried to drown her. She plans to have Edgar arrested for embezzlement, then begins to seduce Kurt. Crazed by his desire for her, he rushes at her and bites her throat. That evening Kurt admits his passion for her. Edgar confesses that he lied about Kurt's son and the divorce. Alice claims that Kurt has become her lover, and Edgar charges at him with his sabre. Hitting only furniture, he collapses again. Kurt has had enough and leaves. Husband and wife are temporarily reconciled, and she now regrets revealing Edgar's ‘embezzlement’. However, there is no case against him, and Alice promises to stay with him. Part 2. The following summer Kurt's son Allan is in love with the Captain's daughter Judith, who tortures him by flirting with other men. Edgar, however, is trying to marry Judith off to the old Colonel. The Captain sets about destroying Kurt: he will lose his house, and Edgar is sending Allan to Lapland. Judith, now reciprocating Allan's love, swears to follow him anywhere and sends an impertinent telegram to the Colonel. When the Captain learns that his plans for Judith are frustrated, he has a final stroke. Alice jeers triumphantly over the dying Captain but then recalls that she once loved – and hated – him.

A: August Strindberg Pf: 1905, Cologne; 1909, Stockholm Pb: 1901 Tr: 1912 G: (1) Drama in 2 acts; (2) Drama in 2 acts; Swedish prose S: Island off the coast of Sweden, 1900s C: (1) 3m, 3f; (2) 4m, 2f

Originally to be entitled The Vampire, Strindberg's powerful dissection of a ‘marriage of hell’ (Swedenborg), relieved by the hope of young love in Part 2, is one of his most frequently performed works. Though essentially naturalistic, it contains many symbolic elements and flirts mischievously with farcical moments, like the repeated collapses and sudden recoveries of the Captain. It influenced Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf! Dürrenmatt's Play Strindberg (1969) presented the piece as a boxing match between Edgar and Alice. Reinhardt staged both parts of The Dance of Death in Berlin in 1912, and Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan performed in the National Theatre production of 1966.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

Reference entries

August Strindberg (1849—1912) Swedish dramatist and novelist