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approaching Strindberg

I find myself preparing to do something that I never imagined I would do: work on a play by August Strindberg.

In my Advanced class, we are doing scenes from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and from August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, Pt. I & II. (I once had an argument with the great Ruth Maleczech of Mabou Mines about The Dance of Death: she did not believe me that there was a second part.)

As fond as I am of the modern European masters of the drama, Strindberg had always left me cold. The spiritual and sometimes macabre dream-logic of his later works had held some appeal, but not enough that I have ever felt I wanted to enter into a serious engagement with him, like mounting a production of one of those plays. The earlier plays, namely Miss Julie and The Father, had always struck me as oppressive, suffused as they were with themes of burning resentment, emotional suffocation and impotence. Suffice to say, I had had plenty of those feelings in my early life, and didn’t need to add insult to injury by immersing myself in Strindberg.

However, through my dissertation work on the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard, for whom Strindberg had been important, I found myself looking at Strindberg with new eyes. Through Bernhard, I could see more of the humor and dementia, the emancipatory madness, of the plays than I had previously. Also, perhaps, in the intervening twenty years, I had acquired some equilibrium that I perhaps lacked previously, and perhaps was more ready to confront the rages and resentments of Strindberg than I had been previously.

I chose The Dance of Death, although upon rereading it, I confess a felt a great deal of confusion, and wondered whether I would really be able to guide the actors through its lurching and often seemingly incoherent reversals. I began to search the Internet to see if I might find some penetrating dramaturgical analysis of it, but after coming up empty, I decided to reread the essay of my beloved teacher and mentor, Richard Gilman, from his book The Making of Modern Drama.

And Gilman was as clarifying as ever. For example:

Something of great significance for our understanding of Strindberg’s dramatic art emerges from this: it is that the facts of sexual warfare so prominent in The Father are not causes but instances, so that the play’s subject is something other than what it appears. The excessiveness and inexplicability of the couple’s hatred– qualities that have been used to question the play’s validity on psychological grounds– are due precisely to Strindberg’s not having written a psychological– and naturalistic– study at all, but a modern legend of ancient despair whose subject is larger and more complex than the play’s means of embodying it. The excessiveness is then the effect of a straining after an utterance and set of circumstances that will do justice to the magnitude of the theme.

Yar! I can’t wait! Bring on The Dance of Death! The Mother of Invention is ready!