Over the past twenty years it has become a rite of passage for young, innovative directors to take on Ibsen, the great Norwegian playwright born in 1828. By tackling the big social issues of his time and applying a more naturalistic style to the form, he both transformed theatre itself and ignited a generation of younger writers in his wake, the most interesting of whom was Johan August Strindberg.
Born in 1849 in highly conservative Stockholm, Strindberg was first inspired, then ultimately repelled by the Great Man. While it’s a natural, even necessary process for younger generations to tear down what’s gone before, Strindberg’s antipathy towards Ibsen went deeper. As early as 1889 he wrote to his publisher: “I have now worked myself through and out of the woman question… Ibsen and Kielland have nothing to teach me, two ignorant women’s writers”. Strindberg was never lured down the path of ‘social issue’ plays. At his best, Strindberg’s writing is inflammable: fuelled by courage and a brutal honesty he confronted the turbulent, darker forces he had himself tried but inevitably failed to suppress with a forensic eye.
And Strindberg had plenty of material from which to draw: he suffered three catastrophic marriages, none from which he recovered. The first, in particular, ended in recriminations and bitterness, caused permanent separation from his three children, and imprisoned him in an endless cycle of poverty and debt.
There is much speculation with regard to Strindberg’s mental illnesses. He was most likely bipolar – his sister suffered similarly. It is also possible that absinthe played a role in his recurrent turbulent mental instability. His mental health problems were exacerbated by a near constant rejection by the conservative Swedish theatre institutions of the time. In response he spent much of his time in exile: his plays found great praise in Denmark and Germany but in Sweden his reputation slid into notoriety and ridicule.
Dance of Death (1900) took nine years to be brought to the Swedish stage. A now forgotten Swedish censor at the time wrote: “It makes much too disagreeable an impression … is little suited to the stage.” Set on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago, a cluster of some 30,000 islands, skerries and rocks close to the city of Stockholm, the play is an examination of the forces that both damage and fuel the relationship between Alice, a former actress, and Edgar, a captain in the military. They have been together twenty-five long years and over time they have devised various survival strategies, all of which Strindberg puts on great theatrical display. By this point he was exploring the territory that lay beyond Naturalism, a form more akin to Expressionism, and one of the riches of Dance of Death is the at times abrupt juxtaposition he employs between the two. The effect is startlingly modern and allows his very particular voice to sound out through time.
The Dance of Death is playing at Belvoir 10 November – 23 December.
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