“It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry,” writes Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, “whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom.” This certainly seems to be the case in August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, a brutal exercise in misanthropy during which an elderly military captain, Edgar (Daniel Davis), trades verbal blows with his wife of twenty-five years, Alice (Laila Robins). The inseparable pair regularly and casually say things like, “Pleasure? What’s pleasure?” and, “The day I drop dread—that’s my idea of a good time.” He’s ending his life stationed on an uneventful island, she’s an actress who gave up her career for marriage—and with the entrance of Gustav (Derek Smith), Alice’s former beau, the two rejoice at a chance to resuscitate their talents: Edgar wages war with his rival while Alice performs a one-woman melodrama; late in the play, riding high on her own histrionics, she tells her new audience member, “I’m an artist, Gustav, a free spirit. I’m a woman who isn’t afraid to say what she wants to a man who’s afraid of everything—free, free, free!”
The Dance of Death (or the Danse Macabre) after which the play is titled is a “tone poem” written for an orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns. But it is also a genre of medieval painting in which Death is depicted as summoning people from all social classes to the grave. This is a central image for Strindberg, whose characters would prefer dancing their way to oblivion instead of quietly letting go. Strindberg’s sister, Anna, would claim, even at eighty years old, “Peace and calm are the worst things I know.” Edgar and Alice, too, prefer to fight while waiting for death. “Do you even know why you hate each other?” Gustav, thoroughly exasperated, asks Anna. She says, “No,” but she might as well say, “Because loving each other would be boring.”
The Dance of Death, currently running at the Lucille Lortel Theater, has been translated and significantly cut by Mike Poulton, who believes that its second part compromises its first. Therefore, his rendering excises over half the play’s characters and ends the action much earlier than in the original, though this kind of editing isn’t uncommon for the play, which is often only partially produced. This may suggest a more streamlined version, but The Dance of Death still runs for two hours and twenty minutes, and Strindberg’s unfaltering rage eventually becomes tedious. On the page, the play reads as insufferable; onstage, it is admittedly more entertaining. And yet, there is only so much we can take of this self-absorbed couple—how they have kept it up for a quarter century is beyond me, since a quarter of an hour is enough to completely drain you. The cast is admirable, for their part, and in particular Mr. Davis handles the “refined demon” Edgar with the right level of gentlemanly menace—after a jab from his wife, he exposes a row of pearly white chompers that would give Joe Biden’s a run for their money.
The Red Bull Theater bills The Dance of Death as a proto-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But Edward Albee’s play is sharper, funnier, smarter, and more moving; George and Martha are both better fighters and better lovers than their Swedish counterparts. When Gustav complains, “Alice, this is too much!” I’m inclined to say the same to his playwright.