Tolstoy’s observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is just as true for marriages as it is for families. In Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, the marriage of Edgar (Jim Mezon) and Alice (Fiona Reid) is a combination of “hate and love forged together in a foundry of Hell.” It’s the unhappiest marriage I have ever encountered, yet it makes for excellent theatre.
The play is an exploration of a search for meaning in life as much as it is a study of relationships. Alice and Edgar have become socially isolated from their military peers on an outpost island in Sweden. Edgar’s behavior is overbearing at best and tyrannical at worst; Alice’s is no better but managed in a shrewd, manipulative manner. Their antidote to arguing is to recall nasty encounters with other couples and to make denigrating comments. Let’s just say that Edgar and Alice would not make pleasant dinner companions. However, watching the give and take from the safety of the audience is fascinating.
Both Edgar and Alice struggle with what has brought them to this point in life. Their marriage of almost twenty-five years has been a “long miserable mistake”; Edgar’s fellow officers are eager to be rid of him; their children despise them. Edgar, whose heart appears to be failing, notes, “I always believed we must be dead and paying some horrible penance.” It’s a sad observation from someone who appears to have neither the skill nor the motivation to change, and it’s a sentiment Alice shares. She notes that, “If we can be patient, death will come.” It doesn’t come, but Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Patrick Galligan), does make an unexpected visit. For a short while his presence relieves the oscillating lassitude and hostility. It’s through the assorted interactions that we learn the backstory to the marriage—the many deceits, both innocent and treacherous, that have played out over a quarter of a century.
This review undoubtedly makes the play seem grim. It’s not that by any means. In many instances, it is quite funny. Edgar’s nearsightedness and his ‘spells’ are shy of slapstick, and points in the marital bickering are humorous, perhaps because they are familiar patterns even in healthy marriages.
The Dance of Death is well worth your time. It has been deftly directed by Martha Henry, and the actors are a strong ensemble. As I left the theatre, a song from my youthful explorations of existentialism came to mind—Is That All There Is?. From this vantage point in life, my response is: ‘Yes, and….’
The Dance of Death is playing at The Shaw’s Studio Theater in Niagara-On-The Lake until September 10, 2016.
Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor, despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.