"There's something about this place that is toxic," says the timid guest, cowering on the threshold. Can you blame him? He stands at the door to the dangerous domain of the Dance of Death, and whoever dares to enter had better be prepared for a terrifying tango. Strindberg's poisonous portrait of a marriage is now enjoying (if that's the word) its 100th birthday in a searing New York revival at the Broadhurst Theatre, with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren dancing a devastating pas de deux. And a few blocks away, at the Ambassador, there's a revival of another deadly drawing-room drama, Hedda Gabler, written a decade earlier (1890) by Ibsen, Strindberg's contemporary, starring the splendid Kate Burton. Pioneering work by the twin Vikings of modern drama. Two bracing blasts of Nordic air across the barren landscape of conventional, imprisoning marriage.
Or are they? Are these rusty revivals of nineteenth-century bourgeois melodramas, predictable psychological portrayals of people going crazy in cold climates? Not at all. Both productions, in their new, colloquial versions (by American playwrights Richard Greenberg and Jon Robin Baitz, respectively), preserve the power of the original dramaturgy and at the same time challenge the traditional interpretations and surprise us with fresh, daring approaches. They follow on the heels of The Seagull, by another of their contemporaries (the gentler Chekhov), which enjoyed a star-studded revival in Central Park in August. The trio of masterpieces were written within a ten-year period (1890-1900), and their diva performances (Burton, Mirren and Meryl Streep) provide us with a fortuitous centennial opportunity to revisit them and reassess the contributions of their authors anew.
Take Nicholas Martin's production of Hedda Gabler, which challenges the notion that these classics are set in those dark, claustrophobic "tasteless parlors," giving off "an odor of spiritual paraffin." Henry James, when he said that, hadn't seen Alexander Dodge's smart, high-ceilinged, white-walled set (which is more Noël Coward than Norwegian). The grandeur of this haute bourgeois palace with its promising social prospects makes the ultimate fall of Hedda, the beautiful young socialite who presides over it, all the more horrifying. Played in the past with icy irony (Glenda Jackson's satin-swathed Hedda in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the 1970s) or erotic intensity (Annette Bening in the Los Angeles Geffen Playhouse production of 1999), Kate Burton's surprising Hedda is as bright as those white rooms she circles at high speed, looking for any way to break out of her pristine prison. Newly returned from her honeymoon, Hedda, proud daughter of the legendary General Gabler, finds herself trapped in a suffocating provincial town and in a hopeless marriage to the meek and sheepish scholar Tesman (played effacingly by Michael Emerson). And yet she is determined to maintain her status, which she guards as fiercely as a Fifth Avenue socialite. The unexpected arrival of the fiery Eilert Lovborg, a former suitor and now Tesman's academic rival, shatters the brittle veneer of Hedda's social front and plunges her into a precarious state of potential exposure and loss of status. Subject, furthermore, to an unwanted pregnancy, social and sexual blackmail (by Judge Brack, a purported family friend, played satanically by Harris Yulin) and fear of scandal, Hedda ultimately seeks the only way out–self-destruction–both as an escape and a triumph.
"People don't do that sort of thing," goes the famous closing line of the play, and up until now Burton hasn't either–played such a dark, unsympathetic role. And yet, in her unique and unconventional performance, she gives us a spirited, sardonic, passionate portrayal of a woman we readily recognize–one who is pinioned by both her status and her need for it–one who hitherto has been portrayed as inhuman, but who now invites pity. You've come a long way, Hedda, and so have we.
As surprising as the interpretation of Hedda Gabler is, Sean Mathias's Dance of Death is equally daring. Yes, there's the obligatory Strindberg scariness of people on, and over, the edge. (Strindberg may have called The Doll's House "sick like its father," but he out-Ibsens Ibsen with his ferocious, bitter battles of the sexes, in Miss Julie and numerous other plays, but above all in this one.) And yet, scathing as Mathias's interpretation may be, it's also good Gothic fun. Have you ever laughed out loud at Strindberg, let alone Ibsen? You will, at this production. This Dance of Death is as much a vaudevillian two-step as the lethal anniversary waltz it was written to be, a mockery of the tortures of marriage as much as an exposure of them. Edgar and Alice mark their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary marooned on a tempest-tossed island off the gloomy coast of Sweden, where they have lived the past quarter-century in connubial hell. Edgar is dying of an undisclosed disease and Alice is feverishly cheering him on. Enter Kurt, cousin of Edgar and childhood lover of Alice (played by the subtle David Straithairn), providing a welcome audience as well as a tantalizing triangle. "We are without a doubt the two unhappiest people on earth," declares Alice, and so the dance begins. The happy couple do everything from saber fighting to chasing each other up and down the circular staircase to flaunting infidelity to practicing verbal and physical torture–all but tearing each other to pieces; and yet, miraculously, they find a way to come to terms with the institution of marriage, which Strindberg himself found a living hell (he was unsuccessfully married three times). Says Alice, in the play's final standoff: "So these are the fires of hell and there's no end to it." Says Edgar: "Yes, if we're patient."
This all comes to life vibrantly, thanks to the virtuosic duet of the illustrious British actors McKellen and Mirren (he, notably, of the recent Richard III, she perhaps best known for the series Prime Suspect). Judging from the theater billboard depicting them in a ballroom dance embrace–he, elegant in dashing dress uniform; she, smiling in sleek black velvet–you're hardly prepared for their terrible tango of marital torture. They execute it with precision, wit and a devilishness that makes the movement all the more deadly, and yet at the same time wickedly entertaining. And thanks to the clarity of their performances as Edgar and Alice, we see before us the parents of a whole lineage of marital anguish in modern drama: James and Mary Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eleanor and Henry in James Goldman'sThe Lion in Winter, and above all George and Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, not to mention the tortured couple in Scenes From a Marriage, by another Scandinavian, Ingmar Bergman. No one will ever be able to see George and Martha play their ghastly marital games again (remember "Hump the Hostess," "Get the Guests," "Bringing up Baby"?) without thinking of Edgar, Alice and their dance. But it is their sense of humor, playfulness and unexpected flashes of pathos and poignancy in this production that provide unique insights into the ironic consolations of marriage that Strindberg offers in spite of himself.
The contemporary English-speaking stage continues to acknowledge Ibsen's lasting and durable contribution–most recently, with Janet McTeer's majestic Nora in A Doll's House on Broadway in 1997. And now, thanks to a number of recent revivals of Strindberg's plays, we are reminded of why O'Neill referred to him as the "greatest genius of all modern dramatists" in his own 1936 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Notable recent productions include Frank Langella's rabid performance of The Father at the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1996 and Robert Wilson's visionary Dream Play and Ingmar Bergman's Ghost Sonata, both at BAM last season. These have rekindled our interest in this unpredictable, provocative and prolific genius and the scorching truths he offers about relations between the sexes.
No matter what Ibsen and Strindberg may have said about women, they certainly knew how to write them. Their rich, complex female roles have defied stereotype and invited fresh interpretations over the decades. In their performances, Mirren and Burton exhibit a flair and a physical flamboyance that is both commanding and charismatic. In a flowing icy-pink peignoir, Burton's Hedda stalks the stage, rearranging the furniture, lunging at Eilert Lovborg, her movements punctuated by a hectic, piercing laugh. She's dangerous and exciting to watch, with all that pent-up passion and rage unleashed. So is Mirren , who is captivating in her unpredictability, too. As Alice, she transforms herself from a battle-worn shrew in a shabby house dress to a fiery femme fatale in a ruffled satin gown with red tresses flying, while she makes love madly and acrobatically to Kurt on the spiral staircase. There is electricity in both performances reminiscent of Streep's magnetic Arkadina in the recent Seagull, who cartwheeled across the Delacorte stage and rolled on the carpet with her lover Trigorin (Kevin Kline). The three divas dominate their drawing rooms with an impulsive and physical dynamism. Tragedy may lie ahead, but how fiercely alive they are in the face of it.
"I can't figure out if life is a tragedy or a joke," says Edgar to Alice, his lifelong enemy/companion. "George and Martha, sad, sad, sad," echo the war-torn Albee couple, their descendants. Thanks to Ibsen's and Strindberg's provocation, we continue to examine the mysteries of marriage with increasing humor and insight. And who knows, given the way the world's going, we may learn to tolerate the imperfections of companionship and even seek its comforts, in the face of an uncertain future.