A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

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ISSN 2045-1024


The Stronger and Other Shorts
reviewed by Anastassiya Andrianova

Facing Death (1892), Pariah (1889), and The Stronger (1889)by August Strindberg.  A staged reading by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at The Wild Project in New York City, on February 21, 25, and 26, 2012.  Directed by Jeremy Williams.  Original Music by Ellen Mandel.  Lighting Design by Tsubasa Kamei.  Production Stage Manager Miriam Hyfler.  Graphic Design by Monty Stilson.  This is the second installment of The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s performances of Strindberg’s plays, which opened with The Father in October 2011 and will close with The Dance of Death in May 2012, and is also part of the Strindberg 2012 Festival celebrated internationally on the centennial of the author’s death. 

In his remarks prior to the performance, Craig Smith, founder and co-artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, shared his enthusiasm for August Strindberg’s The Stronger and Other Shorts, noting the Swedish playwright’s influence on Beckett, Pinter, and Albee, and thus echoing Eugene O’Neill’s famous description of Strindberg as “the precursor of all modernity in our present theatre.”  What made this performance unique was the choice to stage the one-act plays Facing Death and Pariah, which are rarely performed and less known to theatre-goers than The Stronger.  In fact, to Smith’s question as to how many people in the audience had read or seen them, only one hand went up.  The staged reading, Smith added, would include costumes, stage props, and scripts, but the latter, he promised, we would eventually stop noticing.  This was, indeed, the case.

Facing Death opened on a nearly empty stage with a table and two chairs, and an ornamental pattern, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations, projected onto the back wall.  The play centers on a dysfunctional family: the father, Monsieur Durand (Joe Menino), is the proprietor of a bankrupt boardinghouse who is unable to cope with the haunting memory of his dead wife and the challenge of raising three daughters.  There is a reason Strindberg labeled this and other plays from the early 1890s “one-acters out of cynical life”: Facing Death lacks even a hint of sentimentality.  The breadbasket is full of unpaid bills; Durand’s youngest daughter Thérèse, played with a perfect combination of charm and uselessness by the petite Bridget Coyne Gabbe, is a spoiled eighteen-year-old who amuses herself with rat traps; the only renter, Antonio (Kerry Malloy), in turn, amuses himself with Thérèse; Adéle (Kiki Bowman), the oldest daughter, can manage the kitchen but cannot save their bleak household.  In the end, the house goes up in flames, and Durand, now facing death by poison, begs Adéle to cash in whatever remains of the fire insurance policy.  His life insurance, however, he has already sold. 

Although subtitled A Tragedy, Facing Death does not follow even Dante’s loose definition of tragedy as that which “is tranquil and conducive to wonder at the beginning, but foul and conducive to horror at the end” (Dante, “The Letter to Can Grande,” 252).  Strindberg’s play begins and ends in existential horror: it shows us a world populated by unpleasant, irredeemable humans who lie to each other as well as to themselves, and ultimately land in hell, since paradise, we may recall from Strindberg’s demonic fantasy Coram Populo!, is ruled by a wicked and equally irredeemable God.

From his first entrance and until the fire that would enfold his reclining figure, Menino was magisterial as Durand.  Dressed in a simple shirt and slacks, his voice firm and trained to project to audiences larger than that gathered inside the Wild Project’s black-box theatre, Menino, who is also one of the co-artistic directors of the Ensemble, made the script vanish, particularly when he raised his eyes to establish much needed contact that a staged reading does not readily permit.  The other actors achieved a similar effect at heightened moments, but also, more routinely, by integrating their scripts into the scene as something of a stage prop.  Even when the stage directions did not call for a magazine or a book, the actors’ leafing through scrolls of papers helped convey the overwhelming sense of boredom that makes Strindberg so modern—an existential boredom that anticipates Beckett, and is half-affected and half-sincere, with characters pretending not to care but, with nothing better to do, colliding with their interlocutors in a battle of wills.

This is precisely what occurs in Pariah, Strindberg’s dramatization of a story by his friend Ola Hansson.  Mr. X (Menino), an archeologist, engages in intellectual combat with a traveler from America, Mr. Y (Malloy), of whose identity and intentions he is skeptical.  And rightly so: Mr. Y never signs his name.  In the course of their debate about crime and punishment, the archeologist keeps “digging” into his interlocutor’s past, first exposing him as a forger and then discovering that Mr. Y’s story is itself counterfeit, having been stolen from one of the books prominently displayed on stage. 

But the American traveler is not the only culprit.  The archeologist is an unintentional murderer who justifies his crime on utilitarian grounds, bringing to mind the plot of Balzac’s Père Goriot, while the American attempts to convince him that any crime deserves punishment, thus taking the side of Dostoevsky’s repenting Raskolnikov.  When Mr. Y tries to blackmail the archeologist by threatening to reveal the murder to his wife, Mr. X declares that he has anticipated the move, and tells the other man to leave immediately.  The play ends abruptly with more meaning undone than made.

While in the original play both men are designated as “middle-aged,” the visible age difference between the silver-bearded Menino and the youthful Malloy added an interesting dimension, making it more difficult but also more rewarding for the latter to assert his power.  Also, in Pariah, more so than in the other plays, lighting set the atmosphere: to signal the opening and closing of the window on the eve of a thunderstorm, the lights either illuminated or shaded the actors’ faces just as their motives came in and out of focus.

Following a quick scene change, The Stronger began.  The mise-en-scène was equally minimalist: the same table, two chairs, basket, mug, and beer bottle.  In this more frequently staged play, two rival actresses, Mme. X (Amy Fitts) and Mlle. Y (Bowman), engage in a comparable battle of wills, testing the limits of each other’s strength in professional and private life.  During their peculiar dialogue, Mme. X comes to realize that Mlle. Y has had an affair with her husband: she boasts of having embroidered his slippers with tulips only to grasp that those are Mlle. Y’s favorite flowers.  She then flings the slippers across the stage—the only notable plot element in a play devoid of any but psychological action. 

Struggling for resources, Strindberg wrote one-act plays with a low budget in mind: “Two characters, without plot, with sharp tension, in a Battle of the Brains, struggle between souls,” he wrote to his colleague Gustaf af Geijerstam in 1888 (qtd. in Martin 298).  Yet, necessity yielded a most inventive kind of drama.  In The Stronger, only Mme. X speaks while Mlle. Y remains silent throughout.  Silences become an effective dramatic device in Strindberg’s naturalistic theatre.  Although Mlle. Y has no actual lines, her gestures, groans, and eruptions into laughter are more expressive than words, even as she feigns indifference reading her magazine and sipping her beer.  Bowman, whose imposing presence in Facing Death was compromised by a muddled delivery of lines hardly justifiable in a staged reading, redeemed herself as the silent Mlle. Y.  At times, Bowman’s reactions were, perhaps, too violent, but what would be considered overacting in another context suited the character’s thespian accoutrements while also exposing the spiritual emptiness underneath.  Her silence, Mme. X concludes, was not “strength,” but the sad result of having “nothing to say.”  And as the new stronger leaves the café to go home to her husband, whom Mlle. Y has “[taught]…how to love,” the latter is left alone to sip her second beer (Other Sides,316-7; Joe Martin’s trans.).

After the cast bowed and gave their due to the Ensemble’s founder, who watched the uninterrupted 75-minute performance from the back of the theatre, a gentleman in the row behind me turned to his partner and asked, “Is this the intermission?”  The quick-paced one-acters clearly left the audience desiring more.  The Dance of Death will be a welcome dénouement to this series, and one more chance for New Yorkers to experience Strindberg. 

Works Cited:
Dante. “The Letter to Can Grande.” Trans. Robert Haller. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York/London: Norton, 2001. Print.

Strindberg, August. Plays from the Cynical Life. Trans./Intro. by Walter Johnson. Seattle and London: U of Washington P, 1983. Print.

-----. Strindberg—Other Sides: Seven Plays. Trans./Intro. by Joe Martin. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Print.

Picture credit: Amy Wagner and the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.