Since I went to see and write about Dances of Death, Howard Brenton's Strindberg adaptation at the Gate Theatre Notting Hill, the peculiar Swedish master - self-photographed above circa 1892* - has been popping up in various contexts. The first was musical, which I'll relate as a listenable footnote. The second was to find that he'd once, very briefly, stayed in a house virtually at the bottom of the garden owned and so beautifully tended by our Berlin-based friend and soprano extraordinaire Debbie along with husband Derek whom we've yet to meet (he was off working on the Ring in Milan).
Friedrichshagen, founded as its name suggests by Frederick the Great in 1753 to encourage cotton spinners from Silesia and Bohemia by giving them five-window houses with plots of land and planting lots of mulberry trees, was merged into Berlin in 1920, but still feels like a place apart, surrounded by woods and water. That's especially the case when you reach the end of Bölschestrasse (named after natural history writer Wilhelm Bölsche, central figure of the 'Friedrichshagener Dichterkreis'), take a left turn by what was once Berlin's biggest private brewery and the Müggelsee, Berlin's biggest lake in and out of which flows the River Spree, lies before you.
As I can think of few things more delicious than lake bathing, I was determined to take a dip in the Müggelsee on the evening of the most delightful birthday I can remember. The mosquitos had to be braved, but there was no problem about freezing water; the temperature, once in, turned out to be just right. The below shot's just about distant enough to pass muster for public consumption. You will note that I am not in the buff, as was the wont of Rudolf Steiner, another distinguished Friedrichshagen resident who arrived there in 1897 and walked around the lake starkers. The Germans still think nothing of it.
Strindberg came here in the autumn of 1892, taking the S-Bahn just as we did from Friedrichstrasse (in our case after a disappointing Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle performance of Britten's War Requiem, which was after all only an optional extra in the little holiday shared between Berlin and Dresden). The old, 'zerissene Berlin' map which hangs above the sofa in Debbie and Derek's biggest room shows you how far out Friedrichshagen was, and is, from the centre. It's defined here by its nearest neighbour, the similarly left-wing, free-spirited Köpenick where residents put up such a brave and, of course, fatal resistance to Hitler.
Strindberg lodged with fellow-writers Ola Hansson and his German-Baltic wife Laura Marholm at 2 Lindenallée. 'My boldest hopes exceeded here!' he wrote home, noting 'a little more air under my wings now I have a bigger fatherland than frightful Sweden'. Berlin lionized him and his plays, but personal relationships were as fragile as ever: after six weeks, surprise, surprise, he fell out with the Hanssons and moved on, holding court at an ordinary pub he called 'Zum schwarzen Ferkel' ('At the Black Porker'). The home at Lindenallée, however, handsomely restored after the fall of the wall, is the only Strindberg residence in Berlin to have survived the bombings of the Second World War, so this plaque is to be treasured.
I'm indebted for much of the above information, incidentally, to a book full of the most beautifully reproduced images - was there ever a more photographed turn-of-the-century artist than Strindberg? - given to us by Swedish friend Carl Otto, The Worlds of August Strindberg. The pictures of productions at the Intimate Theatre in the early 1900s are especially startling, and the text is full of salacious new details.
At our household on Fürstenwalder Damm, all was exceptionally natural and harmonious. How could it not be, spending most of the birthday as we did in the garden surrounded by peonies
and Johnson's Blue geraniums in full bee-adored midsummer glory.
Here's a shot towards the house, a massive project bought for a song - and as much for the garden as anything - which can be a little spooky when you're living on floors between ghosts. Very forbidding from the main road, but not at all from the haven at the back. And so much light, too.
Table decorations newly gathered for the day, my only duty, were a necessity
and then our guests arrived: the famous Wanderer (strictly speaking lower-case 'w'), Australian blog-ally and now very real friend along with partner Kim, who had ferried us to Dresden and back, and in whose company we spent three very happy days, and Debbie's UNESCO friend Annie. I have some lovely portrait shots, but they'd be out of place here, so let's make do with a distant shot from the stairwell of the big house:
Sustenance was simple** but of the essence and absolutely fresh: white asparagus, potatoes, salad from the garden, later strawberries, cherries and cakes from one of no less than three quality bakers on the main street. The Oz-men departed for their dose of War Requiem - their later verdict was much the same as mine the previous evening - and our dear Orfeuo, who has just started work in Berlin, arrived in time for our evening jaunt around the Müggelsee.
Bliss. Even the few mosquito bites I'm trying not to scratch are pleasant souvenirs. And now, back to Strindberg's married bloodsuckers and their favourite music, though it hardly suggests more than a little genteel barbarity. We have a vivid report from the director of the Intimate Theatre, August Falck, of Strindberg acting out the role of the Captain in The Dance of Death (to give its original title):
What he particularly liked to act was the powerful scene when Alice [the wife in the nearly 30 year old central relationship], with a bored expression, plays the march 'The Dance of the Boyars' [sic] which incites and hypnotises the Captain [her husband] to dance - wildly and clumsily, terrifyingly. At such moments he was an excellent actor - a great dramatic talent. His vivid impersonation remains for ever in my mind's eye and echoes in my ear.
I found this in the Michael Meyer biography only a day after I'd been working on notes for an EMI 13-CD box of performances by the late, great Paavo Berglund. And I'd been especially struck by a work I'd never heard before, Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen's Entry March of the Boyars. Inspired by a visit to Romania, Halvorsen's encore-worthy number was also arranged for piano by Grieg.
This is the piece to which Falck refers. Strindberg felt it was integral to any production, though the fact that there's no music at all in the Gate Dances of Death, only handclapping and footstomping, is perhaps even more effective. Berglund's performance isn't on YouTube, but the below one from Iceland will do. Entry March of the Boyars is halfway to being Wild Rumpus music for Where the Wild Things Are - though nothing will replace the favourite I play alongside readings to infants, the Dance of Chuzhbog and the Seven Monsters from Prokofiev's Scythian Suite.
*very proto-Expressionistic, isn't it? But then little about Berlin in the 1920s, the era seized on for the image of Weimar decadence, wasn't happening in the 1890s. Strindberg visited a gay dance bar and wrote about it with extreme distaste (probably because he was a bit of a closet case).
**somewhat indignantly, J reminds me that this was his first attempt at making a far from simple Hollandaise sauce for the asparagus, so under the cosh I add - albeit sincerely - that it was delicious.