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By Glenn Loney

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] Introduction
[02] Swedish Theatre Beginnings
[03] Strindberg, the Swedish Giant
[04] Beyond Strindberg—and Bergman
[05] Actual & Metaphorical Bridge To the Continent
[06] Bring Back Scandinavian Stop-Overs!
[07] Ingmar Bergman for Kids
[08] Dramatic Gold in Scandinavia!
[09] Swedish Theatre Biennale 2001
[10] New Swedish Dramas for American Audiences?


Aeons before Sweden became a nation with a name, its land-mass was separated from what's now Europe by great, gradual, earth-moving tectonic shifts. So, for centuries in the development of Western Civilization, Sweden remained cut off from the Continent.

Fortunately, the Swedes & other Vikings were skilled sailors, so they were able to cross the seas to the great ports of Europe. Thus, their own distinctive folk-culture did not develop in complete isolation from major cultural currents in Christendom.

The Vikings, of course, were great raiders & pillagers, so arts & artifacts from the continent gradually found their various ways to the great Northern Kingdoms of both Sweden & Denmark.

Thanks to Sweden's King Gustavus Adolphus—who, in the 30 Years War, led Protestant Armies in the heart of Europe against the Catholic Armies—the entire Library of Würzburg University was crated up and taken back to Sweden. Where it is still treasured…

Swedish Theatre Beginnings— But—aside from ritual religious presentations and folkloric entertainments—as late as the 18th century, Sweden still had not developed a strong native theatre-tradition. Italian Commedia players were imported for performances before the Royals & Nobles.

King Gustav III Adolf—the monarch assassinated in his own Stockholm Opera House, theatricalized in Verdi's The Masked Ball—was a prime-mover in developing both performances & audiences in the Swedish capital. At the world-famous court-theatre, the Drottningholm—he required even the servants to watch the plays and operas. Even today the theatre-benches still have the original tags on them, indicating seating by rank.

NESSUN DORMA--Bizarre masks of Chorus in modernist staging of Puccini's "Turandot." Photo: ©Stockholm Folkopera.
King Gustav may well have got his taste for theatricals from his mother, Queen Louisa Ulrika. The Drottningholm was specially constructed for her by Gustav's father, the King, as a birthday gift.

He may have felt obliged to do this, for her sister, Margravine Wilhelmina of Bayreuth, already had a magnificent Bibiena-designed Court Theatre in Bayreuth. Where she—as her nephew Gustav was to do—wrote her own opera-librettos & plays!

And, as both talented women were also sisters of Frederick the Great of Prussia—whose lovely Court Theatre is still in use at the Palace of Sans Souci in Potsdam—theatre & opera productions became a very important part of the cultural life of their courts & their cities.

LOST IN THE STARS--In Harry Martinsson's libretto for the modern Swedish Opera, "Aniara," the last space-ship to leave doomed Earth is running out of control. Photo: ©Royal Swedish Opera.
In modern times, the Royal Swedish Opera, founded by King Gustav, has become one of Europe's important opera-houses—even cut off as it is by sea from the rest the continent. Great Swedish opera-singers and composers have enjoyed fame world-wide.

Strindberg, the Swedish Giant— But, even with the development in Stockholm of a National Dramatic Theatre—the now celebrated Dramaten—the public still had to depend largely on dramatic classics and newer plays from abroad. With the emergence of August Strindberg, this slowly began to change.

Unfortunately for those talented modern Swedish playwrights—who have already made their mark on European continental theatres—in America, Strindberg is still virtually the sole Swedish playwright people can name.

What's even more embarrassing about this state of affairs is that North American Strindberg revivals are generally limited to a very small group of his large dramatic output. Miss Julie, The Father, and The Dance of Death: those are the favorites.

When was the last time you saw a major production of Queen Christina or Erik XIV? Or, for that matter, To Damascus?

True enough, regulars at BAM this season were privileged to see a haunting evocation of Strindberg's Dream Play, envisioned by no less a native American talent than Robert Wilson, working with actors of the Stockholm City Theatre.

But this was a very limited run, for a very few theatre aficionados. It was magisterial, however, and it made me remember an even more remarkable production—performed largely with puppets of all sizes—years ago, also by the Stockholm Stadsteater ensemble.

Stockholm has long been a Mecca for Puppet-Theatre practitioners and fans. largely thanks to the innovative productions of Michael Meschke and his Stockholm Marionette Theatre. [I was even asked to write a report on his work for the New York Times, when his company came to Manhattan long years ago.]

Beyond Strindberg—and Bergman… But there is now far more in the Swedish Theatre Canon than Strindberg!

While most North American theatre-fans have certainly heard of Ingmar Bergman—who began as a man of the theatre, importantly first in Southern Sweden's Malmö—how many know the plays of that other Bergman: Hjalmar Bergman?

I may be one of the few—not only because I used to go to Sweden every summer to check out developments in Swedish Theatre—but also because of the playwright's widow, Stina Bergman. She was determined that her husband's dramas should not be forgotten. She saw to it that they were produced—and that foreign journalists should know about his life & work.

But it has been almost 20 years since I was last able to spend some time looking at Swedish Theatre and seeing new Swedish plays. I know newer Swedish dramas—plays by Per Olov Enquist or by Lars Forssell, such as Sunday Promenade—largely because I've been invited to play-readings in Manhattan, sponsored by the Swedish Consulate & Information Services.

And I have been able to enjoy them in actable English translations, thanks to the talents of my colleague, Prof. Harry Carlson, of Queens College.

Enquist has had better luck, however, than Forssell with actual American productions. I have now seen several stagings of his Night of the Tribades, which deals with the militantly misogynist August Strindberg and his Wife from Hell, Siri von Essen.

Actual & Metaphorical Bridge To the Continent— Last summer, it suddenly became infinitely easier for Continental Europeans—if not for American theatre-buffs—to come to Sweden and sample its varied theatre-arts and new dramas.

With the grand Royal Opening last summer of the stunningly-designed epic bridge between Denmark's Copenhagen and Sweden's Malmö, the tectonic-disaster of aeons ago has been finally breached.

Now both art-lovers and business-people can drive directly—or take the train—over the great land-link of the new Øresund Bridge—without booking ahead for the sea-voyage on a ferry. This will also increase the public for theatres both in Copenhagen and Malmö. The downside is that Malmö may soon become a Copenhagen Bedroom-Community.

Bring Back Scandinavian Stop-Overs! Most US theatre-tourists aren't into car-rentals. So the great bridge isn't going to help Cultural Tourism from the New World very much.

Time was when any American's round-trip air-fare to Europe included several stop-overs in major cities, on the way to the farthest destination. It was my custom to buy a ticket to Vienna, with stop-overs variously in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, and/or Munich.

It would be a great gift to culturally-oriented tourists were this policy to be restored.

It would certainly stimulate Cultural Tourism, notably greatly increased attendance at summer theatre & music festivals! Not to mention the Trickle-Down effects of stay-overs in hotels and gourmet-dining in restaurants.

Years ago, I didn't sit still in Stockholm, either. I'd begin there, having flown in via SAS, but soon I'd validate my Eurail-Pass and be off to Göteborg, Kalmar, Malmö, and Norrkøpping/Linkøpping, where I had a friend in that twin-city theatre ensemble. [She is now a countess in Munich, having gone there to work with Bergman, when he left Sweden more in sorrow than in anger.]

I'd sail off to the island of Gotland, to an ancient ruined monastery church in Visby, to see the famed religious pageant, Petrus de Dacia. Or I'd be off to the heart of Dalarna to see Rune Lindstrøm's religious folk-drama, The Road to Heaven, which owes a lot to Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

VÅR TEATER--One of Stockholm's admired Children's Theatres. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2001.
One of the most interesting aspects of modern theatre in Stockholm, in those days, was the development of Children's Theatres, in which children made plays only for other children. Not for adults, nor with any idea of training for careers in theatre.

Not only were these small stages developing audiences for the future, but they were also helping the children learn how to interact with others, to be more self-confident, and to activate their imaginations. Swedish Children's Theatres were years ahead of their American counterparts.

Ingmar Bergman for Kids— Anita Pein was touring admirable productions through Stockholm schools. And, during the brief three years that Ingmar Bergman was director of Dramaten—taking a holiday from film-making—he began producing theatre-matinées for school-children on the main-stage. He told me at that time: "The best is good enough for our children!"

Bergman hated the idea of failed or third-rate actors making careers acting badly in productions for kiddies. He asked his famous film-stars—Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjørnstrand—to be in these plays. Such fare as Romeo & Juliet, Our Town: grown-up dramas which could also appeal to young people.

These great cinema-stars were also members of the regular ensemble of Dramaten, which is why he made his great films in the summer: the theatre was closed.

A year later, I returned to ask him how this project had worked out. He was dejected. His stars didn't want to get up so early, come to the theatre, and put on make-up when they could have been snoozing at home.

But when he felt really dejected about affairs at the theatre, he told me, he would watch their production of the children's tale, Klaus Klettermaus. "It always cheered me up!"

Now the Swedes are pushing a musical version of another Scandinavian kiddie-classic: Pippi Långstrump, or Pippi Longstockings. This might just get some action in North America, for Astrid Lindgren's pig-tailed young heroine is well known here in translation.

But Pippi isn't the only attractive dramatic "Property" now on offer from Sweden!

THERE'S GOLD IN THEIR NEW WORKS -- Nordic theater professionals woke up their American counterparts to a plethora of dynamic new Scandinavian plays in "Scandinavia On Stage."
(Photo by Jonathan Slaff)
Dramatic Gold in Scandinavia!

Thanks to a recent and very stimulating two-day Manhattan conference—at the handsome new Scandinavia House on South Park—New York theatre-people & critics have discovered that there's a Mother Lode of new plays in the Lands of the Northern Light.

Many are not only available in excellent English translations, but they also have been published for easy access in five spiral-bound volumes. There's one for each of the theatre-addicted Scandinavian Nations: Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and, of course, Sweden. These culturally-active countries were represented at the NYC conference by leading playwrights, producers, and critics.

Even more impressive than merely reading the provocative scripts themselves was also hearing/seeing them in staged-readings by leading New York performers, such as Helen Stenborg!

Nor was this one of those patronizing International Exercises in "appreciating" modern plays about distinctively Scandinavian characters, in notably localized conflicts, with little generalized appeal to wider audiences beyond the boundaries of, say, Reykjavik, or even of Norway.

That has, of course, been a major problem with modern films from Scandinavia—aside from those of Ingmar Bergman. Local problems, local concerns, local visions, even local kooks, do not travel well either on stage or screen.

STOCKHOLM'S FILMHUSET--Home of Swedish Film Institute. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2001.
Fortunately—on the generous evidence of the "live" twenty-minute segments we New Yorkers were able to sample at Scandinavia House—most of these new dramas clearly have a wide human appeal and a fresh, even unusual, approach to basic problems of relationships and survival in the modern world.

Good idiomatic translations help a lot, of course.

It is admittedly much more difficult to savor or evaluate new Swedish drama, for instance, when one is actually seeing it in performance in Stockholm. Rather than reading it in English…

Ancient & Modern Classics—which any theatre-buff or critic should already know—pose no great problem. One can thus pay closer attention to the achievements of the ensembles, directors, and designers in making these Old Friends come alive.

English synopses are the next best thing for new plays. But, over the years—like my colleague & friend, Village Voice critic Michael Feingold—I have adapted my functional German to learn to understand conversational Swedish texts, though more so in reading than in hearing.

Nonetheless, thanks to the excellent & provocative presentation of New Swedish Dramatists at the New York Conference by Margareta Sörenson, I realize it is high time to high-tail it back to Stockholm and catch up on new developments in Swedish Theatre.

Margareta Sörenson is theatre & dance critic for Stockholm's leading evening newspaper, Expressen. She's also an expert on Puppets & Puppet-Theatres, having worked with my favorite Puppet-Master, Michael Meschke.

Swedish Theatre Biennale 2001— From 23-27 May, in fact, Ms. Sörenson will be welcoming native & foreign theatre-experts and enthusiasts to the Svenska Teater Biennalen 2001. She gave me a copy of the program prospectus, and it looks like an instant Refresher-Course for anyone who once was familiar with Swedish theatre—as well as an excellent introduction for those who know little or nothing of Swedish plays and productions now.

Unfortunately, the registration deadline was 9 April, but there will be another Biennial in two years, so one can plan ahead! Even if they waived the cut-off date for me, I'm booked at that time for the International Theatre Critics Conference in Montreal & Quebec. But I'm already looking forward to the Svenska Teater Biennalen 2003.

Nonetheless, I'm sorry to miss this event. Not only is it in Växjö, a Swedish center previously unknown to me, but it promises a wide variety of theatre productions: modern dramas, native & foreign, as well as children's theatre and puppet-plays.

Margareta Sörenson is one of a panel of seven Swedish theatre-critics who have chosen the shows for the Biennale. But Sweden's theatres—as elsewhere in Europe—are feeling the economic pinch of diminishing subsidies.

Economic constraints—and scheduling problems—have prevented Dramaten from showing its acclaimed productions of Molière's Don Juan and Michael Frayne's Copenhagen. The Unga Klara staging of LöparenThe Runner—also cannot be shown.

A particular disappointment will be the absence of the Riksteater production of Bön för Tjernobyl, or Prayer for Chernobyl. That epic nuclear disaster has a special resonance for the Swedes.

The radioactive clouds from the Chernobyl Reactor meltdown were first monitored by Sweden. I was in Budapest when this occurred and learned of it only by listening to proscribed BBC news. Hungarian media said absolutely nothing, showing only May Day photos of pretty maidens in Kiev, near the epicenter of the disaster. Swedish sources warned of the dangers of eating any foods which could have been exposed to the radiation. We threw out the milk and the fresh vegetables…

Fortunately, the Riksteater will be showing Etienne Glaser's staging of the late Peter Weiss's The Investigation. Some years ago, I was able to interview Glaser, then a very promising young director, as he was doing innovative work in Stockholm. [Another time, I interviewed Peter Weiss's wife, Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, who had designed the madhouse setting for his Marat/Sade.]

FORMER FILMSTADEN--Once Stockholm's Film-Studios, now home of Riksteater, the National Touring Theatre of Sweden. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2001.
As Sweden's National Touring Theatre, the Riksteater performance ensemble is located in the historic buildings of Svensk Films, where some major modern classics have been made.

Among the productions scheduled for Växjö later this month are three by Strindberg: Erik XIV, The Father, and To Damascus. But none of the dramas is to be treated as a classic text. Teater Halland's Erik will find himself translated into Commedia dell'Arte, with interactions between stage and audience.

For The Father, director Thorsten Flinck, of Teater Plaza, has mixed Slapstick & Freud with subtlety & vulgarity, using theatre-installations among other devices "to reach the absolute pain-spot."

WHERE IT'S AT--Map of Filmstaden complex, showing workshops of the National Touring Theatre of Sweden. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2001.
Strindberg's Stranger—in the Göteborg City Theatre production of To Damascus—will appear in his undershorts. This is a visual innovation by Danish director Katrine Wiedemann.

Masks & Shadow-Play will be used in the Byteatern staging of Medeas barn, or Medea's Children. This drama, by Suzanne Osten & Per Lysander, has become virtually a modern classic in Sweden, and, indeed, throughout Europe. I most recently saw it in a striking production by Munich's Theater der Jugend.

TRUNKS FOR TOURING--Ready for costumes of Sweden's famed Riksteater. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2001.
The local regional theatre of Blekinge/Kronoberg will show Luffarens dröm, or Dream of the Tramp. This was written by the Sweden's adventurer-poet, Harry Martinsson. It was his SciFi fiction which inspired the impressive modern Swedish opera, Aniara, about a doomed space-ship, with a powerful modernist score by the late Karl Birger Blømdahl.

WIGMAKER AT WORK--One of the theatre-skills on call at Sweden's National Touring Theatre. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2001.
Bertolt Brecht's European Chalk Circle and Arthur Miller's Broken Glass are to be the two major non-Swedish dramas on view.

New Swedish Dramas for American Audiences? This is all very attractive, but, in truth, it doesn't provide much of a showcase for younger Swedish playwrights, some of whom were on hand in New York to discuss their work after the staged-readings.

The thrust of the NYC conference was not only to raise American Theatre Consciousness about new work in the five Scandinavian Nations, but also, where possible, to encourage North American productions.

One of the five spiral playbooks distributed in New York offered five new Swedish plays in effective English translations. Introduced by Margareta Sörenson, they include Mattias Andersson's The Runner, which will be presented in Växjö

The other interesting scripts are Sofia Fredén's Hand in Hand, Jonas Gardell's People in the Sun, Kristina Lugn's The Night Walkers, and Niklas Rådström's Quartet.

But this quintet of Swedish dramatists are hardly the only talents Margareta Sörenson singled out in her New York discussion of new work, or in her informative essay in Contemporary Swedish Drama.

She also saluted Lars Norén, who, she says, is the only living Swedish playwright who can be compared with the great August Strindberg.

That he has written many plays and that some are of epic dimensions suggests also that he could be compared to America's Eugene O'Neill, long more revered in Sweden than in the United States.

Norén's Night Is the Mother of Day has been widely played in Europe. I saw it in fact in Munich, in German. Norén is certainly an important modern dramatist whose plays should be shown in America.

But, judging from some of the recent Manhattan theatre-panels—dominated by US Theater-Machers—American directors, dramaturgs, and producers have other agendas than giving the green-light to an express loaded with Scandinavian dramas.

But now that they've had the opportunity to think about what their Scandinavian counterparts had to say about Life & Theatre—and have had time to read some of the new scripts—they may well want to change Attitudes & Preconceptions!

OLYMPIAN ENJOYMENTS--Scenic drop for Riksteater production. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2001.
Katarina Frostenson is another Swedish playwright Ms. Sörenson admires. She cites Dream and Ward P as of special interest.

Per Olov Enquist has already been noted—and produced in the United States. The Lesbian element his Strindbergian Night of the Tribades was surely the major impetus for productions.

Staffan Göthe, Magnus Nilsson, Margarete Garpe, Karin Boldemann, Magnus Dahlström, Stig Larsson, Bodil Malmsten, Barbro Smeds, Agneta Ehlers-Jarleman, Ingegerd Monthan, Eva Ström, Mia Törnqvist, Thomas Tidholm, & Staffan Westerberg are other important practicing playwrights who make Ms. Sörenson' not-so-short list.

Her interesting and informed discussions of their various works—brief though they are in her introductory essay—invite one to read many of these plays which have been translated. And to want to see them performed in innovative productions, as well!

Fortunately, the Swedish Theatre Union & Swedish ITI just last season published a catalogue of Contemporary Swedish Drama Translated to Foreign Languages. No less than 25 languages are represented, including Persian, Japanese, and Hebrew!

Plays by well over a hundred Swedish dramatists—including dramas by Ingmar Bergman and his successor as Intendant at Dramaten, Erland Josephson—have been translated into English. Nobel Prize-winner Selma Lagerlöf is among them, as is Per Lagerqvist, author of Barabbas. And, of course, Astrid Lindgren with her world-famous Pippi Långstrump!

For those who would like more information about Contemporary Swedish Drama—whether in translations, in critiques, in catalogues, or in actual productions in Sweden and abroad—please contact:

Swedish Information Service: 885 Second Ave., 45th Fl, NYC 10017, (212) 751-5900.

U.S. International Theater Institute: c/o TCG, 355 Lexington Ave., NYC 10017, (212) 697-5230.

American Scandinavian Foundation: 725 Park Ave., NYC 10021, (212) 879-9779.

Svensk Teaterunion ITI, Mosebacke Torg 1, 116 46 STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, phone 011 + 46 8-462 25 30, fax 011 +46 8-462 25 35, e-mail: swedish.iti@stockholm.mail.telia.com


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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2001. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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