Chapter 4 – My youth and the theater

My childhood and youth were a roller coaster, as contradictory as can be imagined. I was probably seen by most as a privileged child. But at the same time I had a mother who was totally inconsistent. At one period of our lives she loved us, me and my sister Gun. She cared, she laughed and she played with us. At other times she was a black cloud of fury. We never knew where we were or what to expect when the current storm was over. She was a great artist. She was a sensuous and loving woman. She was full of charm. She was also full of rage. She would hug us and invent games for us. And at other times she would scream at us in fits of fury that we didn’t even quite understand the reasons for.

But in spite of Mother’s being so unpredictable, I was in a way a privileged child and young girl. I always felt as if I was on the fringe though and that’s probably a feeling I’ve had ever since my parents divorced when I was about ten years old. But by and large, I was pretty much at peace with myself in my teens and I had a feeling of belonging, even though I was so different.

The sound between the mainland and the island that we got to via a cable-driven ferry that took one car at a time.

Photo of Hamburgsund taken with my first camera ever – 1949. The sound between the mainland and the island that we got to via a cable-driven ferry that took one car but quite a few people at a time.

We had wonderful vacations in Lapland and also on the fabulous Swedish west coast, a good life essentially. The west coast of Sweden, a province called Bohuslän was a paradise very different from Lapland. There are rocky islands, sounds and bays and wonderful but pretty cool swimming.

The whole family went there in 1949, Sappo included. Arne and I had been there on a short trip the previous year when Gun and Mother went to Lapland. (That was the summer I was being confirmed — heaven only knows why! — so I guess Arne was baby-sitting with me.) But this time I told Mother I would like to learn to take pictures. She reached up to a shelf and got a camera down for me.

Sappo is sitting up in the rocks where he loved to roam around. This might well have been my very first photo.

Sappo is sitting up in the rocks where he loved to roam around. This might well have been my very first photo. (the same old camera)

It wasn’t the best obviously, but nor was it a worthless camera. I practiced and most of my pictures were so so, but what can you expect from a beginner?

Mother had given me a very good lesson about time settings and apertures, the settings for snow and water, a sunny sky, and different times of the day. I did my best.

We traveled by train, as one did in those days. Once we had arrived in Hamburgsund (originally Homburgsund) and after finding the house where we rented the upper floor from a very tidy fisherman’s family,we felt ready for a dip in the ocean (the North Sea, very salty).

Arne and my sister Maja are busy chalking the badminton court. We were going to stay for quite a few weeks and we thought we needed occupation.

Arne and my sister Gun are busy chalking the badminton court. We were going to stay for quite a few weeks and we thought we needed some variation in our daily laziness. And of course Sappo is with us.

We told the normally very obedient Sappo to stay on land as we swam out to get the train aroma off our skin. But as we were pretty far out from land, we suddenly heard some heavy breathing behind us. Sappo had clearly gotten worried for some reason. Were we going to leave him? Were we in danger and he had to come and rescue us? He had decided to swim out to where we were to rescue us if need be. What an extraordinary dog.

That was the summer I experienced my first epiphany. We had walked out to the western edge of the island, all four of us, or five since Sappo was always with us. Once at the side of the water we all searched out a flat rock to lie on. I closed my eyes and the sun was warm on my face and body. Then suddenly a miracle happened and I was one with the rock under me and the rocks around me. It was a most extraordinary feeling of being one with nature. Time stood still and there was only the close-by eternal sound of the breaking of big waves, the long rollers coming in from the North Sea. I have had a similar experience a few times later on in life, but it’s a rare moment when it flashes by, a whiff of eternity and of unending beauty.

As for the photos, I’m glad I’ve made some progress as a photographer since those days, that is in my grown-up days. In Luxeuil-les-Bains though, I had the same camera and my pictures there were not much better.

There is an event that stands out in my memory of this very pleasant summer. Boyfriends and dancing at outdoor summer dancing places with mostly an accordion to play the part of the band. We either brought our bikes from Malmö on the train or we borrowed bikes from the family where we were staying. I remember biking around uneven roads in Bohuslän to these dance places that traffic and rain had made into giant washboards. Our hands would tingle after a while on those ruffled roads.

A young fisherman had a crush on Gun (nothing unusual, all young men did) and so he invited us to go out one night fishing mackerel, and we were more than willing. It was a rather small boat, two or three fishermen, and they threw out, I believe, four lines on either side of the boat, each line having several hooks. There was constant activity. One line is put out and on the other side of the boat another line is pulled in, the fish unhooked and thrown in a vast container. We loved the entire experience, the night out on the sea and watching the hard-working fishermen. In Swedish it’s called ‘dörja makrill’. The thing that sticks in my mind more than the rest though is the cod they caught. There is of course no guarantee that only mackerels are going to take the bite, so they caught a cod. They said they didn’t know what to do with a cod, so did we want it? In those days cod was known as the most everyday fish, but good enough. Of course we wanted it.

So we walked back to ‘our’ house and Mother boiled the cod in nothing but salted water. In the big kitchen on the upper floor of our rented apartment we sat down right away after the ten minutes, or so, of cooking time. It was the best fish I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was about one hour old and I had never eaten fish that fresh before. Wrong. Two years earlier, Park Nisse, the National Park Guard in Abisko had let us fish trout with his fishing rods and Mother cooked them on the wood stove in the National Park hut in Abiskojaure. It was a dream too.

Back to Malmö and my friends. We used to have little parties most Saturday evenings with the same group of ‘kids’, as Americans would say, (or even ‘guys’) at our place or someone else’s. A group of girls and our boyfriends, who sometimes changed. We collected 78 rpm records (now called stenkakor, stone cakes) and we danced to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Glenn Miller, and many others. Basically we had fun. We worked hard, but weekends were still time for breathing and relaxing with friends.

I was extremely fortunate to have my stepfather, Arne, as a constant stimulation to make me interested in the world around me, in history, in reading, and of course in the theater. In that way I was indeed a most privileged teenager. We had a beautiful apartment and we sometimes took evening walks with Sappo, our gorgeous German shepherd, in Slottsparken or in the park in front of our apartment building. Occasionally we would join the evening dog club on the vast field bordering on the water front, Öresundsparken. This was the park between our street and the sound, Öresund, that separates southernmost Sweden from Denmark.

My adored playmates when I was a young girl, Sappo and Figaro

My adored playmates when I was a young girl, Sappo and Figaro, vite-Figge who was actually Figaro II. (Foto Molin)

And our wonderful Sappo had a buddy whose name was Figaro, in fact there was first svarte Figge (black Figaro) and later vite Figge (white Figaro). When we were lying out on the lawn in the park on a sunny afternoon, as soon as Figaro climbed up in a tree, Sappo would stand guard at the base of the tree, watching out for other dogs who might not like Figge as much as he did.

Arne had given our cats their name because of his favorite opera which was Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’. It really is a coincidence that John picked the same name for our present cat, who is Figaro III and very black, an Egyptian-style black cat, as loving, loved and adorable as can be imagined.

One of the two ponds in Öresundsparken can be seen in this photo. The vast field where we joined the 'dog club' was beyond this park and right next to the sound.

Behind the wintry trees is one of the two ponds in Öresundsparken. The vast field where we joined the ‘dog club’ some evenings was beyond this park and right next to the Sound. (from 2011)

In the winter we went skating on the two beautiful ponds in the park. I was never a really good skater, but the air was crisp, the park was beautiful, my friends were there and I enjoyed it.

From our balcony, where we sometimes had dinner on nice evenings, we could see wonderful sunsets over Copenhagen and on clear days we could recognize all the various towers in Copenhagen: the stocky Round Tower, the Marble Church with its round dome, Our Savior’s church, the City Hall tower, the Stock Exchange that had the most extraordinary tower of them all, huge snakes wound around the tower all the way to the top, Christiansborg Castle, the Danish Parliament, with another easily recognizable tower, and the Nicolajkirke with its green tower. It has now become a modern art exposition hall.  It became a game to pick out the towers and name them. Marmorkirken, the domed Marble Church, was the easiest one.

And of course there was the theater. There was the new Malmö Stadsteater (Malmö City Theater) inaugurated in September 1944, a repertory theater, the biggest one in Sweden and the most modern one in Europe at the time.

A wintry picture of Malmö Stadsteater, inaugurated in September, 1944

A wintry picture of Malmö Stadsteater, inaugurated in September, 1944 (Photo 2011)

We saw many of the plays and we loved those evenings. Arne would usually get the seats of the director of the theater when it was not the premiere, so we were very well seated. Arne and Mother would usually attend the premieres, dressed in evening clothes and I remember one time Arne said that only he and the Mayor were wearing top hats, the ones that went with formal evening wear. Oh, how times have changed. You can still see evening gowns at Malmö Stadsteater, but formal evening wear for men is definitely nothing but a memory.

Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (En midsommarnattsdröm) was the inauguration play, directed by Sandro Malmquist, our first director of the theater and a superb metteur-en-scène, who had studied drama with the historical Max Reinhardt in Berlin. Since the theater was the pioneer in Sweden for school performances, I saw it with my grade school class, the year before I started high school. Before the beginning of the play, a man came out from behind the heavy red curtain decorated with white theater masks. He talked to us about Shakespeare and the play. We were all eagerly listening. He came across as a very good pedagogue. That was Arne, my future stepfather. He came into our lives the very next year. (At dinner one evening a couple of years later, I happened to say, in a Freudian slip, ‘before we married Arne’ a lapsus that has gone down in history.)

Mother was the theater’s photographer and  I have very recently found that her photos are archived at what is now called Malmö Opera. A vast number of her photos are on the Internet. Those were my absolute favorite photos by Mother. She had already taken excellent photos at the children’s theater (Malmö barnteater) in the Amusement park (Folkets Park) in Malmö, and she became the photographer of our new theater very soon after its opening.

I have now saved and treated all the 661 photos I could find of Mother’s from the Internet and mostly with the enormous and enthusiastic help from Elzbieta Lejczak who managed the Malmö Opera archives until 2016 when the archives were moved to Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm. It took me three years to do that work and it was only finished in 2016 just as the Opera archives were moved to Stockholm. Elzbieta became much more than a cooperator – she became a close friend and I hope we wil always stay in touch. [1]

Some performances stand out. First of all, on Intima teatern, Jean Anouilh’s ‘Antigone’ in 1948, wonderfully directed by the new director of the theater, Stig Torsslow. “The play was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Atelier on February 6, 1944, during the Nazi occupation. Produced under Nazi censorship, the play is purposefully ambiguous with regard to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon). The parallels to the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation are clear, however.”(Wikipedia)

Oscar Winge as Creon and Gun Robertson as Antigone

Oscar Winge as Creon and Gun Robertson as Antigone (Jean Anouilh)

Oscar Winge, who played Creon, the ruler of Thebes, had always been associated with operettas and he was the former director of an operetta theater, Hippodromen. Stig Torsslow had now found out that he was also a superb actor. He probably weighed well over 200 pounds (It was really funny to watch him getting into his tiny Fiat, it was a push and a squeeze.) – but wow, the stage presence! Antigone was played by Gun Robertson who was a somewhat uneven actress, sometimes average, and sometimes, as in this performance, absolutely superb. Getting an actress/actor to surpass his standard best is the work of a good director, the metteur-en-scène.  I remember Oscar Winge as Creon sitting on his ‘throne’, and Antigone arguing with him, sitting on the left. His throne was a white straight-lined construction in the center of the stage at the intimate theater (Intiman), which has just a couple of hundred seats.  I was 15 years old and I was spellbound.

The opening stage of Antigone. Creon is in his armchair and Ismene at his feet; Antigone is in the center and Eurydice is knitting on the right, throughout the entire play, until her death -- the nurse holding the yard between her hands.

The opening scene of Antigone. Creon is in his armchair and Ismene at his feet; Antigone is in the center-right and Eurydice is knitting on the right, throughout the entire play, until her death — the nurse holding the yarn between her hands. The narrator (chorus — Olle Florin) is leaning on the wall on the left.

I read the play, when I was a student majoring in French at Lund University, and I will always find ‘Antigone’ to be one of Anouilh’s very best plays.

The play was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in February 1944 during the Nazi occupation and the parallels to the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation are clear.

Antigone (Gun Robertson) and the Nurse (Jullan Kindahl)

Antigone (Gun Robertson) and the Nurse (Jullan Kindahl)

Antigone, Creon’s niece, is the epitome of the rebel and Creon the one of stubborn pride. She represents the angry and youthful rejection of authority and Creon is the very embodiment of that authority.

After the death of Oedipus, their father, Antigone’s two brothers are competing for the throne of Thebes. This infighting ends up in a duel that leaves them both dead. Creon, the uncle who now becomes king, decrees that Antigone’s brother Polynice, in order to set an example so that someone will be punished for this bloodletting, must not be buried. Antigone rebels and insists on burying Polynice, against Creon’s firm orders. Haemon, Creon’s son is Antigone’s lover. Creon tries without success to convince Antigone to marry his son quickly and to abandon her plans to bury Polynice against his own orders. Antigone rejects all attempts to save herself and Haemon. She is immured and in the end she hangs herself. After his loved one’s death, Haemon stabs himself and on hearing this his mother, the queen Eurydice, finally stops her knitting, goes up to her room and cuts her throat. Creon is alone. 1

Anders Fritiof as the Jew and moneylender Shylock , in 'The Merchant of Venice'

Anders Fritiof as the Jew and moneylender Shylock , in ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Another favorite of mine was Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, directed by the now historic director from the Royal Dramatic Theater, Olof Molander. The Jew Shylock was played by Anders Fritiof. Shakespeare was actually serious in his writing about Shylock as the shrewd and villainous Jew and moneylender, intended to be laughed at. Around 1600 that was not shocking. The play was listed as a comedy along with all his other far more lighthearted comedies. We actually know very little about Shakespeare as a person anyway. Shylock was certainly played as a repulsive clown during Shakespeare’s days and for a couple of centuries after that. 2

But the trend changed at the beginning of the 19th century and he has ever since then been portrayed much more sympathetically.

Georg Årlin as the town’s very sad intellectual and drunk, who ends up committing suicide (Our Town)

There was ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder in 1948, a very inspired mise-en-scène by Gösta Folke that I still remember certain scenes from. It was such a very different way of writing and performing a theater play that I found it absolutely fascinating. No set, no props, a stylized play about the fleeting scenes in the life of a town going by. Something absolutely new to me – and probably to most of the audience when it was first performed in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1938.

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (Linje Lusta) by Tennessee Williams, in the spring of 1949, also directed by Stig Torsslow, was another one of my very favorite plays on the small stage (Intiman). It was an excellent performance with guest performer, Irma Christenson as Blanche, our own excellent Erik Strandmark as the Polish rough-hewn Stanley Kowalski and Agneta Prytz as Stella, so very different from her neurotic sister Blanche, who couldn’t let go of the family’s past glory. Now, because of Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie,  I guess I see Stanley Kowalski as Marlon Brando, but ‘our’ performance was excellent as well and made me an admirer of Tennessee Williams for the rest of my life. I have read all his plays and I like them all. ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ may be my very favorite, and I have seen the 1958 movie, a masterpiece by Richard Brooks at least a couple of times. The actors, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives as Big Daddy are almost perfect, even if Elizabeth Taylor’s southern accent sounds just a wee bit artificial.

Arne directed numerous plays, among them Joseph Kesselring’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ and ‘Blithe Spirit’ (Min fru går igen) by Noel Coward. He also directed a few Danish and Swedish plays that are a bit difficult to translate.There was the comedy ‘Once upon a Time’ (Der var engang) by Holger Drachman on the main stage, written in 1885, a play that had met with enormous success at Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen. It’s a fairy comedy that has become something of a national Danish comedy.

Agneta Prytz as Malin's Maria, the high-strung young girl who believes she will give birth to a new Messiah. (Vår ofödde son, (Vilhelm Moberg

Agneta Prytz as Malin’s Maria, the high-strung young girl who believes she will give birth to a new Messiah. (Vår ofödde son, (Vilhelm Moberg

He directed the drama ‘The Oath of a Soldier’ (Krigsmans erinran) by Herbert Grevenius, and maybe first of all Vilhelm Moberg’s drama ‘Our Unborn Son’ (Vår ofödde son). Vilhelm Moberg was one of our great novelists and playwrights. Moberg was born into poverty and in his plays he always dealt with contemporary social problems. This play is about the issue of abortion and it takes place in a country school in a small town where the young teacher becomes pregnant. It was published in 1945.

Arne also directed Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’, which he had dramatized several years earlier. And also, one of his major contributions to the theater was as a teacher of the drama students who often went on to excellent careers. Arne was a born pedagogue.

Anders de Wahl, guest performer from Dramaten, as Markurell (Markurells i Wadköping, Hjalmar Bergman)

Anders de Wahl, guest performer from Dramaten, as Markurell (Markurells i Wadköping, Hjalmar Bergman)

In another chapter I talk about our remarkable writer, novelist and playwright, Hjalmar Bergman (‘His Lordship’s Last Will’, Hans Nåds testamente), which I saw at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm in 1961. In Malmö, ‘we’ performed  another famous play by Hjalmar Bergman, a novel dramatized by himself ‘Markurells of Wadköping’. The director was Sandro Malmquist and the incomparable Anders de Wahl, a guest actor from Dramaten, was the vulgar nouveau riche Markurell, the innkeeper, who has a beautiful wife played by wonderful Stina Ståhle. This tragicomic man nevertheless manages to move us when his life risks turning into disaster. It is, once again, like so often in Scandinavian literature, the eternal theme of who is the father of the young boy, in this case Johan.

Our theater produced so many excellent plays that I’d like to mention here, but I will first of all limit myself to two more plays mainly because of the excellent actors, or actresses in this case. First of all Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan’ (Sankta Johanna) with Inge Waern as Joan, also directed by Sandro Malmquist. Another very different play by Bernard Shaw was ‘Pygmalion’ with Viveka Linder as Eliza Doolittle, directed by Knut Hergel.

Inge Waern as Saint Joan in the play by Bernard Shaw

Inge Waern as Saint Joan in the play by George Bernard Shaw

Obviously Shakespeare was well represented among our performances in those days and also later on. I have already mentioned ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (Köpmannen i Venedig). We also did ‘The Taming of a Shrew’ (Så tuktas en argbigga), directed by Sandro Malmquist and, of course, ‘Hamlet’, also directed by Sandro Malmquist. It was praised highly and Gunnar Sjöberg in the role of Prince Hamlet was highly praised. (See photo galleries below). The Finnish-Swedish guest performer from the Finnish National Theater, Ella Eronen, one of the most prominent theater artists of her time, was a sublime queen Gertrude, and our own Inge Waern was equally moving and also probably the most beautiful Ophelia one can possibly imagine. Her ethereal beauty brightened many of our performances at Malmö Stadsteater.

On the small stage (Intiman) there was ‘Le mariage forcé’ (Brudgum mot sin vilja) by Molière; ‘Huis clos’ (Closed Doors, Slutna dörrar) and, a couple of years later, ‘Les mains sales’ (Dirty Hands, Smutsiga händer) by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Elsa Widborg as The Mother in 'Blood Wedding' (Garcia Lorca)

Elsa Widborg as The Mother in ‘Blood Wedding’ (Garcia Lorca)

We performed  ‘Blood Wedding’ (Blodsbröllop, Bodas de sangre) by Garcia Lorca with the great Elsa Widborg as the mother, a guest from the Royal Dramatic Theater –  just to mention my favorite plays.

Shakespeare was always produced on the big stage of the theater that seated 1600 people. Among other memorable productions on the big stage, I vividly remember August Strindberg’s play ‘A Dream Play’ (Ett drömspel). It was a magic performance, directed by the Swedish Strindberg specialist, Olof Molander from the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. He used a star set with, first of all, Inga Tidblad (also from ‘Dramaten’) as Indra’s daughter, possibly the most inspiring Swedish actress ever. Arne would tell us that Olof Molander was a genius for sure but that, when he wasn’t pleased with a performance, the actors trembled and sometimes broke down in tears.

Inga Tidblad as Indra's daughter and Carl Ström, the lawyer, her husband.

Inga Tidblad as Indra’s daughter and Carl Ström, the lawyer, her husband (A Dream Play)

‘A Dream Play’ has been considered the first of the theater of the absurd. It is a long fluid dream with the major theme being Indra’s daughter’s repeated line ‘Humans are to be pitied’ (Det är synd on människorna). She takes the place of the gatekeeper at the opera (called the ‘portress’ by the translator 3) in order to listen to the sufferings of all the people who have confided in the portress, sufferings  that have been collecting in the gatekeeper’s shawl for thirty years. The shawl is heavy. Indra’s daughter finally can no more stand all the misery of humans that she has been witnessing. In the end she returns to where she came from, to her father in Heaven.

 

I saw ‘A Dream Play’ much later in Paris but it wasn’t at all what it could have been. It is a surrealistic and poetic play, but maybe it takes a Swedish director to get into the thwarted mind of Strindberg.

The play on the big stage that stands out the most in my memory is ‘The Threepenny Opera’ (Tolvskillingsoperan, Die Dreigroschenoper) by dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, which the theater produced in 1946.  Brecht had adapted his play from John Gay’s 18th-century ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and it’s a marvelous socialist critique of the capitalist world and a defense of the poor, from prostitutes to the Beggar King who keeps an army of poor rascals who pretend infirmity in order to get more money from the rich. Every morning Peachum, the beggar king, sends out his army of beggars who come back in the evening to give him the loot and discard their wooden legs or whatever made them look like cripples. It’s also a love story of course between Polly Peachum and Mackie the Knife. It was directed by Sandro Malmquist, our first director of Malmö Stadsteater, and he made it a very memorable performance.

After ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which was the inauguration play in 1944, ‘The Threepenny Opera’ was one of the first major performances on the main stage. Stina Ståhle and Robert Johnson, who were going to play Mr and Mrs Peachum, came to our home to listen to Arne’s records (78s of course) of the original performance with Kurt Weill’s wife, unsurpassable Lotte Lenya. They wanted to get an idea of how the roles had been interpreted in the original staging. (I actually managed to get hold of that same recording in a CD many decades later.) I had started studying German in 1945 and I learned some of the lyrics of a few songs at that time. (Lied von Seeräuber-Jenny: Und ein Schiff mit acht Segeln / und mit fünfzig Kanonen / wird beschießen die Stadt!) 4

But ‘The Threepenny Opera’ has followed me through my entire life. I get back to it in ‘Chapter 21 –– Part 2 – Mamaroneck High School and Theater’ when I write about the excellent student productions by our speech and drama teacher Regina Frey at Mamaroneck High School which I was very much involved in. The Lund student theater also had an excellent performance of it, which I had nothing to do with though, except as a spectator.

Mr and Mrs Peachum's home where all the beggars come back to in the evenings to take off their false make-up.

Mr and Mrs Peachum’s home where all the beggars come back in the evenings to take off their false wooden legs, make-up, etc.

This historical musical had its very first opening on 31 August 1928 at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. It was made into a movie in 1931, with Lotte Lenya of course, which I saw many years later before I left Sweden in 1964. It was made before  Brecht and Weill made the decision to leave Germany for the United States in 1933. The complete takeover of the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler became a certainty after the elections in March of that year.

I saw, most likely with the whole family, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (Linje Lusta), one of my favorite plays by Tennessee Williams. It was directed by Stig Torsslow, who was then the director of the theater. That was in the spring of 1949 when both Arne and Mother had left the theater. The actor I remember the best was our own Erik Strandmark, superb as Stanley Kowalski, but the fragile older sister Blanche played by Irma Christenson, a guest from Dramaten, also made a very memorable impression on me.

Later on, in 1953, when I was a student at Lund University but still living at home, Arne and I saw Luigi Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ (Sex roller söker en författare). It was directed by Ingmar Bergman who had then become the artistic director of Malmö Stadsteater. A more unconventional play will be hard to find and it was fascinating. I have later read the play and I can well understand how Pirandello is thought of as a precursor to the ‘Theater of the Absurd’, a term that was only coined in the sixties. ‘Six Characters’ was first performed in 1922. The term ‘absurd theater’ mostly refers to Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Edward Albee is often included in this group, but I think he is in a category by himself. Be that as it may, ‘Six Characters’ has set its big imprint on modern theater.

Also when I was at the university, I saw Ingmar Bergman’s splendid staging of Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’. That was in 1957 and on the big stage. Fortunately, a friend of mine suggested going to Malmö to see it since I took very few initiatives myself. It was enthralling throughout the five hours it took. It is very rarely produced in its entirety. The fabulous actress Naima Wifstrand, who was a member of the repertory theater, was superb as the mother and Max von Sydow as Peer Gynt was a dynamic force on the stage. At the age of 28, he already mastered the gift he was going to develop even further, most remarkably under the direction of Ingmar Bergman.. I will never forget Naima Wifstrand towards the end of the play, when she is disillusioned with her son. She is sitting peeling an onion, one layer after the other until there is nothing left. She is peeling the layers of identity of her son, Peer. There is no core, nothing left at all. This is very likely one of the most famous symbols in theater history and it is also probably one of the best-known Scandinavian theater plays ever written. It has been performed worldwide.

Peer Gynt by his mother’s death bed — Naima Wifstrand and Max von Sydow.

Peer Gynt by his mother’s death bed — Naima Wifstrand and Max von Sydow. Direction Ingmar Bergman. Photo: Georg Oddner © Malmö Opera Archives

The main theme in this play is avoiding difficulties in your life by simply not facing up to them, which Böjgen, a supernatural evil being in Norwegian folklore, tells Peer to do. This monster  in one scene is standing in Peer’s way and won’t let him continue on his path. He tells Peer to ‘gaa udenom’ (going around), that is to lie and compromise instead of facing up to every hard choice and difficulty in life. However, by ‘going around’ throughout your life you end up living a fake or quasi-life that has no real value. By the skin of his teeth Peer is saved by the faithfulness of Solveig, his youthful love, now a middle-aged woman. He then finally becomes ‘himself’, which he has avoided all his life. But his mother Åse is dead and she won’t ever know that there was after all a core of reality inside her son. In an unforgettable scene Naima Wifstrand is sitting on a rock peeling an onion, one peel off after the other until there is nothing left.There is no core.

We read Peer Gynt in Norwegian in Gymnasium (not quite all of it though,  I believe some of Peer’s adventures abroad were skipped in the version we read). It was a bit difficult, but we managed. The concept of going ‘udenom‘ impressed me enormously and it has stayed with me all my life when watching people and their lives.

Arne is directing a comedy by Noel Coward, ‘Min fru går igen’ (Blithe spirit)

Arne is directing a comedy by Noel Coward, ‘Min fru går igen’ (Blithe spirit)

The historically high point of theater in my teens was still ‘Tartuffe’ at Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen with the star Poul Reumert, who had played Molière at La Comédie-Française and Bodil Ipsen as Elmire, one of the greatest Danish theater stars ever. That was in 1948, and I describe this event in more detail in the chapter ‘Copenhagen and theater’.

Note: All the theater pictures in this chapter (and one of Inga Tidblad in Chapter 20) are by my mother, Magda Molin, (except the above photo from Peer Gynt, as stated) and are presented here with the kind permission of Malmö Opera Arkiv. I have collected and treated 2012 – 2015 just about all of my mother’s theater photos from the first few years after the inauguration of Malmö Stadsteater in the fall of 1944.

[1] MALMÖ STADSTEATER – LEVANDE TEATER I BILD (Living theater in photos) To get to the album  BÄSTA BILDER (Best pictures), click here

Continued: Chapter 5 — Piece in major and minor

  1. Anouilh’s ‘Antigone’ follows relatively closely Sophocles’ play by the same name.
  2. “This is made explicit by the title page of the first quarto: ‘The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant’ “. (i.e. Antonio) (Wikipedia)
  3. Translation by Edwin Björkman, London, Duckworth & Co, 1912, the same year Strindberg died.
  4. Literal translation: Song by Pirate Jenny: And the ship with eight sails / And with fifty cannons / Will fire on the town. However, the English translation at “Pirate Jenny” – “Seeräuber-Jenny” is the one most often used.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 4 – My youth and the theater

  1. Pingback: Sketches from the Life of a Wandering Swede | Siv’s sketches from her life

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