History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Scandinavian Post-WWII

2013 photo of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, founded in 1788

Lars Norén

Lars Norén described the woes of an alcoholic father and its consequences on his family, 2007

Among Swedish playwrights, a prominent place is accorded to Lars Norén (1944-?), among whose plays is "Natten är dagens mor" (Night is the mother of day, 1982).

In "Night is the mother of day", there is a disguised reference to Long Day's Journey into Night. The play is set in 1956, the year that O'Neill's play had its world premiere. At the premiere of Noren's play, which took place in the theatre where O'Neill's play had first been presented twenty-six years earlier, the reference was made explicit by having the younger son switch on the radio, so that the audience could listen to a fragment of the Swedish radio version of Long Day's Journey. In O'Neill's play the father, James Tyrone, once a famous actor, is now an alcoholic. So is the mother-fixated elder son, Jamie, who seeks consolation at the breast of maternal prostitutes. The mother, Mary, is a morphinist. And the younger son, Edmund, O'Neill's alter ego, is seemingly doomed to death by tuberculosis. In Noren's trilogy, similarly, the father is an alcoholic; the elder son is oedipally attached to his mother while seeking the company of prostitutes; the mother is suffering from incurable cancer; and the younger son, Noren's alter ego, has spent some time in a mental hospital. Although the title of the first part of the trilogy, Night Is Mother of the Day, is a quotation from a nineteenth century Swedish poem, it also echoes O'Neill's title, Long Day's Journey Into Night. And like O'Neill's four-act drama, Noren's play, also in four acts, begins in the morning and ends after midnight of one and the same day in one and the same room. For Noren, as for O'Neill, and, indeed, Strindberg in The Dance of Death, the unity of time and place has a thematic value, stressing the ambivalent feeling of the family members that they are unable to escape from one another, imprisoned with one another. Confrontation is inevitable" (Törnqvist, 1991 p 69).

“One characteristic of Norén’s work that makes it difficult to translate into other languages is his use of literary word play...in which a person’s words are used in ways that change their meaning” (Hoogland, 2020 p 97).

"Night is the mother of day"


Time: 1956. Place: Sweden.

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On a morning in the kitchen of a family-run hotel, as David, a teenager, preens himself in front of a mirror with his pants down, pretending to be a girl with his penis stuck between his thighs, his brother, Georg, older by 10 years, insults him as a pervert. In comes their father, Martin, who receives a letter stating that he must pay 12,000 Swedish crowns within 2 days while possessing only 8. His wife, Elin, enters coughing and orders David to put out the water basin filled with live rats trapped in it. Elin suggests that they borrow money from their best client named Schmidt, but Martin refuses. Georg proposes that David find work, for otherwise he threatens to move out. While the other 3 are out of the room, Martin takes out a hidden bottle of vodka, resists drinking from it, and swallows a few tranquillizers. To pay their debts, Martin suggest that Elin take her jewels to a pawnbroker, but she refuses, as well as the suggestion to borrow money from her parents. That afternoon, Martin prepares dinner for his family, but no one is hungry. Tired of Georg’s silence, Martin orders out of the room. As a response, Georg takes hold of Martin’s head and forces to sit in a corner, from where he and Elin accuse him of taking to drink again, which he weakly denies. Georg hits him and demands the keys to the cellar. Since he refuses, both brothers hold him while Elin takes away the keys. Martin grabs her dress and tears it; Georg kicks him. Georg tells his brother to stop looking at his mother’s figure as she looks for Martin’s lighter under the table. All three find alcohol hidden in divers parts of the kitchen, including aquavit in a milk carton. With Martin up in his room, Elin proposes that David goes to the navy office with her to get recruited, at which he balks. “You do nothing,” she argues “you do not want to study, you do not want to do anything at home, and you have no willpower.” As she leaves, he throws himself against the wall, tears off his T-shirt, throws a book, a birthday gift in the oven flames, then takes it out again and instead throws money from the cash register in them. That evening, in their bedroom, Elin threatens to leave Martin unless he takes disulferam, a drug that causes sickness whenever alcohol is consumed. Despite his promises, Martin climbs to a high kitchen cupboard and downs a glass of vodka. While he thinks David is watching television in the next room, he drinks from a bottle of vodka extracted from the inside of a duck, but his son returns to spy on him and threatens to tell his mother. Martin begs him to keep silent for 50 crowns, but David wants 200. When he hands over the 200, David takes the money but nevertheless runs upstairs to tell his mother about the vodka. Meanwhile, he calls up his sister, Lena, to request a 8,000 crown loan. Lena takes the telephone from him, but, after being spat on by David, she spits back at him and takes the phone right back. But Lena refuses. Georg announces his intention of leaving home and head for town. Feeling threatened by her husband waving a knife, Elin asks David to call the police. He squashes a lighted cigarette on her cheek and lifts a chair to defend himself against his sons, but it catches against the overhead lights and darkness follows with general cries. Georg kicks his father to submission and then forces him into a chair. He threatens his mother never to return unless she leaves Martin, too. David takes his father’s suit and silk scarf, declaring himself as the new man of the house. Martin escapes to his office, but, while David distracts him, Elin and Georg sneak inside, give him sleeping pills, and usher him to bed. He wakes up and asks for the keys to the cellar, but then drops off asleep. David enters, picks up Martin as a ventriloquist dummy, and talks as if he were his father. Yet Elin is unmoved.

Stig Dagerman

Stig Dagerman showed how deeply a son can resent his father's marital infidelities. Photo of the author in Gunnar Brandell: Swedish Literature 1870-1970. 2. Stockholm, Aldus, 1975

A distinguished writer of short stories, Stig Dagerman (1923-1954) should also be remembered as a playwright, particularly for "Den game av sanning" (No one goes free, more precisely The truth game, 1949), adapted from the novel, A Burnt Child.

“The search for a mother substitute is much less prominent in the play than in the novel and greater stress is placed on a more rational reason for Bengt’s guilt: he refused to go shopping for his mother on the fatal day despite the fact that she was unwell, claiming to be studying although he was actually playing cards. No One Goes Free is thus a comparatively straightforward account of a confused young man with high standards of purity who nevertheless finds that he loves his father’s mistress and thus has to compromise, reluctantly accepting the debased moral standards of his elders. Being to a considerable extent relieved of her significance as a mother figure, gun is a rather ordinary if quite sensible man eater. Her erotic desire for the Bengt of No One Goes Free seems to be on a fairly uncomplicated physical level...As a corollary, Berit’s situation as a rival for Bengt’s affections is clearer: the Berit of No One Goes Free is a stronger, more likeable character than the Berit of A Burnt Child. Similarly, Knut is more sympathetic in the play than the novel; he does not need to be hypocritical about his attitude to his dead wife and his own infidelity is more evenly balanced by the greater stress placed on Alma’s adultery. The shift in emphasis makes the insincerity and self-seeking of Knut’s sisters of more relevance to the central theme, which is no longer Bengt’s inability to distinguish between Gun as a mother and Gun as a mistress but rather the extent to which one’s actions after a bereavement are a betrayal of a dead person’s memory and that to which they are governed by illusion and hypocrisy” (Thompson, 1983 pp 120-121).

"Dagerman was an expressionist. His writings were filled with fear, anguish, and explosive emotion. He was volcanic and always striving for new means and methods of expression" (Fleisher, 1955 p 165).

"The truth game"


Time: 1940s. Place: Sweden.

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Knut's wife, Alma, has just died in a butcher's shop. Their son, Bengt, receives the news very badly. He accuses his father of being at least partly responsible for her death because of his frequent absences. Knut denies this, though admitting he had an adulterous relation. Knut's sisters, Alice and Frida, quarrel about who should obtain the best items among the dead woman's wardrobe while Bengt resents seeing his paternal aunts wear his mother's clothes. He tells Bergit, his girlfriend, he sometimes follows his father to the cinema house, where his mistress, Gun, works as a cashier. Although unsure about whether his mother ever knew about their adulterous relation, he accuses his father of his indiffence towards his mother while she was alive, on one occasion buying her a dress that did not fit. Indeed, he once heard his mother say: "It looks as if it were bought for someone else." Irritated at these accusations, Knut divulges he has evidence that his wife had her own adulterous relation. After mentioning that Gun will come to their house the next day, Bengt threatens to affront her. "I will remind myself she killed my mother," he declares. In Gun's cabin, Bengt confronts his father one more time. "We must not judge others, Bengt," Knut affirms, to which he answers: "Yes, we must, we must judge crimes." When Bengt expresses a desire to speak to Gun alone, Knut at first disapproves but then relents. Bengt tells Gun he would have liked to place her against the wall, except there are no more walls. Unafraid, Gun asks him whether he ever liked his mother. He admits that he did not, being especially disgusted at the sight of her fat body. After she locks the cabin door, Bengt places his head on her knees. She strokes his hair. Bergit shows up but, unable to enter the cabin, is forced to turn away. Months later, Bergit tells Bengt she knows about his sexual relation with Gun but yet loves him still. On the anniversary of his mother's death, Bengt learns that his father and Gun have published their wedding banns. Knut gives Alma's possessions to his sisters as gifts. Although Bengt is unwilling to accept his father's watch as a gift, Gun puts it on his wrist.

Tarjei Vesaas

Tarjei Vesaas described the conflicts arising in a laundry when two men love the same woman

Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) achieved prominence as a Norwegian playwright with "Bleikeplassen" (The bleaching yard, 1953) based on his 1946 novel of the same name.

“Elise...takes a piece of chalk and writes in large letters on a wall facing their apartment: ‘no one has ever cared for Johan Tander’. It is difficult at first to see how this could help him…The immediate effect is that Johan’s impulse to murder Jan is intensified, since he assumes that is is Jan who has written the words. It also increases the state of anxiety in which Jan lives, since he soon learns that Tander suspects him and feels more strongly than ever how Tander is after him...The portrait of Krister is one of the most touching in all of Vesaas’ books, while that of Tander is one of the most disturbing. He is presented to us as a man who is gradually being driven into destructive isolation by forces he not only cannot control but which he does not even understand. He seems to be trapped in a paradoxical state of anxiety in which he most fears precisely that which can save him, in this case close contact with another person. He has lost his contact with Elise, and is fearful of even trying to establish it with Vera, as is indicated by his looking upon her as something not to be touched, but only admired from afar” (Chapman, 1970 pp 78-80).

“The story deals with the forces of light and darkness and the tension between these forces is expressed in the scenery: bright white linen and the cold, dark laundry room. This work centers on the isolation of people and their lack of understanding on nurturing and love. In his anxiety and loneliness, Johan Tander struggles with the demons within himself. But in the end, another human being reaches out to him” (Hermundsgård, 2001 p 139).

"The bleaching yard"

A bleaching yard is the scene of the rivalry between two women for the same man. German bleaching yard, 1920s

Time: 1950s. Place: Rural Norway.

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At a laundry, Jan, a forester, reveals to his girlfriend, Vera, a book-keeper, that the manager, Johan, is planning an evil deed. Johan's wife, Elise, thinks that her husband is bothered by something and that Jan should talk with him. But he refuses and goes off to the woods to mark trees with his fellow workers, Stein and Amund. A laundry worker, Anna, resents the fact that Vera took Jan away from her. They suddenly notice some writing on the wall across the road: "No one has ever cared for Johan Tander". "The most awful thing I have ever seen," Anna declares. Krister, a sick and retired old man, comes out to see whether anyone cares for him, a sign according to him that the end is near. When Johan points out to Elise this message on the wall, they become glum, since they lost a child and cannot have another. "It's as great a shame for you as it is for me," Johan remarks about the message. He asks Vera to wipe the message out, but she refuses. "I did it," Elise confesses to her fellow worker, Marte, "to frighten him away from thinking about Vera." When Marte suggests that they wipe it off, she refuses. While rummaging through dirty laundry, Elise discovers a piece of cloth. "Doesn't it look as if it has been dragged through blood?" she asks, following which Krister pops back in. "I have a great wish to have a good shirt to die in," he declares. Later, Marte suggests that Johan should wipe the message off, but he refuses, announcing that the man who did this will be punished today. Alone with Jan, Anna admits she loves him still. "I have never loved you more than I love you now," she admits. Their talk is interrupted by Krister who asks Jan for the shirt. "You'll lose more than that," Krister announces to Johan. He also thinks Johan will die. To calm him down, Anna removes a shirt from the pile she was working on and gives it to him. She is especially worried about Johan's mood. "Don't touch Jan," she pleads. While pressing the shirt against his body, Krister is now convinced that someone cares for him. Soon, Johan confronts Jan. "You have to be gotten rid of," he says to Jan. "You have ruined Vera for me." At the end of the working day, in the bleaching yard, Johan wipes the message off the wall. Elise is all the more worried. She admits to Anna that she wrote it and Anna reveals this to Johan. "She did it because she cares for me," a relaxed Johan declares. Unaware of the change in Johan, Jan enters belligerently. He proposes to Stein and Amund that they duck the fellow in searing lye. As Johan walks towards the tub, he suddenly collapses. The three men are bewildered when they discover him dead. "Krister is dead, too," Anna announces. When the workers inform Elise of her husband's death, she is unexpectedly calm. "I think I have come out of the darkness," she declares.

Jökull Jakobsson


Jökull Jakobsson (1933-1978), an Icelandic playwright, contributed a fine domestic play in "Sjoleioin til Baddad" (The seaway to Baghdad, 1965).

"The seaway to Baghdad"

Halldor wants to head out to sea as a sailor as far as Baghdad, although there is no seaway to it. The river Tigris in Baghdad

Time: 1950s. Place: Iceland.

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Because of his mother's death, Halldor must return home from sea to take care of his demented father, Eirik, living at the home of an unhappy couple, Mundi and Thora and their daughter, Signy. Eirik had been unable to support his wife, so that he has been forced to live in their house without paying rent for the last three months. Aside from mental problems, Eirik is sick. Halldor plans to improve their financial situation by sailing to Italy with a friend, buy merchandise, and return to Iceland to sell it at inflated prices. One evening, while Halldor invites Signy up to his room to show her the wares he obtained during his various travels, Signy's 14-year old sister, Hilda, returns home drunk from a party. In a bad humor, Halldor requests that she go to bed, but yet she hangs around. Aroused, Halldor invites her to his bedroom. When Signy comes back down, she finds the two in her bed. He expects her to call for the police, but she does nothing. Nevertheless, Halldor decides to head for Italy. Hilda informs her mother that she has failed her examinations and been hired to work in a fish factory. Despite her daughter's protests, an outraged Thora promises to speak about this matter to the school's headmaster. Meanwhile, Halldor has found a house out west to live with his father and asks Signy to live with them. She hesitates. Eventually, she begins to accept the idea, but then he changes his mind. When Eirik arrives to say goodbye, all her pent-up anger rises to the surface. Halldor tells Eirik he will head out as a seaman again. "How I'd love to get a card from Baghdad!" Thora exclaims. "It's a long way to Baghdad from the sea," Hilda remarks. "Who knows but one day I may drift to Baghdad?" Halldor muses.