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What ever happened after Ibsen and Strindberg?

Image: Vidar Nordli Mathisen

Image: Vidar Nordli Mathisen

Julie, a contemporary adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by Polly Stenham, opened at the National Theatre in May 2018. Even though it received mixed reviews, mainly due to the problematic modern take on the 1888 Scandinavian classic, the fact that it was staged in an important London venue is in itself a sign that British theatres still show interest for the work of the master of Naturalism and father of Swedish literature.

Nevertheless, despite Britain’s craving for plays by August Strindberg and his Norwegian rival Henrik Ibsen, the new generation of Scandinavian playwrights has remained almost invisible outside of their home countries, especially women. The notable exceptions of Swedish Lars Norén (Blood, 1995) and Norwegian Jon Fosse (Nightsongs, 1997) represent only one side of the extremely rich and multifaceted theatrical scene in the Nordic countries, where an incredible value is put on the production of new plays, including those by emerging authors.

In Sweden, State funding for culture amounts to SEK 6.8 billion per year (roughly £584 million), equivalent to 0.8% of overall government spending. The Swedish Arts Council (Kulturrådet) allocates around SEK 1.8 billion (roughly £154 million) to the performing arts, museums, literature, and libraries. The English Arts Council is currently investing £577,5 million per year, in a country with a population that is more than 5 times bigger than Sweden. These proportions, which are not very different from the other Scandinavian countries, show the great interest that governments take in the performing arts, with the promotion of new talent in both the big cities and provincial areas. Needless to say, when more money is invested at national and regional levels, the internal competition among playwrights produces extremely high results. This is the case for a whole generations of younger playwrights, mostly women, who have nourished Scandinavian theatres with their work.

So why are there virtually no new plays from Scandinavia on British stages, despite this buzzing cultural scene? And why is it so difficult for Scandinavian women playwrights to emerge? One reason could be the inaccessibility and “marginality” of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, with the subsequent lack of experts specialized in the translation of theatrical texts written in those languages. This is partly true: Scandinavian Studies are a niche field which very often lingers on what are deemed to be subjects of World Literature, such as Ibsen, Strindberg, medieval sagas and more recently Children’s Literature and detective fiction. Nevertheless, thanks to the work of farsighted scholars, a selection of contemporary playwrights, including women, has been translated into English. Unfortunately, most of these texts have remained unstaged, even though they are able to convey universal messages in innovative forms and could be adapted really well to the British context.

This is the case of playwright Margareta Garpe, who has become something of a legend in her home country, Sweden. An engaged feminist in the 1970s, she has had a great influence on the feminist cultural scene, together with her colleague Suzanne Osten. She often collaborated with film and theatre director Ingmar Bergman and in her long career she has produced a dozen successful plays. Among these, we find For Julia (1987), translated into English by Harry G. Carlson, but never performed in the UK. The explicit reference to the above-mentioned masterpiece by Strindberg plays a crucial role. Garpe reassesses the legacy of the iconic protagonist of Strindberg’s play, giving it a new dimension while investigating existential questions about the mother-daughter relationship.

A similar fate has concerned Norwegian playwright and feminist activist Bjørg Vik. While her short stories have been translated and studied by British and American scholars, her plays have remained unknown to the international public. One of her radio plays, Daughters (1979) has been translated by Janet Garton and is part of the New Norwegian Plays collection (Norvik Press, 1989). Despite great success in her home country, where the play was also produced on stage, this delicate account of the lives of a mother, a daughter, and a grandmother exploring intergenerational miscommunication and alternative female roles, has never been portrayed on the British scene.

Playwrights like Garpe and Vik paved the way for the generation of Scandinavian women playwrights that followed, yet they are just the tip of the iceberg of a tireless breeding ground for theatrical talent that is worth discovering.

Luca Tosadori