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Themes and tendencies in contemporary Swedish drama

Swedish Literature Exchange asked theatre critic Kristina Lindquist to survey the latest themes and tendencies in contemporary Swedish drama.

‘It’s Abulkasem! I am Abulkasem! The name, like, takes over and fills me with calmness.’

At the risk of sounding over the top, when Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s debut play Invasion had its premiere in 2007, directed by Farnaz Arbabi, it truly seemed that a new age for theatre had begun. An author with several acclaimed novels under his belt, it is perhaps as a playwright that Hassen Khemiri truly comes into his own. Invasion brought down the wall between stage and audience in a way that just then felt surprising, vital, and – for some in the audience – provocative. There may be no perfect starting point for a discussion of Swedish contemporary drama, but Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion comes close. It forms the first of seven topics I will touch on in this text.

The political language game

Purely concretely, Invasion opens on what appears to be a school production of Signora Luna, a play by the classic Swedish author Carl Jonas Love Almqvist that features an Arabian pirate named Abulkasem. The audience is becoming increasingly restless. Two boys refuse to sit through the dusty old drama and ‘invade’ the stage. In their hands, the name Abulkasem quickly comes to mean almost anything at all. Abulkasem can be a director, a terrorist, a queer disco dancer, an undocumented refugee. Labels and stereotypes fly. We might say that Hassen Khemiri, in his debut play, is working with what Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek has called Sprachflächen: that is, sheets or planes of language. Language becomes depersonalized, at times even incomprehensible, a thing with a life of its own that exposes what is hidden. The political language game now frequently appears as a component in contemporary Swedish drama, but seldom so explosively as in Invasion.

Classical tragedies, new forms

Another important trend in contemporary Swedish drama is the clothing of classical tragedy in new language, new logic and new forms. The duo of Jens Ohlin and Hannes Meidal, for instance, have created some recent and widely noted new works based on plays by Shakespeare, such as Hamlet and Macbeth. Another especially significant work in this genre is Sara Stridsberg’s Medealand, which premiered at Elverket in the spring of 2009, directed by Ingela Olsson and starring Noomi Rapace. Taking Euripedes’ Medea as her point of departure, Stridsberg turns history’s maddest madwoman into a place, a country, a condition. “Someone has to be Medea,” says the goddess in Scene 2, and that is precisely the point at the heart of Stridsberg’s rhythmical, stylized, pounding text. The violent woman fulfils a function for us all, letting us seek security in the knowledge it is not we who are the foreigner, the outcast, the one driven mad.

A rhetorical art of manipulation

Playwright and director Christina Ouzounidis also engages with the world of Greek myth in plays that often take a theoretical, even postdramatic approach. Vit, rik, fri (White, Rich, Free), which had its premiere at Stockholm City Theatre in 2010 in a collaboration with fringe theatre group Teatr Weimar, is a monologue about guilt and victims. Based on the cast of characters in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, it takes the form of a kind of apology in which Clytemnestra explains why she allowed Agamemnon to sacrifice their daughter for the sake of success in war, and then murdered him in revenge. But Vit, rik, fri is not a simple modernization of Aeschylus’ trilogy. Rather, Ouzounidis stacks abstract phrases one upon another in a sort of rhetorical art of manipulation. This is drama that hollows out language, draining it of meaning; drama that erects a structure only to tear it all down again.

A Swedish navel-gaze

In the 2010s, a discussion arose among theatre critics and other arts and culture writers about Swedish theatre’s tendency to navel-gaze. Should the theatre drown in self-centred questions about its own nature, its real audience, and whose stories get portrayed onstage? Mattias Andersson’s play The Mental States of Sweden, which premiered at Dramaten in 2013, has an unmistakable streak of self-reflection. The play posits a sociological survey posed to a cross-section of the Swedish population that includes the question: ‘What comes to mind when you hear the words national stage?’ Another question: did the respondent had any special event in their life that they would like to see performed by actors at Dramaten? The self-reflective element is thus combined with stories from the outside world – from ‘regular’ people – and indeed, The Mental States of Sweden breaks down the border between stage and reality in a striking way. Theatre as collective documentary has since become something of a hallmark for Andersson, who is both a playwright and a director, and now also the director of Dramaten.

Autofictional tendencies

In fiction, the role of the writing subject has been a central issue for a decade, most often in connection with autofictional tendencies in novel-writing. In drama, there has been less discussion of the self who creates, but the issue comes into focus in Alejandro Leiva Wenger’s play Författarna (The Writers). Diversity consultant Alvaro dreams of being a writer, but he is short on stories and keeps getting rejections. His friend Ali is an out-of-work actor on the hunt for roles that aren’t just stereotypes. They are full of doubts until Alex arrives on the scene. Alex has plenty of stories and ideas for characters, but who is he, really? Using story as a key, he enters their world in a manner both eerie and elusive. Författarna is an absurdist farce that raises questions about the dissolution of the self, the hunger for authentic stories, and the packaging of life into saleable content.

Needs to be mentioned: Lars Norén

Any overview of Swedish contemporary drama has both to mention and to wrestle with Lars Norén, who died in January 2021. The author of more than 100 plays and a constant presence in Swedish theatre for four decades, Norén has been called the greatest Swedish playwright since Strindberg. As such, he naturally deserves his own, larger discussion. Yet despite the timelessness of his works, Norén was also truly a playwright of his day, one who constantly had ‘the playwright’s light, two-fingered pressure on the pulse of the times’, as theatre critic Ingegärd Waaranperä wrote in an obituary (Dagens Nyheter, 26 January 2021). Or as Norén expert Björn Gustavsson reflected in a similar vein: ‘He concentrated time: engrafted it in the lines of the play, in the people’ (Teatertidningen 2–3/2021). One of Norén’s later works is the play Vintermusik (Winter Music); together with Andante and Stoft (Dust), it forms his so-called 2010s trilogy. Vintermusik is an expressionist drama about a group of senior citizens on a winter sun holiday, in which the beach becomes a waiting room of ritual emptiness, the last stop before the real end. We feel that language itself is being swallowed by the aging process, becoming ever more fragmentary, repetitive – and more like music than communication.

Compressed reality

As a contrast to the towering figure of Norén, it might be interesting to conclude this reflection with a relatively new voice. Lidja Praizović’s debut play Pappas bil (Father’s Car) premiered at ung scen/öst in 2017, directed by Astrid Assefa. It might best be described as a darkly humorous road movie. When a family in Sweden takes a car trip to their old homeland in the Balkans, outer and inner conflicts mount and confront one another. New visa requirements come into force on the same day the family is supposed to take the ferry south, and the fabricated, grotesque news playing on the car radio creates the sense of an elevated, compressed reality. Pappas bil has been published in book form along with two other plays, and in reading the volume, the boundaries between the works fall away, creating a continuous fabric of signs. One interesting detail is the wealth of stage directions in the script, so many that at times they almost take over the director’s job. We might interpret them as a way of parrying the loss of control inherent to drama as an art form, but they can also be read as a conscious strategy by which the playwright becomes a character in the literary work.

Kristina Lindquist

Photo: Julia Lindemalm.

List of Swedish Titles:

Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Invasion! Pjäser noveller texter (Invasion! Plays Short Stories Texts)
Norstedts, 2008

Sara Stridsberg
Medealand och andra texter (Medealand and other Texts)
Albert Bonniers, 2012

Christina Ouzounidis
Lögner (Lies)
Modernista, 2013

Mattias Andersson
United States of Sweden
Atlas, 2015

Alejandro Leiva Wenger
Fakta: Tre pjäser (Facts. Three plays)
Albert Bonniers, 2015

Lidija Praizović
Hjärta mot hjärta/Pappas bil/Adolf (Heart against Heart/Daddy’s Car/Adolf)
Dockhaveri, 2021

All foreign rights handled by Colombine Teaterförlag

Cover: Invasion! by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern – Stockholm House of Culture & City Theatre, Photo: Petra Hellberg