Ångest is a subject that does not lend itself to comedy readily. Even the comedian Woody Allen had to move from farce to the seriocomic and serious in order to accommodate his attention to his Manhattanesque angst. Pär Lagerkvist’s brooding seriousness—the Swedish word for it is grubbel—is rarely relieved in his work by a light touch or a comic lift. None of his plays is a comedy. Those that are not tragedies, or tragic, are, at their most positive level, hauntingly melancholy.
A good approach to his first play, Sista mänskan, is to see its world as the terminus of the world brought into being in “Myten om människorna,” which begins, “Once upon a time there was a world.” In “Myten om människorna,” a man and a woman come to this world for a short visit. They make a home. The husband hunts and tills the soil. The wife bears three sons. One evening she tells her children about the other worlds she knows. When the youngest son dies, it is understood that he has gone to another world. The man and his wife grow old. After they die, their surviving sons feel great relief. Unbothered by further contemplation of other worlds, the two young men joyously go out to take possession of the earth, on which human life is burgeoning. From this paradisiacal setting, Lagerkvist has excluded a creator and for the visit of Lucifer has substituted the event of death. The Adam and Eve of this myth have come from a heavenly realm where all was clear, bright, and glorious and where their love for each other was taken for granted. On earth, their love could not be taken for granted. It was a miracle, infinitely precious because it could not last. In their love and in their life on earth, they lost their knowledge of Heaven; it became a mystery. When the woman told her sons about the other world, she could not remember enough to satisfy her youngest, who, quite unlike his brothers, yearned for Heaven. In his yearning, he withers and dies, while his brothers revel in life on Earth. There are two ideas expressed here. The first is that the price of earthly life is ignorance of Heaven; its corollary is that in the human presumption to know a no longer knowable Heaven, earthly life is wasted. The divinity of the other world separates the individual from the divinity within the self in proportion as the self yearns for the other world. The second idea is that loss of innocence is the price of human love and of the awakening of spirit in the physical consummation of that love.
The two ideas constitute the lesson that has not been learned in Sista mänskan, in which Earth’s last humans struggle for survival in the cold and the encroaching darkness of a world whose sun is dying. Adam and Eve have become Gama, a blind man, and Vyr, mother of a young boy named Ilja. Present also are a paralytic, a cripple, a leper, a redhead, old women, the last humans, the dead, and a chorus of suppliants. In the past, which is to say in the course of human history, Gama had raped Vyr, who in turn blinded him while he slept and then went off to live alone and bear and rear the son she had conceived. Blind Gama returns and attempts to love Vyr and her son without at first knowing that Vyr is the former victim of his lust and that Ilja is his son. Vyr desperately needs Gama’s love, and Ilja hungers for the knowledge of what love is. Gama and Vyr fall in love, but when Gama learns who Vyr is and that she was the one who blinded him, he strangles her. Ilja loses his desire to live and sinks to the ground. Gama, losing his sanity, calls out his son’s name and sinks to the ground. In this short three-act play, Lagerkvist’s pessimism is at its peak: He offers no hope that humankind will learn, not the meaning, but the lesson of life—namely, the need to stabilize evil by means of love. The meaning of life is something for each individual to determine through apprehending the divinity within the self.
Sista mänskan is Lagerkvist’s expressionistic attempt to sustain what he considers to be Strindberg’s rebellious renaissance in theatrical art. In “Modern Theatre,” the 1918 essay in which he extols Strindberg’s dramaturgy and condemns what he sees as Ibsen’s tediously formalistic naturalism, Lagerkvist insists that modern theater should be true to its time, and he makes a statement that could pass for a description of the mise en scène of The Last Man: “At this time everything is torn apart, at loose ends, harsh, contradictory, with light and darkness irreconcilably opposed. And we must live within what encompasses us, in the time that is our own, feeling our way about in it and trying to understand.”
The Difficult Hour, I-III
The expressionistic chiaroscuro of Sista mänskan is retained in The Difficult Hour, I-III, a more successful theatrical encounter with the lesson of life. The “difficult hour” is that critical moment at which life passes into death. Each of the one-act plays in this trilogy of death shows an individual—respectively, a young man, an old man, and a boy—learning the lesson of life during the moment in which he learns that he is dead. Although The Difficult Hour, I-III comprises three plays, it is a dramatic unit with a progressive lessening of the difficulty of the critical moment: The young man dies screaming in remorseful confusion; the old man dies in resignation; and the boy dies with full acceptance of his fate. Lagerkvist uses the image of physical deformity to symbolize human imperfection and limitation: a blind man, a paralytic, a cripple, and a leper in Sista mänskan; a hunchback and a dwarf in The Difficult Hour, I-III.
The Secret of Heaven
In the one-act play The Secret of Heaven, there is a blind man, a cripple, and a dwarf. Fate is represented by a man in tights who pulls the heads off dolls as indiscriminately as the spinning Parcae broke the threads of human lives. Religion takes the form of a man wearing a yarmulke who claims to understand everything except God. God appears, as he appears in the novella Det eviga leendet (1920; The Eternal Smile, 1934), in the person of an old man sawing wood. A young man asks the old woodsman for the meaning of everything and is told that meaning consists in the fact that everything whirls around (Allting snurrar runt). Later, when the young man receives the same answer from the man in the yarmulke, who adds a note of determinism by saying that everything must whirl around (allting ska snurra runt), he leaps into the void, screaming in frustration. The play’s setting, which also reappears in The Eternal Smile, is Heaven, or eternity, wherein only God, darkness, and the dead are to be found.
Sista mänskan and The Difficult Hour, I-III both exhibit what Wylie Sypher has called “cubist simultaneous perspective” in that both view human existence from the coextensive and intersecting planes of life and death and against the irreconcilable forces of light and darkness. In the three acts of his fourth play, Den osynlige (the invisible one), light and darkness are reconciled as the complements of a dualism. Like Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777), which discloses the mean between light and darkness and not the elimination of darkness in favor of light to be the proper object of human seeking, the play begins in darkness, wherein the voice of the Invisible One is heard, and ends in light, with the Invisible One identifying himself as människoanden (the human spirit), predicting his victory over and survival of Death, and dismissing Death.
The refrain of the play’s third act is “God is dead.” When Death asks the Invisible One if he is God, he says, “No, God is dead,” and asserts that he, the human spirit, is alive. Two limited forces, tyranny and rebellion, personified respectively as the Administrator and the Hero, both come to an end: The Administrator is struck down by the Invisible One, and the Hero is mortally wounded in fighting for his beliefs. Death and the human spirit remain as the forces of opposition, which, in a type of...
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