Lars Norén and Primo Levi

Interview with the great Swedish dramatist with notes on the critical reception of his adaptation of If This is a Man*

Lars Norén (1944-), one of the most distinguished Swedish dramatists, is considered in Sweden the heir to August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman and has achieved broad international fame. His plays have been presented in a number of countries, including Italy. In addition, he has published numerous poetical works from the time he was only 19 years old. His two published diaries have raised a lot of controversy arising from their corrosive comments on the intellectual life of the country. Norén has written about humanity at its outer fringes – drug addicts, the mentally ill, prostitutes, and criminals – often very provokingly.

We met Norén in Stockholm to talk about his adaptation of If This is a Man, which was performed in various cities in Sweden in 2000, provoking threats against the director and main actor by Nazi groups to the extent that they wondered if it would not be better to cancel the performances (Interview with LN, 2013).

Concentration camps have been a constant factor in Norén’s works since the 1960s (Van Reis 2000); Norén explains:

This may also depend on the fact that I had a teacher in school who had helped Jews flee out of Denmark and he talked about it very ardently. This made a very deep impression on me. Then, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I read a lot of books about this topic – accounts of trials and diaries of prisoners who had survived. These readings also left a sign on me. Let me add that when I was a little boy, when I was 8 or 9 years old, there were still memories that were very much alive of the clash in Sweden between the socialists and Nazi sympathizers.

Interview with LN, 2013.

Norén then explained the influence that German philosophy had on him, especially Heidegger, as well as Paul Celan, whose language has “great affinities” with that of Primo Levi. He read If This is a Man for the first time when it came out in Swedish translation (Bonnier, 1988), its title rendered as a question, Is This a Man?

I think this is a terrible question, commented Norén. However, it is clear that what he was talking about was a human being. It is the others, those who wage war against people, who are extraneous to humanity.

“Landskrona Posten”, Detta är en människa! 07-02-2009, p. 6, Sezione: Kultur.

It is notable that Norén preferred to keep the original title of the work rather than the title phrased as a question in the published Swedish translation. What struck Norén about If This is a Man was the calm, concrete style despite the ruthlessness of what was being described:

I do not understand how you could strike at a human being to such an extent without establishing any relationship with him – without anger, instead, in a mechanical way

Hanson, H.I, ”Sann återgivning av Levis bok”, Svenska Dagbladet, 09-10-2000, p.13.

The idea of bringing Levi’s witness into the theater came from actor Mikael Nyqvist, who considers Levi “one of the greatest humanists of our time” (Höök 2000). When Nyqvist talked about this with Norén, he, as director, welcomed the proposal with great enthusiasm (Råde 2000). Norén remembers having spoken about the book along time with Nyqvist, when they got together to discuss the next play they would work together on. The two had already worked together several times, for example in Personkrets 3:1 (1998). It took them months to adapt the text:

We rented [Nyqvist and I] an apartment in Vasastan [the favorite neighborhood of Stockholm intellectuals]. We emptied everything out of it and attached a sign on the door, “Primo Levi”.

Höök, G. ”Krävande pjäs om att förbli människa”, Göteborgs-Posten, 05-10-2000, p. 51.  

Norén talked about Nyqvist’s initial panic out of his fear of not remembering all of the text, but it turned out that he did not even need to have any earphone prompter (Interview with LN, 2013). Nyqvist’s performance was received with a chorus of praises from the critics, who underlined his capacity to stay still for the whole length of the play (over 2 hours, interrupted only by one 15-minute intermission) with hands on his stomach, one on top of the other, conceding himself only some brief pauses to drink or wipe off his sweat (Schwartz 2000).

The reflections behind such choice in staging are evident. The worst crime against humanity cannot be “represented” (Landskrona Posten, 2009). In reference to If This is a Man, as well as to the two other books of Levi’s he read, The Drowned and the Saved and The Periodic Table, Norén stated:

What impressed me the most about Levi’s works is his awareness, which developed quickly, that the survivors would not be believed once they had returned home. I think that this is the most important lesson from Levi’s books.

Råde, L., "Jag har känt mig som en kopieringsapparat", Expressen 05-10-2000, p. 402.

It was exactly Norén awareness of the “impossibility of representing” what happened that spurred him to choose a kind of anti-theater. The main actor’s body was stripped of its theatrical context. He made no move on the stage. There was only his voice that told the story. A monotony like that nonetheless took on an exact meaning (Van Reis 2000). A critic wrote, “No, this is not what you expect at the theater. However, what we were listening to is neither a speech nor a reading. It is a giving of testimony, even though without a cross-examination” (Schwartz 2000).

Norén’s staging of If This is a Man and Nyqvist’s performance aimed primarily at keeping its controlled and objective tone. Hence there were no gestures, mime, or colloquial expressions. There was only direct story telling in a calm tone with irregular pauses inserted as if in hesitation as the only sign that the story is marked intimately by the atrocities that the narrator witnessed (Schwartz 2000). The physical aspect of the actor ended up, as it were, scaled down to its minimal terms – that of a face that was taking (Van Reis 2000). Norén confirmed that it was a great labor –physically, especially. Nykvist had lost 20 kilos to play the role. Norén added:

Mikael’s biggest problem was that of not putting too much emotion [into his performance], and hence maintaining the same tone as the text.

Schwartz, N., ”Är detta teater?”, Expressen, 07-10-2000, p. 4, Sezione: Kultur.

Nyqvist admitted that he had sometimes felt like a kind of copy machine. (This admission, in fact, really reflects how well he stuck to the text in his performance.) His aim, Nyqvist explained, was to minimize his personality as an actor as well as everything else that could be seen on the stage, so that he could let the story speak for itself (Råde 2000). In the history of Swedish theatre, there had never been such an ascetic staging, which was “interrupted” only by the projection on a rough canvas backdrop on the bare stage of some lines from the Divine Comedy. Appearing in Italian but read in Swedish by a female voice, these are the lines that Levi tried to teach his friend Jean and that consist in the only “visual” aid in the performance (Hanson 2000). Norén told of a remarkable episode:

I met Pikolo in Strasbourg years after the performance and I remember he told me how important it was for Primo Levi to talk about the Divine Comedy and Dante.

Van Reis, M., ”Ett enda talande ansikte”, Göteborgs-Posten, 07-10-2000, p. 54.

Norén emphasized that If This is a Man, which he chose to stage in the form of a monologue, was no poorer in images, as a monologue. in effect, the text was more than sufficient in itself and could not have been staged in any other way, he explained (Interview with LN, 2013). The faithfulness to the text was praised by all the critics. It would not be right to talk about a great spectacle in the theatrical sense of the term, they commented, but this was not the intention. Rather, it was deemed the most correct theatrical adaptation of Levi’s work that could possibly be offered (Hanson 2000).  


* I would like to thank Laura Petri, who set up the meeting with Lars Norén, which she participated in along with Camilla Bardél, both of whom teach Italian at the University of Stockholm.


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