Friday, February 22, 2019
The First Warning is the only “comedy” ever written by the famed Swedish playwright August Strindberg. And it is the only play I’ve ever acted in.
Comedy is rightly in quotes when it comes to Strindberg.He was not a happy guy—alcoholic, misogynist, paranoid, depressive personality, and divorced three times. #MeToo came a century too late to include him, but he would have been a proper target. His autobiographical novel was entitled The Inferno. This sunniness shows in his plays, filled with horrid gender interactions and nasty characters meeting with bad endings. The First Warning was a bit different, an 1893 drawing room farce about a middle aged Swedish man about to leave his wife while being wooed simultaneously by his landlady The Baroness and her teenage daughter Rose.
I made up for the lack of humor in the script with my performance, truly a farce by any standard. It was the last year of college and I was taking an acting class because I could. The call came out for actors for the theatre department’s grad directing class, a large group of students, all of whom needed people to puppeteer about the stage for their term projects. Any live body on campus would do. So I became Axel Brunner for a couple of days in the spring of 1973, the central character in the play.
Among the director’s problems, it was Santa Barbara in the hippie era and, while she could outfit me with a costume, I had no shoes that would be appropriate for a middle aged burgher. In fact, I’m not sure I had any shoes at all besides flip flops and some Serbian dancing shoes with curled toes. I performed in a pair of loafers that she borrowed from her brother.
My problem was a different one. Rose was played by the young woman who had the lead role in the drama department’s production the previous semester. When it came to acting, she knew her stuff.
The lowlight came when Rose was supposed to surprise me with a kiss as testament of her love. We practiced that kiss more than a few times—yes, she was attractive—but I never could make it a natural act. I was always a bumbling archaeology student accepting a kiss from a budding actress under 1973 stage lights, not patrician Axel being surprised by Rose’s youthful ardor in the 1890s.
Fortunately, in those halcyon days before every activity ends up on Instagram, the only witnesses to my mauling of Strindberg’s prose and stage directions were the few people who came to the two shows. I don’t think any of my friends took time off from beach tanning to witness how bad an actor I was, though my sister did show up one night. She carried my secret to her grave. I was terrible enough to confirm that archaeology was a better bet for my future than the stage. Interesting how that turned out.
Strindberg, who also tried his hand at acting with miserable results, was not well known for his portrayals of domestic bliss. Like this exchange in the play:
WIFE. I don't hate you. I simply despise you! ...
HUSBAND. My warmest wish has been that I might hate you, so that you might love me.
The comedy only comes at the end of the play. Axel is about to walk out the door when his wife Olga cries out. She has just broken a front tooth, a first warning that both of them are aging, and in her mind, a justification for Axel to leave her for young Rose or some other pretty thing. But that moment brings a change of heart and turns typical Strindberg melodrama into his only comedy:
WIFE. And now you'll leave me, of course?
HUSBAND. Not on your life! [Closing the bag with a snap] Tomorrow we'll start for Augsburg to get you a new tooth of gold.
Other than the early discovery that I would never rival Tom Cruise, or even Rodney Dangerfield, why bother to report on this forgettable event half a century after it happened?
I went to the dentist last week. A tooth had an abscess. Better to remove it instead of try to save the tooth, the dentist said. She’s likely younger than my oldest kid, though made no attempt to emulate Rose and surprise me with a kiss. She’s seen too many mouths.
So, as of yesterday, I have one fewer bit of ivory in my mouth. A First Warning.
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