To Dialogue with Dagerman

stigisland3There is nothing like it in Swedish literature. Its closest relative is Kafka or Camus.” Pontus Stenshall, Director, on Dagerman’s novel The Island of the Doomed

Moment Theater, located in the outskirts of Stockholm, recently had the world premiere of their staging of Dagerman’s The Island of the Doomed.  The performance is an interpretation and a reading and read-aloud and a bringing to life of Dagerman’s novel from 1946, as well as a coming to terms with and a conversation about parts of this daunting text. Four actors step in and out of the novel’s seven wayward characters who are stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck. These character-shifts are indicated to us who watch, by the actors’ putting-on and taking-off the shoes of the different characters.

Director Pontus Stenshäll has sensitively responded to Dagerman’s offer to launch a dialogue – a conversation that with crushing certainty leads to the loneliness of man and the painful realization about how difficult it is to acquire a sense of personal freedom that doesn’t intrude on the freedom of others.

It is in one of the seven and seventy non-descript suburbs it will happen. The doomed seven crawl up onto an island in a sea of texts and talk to us for a while. At Moment Theater, we hear the calls of those seven individuals, who died in a novel sixty-two years ago, and we want to respond to them. Boy Larus. Madame. The Captain. Tim Solider. Lucas Egmont. The English girl. Jimmie Baaz. Those were the seven who died in the text and therefore can be revived time and time again to live among us who remain – and  who are still reading and listening.

Dagerman’s novel The Island of the Doomed describes seven stranded individuals who during a few endlessly short days and hours touch on, provoke and connect seven states-of-mind: The thirst of dawn; The paralysis of morning; The hunger of the day; The sorrow at sunset; The obedience of twilight; The longing of evening; and The fires of night.

These seven states-of-mind come together, not peacefully but to fight about what symbol or statement should be carved into the white rock – a rock that the seven shipwrecked find in the sand just before dehydration, hunger, heat and the lack of love will extinguish the last human life on the island. Lion or not a lion? A life and death struggle ensues about what Symbol to choose for the Arts or Meaning or Life or Truth or Existence, At the crossroads of questioning and listening, Dagerman poses the quandary about the road ahead.

The ensemble of Moment Theater responds to the author that they so very much want to understand and communicate the wealth they’ve found in the novel. In front of a full house, the actors discuss the text: how they enter into it, walk around and catch sight of its richness. The novel about the seven doomed individuals that has been called wild and crazy, modernistic, a difficult read and remarkable, becomes what I believe was Dagerman’s wish: a text to argue with and keep alive through re-readings, read-alouds, stagings and, who knows, maybe the time has come for a film version.

I can hear the actors at Moment Theater talking directly to the author:   You wrote this story in such a haste and with such energy and determination, happiness even. With seriousness AND humor. Although not many people have noticed the humor. We have laughed as we have cried at that which you wrote half a year or so after the end of WWII. You were sitting on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, in a writing hut infused with ghost of August Strindberg. We heard that you had to care for your oldest son who just had started to walk. As you became more and more engrossed in your writing, your son started to tear pieces of wallpaper off the wall until he lay parts of it bare exposing a surface that long ago had surrounded Strindberg. That is how they talk with each other: Authors who don’t live in the same time period. That’s how they talk with each other: Authors and actors and audience. Intense listening on-stage; rapt attention among the audience. Four actors in a sea of white balloons. Music. Improvisation. Read-alouds. Ecstatic outbursts! The four actors singing “Because” by the Beatles. Just because.

I’m tapping the keyboard to capture the feeling of having been right there, or now being here, in a conversation about how we should be able to civilize or train ourselves: to understand each other; to irritate each other without having to fight. Moment Theater doesn’t give us their interpretation of The Island of the Doomed to be admired or rejected. They are instead continuing an inquiry about how we should inhabit our place next to each other on earth. Keen listening, compassion and dialogue are what their performance is all about. Through all its pain, melancholy, grief and humor, their world premiere, just a week or so before Spring Equinox, offers hope. This hope is grounded in our joint vulnerability and universal thirst and longing for consolation. When we use the word “our” and start to engage our neighbor, our  “civilization” work has begun. Keeping each other company and our dialogue alive become possible islands for survival in stormy seas.

I  was much moved by the invitation to the island of the doomed in Stockholm, and rejoiced at hearing the beats of the world’s heart. In all his texts, in spite of his pessimism and difficulties, Dagerman offers a way out through dialogue. A timeless journey where words written down some fifty years ago are brought to life through the bodies and voices of four actors and enliven the room between them and us; and we who also quietly partake in the conversation, this evening in a drab suburb, experience a heightened sense of being alive.

We who are there have for some hours escaped our cages of loneliness. At the end of the evening: A mutual somewhat embarrassed longing, from this Stockholm outpost, to participate in the building of the World. Surely, Dagerman must have intended this text to be experienced on a chilly evening with the promise of Spring Equinox around the corner. The seven on the island who died and then were resurrected out of the sea of texts, will continue to live with us, to be our consolation through the thirst of dawn and the hunger of the day and the longing of evening.

“/…/Man’s fate is sealed everywhere and at all times, and one individual’s significance for another is immeasurable. I believe in the solidarity, the compassion and love as man’s last white shirts. Highest of all virtues, I put that form of love that is called forgiveness. I believe that man’s thirst for forgiveness is not possible to slake, not because of any sin of heavenly or devilish origin, but because we all from our very beginnings are confronted by a merciless state of the world that we can affect less than we wish./…/”

Quotation From “Do We Believe in Man?” 1950; Stig Dagerman, Essays and Texts, Norstedts, 1990

Bengt Soderhall

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