By Michael Moerman, Assistant Dramatug
Though Strindberg called The Black Glove “Opus 5” of The Chamber Plays, it is sometimes not included with the others by certain critics since it did not premiere at the Intimate Theater. The play premiered on 26 December, 1911—after the Intimate Theater’s close. August Falck, with whom Strindberg founded the Intimate Theater, refused to direct the play, and the production was directed instead by Emil Grandinson. It is perhaps the least performed of the five Chamber Plays, and accounts of professional productions are difficult to come by.
In Sweden, The Black Glove (Svarta handsken) is often done as a Christmas play. It’s premier (in Falun) was on the day after Christmas, 1909; Ingmar Bergman’s 1940 production opened immediately after Christmas; a radio adaptation (directed by Olof Molander) was broadcast on Christmas Day of 1946; the first television version (directed by Bengt Lagerkvist) was broadcast on Christmas Day, 1957; and in January of this year (2012), The Black Glove was presented by the Vättan Church Sunday School Group of Vadstena. Although some specialists do not count it among the Chamber Plays (The Black Glove was written two years after the other four plays, and never presented at the Intimate Theatre.), Strindberg did, numbering it “Opus 5.” Despite a difference of tone, the themes, character types, and relationships in The Black Glove are of a piece with the other Chamber Plays.
The Black Glove may be the least performed of the Chamber Plays. Max Reinhardt presented it at his Berlin Chamber Theatre (Kammerspiele) in February, 1918. Closer to our own time, it was produced at Chelsea Centre Theatre of London in July of 1992, at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in February, 1988, and at New York’s Here Theatre in January, 2000. Professor Freddie Rokem’s acute analysis* of the two months he devoted to observing rehearsals for 1988 Dramaten production enables us to describe it here in some detail.
In Prof. Rokem’s judgement, “[A] sense of interdependence and organic unity between the different worlds [of magic and of ordinary reality] was probably the most significant aspect of [director] Wilhelm Carlsson’s production.” Carlsson accomplished this “as the direct result of his decision to locate the performance on a circular stage surrounded on all sides (except for the main entrance and two narrow aisles) by benches for 120 spectators…. Audience and actors playing human characters entered through the central aisle (at a 6:00 clock dial position); Tomte and Angel enter at 11:00; the Old Man’s top floor apartment was at 12:00…. Instead of a realistic performance where the characters enter and exit through doors[,]… Carlsson created a… symbolic space where the life of the house as a whole was contained …. The play was set on a single plane…. Thus, almost every spectator [saw] the performance from a different angle…. When the conventional patterns of communication and privacy are disrupted by breaking down the walls as well as the floors/ceilings separating the different flats in the house a kind of chaos erupts which the characters have to cope with. As spectators we perceived the events from the point of view of the supernatural characters, for whom no barriers exist when they enter the house.”
There were additional devices for melding magic and reality. As the audience entered, there were offstage clicks intended to represent the electrical workings of the house, and the black glove was spotlighted downstage center. The Tomte then jumped into the playing circle, inspected the glove, picked it up, and gestured with it. Only then did the house go to black while the Tomte placed the glove where the Old Man would find it. “With this brief introductory mime, the Tomte immediately became the ruler.” Wherever the cradle was placed, a blue light shone momentarily on its position on the floor. To show that the Woman loses contact with reality after her child disappears “the stage was transformed into a dream landscape with cloud formations projected onto the floor…. In this upside-down landscape, the behavior of the Woman was clearly understood as a state of madness.”
Rokem was further impressed by how Carlsson’s production created the enclosed, interdependent, but imperfectly communicating world of The Black Glove’s apartment house. The major device for accomplishing this was to cover “the stage and seats… by a transparent roof [that] turned the whole arena into a… compressed tower or lighthouse, a cross between a circus and a greenhouse.” In addition, Carlsson “create[d] a ‘group’ work… where important parts of the theatrical action were based on minutely directed ‘mass-scenes,’ where all the actors participate.” The Old Man was always on stage. Other actors were often present, “even if the individual characters they represent are not directly involved in the stage action but are transformed into some kind of human backdrop which fills the stage with a constantly ongoing … movement…. [in which the] inhabitants of the house, and in particular the supernatural creatures, are constantly eavesdropping.” In this manner, Carlsson’s production created on stage the “Tower of Babel with all manner of folk and all manner of language” that the Tomte invokes near the beginning of Strindberg’s script.
* Rokem’s report was initially published in Nordic Theatre Studies and Theatre Research International, 18, Supplementary Issue, 1993, pp. 24-36. All quotations are from his revised version, “The Black Glove at Dramaten, 1988,” Chapter 6 of his book, Strindberg’s Secret Codes (2004).