IT may come as a surprise, but those supposedly secure, well-organized nations of Scandinavia produce some of the most expressive, poetic, and brutal theater to be found anywhere.
The Nordic lands have spawned a number of women dramatists of tremendous power. The work of three such women - a Swede, a Norwegian, and a Dane - has been on view this month in Washington, part of Scena Theatre's 1992 New European Play Festival, in the series called "Femina Europa that ends on Sunday."
In Scandinavian society today, as in the time of Norway's Henrik Ibsen and Sweden's August Strindberg, sexual roles and relationships are being churned up, and women are leading the search for new foundations on which human interactions can be built.
Swedish playwright Margareta Garpe holds tightly to a biting psychological realism, close in style to that of her sometime director Ingmar Bergman. She is fascinated with mother-daughter relationships. Norwegian Cecilie Loveid experiments between the genres of fiction, poetry, and radio and stage drama. Her concerns center on the female condition. The last is a highly controversial Danish writer, Suzanne Brogger, who is considered something of a cross between Erica Jong and Jean Genet.
Of the three, Margareta Garpe sticks most doggedly to conventional dramatic form. Among her best-known plays are "The Child" (1979) and "The Test" (1985), both of which explore the complexities and problems of mothers who want freedom but still feel responsible for their children. Ms. Garpe says that in the mother-daughter relationship the greatest existential questions arise. All women, she says, contain both the mother and daughter within themselves.
Her play "To Julia," written in 1987 and presented here last week, tells the story of a woman seeking the freedom to pursue her career as an actress, and yet distracted by her love for and companionship with her daughter. It begins as her 18-year-old daughter prepares to leave home and continues in scenes of combat and reconciliation between them.
When I met with Garpe in Stockholm - one of the great secret theater capitals of the world - last November, she was in the middle of rehearsals for her play "Every Day and Every Night" at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. I pressed her to discuss other subjects she might be exploring. She said that the relationships of mothers and daughters supplied her with the key that allows her to enter the human condition.
Garpe also pointed to the struggle of mothers in a rapidly changing world. Many daughters swear they will make things different for their daughters. Garpe said she hoped for some understanding of today's mothers. She writes: "[We] stood here with one foot stuck in the old and the other in something new.... We were as children in our time." Feminists should be warned: Garpe does not create positive female role models. There is an ambiguity and a darkness to her work.
The "dark" forces - both internal and external - that are unleashed when a woman tries to make her mark on the world are prevalent in Norwegian Cecilie Loveid's works. In "Seagull Eaters" (1983), the protagonist is Kristine, a working-class girl who aspires to become an actress just before and during the Nazi occupation. Men such as Kristine's Nazi landlord are not the only forces against her. Curiously, the most ominous figure is the Norwegian version of Betty Crocker, Henriette Schonberg Erken. Erken's
instructions for managing the kitchen, complete with how to slaughter fowl, are interpolated into the play with grim irony.
Ms. Loveid's work, by American standards, seems audacious, difficult to pin down, ambiguous. Her highly fluid and lyrical plays - they might be called dream plays in that they resemble the dreamlike concoctions of Strindberg - travel not from one geographic point to another, but from one person's memory to another in the psyche of her characters. She is concerned that repression of sexuality and denial of mortality are destabilizing forces in the world, and Loveid refuses in her dramas to separate emotio n and sensuality from politics.
Suzanne Brogger was at the forefront of the sexual revolution in Scandinavian literature. Her 1973 novel "Deliver Us from Love" began a debate in the grand tradition of Ibsen and Strindberg, and the controversy has never quieted.
Her production "After the Orgy" is a last rites for the very sexual revolution in which her artistic reputation was born. In our times, sex and death have been linked in many people's minds by the AIDS crisis. The play is a ritual of the taboo, the unutterable. Ms. Brogger says her script harks back to "theater's original form as a catharsis to purify society of the panic and paranoia which separates those [people] who are infected from [those in] the community." It appears, however, that she is not only
speaking of AIDS.
In the play, Brogger describes a modern conspiracy working to cover up truth and an awareness of the perishability of the material world, which has, she says, killed a sense of community in Western countries.
"The slogans of the '80s were security and safety. And the unexpressed collective project was to wipe out all signals of liberation and extinguish them one after the other.... Blindly we have held fast to the guilt-free notion that nothing has happened, a neo-religious cultivation of the `positive' forces and a denial of the negative ones."
Brogger, and her compatriots, have found - however threatening, energizing, aggressive, or ambiguous - a forum for the unspeakable. Playgoers should be thankful these women bring such issues into the theater, where for thousands of years humans have confronted their fears and hopes.
* Joe Martin is a lecturer in theater at the American University in Washington, a playwright, author, and translator.