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Alfred Nobel, the Silenced Playwright

Updated on October 7, 2009

In October every year, we are informed who are to receive the Nobel prizes of the year. All five of them, plus the parasitic prize of economics "in memory of Alfred Nobel", which isn't Nobel's prize at all, but a prize of the Swedish National Bank.

The addition of that prize at the Nobel festivities is not the only example of Nobel being posthumously mistreated.

The prize of literature is one of the real Nobel prizes, but Nobel's purpose with the prize was intentionally distorted as soon as he died - distorted by his own family, and by a man who was then a clergyman at the Swedish legation in Paris, and who would later become Sweden's most famous arhbishop - and a receiver of the Nobel peace prize:

Nathan Söderblom.

This is what happened:

Towards the end of his life, Alfred Nobel lived in San Remo, Italy, but he often visited Paris. As far as I know, he was not religious - definitively not Christian - but he was quite philanthropic, and he used to visit the Swedish congregation in Paris to support its program for help to poor Swedes living in the French capital.

Shortly before his death, Nobel visited Rev. Söderblom in Paris, and wished his help in proofreading a text of his: Nemesis, a tragedy in four acts.

He was inspired by an earlier play by Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Cenci, which Percy wrote at about the same time as his wife wrote Frankenstein. Shelley was an outspoken atheist, and Nobel had several copies of his play in English; both plays were about the life (and, in Shelley's play, the death) of Beatrice Cenci, a historical person who was beheaded for murdering her father (who had repeatedly raped her).

Her execution, by the way, took place in the year 1599. Some say her ghost is still appearing every year at the date of her death - September 11th...

Nobel's play was written in Swedish, but were to be printed in France, so it was agreed that Rev. Söderbloms wife, Anna Söderblom, would take care of the proofreading.

So they must both have been perfectly aware of the character of the play - strongly anti-clerical, even anti-religious.

But Nobel was one of the richest Swedes at the moment. Perhaps they hoped that the church would inherit some of his wealth.

But when he passed away, december 10:th 1896, and his will was read, it turned out the church didn't get a penny. The money would be used to finance the Nobel prices.

His play was printed at about the same time, and Rev. Söderblom got second thoughts. He got in touch with Alfred Nobel's nephew, Emanuel Nobel, and they agreed that all copies should be destroyed, except three, who would be save for the future.

Of these three remaining copies, two have since disappeared; the last remaining copy is in the National Archive of Sweden, with a Xerox copy at the Royal Library.

The hiding away of the play caused misunderstandings about his intentions with the prize of literature.

In his will - you may read its original at

and an English translation at

- he wrote that this prize should be given to "the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction".

"Ideal direction" - whas did that mean?

The formulation is rather cryptic, and one took it to mean "with an idealistic tendency", so rebellic authors like Ibsen, Strindberg, Tolstoy and Zola never got the prize.

But if you read Nobel's own play, he probably meant exactly such rebellic writers to have the prize.

In any case, the text of Nemesis was hidden for more than a century, until in 2001, the Swedish film director Vilgot Sjöman - who had made a film about Nobel - published his book Vem älskar Alfred Nobel? ("Who loves Alfred nobel?"), where he told the story, and published some excerpts from the play.

But even he didn't publish the complete text.

I did, a couple of years later. I was at the time a member of an Esperantophone publishing company in Stockholm, and having read Sjöman's book, I ordered a copy of Nobel's play, got interested and translated it into Esperanto. I discussed the matter with the other staff of the company, and since the original text was not easily available, we decided to publish a bilingual edition.

Which appeared in 2003 -

(Sorry, no English translation yet, as far as I know. May try to make one, if there is some interest.)

I regarded the text as a historic document, and didn't imagine it would ever be played; Nobel wasn't professional in the field of theatre.

But a skilled theatre director can do wonders. Richard Turpin did, and December 10th 2005, exactly 109 years after Nobel's death, his play finally had its first perfomance ever, at Strindbergs Intima Teater in Stockholm -

The Swedish Academy was not represented in the audience - it had to take care of the Nobel Prize festivities that same day.

But I was there. The performance was very good.

At a theatre once founded by one of those writers never got the prize, in spite of his merits.


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