Lisette Stenberg was an actor, singer, and a pianist who was active during the late eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century.
Lisette Stenberg was born into the Hedvig Eleonora congregation in Stockholm, in 1770. She was the daughter of Peter Marcus Stenberg, a clerk at the Royal Board of Customs, and his wife, Anna Maria Ekelund. The family had included at least another two children, both girls, who had died as infants. It was not long before Peter Stenberg was promoted to customs inspector. When he was appointed warehouse inspector in Norrköping in 1781 he and his daughter moved to that town. His wife, Anna Maria, was already dead by then and five years after the move to Norrköping Peter Marcus himself died of consumption. Lisette Stenberg then moved to Stockholm where she entered the world of the theatre. Her father’s estate inventory reveals that at his death he owed the organist Steinchen for music lessons Lisette Stenberg had received from him. Little else is known of her childhood and upbringing.
Lisette Stenberg made her debut performance at Stenborgs teater in 1789, appearing in a harlequinade entitled Arlequin favorit Sultaninna. She became an instant hit with the audiences. Subsequently Lisette Stenberg often played the role of the seductress and she was possibly the first actor in Sweden to play a “breeches role” (cross-gender part). In 1790 she performed the part of Marquis Razilli in Bertin d’Antilly’s play L’Anglais à Paris. One of her most talked-about roles was the seductress in a 1792 production of Den förförde ynglingen in which she appeared opposite Didrik Björn. Her 1793 performance as Ninette in Lantflickan vid hovet in which she played opposed Gustav Åbergsson also generated a lot of reactions. Lisette Stenberg was also an accomplished singer who performed several difficult singing roles. Additionally she played the piano in between the acts and also gave concerts at which she sang. She was well-known for her singing, in particular for her performance of an aria bravura in the grand hall of the House of Nobility, on behalf of the royal orchestra’s widows and orphans’ fund on 23 November 1794.
Lisette Stenberg’s popularity seemed to grow in tandem with the various scandals which surrounded her. The financial difficulties she experienced eventually forced her into taking increasing risks and she soon fell into trouble with the law. She sought bankruptcy on several occasions. From the bankruptcy applications it appears that she lived on very little income, had just a few pieces of furniture and barely more belongings than she could carry, such as clothes and various other accessories. Despite almost constant artistic success she appears to have lived hand to mouth and not to have saved anything for a rainy day. When she spent the year of 1798 in Copenhagen it was considered to be a great loss to Stenborgska teatern where she usually performed. During the autumn of 1799 Lisette Stenberg returned.
When the theatre season came to a close Stenborgska teatern was shut down as a consequence of the royal monopoly on theatres in Stockholm. Lisette Stenberg was never employed by Dramaten, even though she was a star of the theatre. The reason for this snub lay in her scandalous lifestyle and her constant financial problems. She was, however, hired by Johan Anton Lindqvist’s travelling theatre company and in 1800 she performed in both Gothenburg and in Norrköping. Her final performance took place in Gothenburg in May 1800. After that no trace of her appears either as an actor or as a musician. She re-appears in Stockholm in 1803 when she is arrested for vagrancy.
Numerous stories circulated about Lisette Stenberg during her lifetime. One of these claimed that she had only come to Stockholm because she had been seduced as a young girl, leading to her family’s rejection, and thus she sought refuge in the theatre, the only place receptive to a ‘fallen woman’. It was also said that she was one of the authors of a tract, written in blood, which was discovered stashed in a keyhole of one of the capital city’s church gates. These paper tracts were a type of contract with the devil, containing a proposed agreement: body and soul exchanged for success, money and a job in the theatre.
Following her scandal-rich career Lisette Stenberg disappeared from the Stockholm stages and spent many years travelling around Europe. Traces of her crop up in Hamburg in 1813 and in Paris in 1816 where she, along with one of the servants of Gustaf Lagerbielke the Swedish ambassador, was arrested for having sold stolen clothes. Finally she ends up back in southern Sweden, in Vänersborg. The church records noted her as newly arrived in the town during the 1820s. She appears listed under various names and at various places in the town until her death. She claimed to be a widow of a Frenchman, named Desvigné, but tended still to be called Mrs Stenberg. Towards the end of her life she was – according to church records – “impoverished” and was still described as such on her death on 18 July 1847. She was buried two days later. Few were probably aware that the remarkable, foul-smelling and poorly-dressed woman who offered French lessons to the children of the town had once been one of Stockholm’s celebrated actors: “one of the greatest actresses in the world” (according to Gustaf Abraham Silfverstolpe).