Maj Samzelius was an actress, author, dramatist and theatre pedagogue. Her field was popular education with numerous dramatisations of stories and narratives for radio and TV. For almost 30 years, she was a driving force at the Stockholm city children’s and young people’s theatre, Vår Teater.
Maj Samzelius, who had Swedish parents, was born in Leipzig in 1917. She was the daughter of Alma Nordenswan, née Strömbäck in Hudiksvall, and Gustaf Nordenswan, an engineer, flying pioneer and motor journalist from Stockholm with assignments in Germany. During Maj Samzelius’ second year in life, the family moved back to Sweden. Outwardly, the family was well known and upper-class, but in reality dysfunctional, mainly on account of Gustaf Nordenswan’s recurrent periods of alcohol abuse. This also affected their economic situation, which led to the family having to move almost every year. Alma Nordenswan, who came from humbler origins, was interested in literature and had unfulfilled theatre dreams, although she tried to live up to the role of being a good wife and mother. When Maj Samzelius was in her teens, her father deserted the family which by then had two new members, two boys. This meant an economic catastrophe and also a great emotional one when one of the boys died of pneumonia. Despite the teachers’ attempts to keep Maj Samzelius at school, she was forced to conclude her schooling in order to contribute to the family’s income. After a brief secretarial course, she found work and was able to move into a rented room in Stockholm.
Her interest in the theatre had begun early and Maj Samzelius had both directed and performed in school productions. She also applied early on to the Stockholm students’ film studio. Her dream was to apply to the Dramaten theatre school, but the pupils there were not allowed to work during their education, which she had to do in order to manage her living expenses. Her best friend, who was a member of a dance troupe, had an invitation to join a tour of Germany and her friends in the troupe succeeded in expanding the show to include a more dramatic role suitable for Maj Samzelius. So Maj Samzelius with her friend and the dance troupe came to Germany where they performed at theatres.
After a performance in Berlin, Maj Samzelius got to know a wealthy Swedish woman who suggested that she apply to a theatre school there, also offering her food and lodgings. She followed this advice and was accepted at the theatre school Schauspielschule des Deutschen Theaters zu Berlin, founded by Max Reinhardt. One of the teachers there was a well-known director and theatre pedagogue, Heinz Dietrich Kenter, who came to be Maj Samzelius’ husband despite the great difference in age. The couple were employed together in Munich at the Kammerspiele, a famous theatre, where she worked as an actress and her husband as a director. At the same time, Maj Samzelius wrote fairy story plays in German that were performed at several theatres in the country. However, at the end of the war, many theatres were bombed, among them Kammerspiele, and their work situation became difficult.
After the end of the war, the couple glided apart and Maj Samzelius decided to return to Sweden. It was not all that simple, since when she married, she had been forced to give up her Swedish citizenship. In Stockholm, through common friends, she came to know her next husband Carl Christer Samzelius, an engineer, who after only 24 hours asked her to marry him. Their daughter Solveig was born in 1948, but on account of the confusion in Germany after the war, the divorce took several years and it was only in 1952 that the new marriage could be finalised.
In Stockholm, Maj Samzelius got to hear about a children’s theatre course led by the librarian and drama pedagogue Elsa Olenius. Although the application period had expired, she succeeded in getting the opportunity of participating, and immediately felt that this was right for her. Thus started a lifelong friendship between Maj Samzelius and Elsa Olenius, who in 1942 in Medborgarhuset in Stockholm had founded Vår Teater, a theatre enterprise for children and young people between seven and sixteen years of age. Children were to be the focus and fantasy and improvisation exercises were important ingredients. The groups were to consist of 12 participants at the most so that all the children could feel seen. The work gradually led up to complete theatre performances with décor and stage costumes.
Maj Samzelius soon acquired a strong position at Vår Teater. Her imagination was allowed to run riot and her respect for children was great. She could see the children’s needs; those of the bashful boys or the girls feeling left out. Everyone was welcome and she understood how to fit the children in with suitable leaders and the right group. In 1958, Maj Samzelius was made the director of Medborgarhuset. Vår Teater expanded and in 1969 there were ten different Vår Teater stages. In 1992, there were 14 permanent stages and about forty annexes in Greater Stockholm. Maj Samzelius remained a theatre pedagogue with great fervour and energy, which all around her experienced, and she was also an author, dramatist and radio director. She dramatised books and folk tales for her theatre groups to perform. She had already dramatised Mio, my son together with Astrid Lindgren in the 1950s for Swedish Radio. After that, she continued working as a radio dramatist. Many were the children from her groups who were given parts in her radio plays along with ”real” actors, and several future actors in Stockholm started on their courses in life in exactly that way.
Qui Nyström, a former colleague and producer at SR, has said that Maj Samzelius had an unusually fine capacity for feeling the author’s intentions and lifting manuscripts to be even better. She made people around her feel intelligent, both children and adults. She was also innovative in children’s radio, being the first to dramatise C S Lewis’s Narnia books among other things. Over time, there were to appear many followers.
For most people, Maj Samzelius was perhaps best known for the book series Hjältar och monster på himlavalvet, in which she related stories about the star constellations in the heavens, in four volumes published in 1981–1986. They had been preceded on children’s radio by a serial also dramatised and directed by her. In addition, the stories became the basis of the 1981 Christmas calendar on TV: Stjärnhuset. However, she also became famous for the great number of serials in the summer holidays on children’s radio that she dramatised and directed from the 1960s until the 1990s.
Vår Teater at Medborgarplatsen in Stockholm was Maj Samzelius’ home until 1973, when she was appointed the director of the newly started Vår Teater in Östermalm, where she was to remain until 1982. From there, it was walking distance between the theatre and her flat at Värtavägen, a home that was open to children and theatre leaders for a long time after she had finished at the theatre. Even as a very old person, Maj Samzelius continued to direct a group of actors, now mostly people in their thirties, who had ”refused” to leave Vår Teater. The result was a production of Carl Jonas Love Almquist’s Smaragdbruden, performed in 1993 at Kägelbanan during the Stockholm Water Festival.
As late as 1998, she dramatised En gammal mans brev till en ung prins, moral tales and fables by Carl Gustaf Tessin to Crown Prince Gustav, later Gustav III. In Maj Samzelius’ version, it was called Draken och hermelinen, and became her final dramatisation for Vår Teater. That this one in particular became her last is beautiful, since she often approached her theatre children precisely through tales and fables, to enable the children to form their own lives with the help of their imagination, respect and love.
Maj Samzelius died in 2015 in Stockholm, at 98 years of age.