- The Southern Theatre opened at Mosebacke Torg in 1853
- It is considered one of the world’s most beautiful theatres from the era
- Today, the theatre is well-known not only for performing arts but for its restaurant and night club, too
If you were to visit Stockholm’s Södermalm island in the 19th century, what would you expect to find just south of the historical core of the city? Would it be a poor neighbourhood? Or perhaps a countryside getaway for the upper class?
To tell you the truth, neither of the two options is quite right. While Södermalm used to house several lavish noble residences in the 17th century, its face changed quite dramatically during the era that followed.
Even during the 1800s, the area experienced a swift shift. Throughout the first half of the century, Södermalm was a place dominated by simple architecture and far from a booming cultural scene.
This was all going to be forgotten in the 1850s, though, as the population started changing. Around the same time, what once was a simple tavern at Mosebacke Torg Square attracting the lower class was about to become the home of perhaps the most renowned cultural institution on the island.
Carl Albert Wallman who had previously run a theatre in the premises of the Southern City Hall decided to purchase a plot of land with an old tavern at Mosebacke in 1850. The tavern soon fell victim to a new building which was in part meant to serve as a theatre and in part as a venue for different kinds of festivities.
This meant that from the start, the hall where performances were organised had no fixed furniture. The unexpected popularity of the theatre among the locals resulted in a quick change, however, and the Southern Theatre (Södra Teatern) quickly established itself as a well-known institution.
Unfortunately, despite all precautions that Stockholmers used to take already at the time, a disaster hit the theatre just like many other historic sites throughout the centuries. Only a few short years after the completion, the theatre and most of its neighbourhood were in flames. It took three whole days to extinguish the fire and for the residents to be able to see what was left.
As it turns out, everything – even the seemingly worst of events – have their positive side. In this case, the Southern Theatre got a chance to rise from the ashes looking better than ever before.
The new building was designed by architect Johan Fredrik Åbom who was also left his mark on the Old Parliament House (Gamla Riksdagshuset) standing on Riddarholmen, for instance. Almost immediately after having been completed, in 1859, the theatre became renowned internationally as one of the world’s most beautiful theatres from the era.
Just as the circumstances and the environment, the repertoire of the theatre was changing rapidly during its lifetime. Interestingly enough, some of today’s most popular operas were equally popular already in the late 1800s. Few years after the beginning of the theatre’s year-round operation, in the season of 1879/80, the most popular operas included Aida, Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Juan, and other well-known plays.
Why is it interesting to talk about changing social circumstances in relation to the theatre, though? You see, some changes not directly related to this or any other theatre had a major impact on the industry as a whole and consequently, on the Southern Theatre, too.
If you are anything like me, you do not often think of how industrialisation or the introduction of the railway affected theatre and the lives of those dedicated to the performing arts. However, these were major influences as easier and faster transportation allowed theatres to reach larger and more diverse audiences across the country. At the same time, actors and directors got a chance to perform on various well-regarded stages, and consequently, the modern-day cult of celebrities was born as more and more fans got to know and admire their heroes.
Even the fast urban development that was ongoing in Stockholm late in the 19th century is said to have affected the success of the Southern Theatre. Once again, with the introduction of first the horse-drawn tram and later more modern forms of public transportation, people were able to move around the city easier and faster which resulted in the locals more often enjoying the world behind the borders of their home neighbourhoods.
The most interesting mode of transportation at Katarinaberget was, without doubt, the Katarina Elevator (Katarinahissen) opened in 1883. It almost immediately became beloved by the locals and tourists alike. In its first year of operation alone, it carried more than a million people. In batches of up to eleven passengers.
With over 500 seats, the Southern Theatre was significantly smaller than its competitors such as the New Theatre (Nya Teatern) or the Royal Swedish Opera (Kungliga Operan) but still managed to hold its position firmly.
The booming art scene in Stockholm experienced a swift change in ideology after the turn of the 20th century. While earlier Germany was arguably the most influential country, Stockholmers turned their backs to the Germans after the World War I. Their place was taken by the English and the French who became the new role models for the Swedish theatre.
These changes brought some fascinating consequences. Swedish directors did not usually translate existing plays, but since the Swedish audience understood very little French, for instance, the amount of speech in performances from the era was commonly limited.
As time went by, things went south for the Southern Theatre, and by the mid-1900s, it seemed that its end was close. In 1958, the company that owned the building at the time decided it was time for demolition. However, Evert Taube, a well-known Swedish artist, took matters in his own hands and started a movement with the goal of saving the historic site.
Eventually, he succeeded, and despite another fire, the theatre survived to this day. The state took over in the ‘60s, and the interior of the theatre was subsequently enhanced by items from the original Gustavian Opera House that had been demolished in the late 19th century.
Today, however, the Southern Theatre is known for much more than its art repertoire. It is also the home of a popular restaurant, a terrace with stunning views of the city where many events are organised every summer or a multi-floor club that comes alive on several days every week.
As the Theatre changed owners again just recently, only time will show what this charming place has up its sleeve for the years to come. While we will need to wait to see what the future holds for the Southern Theatre, I recommend you explore this wonderful historic site thoroughly as soon as you can, and I am convinced you will not be disappointed.
Before you go, who do you think would enjoy discovering this place with you? Perhaps they might like this post, too? Also, make sure to sign up for our newsletter below if you would like to receive more stories like this directly to your inbox.
Abrahamsson, Åke, 1998. Södra Theatern 1846-1848. [stockholmskallan.stockholm.se].
Om Södra Teatern. [sodrateatern.com].
Tjerneld, Staffan, 1977. Södra Teatern.