Olga Björkegren was the most popular tragedienne to perform at Stockholm’s Dramaten (Royal Dramatic Theatre) during the 1880s. She particularly excelled at playing the femme fatale in French boulevard dramas.
Olga Björkegren was the daughter of wine merchant Per Björkegren and Anna Söderberg. In 1873 she enrolled at Dramaten’s acting school. Two years later she left the school and joined the actor and director Edvard Stjernström’s ensemble at the Nya Teater in Stockholm, where she was active until 1879. While there she played a variety of roles within a range of different genres. She received most acclaim for her performance as Leonarda in Björnstjerne Björnsson’s Leonarda, a part she played in 1879. The same year she began to work at Dramaten, where she remained until 1887. Although she was already generally well-known and favourably regarded it was not until 1880 that Olga Björkegren made her breakthrough in the role of Suzanne d’Ange in Alexander Dumas the younger’s comedy Falska juveler (Le Demi-monde).
At the time the roles offered to an actor were determined by the actor’s appearance and the tone of their voice. Despite her youth and perceived beauty Olga Björkegren did not fit into the norm for young characters. Her powerful features, combined with her height and tone of voice meant that she did not conform to the sweet and unthreatening feminine ideal of the day. Olga Björkegren was a tall woman; the critic Daniel Fallström noted her “elevated queen-like frame”. Despite the depth of her voice it was perceived as weak at the beginning of her career. She compensated for this by working hard on her voice which resulted in theatre critic Frans Hedberg’s later vivid description of it as “musical, with a muted but by no means less passionate range, which can fill the auditorium even when she whispers, striking you like an electric bolt when she raises it in an expression of pain and desperation, yet trembling and captivating when she quells it with a sniff or hisses out loud in a curse or an outburst of hate”. Olga Björkegren had a deep mezzosoprano’s voice which bordered on being an alto. At times her voice vibrated, in some scenes quite prominently. She frequently made use of this, for example in the role of Odette in Victorien Sardou’s play Odette from 1881, and probably in the dramatic “letter scene” in Falska juveler. The critic Georg Nordensvan described how she could alternate her expression from “a calm, majestic power as in Antigone, to a nervous, aggravated force as in Odette and Suzanne d’Ange.”
The reviews of Olga Björkegren’s performance in Falska juveler were thoroughly positive but it was also highlighted that her portrayal of the character did not conform to the author’s intentions. Olga Björkegren portrayed Suzanne as being truly in love with her fiancé, despite trying to hide her past as a courtesan from him. The reaction of the conservative reviewers reflected a theatrical tradition where an evil or calculating female character ought not to be portrayed in a manner that could explain or in some way excuse her behaviour. Olga Björkegren’s interpretation presented a woman who was not only in love with her husband-to-be but also was still attracted to her former lover. At Dramaten in 1880 this was likely perceived as a revolutionary performance; at the time audiences were used to black and white interpretations of female characters. Thus Olga Björkegren came to be an actress who paved the way for more nuanced interpretations of female characters. She always managed to give her calculating femme fatale roles a likable aspect.
Olga Björkegren was considered very beautiful and feminine, but with an androgynous quality, which today perhaps would be called queer. The Danish author Herman Bang, who himself is considered to have been queer, described her beauty as “peculiarly threatening”. Another indicator of her androgynous quality was that she played the young priest Peter in Ibsen’s Kungsämnena at the Nya Teater in 1879. There were apparently many such male roles played by women at the time, particularly within the sphere of comedy, farces and operettas, but it was highly unusual for a woman to play a male character in a modern play. “A most original enterprise” was how Georg Nordensvan termed it, and it was a success with the audience.
In 1887 Olga Björkegren married the art collector and literary man Klas Fåhraeus and she retired from the stage immediately after the wedding. However, she continued to teach drama students privately. The couple had four children together. Their youngest son, Robin Fåhraeus, later became a doctor and professor at Uppsala University. From 1909 to 1911 the couple oversaw the building of Villa Högberga on Lidingö. The architect was Carl Westman, famous for having designed Stockholm’s town hall. Högberga, a palace-like building in the national romantic style, became home to Klas Fåhraeus’ art collection while also housing young artists who lived there rent-free while developing their art. Olga Björkegren-Fåhraeus served as the hostess of the house and she turned it into a gathering place for influential people from the artistic and cultural spheres of the period. The couple were part of the so-called “junta” which comprised a group of eminent persons from the cultural world who met regularly. The junta has been eternalized in Hanna Pauli’s painting Vännerna. During the depression in the 1920s, however, both the art collection and the villa were sold. After her husband’s death Olga Björkegren spent her final years in Uppsala. Olga Björkegren died in 1950.