Spex in English

SPEX – a genuinely Swedish tradition

The Swedish tradition of ”spex” is not very old, but not very young either. More specifically, it started out in the middle of the 19th century among the students at the University of Uppsala. ”Spex” is prononced exactly like ”specks” as in ”big black floating specks of radioactive superintelligent dust from outer space”.

Ethymologically, the word ”spex” was once short for ”spektakel”, which originates from the Latin ”spectaculum”, simply meaning ”play”. The Swedish word ”spektakel” can be reasonably well translated into ”farce”, although the common Swedish word for ”farce” is actually ”fars”. A spex, however, is not just a farce. It is a very special kind of stage production which usually meets most of the following traditional criteria:

  1. It is a pure amateur production, written, staged and performed by university students.
  2. The storyline is more or less taken from history. History is re-interpreted in a creative way to suit the purpose of the play, which is to make fun of it. Mostly, it also makes fun of the present by numerous allusions and anachronisms.
  3. Music is an integral part of the performance. Almost invariably, new words are put to existing tunes. Both classical and modern music is used.
  4. The audience is expected to shout out loud their appreciation and/or their discontent. Requests for brief replays of what you just saw are also permitted and should be granted.
  5. The script is often in rhyme. Puns and more or less silly jokes are abundant. Improvisation is more of a rule than an exception.
  6. Some, many or all female roles are played by male actors. In the mid-1800’s, there were no female students, so any female characters simply had to be played by men. This tradition lives on, mostly because it is often funnier that way.

Thus, if you desperately need a translation, ”spex” means something to the effect of ”Swedish university student amateur historical musical satire farce”.

There are quite a few universities in Sweden, large and small, old and new. At most every single one of these it seems like there are always quite a few students feeling bored or deprived of culture, yearning for self-expression, or perhaps being just a bit crazy. These people seem to gather and say ”Hey, we’re bored / deprived of culture / yearning to express ourselves / a bit crazy. Let’s make something fun out of that!” That something is often, as it happens, a spex.

The first and foremost purpose of a spex is to provide entertainment, not only for the audience, but also for those doing it. It takes quite a few people and quite a lot of time to stage a spex. From 40 to 80 students spend several months of their spare time on it. You need writers and music arrangers, costume makers, decor builders, artists and PR makers, actors, makeup artists, musicians, a stage crew and – last but not least – a few reliable backstage party arrangers. Nobody throws a party quite like a spex.

Originally created by StefanG