Spex is a phenomenon that only occurs in Sweden and in the Swedish speaking parts of Finland. It is a form of a show that deals with re-interpreted historical or literary themes with exhilarated disrespect. Spexes are created in universities and colleges.
Nordisk Familjebok (a Swedish encyclopedia), the edition of 1917, explains “spex” as follows:
"The word comes “from the Latin ‘spectacular,’ meaning play or show, and stands for a parodic piece intended for the amateur scene. In the mid 19th century a special high-spirited student drama arose. It included funny farces as well as anachronistic dramas in historical costumes and pieces similar to comedies and operettas. Men performed both male and female roles simply because there were only, or mostly only, male students at the universities. But this tradition continued even after that as women were admitted.”
The Nordisk Familjebok continues saying that spexes “were bold and drastic and connected with the students’ temperament, imagination and living conditions. They represent, with a brilliant original inventiveness, an otherwise in literature very little utilized kind of Swedish humor.”

The following conversation is quoted from Chalmers’ spex “Caesarion” from 1950:
Iras: Now Caesar is asleep.
Brutus: Excellent! Check his pulse.
Iras: i-ii-iii-iv-v-vi….
Cleopatra: Is Iras stuttering??
Brutus: No, she is counting in Roman numerals.

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Life Made Sweder

We have to go back at least 160 years to find the oldest spexes. One of the first was “Rudolf eller Blodbadet på Sicilien” (Rudolph or The Sicilian Bloodbath), performed at Stockholm’s Nation at Uppsala University in about 1853, but was written about 10 years earlier.
The spex subjects could be almost anything, for instance about historical persons, such as “Kejsar Nero och katakomberna (Emperor Nero and the Catacombs), 1873. Another, also from Uppsala in 1894, was called “Sju supar eller Tre mäns delirium tremens” (Seven Schnappses or Three Men’s Delirium Tremens). One source of inspiration was operettas, such as Orpheus in the Underworld and Helen of Troy.
Of the first spexes completely preserved are “Morens sista suck” (The Moor’s Last Breath) of 1865, and “På Madagaskar” (In Madagascar), 1870, both from the Nation of Södermanland-Närke at Uppsala University.
The spex tradition spread fast over the country and in Lund the first came in 1886. It was called “Gerda.” Other famous spexes from Lund’s University were “Uarda,” 1908, and “Djingis Kahn,” 1954.

In “Uarda” a mummy sings about how he smells:
I was one thousand years old, although
I still stinked as a barbarian skunk.
But when I turned two thousand years, the funk
had become somewhat more comme-il-faut!

Now I smell so good
of sandalwood,
of tea of elderflower,
the harmony
of aloe,
and all the burned power.
Stockholm’s first spex performance happened in 1867 at the Royal Institute of Technology. It was “Rudolf eller Blodbadet på Sicilien” — borrowed from their friends in Uppsala. In Göteborg the first one was ”Slaget vid Svoldern” (The Battle of Svolder) that was set up at Göteborg’s University in 1914.
Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg did not start until 1948, with “Bojan.” They, however, made up for it with the producing of at least one new spex every year since then.
Chalmers continued, as one of the few spex groups in Sweden, to hold on to the tradition with only male actors on stage. Not until 2003 did the spex organization at Chalmers divide into one male-only spex group, called Chalmersspexet Bob, and one female-only, called Chalmersspexet Vera. Some of Chalmersspexet’s great, classical spexes are “Caesarion,” 1950, “Henrik 8,” 1954, “Katarina II,” 1959 and “Nebudkarnesar,” 1964. Since the start Chalmersspexet has produced about 80 new spexes plus the reproducing of a great number of older spexes.

In Chalmersspexet “Henrik 8,” King Henry sings about all his deceased wives, whom he killed, one by one:
So you are dead,
yes, you are dead,
and at your wake, quite clearly,
for better or worse,
for better or worse,
I vowed to love my next more dearly!

Today, in 2014, there are about 70 different spex ensembles in Sweden and 15 in Finland. In addition spexes are also produced and performed in several Swedish order societies, such as SHT, of which the author of this article is a member.

Setting up a spex
Setting up a spex is a major undertaking. Most larger spex groups consist of 80 or more people, including authors, performers, musicians, music arrangers, designers, set builders, make-up artists, seamstresses, stage crews, PR people and party arrangers — all students at the school the spex group is associated with.
Chalmersspexet is somewhat different. Since long ago their number of people involved is limited to 40 people, which makes it possible to fit all of them in a tour bus. Every year, Chalmersspexet Bob does about 25 performances in about 10 different locations, in Sweden, Finland and Great Britain. Norway, Denmark and Germany used to be on the tour schedule, too.

The music
The music is one of the most important components of a spex. New words are put to existing tunes. The texts are often filled with play on words, puns and more or less silly jokes. Göteborg is specially known for its ”Göteborg puns.” Chalmersspexet has always had very talented, musical singers and is praised for its great music performances. Especially in its first 20 years most of its music was opera and classical music. Nowadays a majority of the music selections come from pop music, folk-music and Swedish “visor.” The accompaniment normally is a pianist and an orchestra of 15 people or more.

In 1959 Chalmersspexet produced “Katarina II." Catherine and her aunt-in-law, Elizabeth, are doing their make-up in the morning and they sing the “Make-Up Duet” to the melody of a Russian folk-song:
A woman each morning is peevish and cross.
The reason for this her predicament is
that after she watched in the mirror her rind,
- if she is still happy, she’s probably pretty blind.

Spex competitions
A few times spex competitions have been arranged. Last time a Swedish spex championship occurred was in 2012. Six spex groups participated and Linköping’s United Spex Ensemble became Swedish Champion of Spex.

Famous spex performers
Quite a few Swedes who were active in spex became well known and famous later in life. Some of them are:
- Hans Alfredson, entertainer, revue author (Lundaspexet, Lund)
- Tage Danielsson, author, entertainer, film director (The Östgöta Nation spex group, Uppsala)
- Christer Fuglesang, astronaut (Fysikalen spex group, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm)
- Jan Johansson, one of Sweden’s and Europe’s foremost jazz pianist (Chalmersspexet)
- Gunnar Lundberg, opera singer (Fysikalen, Stockholm)
- Erik Lönnroth, history professor, member of the Swedish Academy (Filosofspexet, Göteborg’s University)
- Sten Broman, composer, music critic (Lundaspexet, Lund)

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 many people and a lot of time to stage a spex. They spend several months of their spare time in preparation. And they have fun. Not the least at the parties — nobody throws a party quite like a spex!

Spex in Atlanta
Swedish spex groups are touring in Europe every year. But they have not yet reached the United States. In this country there is no tradition of this kind at all — with one exception.
In 2009 I started a small spex group here in Atlanta, consisting of four guys: Sten Ekberg from Nyköping, Magnus Edlund from Stockholm, myself, from Stockholm and Erik Kind, a Norwegian-American. And we had a great pianist, Gabe Granitz (25 percent Swedish), from Minnesota. Three of Chalmers’ best spexes are now in our repertoire and we perform at Atlanta’s Nordic Lodge events and also at Chalmers’ American Alumni Association’s local group’s crawfish parties in Atlanta. We have also performed in New Haven, CT and Raleigh, NC.
Some of the songs included in our mini spexes are — by us — translated into English, as is the spoken dialog between the songs.
Our audiences love it!

By Göran Rygert
Atlanta, GA
Former member of “Chalmersspexet,” Göteborg, Sweden