Today the Norwegian author Jon Fosse is one of the leading names in modern drama. Yet he is more than that. He is a universe unto himself, a continent that stretches from the Norwegian Vestlandet where he still lives, to embrace Asia, South America, eastern Europe and the world as a whole.
Since his debut on the National Venue of Theatre scene in Bergen in 1994, his plays have been presented in more than nine hundred productions. His works have been translated to Albanian, Hebrew, Catalonian, Persian, Slovenian, Tibetan and forty other languages. Somebody is going to come, one of his early and most popular plays, had its first performance in Beijing in October 2010. One of his most recent plays titled I am the wind played at the same time in London, directed by one of our time’s foremost directors, Patrice Chéreau from France.
Jon Fosse has confessed that as a young author he felt much like an outsider in the theatre world. He had published several novels, essays and poetry collections in the early 1990s and gained a central position in Nordic literature. But he was not a frequent theatregoer and wrote his first plays on commission, still unsure if drama was his true metier. Much can be said about his integrity from how he conquered his sceptical view of theatre without thus having to compromise with his artistic ideals.
Even in his first plays Jon Fosse demonstrates that which very soon will be seen as his dramatic characteristic, namely the poetic dialogue, the repetitions and the absence of the incisively defined conflicts that form the core of western drama. In his first play Somebody is going to come a man and a woman arrives at an old house on the coast. Seemingly nothing happens. They hope to live here protected from the surrounding world and repeat the incantation that forms the play’s title: Somebody is going to come. When a neighbour unexpectedly does come by, a feeling of uncertainty creeps in. But the expected reckoning does not take place. The last line is an echo of the earlier incantation:
We will always be
in each other
That does not mean that there is a lack of conflict, as when he writes about young couples who set up house or plan to. Illustrative examples include The Name, The Child and Night Songs. These contain more or less apparent antagonisms between children and their parents – lack of understanding, silence and loneliness. But in Fosse’s plays the conflicts are more implied than stated. In the play Mother and Child the young man, who after much time finally visits his mother, could be a Hamlet come to accuse her of having failed him all his life, thinking only of her career. Nevertheless he leaves without accusing her. We are never shown the culmination of the conflict, seemingly as if the conflict lay in that it wasn’t actually stated. Fosse’s persona keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves, thus making us unsure of what it is that makes people do what they do, as well as what our hearts actually know about each other.
Jon Fosse’s dramaturgy has often been called undramatic. Those who say this have failed to see that he creates suspense in other ways than Ibsen, Strindberg and O’Neill, the founders of the psychological and naturalistic 20th century drama. Nor is he at home in the realistic mainstream of European drama during the most recent 10-15 years whose main proponents include Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Marius von Mayenburg. Jon Fosse chose his own path early in his career, moving deeper and deeper into an existential, partially religiously tinted authorship that stands alone in contemporary theatre.
However, this does not preclude a certain influence from other authors of drama in the 1900s. Fosse’s writing style has been deeply affected by Samuel Beckett’s unwavering nihilism, especially then his later writings whose sparse, finally discontinued dialogues can be seen in Fosse’s iterative technique. Indeed, Somebody is going to come is as devoid of action as Waiting for Godot is. Still, this does not mean that Fosse is a nihilist. Rather, in company with so many authors in the Romantic and Modernistic tradition, he balances between the darkness of depression and light of mysticism. This is most clear in the latter period of his authorship.
Nor should the strong tenderness of Fosse’s descriptions of humans and settings be forgotten. These are often taken from the costal landscapes where he was brought up. In spite of everything, one is tempted to call him a realist. His pale pictures of a society in crisis rises as from a development bath: the chasms between city and country, the emptying towns where older generations remain waiting for the emigrated children to come visiting, the feeling of being lost in the new existence, the sense of belonging nowhere.
It is from this base that Jon Fosse writes about loneliness, suffering and death, but also of the hope that fills the old woman in A summers day as she stands at the window looking out over the ocean where her husband one day disappeared on a boat trip:
I was nothing now
and as I felt that
yes that somehow I glowed
deep inside me
from the empty darkness
I felt that the empty darkness
without meaning anything
without saying anything
the darkness glowed from within me.
Jon Fosse is a mystic, but a much present one. There is an edge of societal criticism in his depictions of people who refuse the attempt of the post-industrial society to force each successful individual to procure an identity and be fulfilled. His role characters are always dignifies when viewed in their own light.
There is a turning point in the play titled Dream of autumn as the action leaps in great steps in time and space. It is increasingly common that yesterday, today and tomorrow change places in his plays. In Sleep and Shadows time is his main theme, the feeling that today is permeated by both yesterday and tomorrow as a never still drop in the ebb and flow of time.
In I am the wind two men are on the sea in a boat. One of them throws himself in the water saying: “I’m too heavy and the sea is too light.” With its scaled down language and nearly non-existent action this is a play that balances between theatre and poetry: this ever-present ocean – this recurrent picture of how life and death are inseparable.
Trained as they are in psychology and realism, many actors become unsure and provoked facing these ambiguous, often vague depictions of ordinary people, ones we simultaneously recognize and experience as strangers. In Death variations the young girl follows a man quite simply called Friend. A type of Alien, he comes from another world and persuades the girl to choose death.
Jon Fosse is hard to play and has engendered a host of suggested, more or less successful interpretations. Still, there is a growing group of directors and actors of all ages who see him as a liberating voice in a sphere where the spectacular and overly obvious gains ground. As all important writers of drama, Fosse forces the theatre and its audiences to think in new ways. He is the poet of the unknown. That may be how we must explain his immense success: he provides us with something we lack.