A Short Introduction to Jon Fosse and his Dramas
There are so many aspects to the authorship of Jon Fosse and so many things that fascinate me in his works that keep me reading and investigating. Although there have been a few productions of Fosse’s plays performed in the USA, Fosse is still fairly unknown here; this is actually quite surprising since Fosse has become so popular in various countries in Europe and in China. In this short blog post I will briefly describe some aspects of Fosse’s success and some of the themes in his works.
Fosse debuted in 1983 with his novel, Raudt, svart (Red, black) and has remained a highly productive writer. After having written several novels, Fosse’s style of writing caught the attention of theater directors in the early 1990s.
Even though Fosse was known to be a theater hater, he was eventually convinced to start writing plays with the encouragement of Tom Remlov and Kai Johnsen; he wrote his first play Nokon kjem til å komme [Someone is Going to Come] in 1992, yet it wasn’t performed until 1996. Instead it was his second and third plays, Og aldri skal vi skiljast [And Never Shall We Be Parted] Namnet [The Name] that were first performed at Den nationale scene in 1994 and 1995 in connection with the Bergen Project.
With the success of Namnet [The Name] and Nokon kjem til å komme [Someone is Going to Come] Fosse’s works quickly drew the attention of an international crowd and were soon performed in Germany and France. Fosse was put on the map as a new voice and style, not only in Norwegian theater, but also in European theater. In his article from 1997, “Hvorfor akkurat Jon Fosse?” [Why precisely Jon Fosse?], Jon Nygaard writes that in a very short amount of time Fosse had become Norway’s leading dramatist; one would have to go back to Ibsen to find a comparison with his success. Nygaard writes, “Fosse’s breakthrough has happened much faster that Ibsen’s and his breakthrough will perhaps [have] the same implications for the development of Norwegian theater.” Nygaard points out the main reasons why Fosse has been successful; first he was already an established writer before he wrote plays, secondly he truly writes works for the stage in a process that breaks down the barrier between authors and theaters and returns the theater to the intellectual world, and thirdly he has had a team of support from Remlov, Johnsen, Eirik Stubø and Norwegian theaters who invested in his plays.
In the following years journalists began referring to Fosse as “the new Ibsen” in Norway, while others began comparing Fosse to playwrights such as Beckett, Pinter, Brecht, Maeterlinck, Chekhov, Strindberg, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek.
Fosse’s success inspired the creation of Kirsti Mathilde Thorheim’s book published in 2008, Tyngda av ein forfattarskap: Jon Fosses litterære og sceniske rom: Korleis dokumentere ein verdsdramatikar? [The weight of an authorship: Jon Fosse’s literary and scenic space: How to document a world dramatist?]. Thorheim writes that as of 2007 there were a total of 479 documented theater productions, staged in over 300 theaters in 44 countries (12). Thorheim also writes, “Jon Fosse is one of the most important voices in world drama today. In periods after the turn of the century he has probably been the most performed contemporary dramatist in Europe” (27). Thorheim’s book outlines Fosse’s success and gives the reasons for creating a Fosse-archive which became realized in part in 2010 at the Ivar Aasen Centre.
According to Norwegian literary scholar Lars Sætre, Fosse’s plays have four main themes, the past and memory or temporality, the characters’ innerselves and spiritual lives, dream, and unique from the playwrights of before or around 1900, Fosse has a fourth theme, “a special further development of the masters’ critical conventions: the theme of language, signs, names, words, and what they are able to carry and convey” (2005: 178).
Other scholars have also described how Fosse uses the theme of the difficult and imprecise relationship between language and reality. Hilde Aarflot has described Fosse’s work as attempting to describe the indescribable in her article from 2000. In his article from 2007, Norwegian Dramaturg Ola E. Bø has described Fosse’s work as theater texts that allow the silence to speak. American director Sarah Cameron Sunde writes that Fosse’s dramas allow space for silence in her article from 2007, “Silence and Space: The New Drama of Jon Fosse.” Sunde writes, “The idea of space (both the space that separates people from each other and the limitless possibilities of what might occur in a space that is wide-open) winds its way through every layer of Fosse’s work” (58).
There are emotional and mystical themes that can be felt in a Fosse play. A concept that Fosse includes in many of his works is “det lysande mørket,” or “the illuminating darkness.” This was the title of Swedish critic Leif Zern’s book from 2005 on Jon Fosse’s plays. The phrase itself is an oxymoron and is tied to mysticism; as Norwegian Lutheran Minister Kjell Arnold Nyhus writes in his book on Fosse from 2009, U Alminnelig: Jon Fosse og mystikken. [Un Common: Jon Fosse and Mysticism], it can be helpful to read Fosse’s works in the context of Christianity and the mystic writings of Mester Eckhart.
I myself have written about Fosse’s emotional and lyrical qualities in my 2012 dissertation entitled, “A Comparative Study of Selected Plays by Jon Fosse and Henrik Ibsen: Affinity, Affect, and the Altering of Aura.”
Fosse has now written 15 works of prose, two collections of essays, many songs and lyrical works, 9 children’s books, and over 27 works of drama.
In September of 2010 Fosse received the International Ibsen Award and in 2011 he was awarded the highest honor that could be given to him by the Norwegian State, the privilege to reside in the Honorable Artist Residence, Grotten, in Oslo for the rest of his life.
Kyle Korynta was a 2011-2012 Fulbright Scholar to Norway and is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Washington in the department of Scandinavian Studies.