In December, Jon Fosse will be awarded the Nobel prize in literature. He is a playwright and novelist whose work delves into the struggles and difficulties faced by regular individuals living on the outskirts of society. His stories explore how they navigate through their daily lives.
However, his pieces are filled with optimism and fondness, along with a hint of ominousness. Fosse has a strong connection with the individuals in his plays, emphasizing their humanness.
Fosse, a resident of Bergen, Norway, has received high acclaim for his seven-volume book series “Septology.”
In 2022, I was nominated for the International Booker Prize.
However, many people outside of Scandinavia and Germany are unaware that his global recognition stems from his work as a playwright. So, who exactly is this Scandinavian author who has received the most prestigious literary award?
Fosse’s work straddles a variety of genres, including several novels, 40 plays, several collections of poetry, children’s literature, essays, and translations. Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel committee for literature described his ability to “evoke man’s loss of orientation” as providing “access to a deeper experience close to divinity.”
Fosse initially focused on composing poetry and fiction, heavily influenced by the natural environment and dialect of Norway’s rough western coast, where he spent his childhood. He has gained recognition for his use of Nynorsk, a language primarily spoken in western regions of Norway. Some view Fosse’s decision to use this language as a statement of political significance.
Initially, it was not apparent that Fosse would pursue playwriting. He did not view the theater as his calling and instead focused on reading and studying drama and theatrical concepts. Despite this, he remained primarily dedicated to writing poetry and fiction.
In 1985, he attended a 10-day program for aspiring playwrights, albeit reluctantly. However, his initial attempts at writing plays were not well-received. They were deemed incomprehensible and deviated from traditional theatrical norms, with underdeveloped characters.
The initial performance he directed was a brief play titled And We’ll Never Be Parted (1994), and then in 1996, he presented Somebody is Going to Come. And We’ll Never Be Parted centers on a woman anxiously anticipating her husband’s return while reflecting on their relationship and struggles with infidelity. This production sparked discussions in Norway about the elements of quality theater, with one reviewer labeling it as “innocent.”
Some people thought his plays were too focused on literature or the Norwegian setting, and that they didn’t effectively convey the universal themes of the drama. However, a theater agent from Sweden named Berit Gullberg saw something exceptional in Fosse’s work and wanted to expand its reach beyond Norway.
Kia Berglund, the director of a Stockholm-based alternative theater called Giljotin, presented a unique interpretation of Fosse’s play The Child (1996). The play, which focuses on a couple expecting their first child, was brought to life in a mysterious and captivating manner on the small stage with only 50 seats.
Fosse was undoubtedly a captivating playwright, but his works demanded attentive listening and an understanding of its cadences. His plays feature minimal dialogue and instead utilize pauses and silences to convey significance and establish the overall tone and ambiance.
Fosse is frequently likened to the Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett. However, his plays rarely feature significant philosophical debates. Instead, they rely on the unsaid – those unexpressed sentiments, yearnings, and emotions that simmer beneath the facade – to generate tension and intrigue.
Gullberg’s sustained efforts led to a production of Fosse’s second play, Somebody is Going to Come (about two people who buy a remote house by the sea), by French director Claude Régy in 1999. It was performed at an exceedingly slow pace, running twice as long as its Norwegian premiere. In 2003, Régy took on Fosse’s second play, Death Variations (2001) about a young woman’s suicide, to critical acclaim.
called Fosse the “most important new voice in European theater.”
In the early 2000s, Fosse’s works gained recognition and were showcased at renowned German theaters. Two prominent theater publications praised Fosse as the “most influential emerging talent in the European theater scene.”
Fosse was referred to as the “master of unheimlich.”
This refers to the eerie feeling of discomfort and anxiety.
However, it was primarily Falk Richter’s 2000 performance of Night Songs (1998) in Zurich, which portrays the disintegration of a young couple in the suburbs, and Luk Percival’s 2001 rendition of Dream of Autumn (1999) in Munich, which depicts a couple meeting in a cemetery on a stage covered in crunching gravel, that introduced Fosse to German theater. These productions both highlighted the subtle humor present in his plays.
At the perfect moment, his dramas emerged when audiences were growing weary of the aggressive and emotionally charged style of German theater. This sparked widespread enthusiasm for Fosse’s productions, which were being showcased throughout Germany.
Numerous theaters requested original plays and obtained first showings. Fosse held the title of the most frequently performed modern playwright in Europe for a long time and eventually gained popularity worldwide. His productions were particularly successful when translated for Japanese and Korean theaters, as the enigmatic ambiance of his plays was not deemed unfamiliar.
Although his initial productions at the Royal Court were met with criticism for being pretentious and dull, launching in the UK proved to be a challenge. However, in 2011, French director Patrice Chéreau’s production of I am the wind (2008) at the Young Vic, which depicted two men braving a storm on a boat, was well-received by British audiences.
Fosse became tired from the constant cycle of creating and debuting productions, leading him to make the decision to stop writing plays and focus on writing fiction instead. This resulted in a decrease in the number of productions he produced, but his success shifted to his epic novels, including Trilogy (2014) which follows the journey of two lovers finding their place in society.
At present, Fosse is shifting his focus back to theater, attempting to strike a harmonious blend between the two genres. With the recent awarding of the Nobel prize, more individuals will be exposed to his plays, and many of his finest pieces will likely be revived, providing fresh audiences with the opportunity to immerse themselves in Fosse’s distinctive world.
Rikard Hoogland holds the position of Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor in the Department of Culture and Aesthetics at Stockholm University, specializing in Theater Studies.