"The most important thing about the theatre, and a thing which no other art form has, is this moment when an angel goes through the stage."
Jon Fosse is Norway’s pre-eminent playwright. Regularly seen across Europe, his theatrical writing is considered to be some of the finest to be found on the Western stage. His first play Someone is Going to Come has been widely produced, including at the Theatre des Amandiers in Paris; his play The Name was presented by The Berliner Schaubuhne at the Salzburg Festival. These productions marked Jon’s European breakthrough. Now, his work sees about one hundred productions a year around the world—in January of this year, for instance, there were four productions in Japan. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages and his collected plays are being published by Oberon Books in London. The recipient of many prizes—among them the Norwegian Ibsen Prize, the Nordic Prize for Dramatists, and the Austrian Nestroy Prize—he recently became a chevalier of the French order of Merits and was given the prize of honor from the Norwegian Council.
And yet, he has never been produced in the U.S.
All this will change this June, when Fosse makes his U.S. debut with Night Sings Its Songs, translated and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde at Manhattan’s The Culture Project in the 45 Below Theater June 7-26, 2004. Produced by Oslo Elsewhere in association with The Unbound Theatre and Spring Theatreworks, this production is an important U.S. cultural event.
I met Jon in the spring of 1998 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh where we were both international exchange playwrights. Since then, we have had the good fortune to talk about art and life and process quite often. To mark this U.S. premiere, Jon Fosse graciously agreed to an ‘official’ conversation about his work and this play’s life in particular. This interview was conduced via e-mail whilst Jon was in Norway and I was in Los Angeles.
Caridad Svich (Rail): How do you see your work in response to Nordic culture?
Jon Fosse: I am quite sure that growing up in a small Norwegian community by the Hardanger fjord, in the western part of Norway, has influenced my writing a lot. In fact, so much so that it is almost impossible for me to see how much. You know this story about the fish who doesn’t know anything about the sea? I left home at sixteen years of age to go to college in another small place, though a lot bigger than the town where I grew up. After three years there I went to an even bigger town to continue my studies: Bergen, the second biggest town in Norway. I am still living there. I have an old house in Bergen, but in fact I do most of my writing not where I grew up—a place I visit rather seldom—but in a cottage north of Bergen with a view to the fjord similar to the view from the house when I was a child. And just this simple aspect, this view to the fjord, feels crucial to my writing. Somehow I need to see the water to write.
Another thing which has had a more directly understandable influence on my writing is the way of talking in these rural areas of Norway, where people are famous for not talking much. They are rather silent people, like the people in my plays. They are also famous for almost never expressing their feelings out loud, but the truth is that they have very strong feelings, and the feelings somehow come out in other words. You talk about something very usual, but underneath you are talking about something else, full of sympathy or disgust, of closeness or distance. That may explain why it is often said that the people where I grew up are always ironic. They are! They never say what they mean or feel, they say something else. The talk is at least double.
Rail: Your characters are often trapped by their inability to express themselves fully. Language cannot match their emotions and therefore they speak in short bursts, in thwarted attempts at communication. This is so true of the constant (amusing and melancholy) state of the human condition: this need to communicate and yet, for all the smarts in the world, an inability to truly connect.
Fosse: What language can say is just a very little bit of what there is. To me that is obvious. And my plays are, I think, somehow saying just this—what is the most important is impossible to say in the language of words. And if I manage to write well, I still can say what is not possible to say by words—it is said in the silences, the pauses, the breaks.
It is often said that the characters in my plays don’t manage to communicate. In a way it is obviously so. In another way it is not so at all, because they understand one another completely, I feel, they don’t need to complete the sentence to say what they want to say. I often have the feeling that the characters are in a way clairvoyant.
Rail: What continues to fascinate you about the human experience, and particularly the act of communication on a day-to-day basis?
Fosse: I think one of our illusions is that if we manage to communicate well, every problem can be solved. The German philosopher Adorno said that art is the opposition to communication. He has a point. And that point has also something to do with life.
Rail: Night Sings Its Songs received its UK premiere at the Royal Court under Katie Mitchell’s direction in Gregory Motton’s translation (under the title Nightsongs). And now it receives its US premiere translated and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. And I understand that German filmmaker Romuald Karmaker is developing the piece into a film. How do you entrust actors and directors to enter the play’s world—the private anguish and possible betrayal?
Fosse: Theatre is of course about trust. If you don’t have trust in the director, in the actors, I think it is impossible to be a playwright. At least when you are produced as much as I am. It is just impossible to control it. And I have never had the ambition to do so. I write a play, others make theatre of it. And of course when you write for the theatre the way I do, it is very easy for an actor to destroy my writing. I think all actors understand this. We are all in the hands of one another. In the theatre. As in life.
Rail: In Norway you have been called the "new Ibsen." Do you ever feel the burden of having to measure up to expectations about your writing?
Fosse: No. I am writing from a place inside myself which is not so much influenced of success or failure. It is just so. It is all about something else.
Rail: Your work has been translated into nearly forty languages. You yourself are also a translator. How do you negotiate the process of translation? How do you find ways of entering the work?
Fosse: Theatre is translation. Everyone involved in it is translating all the time. The play is translated, the actors translate their parts, as they translate one another in playing and so on. Translation is at the same time an open and a closed process. When I am translating a play from German to Norwegian, I always try to stay as loyal as I possibly can to the original. This of course may mean that I have to make changes, but all the time in changing the reason for doing so is not to change but to get closer to what I experience as the objective quality of the play, to the inner strictness of the play, the personal artful essence of it. I think the same goes for good acting, directing, etc.
There is a kind of abstract form, an abstract movement in a play. This movement, and I don’t quite understand how, is one of the most important parts of the play. It has quite a lot to do with the rhythm of the dialogue: who is talking, how much, what the reply is, and how (short, long, etc.). This movement may be much clearer when you see a production in a language which you do not understand at all. The first time I had this experience it shocked me. It was in a reading of my play Someone is Going to Come in Prague. The abstract, rhythmical, and emotional structure was almost visible to me. I could see it. This structure is in another sense not abstract at all but concrete. It is carrying in it the concrete emotional music of a play. And theatre, isn’t the understanding of it to a great degree not conceptual, but emotional?
Rail: Your work operates so far for much of the time around the presence of absence.
Fosse: Yes. And it is also about what is present in the absence.
Rail: There is palpable energy and possibility in your theatrical worlds. At any moment life could change for your characters and yet the choices to them (and sometimes other characters) are either not visible, or too conflicting.
Fosse: I think this is a good description. But isn’t also life like that—everything can be completely changed every moment? And to live is also to actively resist all these possibilities?
Rail: There is also a tension between duty and desire in your work.
Fosse: I haven’t thought about it like that. But so it is.
Rail: It is a fascinating and beautiful tension. In production, how do you work with a director to define the space of possibility where your characters seem to live?
Fosse: In principle I never take part in productions. I prefer to stay away. If it happens that I go to a rehearsal, if possible, I am completely honest with the director. But of course the actual production both belongs to the director, and to me, and not least of all to the actors, to mention just a few. Theatre is a mix. You share art. And if it becomes great, there is a wholeness in its own which we all belongs to, but which doesn’t completely belongs to any particular one of us.
Theatre is a very old-fashioned art form. It existed before capitalism, before communism, before industrialism, before mass production. Perhaps because it is pre-modern, theatre feels right for our times.
NIGHT SINGS ITS SONGS
by Jon Fosse
directed and translated by Sarah Cameron Sunde
June 5-26, Thurs.–Mon., 8pm (6/6 at 2pm, not 8)
The Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Theatre:
45 Below. Tickets, $15, call 212.352.0255 or visit www.TheaterMania.com for tickets
1. Jon Fosse, from Theatre in Crisis? Performance Manifestos for a New Century, eds. Maria Delgado and Caridad Svich (Manchester University Press, UK, 2002).
Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.