Nobel prize in literature winner is a playwright who puts outsiders centre stage

Nobel prize in literature winner is a playwright who puts outsiders centre stage

When Jon Fosse receives this year’s Nobel prize in literature in December, it will be collected by a playwright and novelist whose work examines the lives of ordinary people on the outer reaches of society, trying to cope with the challenges and hardships of daily life.

But his work is suffused with hope and affection as well as a darker sense of foreboding. There is a warm affinity between Fosse and the characters that populate his plays, highlighting their humanity.

Fosse, a Norwegian who lives in Bergen, has also been much praised for his seven-part novel Septology, nominated for the International Booker prize in 2022. But few beyond Scandinavia and Germany realise his international success was built on his work as a dramatist. So who is this Scandinavian writer who has scooped the world’s most sought-after literary prize?

A royal blue book cover with the title Septology by Norwegian author John Fosse.
Fosse’s International Booker nominated novel in seven parts.
Fitzcarraldo Editions / Waterstone

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 divinty”.

Fosse started off writing poetry and fiction, which is rooted in the landscape and language of Norway’s rugged west coast, where he grew up. He is well known for writing in Nynorsk, a minority language used mostly in western Norway. Some regard Fosse’s use of it a political gesture.

Theatre was ‘irrelevant’

It was not always obvious that Fosse would become a playwright. He did not initially consider theatre to be the place for him. He read a lot of drama and drama theory, but the theatre still seemed irrelevant. He was at that time mostly occupied with writing poetry and fiction.

When he finally (and reluctantly) attended a ten-day course for aspiring playwrights in 1985, it was not an immediate success. On the contrary, his first plays were met with incomprehension. No one could not understand how his plays could be staged. They did not follow the conventions of traditional drama and the characters was not fully developed in the usual ways.

His first staged production was the short play And We’ll Never Be Parted (1994), followed in 1996 by Somebody is Going to Come. And We’ll Never Be Parted focuses on a woman waiting on her husband to come home, mulling over memories, marriage and infidelity. It sparked debate in Norway about what made good theatre, with one critic describing it as “naive”.

Some found his plays were too literary, or placed too much emphasis on the Norwegian setting, and that they failed to articulate the universal themes of the drama. But a Swedish theatre agent, Berit Gullberg, recognised something brilliant in Fosse and wanted to push his work beyond Norway.

Giljotin, a small, alternative theatre in Stockholm with just 50 seats, opened up a new way of looking at Fosse’s drama. Director Kia Berglund took on The Child (1996) about a young couple awaiting their first baby, successfully creating the mysterious atmosphere that permeates the play.

It was clear that Fosse was a highly watchable dramatist, but also that audiences were required to listen carefully to the text and tune into its rhythms. In his plays, dialogue is sparse. He employs pauses and silences to transmit meaning and build up mood and atmosphere.

Fosse has often been compared to the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. But his plays rarely contain major philosophical discussions. Instead, they leave what is unspoken – those unarticulated feelings, desires and emotions that lie beneath the surface – to create tension and drama.

Spreading the word

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.

At the turn of the millennium, Fosse’s plays began to be performed at several prestigious theatres in Germany. Two leading theatre magazines called Fosse “the master of unheimlich”, meaning the uncanny – a state of unease and fear.

But it was mainly Falk Richter’s 2000 Zurich production of Night Songs (1998), about a young couple falling apart in the suburbs, and Luk Percival’s 2001 Munich version of Dream of Autumn (1999) – about a couple meeting in a cemetery on a stage filled with crunching gravel – that opened up German theatre to Fosse. Both productions illuminated the discreet humour in his dramas.

His plays came at just the right time, just as audiences were tiring of the violent German theatre aesthetic with its dramatically expressive form. This led to “Fosse fever”, with his works being shown all over Germany.

Many theatres commissioned new plays and secured world premieres. For many years Fosse was the most-performed contemporary playwright in Europe and soon began to find audiences around the world. His works translated especially well to theatres in Japan and Korea, where the mysterious atmosphere of his plays was not considered strange.

The red and beige cover of a book by Norwegian author John Fosse called Trilogy.

Dalkey Architve Press / Waterstones

However, launching in the UK proved difficult, with one of his first productions at the Royal Court criticised as pretentious and boring. But in 2011 when French director Patrice Chéreau staged I am the wind (2008), about two men in a boat tackling a storm, at the Young Vic, he found a form that won over British audiences.

This merry-go-round of of productions and premieres was exhausting for Fosse, who decided to stop writing drama and devote himself to fiction. The number of productions declined and his success shifted to the epic novels he produced, such as Trilogy (2014), about two lovers trying to find their place in the world.

These days Fosse is turning once again to drama, trying to find a balance between the two. The Nobel prize now means that more people will discover his plays, and certainly much of his best work will be restaged, giving new audiences the chance to enter Fosse’s unique universe.

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