Jon Fosse: “Ibsen is a great hater and I admire him for that”

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The interview was taken in Bergen on the occasion of Jon Fosse being awarded with Ibsen Award in august 2010. Fosse talks about his love and hate relationship with Ibsen, about his approach to writing and about his minimalist and profound theater.

  • You were often compared to Ibsen in many ways, even before being awarded Ibsen Award. Are you happy with this comparison? What do you think about Ibsen as a writer?
  • Of course, I would say that this comparison is unfair, both to Ibsen, and to me. But there is a reason for this, we are both Norwegians and there are not very many world known Norwegian playwrights since Ibsen. Whenever there is a collection of plays published or an event, it is Ibsen and me, so it is a very obvious comparison in many ways. As a young reader I didn’t like Ibsen at all, I thought his plays were too constructed. I only started to be interested in his work after I have worked in theater and in certain ways I could see how theater works. But now I admire him quite a lot as the demon of theater, the darkest writer I know in all kinds of literature. Ibsen is a great hater and I admire him for that.
  • Do you think hate can be a kind of engine that gives power in literature or theater?
  • What I mean is that Ibsen depicts in his later plays at least, but even in his first works, Peer Gynt and Brand the destructive forces of life, that keep working all the time. He shows this with no mercy. I admire Ibsen, but I don’t love him. The hatred of let’s say Strindberg, it’s a normal one, because it is also connected with love. There is no love in Ibsen’s writings, not a touch of it. You have to be very powerful as a writer to be so consequent and to give such a picture of the destructiveness; you have to be a genius. Mine comes close to a kind of a mythological love. That’s my view. The stupid thing is that Ibsen is considered to be a feminist, which just doesn’t make sense to me. I have to quote James Joyce here, who said “If Ibsen is a feminist, than I am a bishop”. He wasn’t a writer of messages, he was a great writer.
  • You do have some hate in your work too, you share this view with Ibsen, isn’t that so?
  • I’m convinced that if you try to do something as a writer you have to do it without compromising. As a writer I’m not trying to be like this or like that, or to achieve something, it isn’t possible to write like that. I think being a good writer has something to do with making no compromises. So I’m not thinking about the effect when I write. In my writing I’m not thinking about the message of it, not at all. Of course, there is also a lot of destruction in my work too, but I think there is also some love in it. Love, care and a kind of reconciliation. And I don’t find that in Ibsen.
  • Doing no compromises it’s not easy, but in your case, it’s like you’re on your way to become your own statue. How do you deal with this in trying to remain faithful to your voice as a writer?
  • I wrote my first novel at 20 and in 1983 I was published for the first time. I’ve been more or less an independent, free writer. So writing it’s not accidental to me, it belongs to the one I am. For me the fascinating thing is that writing comes from a place in me or outside me that I don’t know many things about. In a way, the one who writes it’s not me, it’s someone else. I would normally divide myself in three persons: Jon the writer is different form Jon the private person and different from Jon the public person. I try to keep this arrangement like this. Writing to me is a very secret act, which comes out in a strange way, especially in my writing for theater.
  • You started with fiction and children books and then theater. What made you turn to theater?
  • I started writing poetry, but yes, the first book I published was a novel. I also wrote some books for kids, five I think, being commissioned to that. At that time I didn’t like to go to theater at all. I guess it was just another accident of life. I was asked several times to write for theater here, in Bergen, and I kept on saying “no” for a few years. Then a friend of mine, a director came to Bergen to work and he wanted to involve me in one of his projects – a group of artists, a writer, a director, actors, was competing with another group in a tour across Norway. I accepted, to be honest, only for the money. They wanted me to write a resume, the beginning of the play I would write, but I hate resumes… Since I don’t think it is possible to write a short version for a work of literature, it is like asking for the resume of a piece of music. So I wrote the whole play and it was very strange for me to write for theater. With dialogues and stops and all that. Even though I didn’t like theater at that time, I liked to write like this and I was pretty sure it was going to be a piece of good literature, but I was not sure if this is something that can be put on a stage, but I did it anyway. This play I wrote it is still the most played of all my plays – Somebody will come. This autumn it will be produced in Shanghai after it made my European career breakthrough in world’s theater in 1999 in Paris.
  • What was your feeling seeing your first play on stage, with actors?
  • It was great! My first play produced was We Never will be Parted. And first time I saw it was here, in Bergen, a late rehearsal, the play is almost a monologue. The actress in the main part did a great job;she managed to keep it to a great intensity, just beautiful. It was a great experience to share art with everybody and I loved it. The solitude of the writer, of let’s say, the long distance runner is something: I know many writers just hate to see their work changed into something else, but to me it was the other way around, it gave me great pleasure and safety.
  • It was a staging faithful to your writing or not?
  • It’s very hard to change my writings and make them work; it’s kind of a tight system. For sure in Somebody will come. In some other plays there are spaces and it can be changed, at least in the rhythm, but great directors never do it, they do their own interpretations and the result is so different, but they never change the writing.
  • You work alone, not in theater, the way some playwrights are doing, working collectively with the director
  • To me this would be like group sex, and I prefer sex with only one person at a time. I wouldn’t write together with someone else
  • Speaking about system in your plays, you once said “the form is the content for you”, can you expand on that? Is your writing beyond genres, can it be called theater, at all?
  • I think it’s just writing. I answer for my writing in general, not only for theater. For me, writing for the theater includes/holds my other writings, my kind of prose and my kind of poetry. In a certain way it’s a mixture, a kind of postmodernist writing, but in fact it’s only literature. To me a play is very close to a poem. What Lorca said is very true, it’s the best definition. He said that “a play is a poem standing up”. What is writing for me? It’s not something special, no realistic reports from the western of Norway, that’s for sure. It is the act of listening. What am I listening to I don’t know. Writing it’s listening. It is like I’m listening for something already written, I do the listening and at one point, if I’m lucky, I sit down and write, just like a secretary. That’s my experience of being a writer, so I cannot say what I write is theater, it’s just literature, but I’m lucky it can be put on stage. I am often asked if I write a part with an actor or actress in my mind. I’ve never ever do. The parts in my plays have no profile until an actor starts to play it, they give them character by their interpretation and nuances. And I think that it’s partly why my plays work in any culture, my plays have been played not only in Europe but also in Japan, Iran, Korea, India next year the whole world. I’ve seen really great productions in Japan.
  • They can deal with the silences…
  • The silences, yes, and a kind of shyness that I think can be found in my writings and they added dignity to it.
  • It is clear that you don’t take your sources of inspiration from the reality around, but do people you know ever come into your mind as typologies or type of relationships when you write, or is it all pure imagination?
  • The only thing I’m quite sure of is that I don’t like reality as it is. In Norway people are writing novels about their mother, father and five levels of cousins if they don’t have brothers. I’m a very private man, I never use something I’ve experienced, or if I write about something I’ve experienced than it must be something you or any other reader have experienced too. I’m not a realistic writer, but kind of a mythical one. I hate to put the private in my writings…
  • Besides writing, do you ever get involved in politic debates, in society in general? Does your voice speak often in Norway?
  • It speaks very low. If I am to do it, I am speaking not as a writer, but as a human being. In Norway we had, believe it or not, a very powerful Marxist model. We dealt with the social realist doctrine and I was fascinated by this propaganda for a few years, but then I realized the complete stupidity of that model and since then I stayed apart, I didn’t want to be involved politically. I am a kind of an anarchist if you have to call me something. When this pressure comes, I am not answering the phone if I don’t know who is calling. We have this tradition going back to Bjornosone, of public figures being involved in the public space. Bjornosone who was very eager to give speeches, almost a messenger of Gabriel, and there is a line of writers who try to do the same. But this is not me at all, I am the opposite, I am just a poet.
  • It’s another similarity with Ibsen who didn’t want to be involved in politics.
  • Yes, I guess there’s another thing in common. He was kind of anarchist also in the messages in his plays.
  • What kind of a director would you ideally prefer for your plays?
  • I prefer the really strong directors, with a language of their own, like Claude Vichy, for example, who gave the first French production. It’s strange, I am a strong writer myself, but I prefer a strong director, the better the director, the best the production. They never change it, only smaller talents have to change the plays they are staging. And I’ve been very lucky, as some of the best European directors had in fact directed my writings.
  • It’s very interesting that the productions I saw based on your plays were very different, even though there were almost no changes in the text. It was a sign that the material the directors have worked with was very versatile.
  • In Norway there is a story that makes sense to me: they compare my plays with good music lyrics, they can be played in rock, jazz, disco, chamber music, no matter… They have the chance to become hits, as long as the song is still there. I liked that. But it also has something to do with the system of my plays, with the precision of the writing. You have to be precise in music.
  • In the process of writing for theater, what is for you the best part?

I am not a very social person at all. I can stay in a theatre a day or two but then I have to run away.The best for me it’s to see a late rehearsal, just before the opening night. To bump in and make a few observations, but if I see something that can be improved, I am telling them. In my first years as a playwright, directors wanted me to come to performances and then talk it over, but in recent years I tend to see a show when it’s ready or even in the middle of the run.

  • You travel a lot around the world and see your productions in many languages, what is your feeling about it?
  • My basic insight is that it has to do with the quality, not with nationality or language, with East and West. To make theater is either good or bad, no matter the language or culture. It’s de quality of understanding the writing. My plays can be played on many levels, but when all the levels are played, than it’s great. This year I’m going to Paris to see Patrice Chereau’s production with my play, than I go to China – I’m curious, and sometimes I have great expectations.
  • I am quite sure about the quality in my writings, but I am still very insecure before a premiere and it all has to do with the system. I wonder if the system works. That would be the failure for me as a writer, if the system doesn’t work, in other words if the music doesn’t come right. It doesn’t have to be perfect on the intellectual level, but it has to be on the musical level. To me theater is a way to understand through and by emotions. It’s a reflection that comes besides the nationality and language. Besides the languages, there are a lot of stimuli.
  • In all these years have you grown to like theater at all?
  • Oh, yes! When it works it can be much more intense and overwhelming than any other art, but you have to wait for this a long time and not to lose hope. Maybe that is what happened to me at the beginning – I saw too much bad theater and I thought I didn’t like it. So I’ve learned that and I know now what I love about theater – the rare moments of shared understanding so difficult to put into words. If I am to give a pro for those writing for theater, I would say that what I want is to write in such a way that these few moments can grow.
  • If you could change something in today’s world, what would that be? What makes you unhappy living in this world today?
  • In a general sense all the stupidity, because stupidity and wickedness are so wrong. What I still dislike a lot is that in almost any society theater is connected to a sort of social habit. There is this category of people who go to theater not knowing why, not searching for something in particular, the so-called bourgeoisie. But we have to accept it, because if they are not coming, there would be just a few people in the theater halls.
  • How do you interpret the reactions, the feedback, the one coming from the audience and the one coming from the theater critics?
  • As most actors, I am very sensitive to the feedback, to follow the movements the spirit in the audience. I can read their reactions in the performance. The audience is right almost all the time, so there is something wrong if they are bored. I agree with Harold Pinter who said he hated the coughing, I am close to that myself. Is their way to express when something is bothering them, it’s their review. As for the critics, their reactions were in time very different, from those who understand my writing and praise it, to those who don’t understand it at all and hate it. But I guess it has something to do with the musicality of it all, some people have musical ears and some just don’t.
  • It has been said that the style of acting in Norway was changed by your writings, it became rather minimalistic? How do you think that happened?
  • Yes, it is true, especially for those who were trained as realistic actors. It’s not easy for actors to play my texts, they are not free, they work within a system, but in the same time, the system gives them a direction and they can become free inside of it. Norwegian actors are basically good, that’s not the problem in the theater here. The problem is we don’t have too many good theatre directors. Sometimes I hate it when the director behaves like a bad writer, trying to re-arrange everything just to say something else with the same words and scenes, but I like powerful directors, so I am pro director- oriented theater. But I don’t want to direct myself, as my friend and competition, Lars Noren or other European playwrights are doing now, it’s too much noise for me in the theater, too many people. I would like to stay away and live my quiet life.

Interview recorded in Bergen in august 2010, with financial and logistic help from Royal Norway Embassy in Bucharest.  Photo credits: Helge Hansen