Jon Fosse, one of Norway’s most renowned and respected writers, was recently announced as the recipient of the 2010 International Ibsen Award. The award, which honours ‘an individual, organisation or institution within the arts and culture for exceptional achievements defined within the spirit of Ibsen’s work’, is also designed to ‘initiate a critical debate about essential social, existential and aesthetic topics.’
As with every award of any significance, the committee’s decision has sparked the critical debate it was looking for, and opinions have been widely divided, both in relation to the quality and originality of Fosse’s work, and to the controversial decision to award the prize to a Norwegian in only its 3rd year.
The committee responsible for awarding the prize, chaired by Liv Ullmann, announced their decision on the 18th of May, hailing Fosse for his ‘uniquely dramatic authorship, one that opens scenic gates to the wordless mysteries that pursue humans from birth to death.’
Fosse is the first Norwegian to be given the award since its establishment by the Norwegian Government in 2007. The innovative and influential English director Peter Brook was the first recipient in 2008, and last year’s winner was Ariane Mnouchkine, founder of the Parisian avant-garde stage ensemble Théâtre du Soleil. Fosse has written in many different genres, and turned to playwriting only after he had already established a reputation for himself in Norway as a poet, novelist and essayist.
His first plays were written on commission, and he was initially uncertain as to whether the theatre was a medium suitable for his artistic vision. But it was through the theatre that Fosse gained international recognition, and it is through his plays that he has become acknowledged as a distinctive voice of modern literature.
Described by Le Monde as ‘the Beckett of the 21st Century’, Fosse is Norway’s most prominent playwright, and a leading figure of modern European theatre. Since his theatrical debut in Bergen in 1994, more than 900 productions of his plays have taken place across the world, and his work has been translated into over forty languages. He has become the most performed Norwegian playwright, both at home and abroad, since Ibsen himself, and has frequently, and perhaps ironically, been labelled ‘the new Ibsen’.
Fosse’s work is characterised by a deceptive, minimalist simplicity, with a pared down style that many find difficult to penetrate. His plots are correspondingly restrained, and it is the poetry of his rhythmic dialogues that takes precedent, in an intentional denial of the clearly defined dramatic conflicts that have traditionally defined Western drama. Fosse is interested in the idea of what he calls ‘the silent voice’, the voice that speaks through silences, in the pauses between words and actions. For Fosse, form and content are inseparable, and much of the meaning of his plays is to be found in the rhythmic progressions of his language.
Like both Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, Fosse’s plays are characterised by silence and repetition, utilizing the power of the unsaid. Fosse is an inheritor of the post-modernists’ awareness of the insufficiency of language and of the boundaries of communication. Words, according to Fosse, constitute only one human language, and much of what is most important must be communicated through other means.
Since the announcement of the committee’s decision, an interesting debate has been taking place, both in the press and blogosphere, extending to discussions about the role of the playwright in society, and the subjectivity of what is perceived as artistic innovation.
On the 1st of June, Aftenposten’s theatre critic Inger-Margrethe Lunde, wrote an article criticising the decision, arguing that it was both immodest and a ‘disservice’ to award the prize to Fosse. Such decisions will of course depend largely on matters of taste, and what Lunde finds boring and uninspiring in Fosse’s plays is precisely what others find most powerful.
Her criticism of his work stems from her assessment that he writes too many plays, too fast. Fosse is an extremely prolific writer, and over the past 17 years has written almost as many plays as Ibsen wrote in his lifetime.
Lunde sees him as a machine, churning out a huge volume of plays at the expense of artistic quality. She acknowledges the power of his work when it first emerged, but sees him as a limited writer, whose style has not progressed, but merely been repeated, over and over again.
She comments on the frequent comparisons that have been drawn between Fosse and the great Samuel Beckett. Whilst acknowledging the similarities in their stylistic approaches, she believes that the power and inventiveness of Beckett’s plays, which consistently extended the boundaries of theatrical form, is lacking in Fosse’s work.
Lunde goes on to make a direct comparison to the Nobel Committee’s controversial decision to award the Peace Prize to Barack Obama, claiming that giving the International Ibsen Award to Fosse may damage its reputation. She believes that the attention lauded upon Fosse can be explained by his timely ability to write on universal themes in a language that resonates with our current needs and interests.
But she cannot escape the feeling that his work is, essentially, boring, and that once you’ve seen a few of his plays, you’ve seen them all. Fosse is a playwright of the moment, a fashionable name, but his legacy and influence is uncertain. Not only does she feel that he, thus far, lacks the originality of a true innovator, but also that the decision to award the prize to a Norwegian writer, in only its 3rd year, is a mistake.
In response to the controversy provoked by her article, an open web discussion was started on Aftenposten’s website, in which readers were invited to put their questions to Lunde. An interesting discussion evolved, and Lunde’s justification of her opinion was persuasive. She happily described her appreciation of a number of Fosse’s other works, particularly his novel Melancholia, but insisted that the current obsession with Fosse is restrictive, and that it is time we look to other writers for inspiration.
She sees this as a symptom of a Norwegian tendency to become fixated on a single figure, making them into an icon, and refusing to look elsewhere. Lunde argues that her original article was written with the intention of opening up new possibilities for criticism of Fosse’s work. She feels that he has become such a highly revered figure that no one dares admit they don’t like him, and this is what she wants to change.
Her criticism of the committee’s decision is also one of timing. She feels that as the benefactor of the award, Norway should give the prize to more foreigners before allowing it to be awarded to a Norwegian. She believes that this year’s decision does a great disservice to the prize. She would have preferred that Fosse had been given the chance to mature, and to really earn this honour, rather like Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize. She acknowledges that Fosse’s drama is worthy of recognition, but he must withstand the test of time before being honoured in this way. She wants to see proof of his scope as a writer, which until now has been too limited.
One of the main criticisms of the committee’s decision has been their failure to place Fosse’s writing within the context of Ibsen’s work, a quality that the prize states as one of its central criteria. Fosse himself is uncomfortable about having been compared to Ibsen in the past, and has said that he feels it shows a lack of respect both for Ibsen and for himself. Fosse’s plays are not ‘dramatic’ in the way that Ibsen’s were. But, according to the statement of the committee, it is essential that we understand that Fosse ‘creates suspense in other ways’.
He is not a dramatist in the same vein as Ibsen; nor is he ‘at home in the realistic mainstream of European drama’ of recent years, but has forged his own way ‘into an existential, partially religious tinted authorship that stands alone in contemporary theatre.’ They cite the influence of ‘Beckett’s unwavering nihilism’ and ‘sparse, finally discontinued dialogues’, placing Fosse’s plays somewhere ‘between the darkness of depression and light of mysticism.’
The jury’s assessment also notes qualities that reflect some of Ibsen’s own concerns. They argue that Fosse is in fact a realist of sorts, painting ‘pale pictures of a society in crisis’. They also note ‘an edge of societal criticism in his depictions of people who refuse the attempt of the post-industrial society to force each successful individual to procure an identity and be fulfilled.’
In this sense he is a rebel, and a believer in the freedom and independence of the individual, as of course was Ibsen. They conclude that ‘[a]s with all important writers of drama, Fosse forces the theatre and its audiences to think in new ways. He is the poet of the unknown. That may be how we must explain his immense success: he provides us with something we lack.’
Leif Zern, an academic who has written extensively on Fosse, and who was also one of the members of the jury, suggests that criticism of Fosse’s work stems from an attitude of provincialism in the Norwegian audience. Contrary to Lunde’s criticism of the monotony of Fosse’s work, Zern believes that the trajectory of his plays exhibits a clear poetic development.
In answer to questions about Fosse’s relationship to Ibsen, he argues that what links the two writers is their ability to instigate debate, and to write about people who do not fit into the traditional models of the successful society. Connections between the two writers should perhaps not be looked for within the plays themselves, but in the attention those plays receive, and in the discussions that they generate.
However divided the opinions may be as to the suitability of Fosse as recipient, the committee have certainly triggered an interesting cultural debate – and this was, after all, what they were hoping for.
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