This is what Jon Fosse’s words sound like. When he writes it sounds like this. His characters talk in short statements. They talk and they seem to say something ordinary. They seem to. One will say something to the other and it will be simple. And plain. It will not sound overstated. It will be plain and simple and it will sound unremarkable. And then they will say it again but not quite the same. It will be different. The meaning will change a little. Not quite the same. Maybe something else. On stage his words sound like this. Simple words and silence. This is what it sounds like when Jon Fosse writes what characters say. And don’t say.
The spare, austere, and distinctive voice of the Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse lends itself to parody as readily as does that of Pinter and Beckett, to whom he is often compared. It can loop repetitively through restatements, and as it does so it takes on an emotionally reserved yet lyrical incantatory quality that is mesmerizing.
Fosse is one of Europe’s most performed playwrights. His reputation as a poet, essayist, novelist was already established when, in his 30s, he began to write for theater. Now in his 60s, he has written more than 30 plays, which have been translated into 40 languages and received more than 900 productions.
Fosse is relatively unknown in the U.S. for reasons somewhat obscure. It could be because he writes in New Norwegian, or Nyorsk, a language that lends itself to poetical diction, not naturalistic dialect (which most American TV and film watchers assume is all there is). Fosse has bluntly said he eschews naturalism. Instead his writing is almost abstracted in its simplicity and lack of specificity, which has the curious effect of inviting one’s intellect to fill in the provocative blanks.
I had not heard of Fosse until I learned that Scena Theatre Artistic Director Robert McNamara was staging a one-night-only workshop performance of one of Fosse’s early works, Someone Is Going to Come, with sponsorship by the Royal Norwegian Embassy. In his remarks to the audience, McNamara said he intends a full production next year. Judging from the reading I attended and the intensely engaged response it received, a full production of Someone Is Going to Come is to be eagerly anticipated.
I know Fosse’s work only from two short stories and this one play, all of which have in common, besides Fosse’s idiosyncratic use of language, a deceptively simple story line. In the case of Someone Is Going to Come, a man and a woman arrive at a remote ramshackle house by the sea with the intention of being “alone together… together alone.” The character the script calls He (read by David Bryan Jackson) is in his 60s, and the character the script calls She (Nanna Ingvarsson) is in her 30s. It’s not clear whether they are married, but they seem very much a couple, devoted to and fond of each other. But as soon as they arrive, She becomes filled with dread, a fear that, as the title says, someone is going to come, someone who will intrude on their solitude. We can guess her fears are well founded because a third character is listed in the program, Man (Ron Ward). Sure enough Man, also 30-something, arrives, prompting a fit of proprietary jealousy and paranoiac rage in the older man. It steadily becomes evident that the unsafe circumstances She first feared were misnamed: The someone who scares her is now the man she came with, the one she thought she knew and trusted. The way Fosse crafts the turgid undercurrents of that thrillerlike psychological progression, through a sparse surface of language, is gripping, and the three readers, directed by McNamara, made moment after moment ominous.
Jon Fosse’s first name is pronounced “yawn”—but his writing is not. His distinctive voice is worthy of serious attention in this theater town.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
Someone Is Going to Come was presented by Scena Theatre October 6, 2014, in the Melton Hall at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C.
Scena Theatre’s website.