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New Nordic Drama- On its way out of the Drawing Room?
by Monna Dithmer
This article is the transcript of the first address to the Scandinavia On Stage conference, NYC, April 19, 2001.
Mona Dithmer is a theater critic from Denmark
 The world of Ibsen and Strindberg
 Two landmarks in the contemporary panorama: Lars Noren and Jon Fosse
 The struggle for space
 Who lives there?
 What tools do the characters have for survival?
 And now to the moment of truth: did they get out of the drawing room?
A joumey into the unknown, out into the unfamiliar Norwegian mountains and fjords. This is where the Norwegian dramatist Cecilie Loveid sends her female leading character in the play Austria, one of the works presented by Scandinavia on Stage. Her only fixed bearing is a play by Henrik Ibsen which she takes along with her.
This is quite likely an apt image for the situation in which the majority of those present today find themselves. Nordic drama is a completely foreign landscape, with only Ibsen and Strindberg as recognisable towering mountain tops.
As a matter of fact, we Scandinavians are ourselves not particularly well- acquainted with local conditions in our Nordic neighbours' theatre. But this situation is changing rapidly now, with new Nordic drama being written and staged as never before. Whereas 10-15 years ago it would have been said that the Nordic welfare states were too comfortably-off to be able to produce real drama -and that in any case only mountainous Norway and Sweden had the requisite dramatic spirit, the rest of the landscape being too flat (my apologies to Iceland!) -the situation is now such that even the great outside world ventures into the Scandinavian territory to discover something other than the usual 'Dr Ibsen, I presume'.
And what does this territory look like, post-Ibsen? As representatives of the five Nordic countries -one of them is hiding in the bushes -the figures in this picture, which is appropriately called Flex Pissing, are asserting themselves, in the process of marking out their territories. But it is difficult to single out each country's specific and distinctive character, let alone locate a shared spirit of place for Nordic drama. Ofl:hand, the most conspicuous common characteristic of the some 20 plays being presented here today, is their diversity .
Therefore I have chosen to take my starting point quite literally in the physical space which provides the springboard for the dramas -to give a basic picture of what these universes look like and what kind ofpeople inhabit them. For the space ofa drama always reflects a certain perspective on reality and the human How are the general themes which concern contemporary drama -such as fragmentation and rootlessness, the search for identity and human contact -expressed on Nordic soil? A close look at the topography of the individual plays gives a guide: apartments on fire, monotonous street areas, fjords and snowscapes, sun-filled screaming rooms, prisons or even a hyper- realistic skyscraper. By way of an introductory and important point, it should be noted that in the majority of the works the actual space plays a far more active role than it did for Ibsen & Co .
The world of Ibsen and Strindberg
The world which Strindberg and Ibsen constructed was centred on the drawing room, the bastion offamily and marriage. Whether we take A Doll's House and The Father or Ghosts and The Ghost Sonata, the drama is played out in an indoor space. Outside, nature is left to impose itself with pouring rain, heavy snow and Midsummer night. The drawing room is representative of the internal drama and its psychological realism, which is the grand tradition of Scandinavian drama -also today. Extremely subtle portraiture. Based on the four pillars: plot, character, developing tension and :final resolution the drawing room play is a 'theatre with a message', sustained by an uncompromising determination to lay bare the painful spots in order to get down to the naked truth. The tension reverberates between the underlying truth-charged subtext and the action taking place on the surface.
But the tradition also comprises other spaces, other kinds of drama and human types, as when, for example, Ibsen moves along the symbolic, serpentine paths of the soul on the mountain peaks in When We Dead Awaken, or has Peer Gynt landing in the desert where, in the famous metaphor, he can be peeled, layer by layer, like an onion, never reaching any core of truth. Strindberg's A Dreamplay is the very icon for this more open and poetic form-breaking dramatic structure, characterised by a spatial construction in which exterior and interior, natural and urban, dream and reality merge to a greater degree.
In relation to the ancestral house of the tradition -throwing long shadows across today's dramatists -it is characteristic of the majority of the plays presented that they take their cue from the drawing room with its families and couples and psychological realism. But they also venture out into other spaces -away from the linear dramatic construction and quest for truth typical of'theatre with a message' -with plays which let different planes of reality collide, so that any discussion of truth becomes ambiguous. Drawing room-realism can develop into absurd hyper-realism, to ironic life-style dramas or existential dramas with a metaphysical dimension. Among the plays presented here we also find radical experimentation in form, questioning what a theatrical text actually is.
In terms of the detennination to open the doors to a world outside, the dramatists are not trying to propose a new variant of political theatre, just as there is little in the way of direct reference to contemporary history .But they employ a certain form of social realism or take a position vis a vis the outer world in that they seek to capture the zeitgeist, the contemporary mode of speech, thought and gesture, at times in the form of a direct critique of society and civilisation.
Two landmarks in the contemporary panorama: Lars Noren and Jon Fosse.
There is one person who stands out in the contemporary landscape -the Swedish dramatist Lars Noren. He is not here today, even though he is the present-day Scandinavian playwright whose works are perfonned most frequently -he is too Nordic. Too heavy and introspective for the New York temperament, even though he takes inspiration from both Albee and O'Neill. But we Scandinavians love him for his sublime spanking and sardonic scrutiny of bourgeois domestic hell. A verballive-show, a ruthless exposure of an inner darkness, often taking the fonn of outright marathons because his characters live by long tracts of words which supplant an exterior, master plot. Everything takes place in the family's sealed compartment.
During the 1990s Noren's dramas move onto completely different ground, away from the family and drawing room and out into the streets, into the fringes of society -as a new fonn of political theatre with the confrontational impact of social criticism. Out into prisons and institutions for disturbed people, out into the marginal zones of the city where prostitutes, drug addicts, unemployed and other dregs of society belong.
The contrast to Lars Noren is found in Norwegian Jon Posse, representative of the next generation and, of the Nordic dramatists here today, the writer whose plays are most frequently performed on the European stage. He has many drawing room-pieces too, but nature imposes itself resolutely, as if the characters have grown out of the remote fjord landscapes and barren periphery where the dramas take place. The fonn is radically different to Noren's psychological realism. Family and relationship drama is reduced to a post-Beckett minimalism in which realistic everyday situations are crystallised in essence, with a minimum of dialogue. So simply that the text, with its rhythmic repetitions and pauses, almost sounds like apiece of music. What is important is the orchestration of the spaces in between, the relationships between the people. From the little conversation about this and that, the invisible automatic process of everyday rituals -ofwhich Posse's so-called 'basic people' are at the mercy -a grander existential drama develops, with tragic undertones of hollowness and pent-up longing, loneliness and anxiety.
Jon Posse with his absurdist minimalism and Lars N oren with his psychological and social realism, are one another's counter-image, but they still come together in the existential dimension of their dramas. Noren's later plays are not just pure social realism -with their pronounced Christian symbolism they have a more universal, existential-metaphysical dimension as a kind of'soul drama' for a chorus of voices. This has resonance with Fosse's plays which, in their ritual simplicity, have the quality of allegorical dramas of fate.
These two landmarks in the panorama denote, as indicators of a broader dramatic tendency, roots in the family and drawing room drama and at the same time a movement away from it, out into a bigger, more open space.
Everything I am going to say now about Nordic theatre, with the plays we have in front of us as my point of reference, is based on tendencies. As the Swedish actor Ernst Hugo Jaregard said: "Overstatement is the essence of every significant statement."
The struggle for space
The spatial dimension is a central factor for the majority of the dramatists -strikingly so in Fosse's writing, where the space between characters can appear as silent sculpture, or a drama of fate can be implied by the relationship between a sofa, table, armchair and characters. In Danish Peter Asmussen's A Sunny Room the space itself has the main role, characters move in and out and unconsciously follow the paths of life which are mapped in the space. This is a significant development with regard to the tradition, where the space (notwithstanding Ibsen's detailed stage directions, charged with symbolism) essentially constituted a framework around the characters. The space is now far more of an active dramatic element, one of the cast. Many of the plays deal quite specifically with space, or rather the lack of the same: accommodation wanted!
That dramatists have begun to write for the stage as a space is a direct consequence of the 1980s and '90s which were the directors' decades in Scandinavia -designers also being crucial collaborators. A more visual, physical and spatial theatre also developed thanks to the experience of black box and non-theatrical performance spaces as well as performance and concept theatre. Plus -the influence from film and tv has of course left its mark The literary dramatist sitting exclusively behind a desk tends to be on the wane -many dramatists favour close collaboration with production team and performers.
More generally, the new focus on space indicates the change in human perspective since Ibsen' s day. The individual with a psychological core and a life within fixed borders has been set free in a much more open space as a more fluid being. This is reflected in dramas focusing on the sphere between the characters rather than delving into the individual character. 'First you're born' says (Danish) Line Knutzon, showing that you are born through your relationships, or lack of the same to others. This is manifest physically in the plays as a movement away from home and its closed circle into other types of space peopled by strangers. The fact that only a small number of people actually appear on stage has mostly to do with limited production facilities.
The plays take place in five different types of space:
1. Apartments and houses with the drawing room as the arena. A conflict -space where a struggle for the home takes place.
2. Institutions such as prison, police station, hospital or sports centre are a new type of interior, but as public power bases they are places with an inbuilt hierarchy and potential for conflict -the individual within them being subject to strict rules of conduct. As with the non-institutional spaces such as motel and sex club, this implies that functions of the home are also discharged in the public arena.
3. The street, which, being an uncontrollable public space, lends itself to new meetings and alliances and thereby also to conflict.
4. The natural environment is the only free space, the redemptive space of nostalgia. But it can also represent the ominous power of the vast unknown.
5. And the theatre space itself functions as a particular, abstract type of space. An illustration of the meta-theatrical tendency of the plays to highlight themselves as theatre. In the work of the Icelandic writer Hrafnhildur Gudmundsdottir, the theatre space is a claustrophobic compartment in which the actors are ruthlessly handed over to themselves and their own traumas.
In general there is an inversion or subversion of the normal functions of the space: a hospital becomes a place where murder is committed, a prison becomes a place you break into, the sex-joint a place to talk, the police station somewhere you have sex and discuss poetry , and first and last the tendency is for the home to become a place of homelessness and insecurity where constraint and isolation prevail, and where outsiders can break in and social subversives hatch out in the middle of the drawing room while watching children's TV.
The struggle for a home unravels when the younger generation penetrate and perhaps take over the parent generation's space, but the opposite also happens. The crucial point is that the home, quite physically, becomes something to fight for. It is a case of the rights to the drawing room, the right to create one's own reality .In general the space is at stake, it can even.end up with houses. being demolished or set on fire, apartments turning into shelters min the face of a hostile outside world, a car crashing through the wall of a house, or the empty space being all that remains- which points to the disentegration of the family and in some instances also the endgame of society.
Who lives there?
There are two types ofpeople: the ones who live within the system -in families, in couples or as singles with a job- and then there are the ones who live beyond the system -the teeming social outsiders of the 1990s. The point is, however, that by and large both groups see themselves as outsiders -that is: rootless and lonely.
The family, at least in its old form, is disintegrating -as manifest in the death or dethronement of the conventional father-figure. This has been seen before in the drawing room-pieces of the tradition- band also that it is women who take over the reins -but here it happens in great measure. In the extreme out-and-out matriarchal monsters evolve, while the father is utterly absent. In the dark, futuristic chiller The Blessed Child by the Danish playwright Astrid Saalbach, women have made men their slaves in a society which is approaching its destruction, with the child as the only hope for salvation -albeit a terrifying one. This is one example of a new development -the child stepping into the foreground as significant, dramatic figure.
The plays abound with young and older children, and not least youths who cannot grow up. Neglected, rootless children and youths who are born as outsiders. In the words of the eight-year-old central character, who ends by sticking the knife into the family, in the Norwegian writer Petter Rosenlund's play An Impossible Child, they are: "children born of adults so full of longing for their own parents that they haven't got time to be parents." They are born outsiders, although far from all are natural born killers -this is, after all, Scandinavia where we have a greater tradition for psychological rather than physical violence on stage.
The plays are characterised by a brutalisation, distancing and taking to extremes of relationships between people. Either behaviour has become more forthright or downright violent, or the relationship has become hollow, a pure facade coloured by distance and humdrum cliched chat. There is also, however, a mutual vulnerability and longing for contact when Finnish dramatist Laura Ruohonen lets an old, forceful woman ally herself with a young layabout, a waste of space. The characters' relationship with their surrounding world is generally one of impotence, insecurity or anxiety .The Danish writer Erling Jepsen has a man let himself be convicted as a murderer just because his surroundings suggest that he is. On a more abstract level this indicates that the conventional characters with their inner luggage, have been succeeded by characters who have a keener contour, defined by the situation, in relation to the surroundings. They might not even have names; they might even be pure 'representatives'.
What tools do the characters have for survival ?
Language is often not adequate, ticks over, dialogues pass by each other like parallel monologues in which the stories and memories of what has happened never tally. Nevertheless, theatrical beings that they are, the characters live by virtue of their words - be it the Finnish dramatist Michael Baran's page-long lines, Jon Posse's ultra-tacitumity, or Danish Line Knutzon's absurdist individuals who in their concretist wrestling with language, its range of style, peculiar metaphors and idioms, have a completely unique, comic cogency.
Otherwise the characters are consigned to the body and its physicality in order to survive, as in Swedish Mattias Andersson's The Runner who has spent his short life running in circles; and if he stands still he will be struck down. Violence is also a way of giving expression to the body -usually a case of random, wanton violence, as with the young girl in Michael Baran's metaphysical play who wanders around with her belongings in a shopping trolley and attacks people she just happens to meet, because they have never understood her .
Sexuality makes its presence felt, be it in the form of steaming Icelandic come-ons, shrivelled Danish hard-ons or naked Norwegians playing Schubert; BQt it is sexuality as a final, perfunctory sign of life. As a contribution to the struggle for space, it is the body which bears the bruises and scars from encounters with other bodies and with the surrounding world. Swedish playwright Sofia Freden' s characters, for example, take it completely for granted that a foot should be chopped off to ensure the right to a home. The down-payment on a future.
The dramas' idea of the body as survival resource stretches from the one extreme -an eternally young post-modern holster -to the other extreme -an anxiety- provoking bestial creature.
And now to the moment of truth: did they get out of the drawing room ?
Rather than asking the conventional question in order to sound out where the dramas have got to -"Who survives, who is left on-stage?" -I will, in conclusion, ask: "Where have they gone to, which space remains?" There are those who follow in Nora's groundbreaking footsteps from A Doll's House and leave the drawing room, some to occupy another one. The space can be left behind more or less defunct -just like a burial chamber, by dint of the fact that some die at the end and merge with the space. To remain in the drawing room is far from synonymous with victory in the struggle for the space. On the contrary, for the parlour also seems to have the characteristics of a prison, all the family routines and constraints are imprinted on the walls. The common assertion of the plays, that the home can at any time be invaded or can be expropriated from the outside, is not just an expression of crisis or general feelings ofhomelessness. It is also a sign that the drawing room needs new vitality , new space has to be constructed.
As to the space in the dramas, metaphorically speaking, there has, as mentioned, been a movement away from the drawing room-play inasmuch as the texts manipulate several planes or dimensions of reality .This can be in the form of a juxtaposition of everyday life and a mythical plane, the past sliding into the future, inner and outer reality merging. Or the dramas have a dimension of theatre-within-theatre or a distinctive use of language where the text makes it clear that it is text. The tension is not so much found in the relationship between text and subtext, rather in the gliding friction between various planes of reality where, at its most challenging, it is not possible to tell which reality has precedence. The space has been opened up to other dimensions, so that the people who are actually standing there on the parlour floor occupy a larger existential space. As Jon Posse says: "If you want to be human you have to imagine humanity as being all the , dead and all the unborn and all those who are living now. "
The play has begun to move away from the traditional orientation towards a plot and its eventual resolution, in that plot is often replaced by situations and states of being. This does not necessarily mean that the accelerating dramatic curve has been done away with, because characteristically the plays will take as their starting point an everyday situation which then progresses to the extreme, sometimes to end in an apocalyptic vision. In the Norwegian playwright Lygre's post-modern family chiller Eternity Now the old parlour drama develops, via a serial dramaturgy, into an eternal repetition ad absurdum, merely with new stand-ins as father, mother and children. Here the family drama has pointedly become an out-and-out game with a built-in automatic process which provides the momentum.
This slackening of the parlour drama's focus on characters and their inner individual lives as sole providers of dynamics and meaning also occurs in plays where the space has an active role as creative collaborator, as a form of convergence between space and character. Jon Posse's characters constantly staring out into the dark night is an expression of an all-absorbing alliance with darkness and the surrounding outside environment. It is a lifeline to the space, reaching further than the drawing room as topos. Just like it is the sphere between the persons that is decisive, this life line suggests a different anchorage for the individuals than individual psychology , a mooring in the surroundings .
This gives a different anchorage, even when the mooring is an anxiety-provoking futuristic landscape like Astrid Saalbach's, where the final stage direction reads: "The same deserted wasteland somewhere on earth. The same seven animal creatures." Not a particularly inspiring sight. Nonetheless, the dark tone of melancholy that has been! hovering over the landscape like a Nordic keynote or spirit of place since Ibsen and Strindberg is now abating. The ponderous progress across the stage, shouldering its guilt, has given way to a lighter tone, rhythm and humour , even if there is still a dark undertone. In fact, the dramas confront their wasteland while flourishing their sardonic humour.
Therefore I will finish with a new proposal for a Nordic spirit of place, to succeed Strindberg's famous pronouncement that we mortals are to be pitied or Ibsen's dictum "Only that which is lost remains eternal". And that is Norwegian Cecilie Loveid's darkly humorous declaration in Austria, "Don't be afraid! It can get worse!" [NYTW]
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