Swedish Provocateur: Dramatist Lars Norén Raises Hackles, Eyebrows and Consciences at Home and Elsewhere.
- Randy Gener.
Eventually the conversation turns to faith. "Do you believe in God?" the Swedish dramatist and director Lars Norén asks me. Tendrils of cigarette smoke rise to meet the short respite that follows. Dark electronic music, firmly rooted in rock grooves, pulses in the background. The atmosphere in the Brussels coffee shop, situated near the busy central market square of the Grand Place-the second place Norén and I have alighted this October evening, after closing down the first café-is alternately dreamy, ultra-modern and bright-white.
Norén's question isn't an idle one. It emerges after several hours of talk (which began after rehearsals in a black-box studio of the Théâtre National of the Belgian French community) about his work, his life, his native Sweden and his expectations of coming to New York City. Demonstrating a warm sensitivity that runs counter to the usual portrait of him in Sweden as diffident and press-shy, Norén speaks of the autobiographical sources of the cruel realities and social inequalities that permeate his early family plays. He remarks on the Jewish streak that runs through the terra incognita of his Scandinavian sensibility. He elucidates his theatrical preoccupation with the extraordinary spate of high-profile violent crimes perpetrated by Swedish neo-Nazis in his native country. And he acknowledges the uncompromising gravity evinced in the succession of frankly political dramas he's written of late: On November 20, performed recently at Festival d'Automne in Paris; In Memory of Anna Politkovskaïa, greeted with admiring reviews this past November at Théâtre National; and War, which has played in Tel Aviv and in Nanterre in France. As he has often done in Europe, the playwright is himself staging War for its U.S. debut at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City, starting Jan. 29.
"The thought of God doesn't disturb me at all," Norén says firmly, after I pose the same question to him. "Several days ago I was in a plane, and I could see all the beauty of life in the heavens. I saw the world as very fragile and so beautiful. I saw for myself the miracle of what man has created. The meaning of the word 'beauty' is stronger if the world has created itself, without God. I'm more of an existentialist of the Jean-Paul Sartre philosophy: You have to create the meaning with what you are doing every day. I see it in rehearsals: Actors and modern dancers do beautiful things on stage, but at the very moment they've done it, it's gone. You have to give life meaning in every moment-not in the name of God."
Bald, compact, almost Zen-like in his trademark black jeans and black T-shirt, Norén is the theatrical lion whom Swedes most esteem-and the enfant terrible about whom they are most hotly divided. The author of more than 50 plays, the 63-year-old writer-director is reputed to be the August Strindberg of the 20th century (a comparison he detests) and heir to the auteur mantle left behind by Ingmar Bergman in the 21st (if you accept patriarchal lineages). Norén's language burns with heat, anger, humor, sexual energy and existential angst, and his body of work is a powder keg of hidden complexes, unconscious desires, corrosive frustration and painful confrontations. He is an entrepreneur of psychologically complex and difficult characters who often torment and humiliate each other. Although glimmers of human compassion do appear in his works, there is very little, perhaps no, salvation in War and Anna Politkovskaïa, where sex gives the illusion of protection against death.
Until he stepped down in 2007, Norén has led Riks Drama, the drama division of Sweden's national touring company Riksteatern, as its house dramatist and artistic director. Prior to 1999, when he founded Riks Drama, most of his plays were seen at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in Stockholm, where his first play debuted in 1973. Norén has published many collections of poetry, several novels and prose works, and a number of his dramas (Comedians, November, Details) have been adapted for television or made into films. A tragedian by temperament, Norén has exerted the same influence on the contemporary Swedish drama as Bergman did in the cinema. The height of Norén's fame-the 1997 six-hour epic, Category 3:1, mounted by Dramaten in collaboration with Riksteatern-epitomized the reemergence of socially and politically committed writing in contemporary Swedish theatre. That decade's most celebrated play, Category 3:1 was a largescale quilt of stories told by about 30 characters on the down side of life. Consciously switching his focus from the troubles of the cultural elite to the plight of Stockholm's underworld, Norén gave powerful voice to the homeless, drug dealers, an alcoholic, a high-school-teacher-turned-schizophrenic, out-of-work artists and executives, as well as a pimp and prostitute. The Swedish critic Margareta Sörenson states that Category 3:1 was a critique of how the Swedish welfare state treats society's outcasts and immigrants: "In my view Norén's writing is often marked by a clear Christian tradition, a kind of brotherly empathy with the most exposed, the poor and the marginalized."
Unfortunately, Norén's provocations have backfired. In 1999, the writer-director was widely criticized in Sweden when Sju Tre (7:3), his controversial meta-theatrical work, written in collaboration with and performed by three felons in a maximum-security prison, became all too horrifically real. On the day after the last performance, two of the just paroled inmates took part in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of two policemen. Attacked on all fronts, Norén became the subject of two documentary films analyzing what became a traumatic national event for this small, prosperous, largely socialist democracy. Swedish theatre has never been the same since Sju Tre. The literary scholar and critic Anders Johansson suggests that "perhaps one could even view it as the cultural equivalent of the murder of Olof Palme," the prime minister whose 1986 assassination (he was fatally wounded by gunshots while walking home from a movie theatre with his wife in Stockholm) sent a shock wave through Sweden. The unexpectedness of both tragic events left visible scars on a Scandinavian country that prides itself on its commitment to peace, security, high social welfare, tolerance and human solidarity.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Sju Tre triggered huge public ethical, moral and free-speech debates because it had breached the borders between stage fiction and reality. Was it a milestone in Swedish history, a fiasco or simply an unsuccessful gamble? Since two of the three prisoners Norén cast to play themselves were avowed neo-Nazis, critics of his national theatre rehabilitation program denounced the fact that the men had been allowed to vent their virulent racist and anti-Semitic feelings on stage. Many critics argued that working on Sju Tre only served to strengthen the prisoners' Nazi identity.
For Norén, Sju Tre exposed some disturbing, ugly truths about the growth of neo-Nazism among young Swedes in the 1990s. Young neo-Nazis had inherited their venomous attitudes, Norén says, "from their grandfathers and grandmothers, not their parents. Nazism was buried deep inside the people of the 1930s."
In part because of its history of remaining neutral in all wars since 1814, elements of neo-Nazism had taken root in Sweden. The only Scandinavian country that was not involved in direct military action during World War II, Sweden had also been a sanctuary for Jewish refugees in the 1940s when the Jews of other continental European nations were being annihilated. "I wanted to find out why these men in Sju Tre become Nazis," Norén says. "I wanted to describe what was happening in Swedish prisons. For me, it was a shock that young people who went to good schools and came from good homes, in the middle of the 1990s, could be neo-Nazis."
Sju Tre strengthened his resolve; he did not step back and retreat into oblique, modernist fiction. His raw, gritty 1999 play Shadow Boys anatomized the inner lives of seven inmates confined in a prison war for sexual offenders, child molesters and rapists. Sju Tre also left traces in Norén's fictional plays. In 2003, he again confronted xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Cold, a frightening portrait of youth violence and perverse masculinity in which three drunk neo-Nazi male youths (all Holocaust deniers) encounter a Korean boy one summer night and beat him up. Written for young audiences, the play was based on several recent hate crimes in Sweden, including the 1995 murder of 14-year-old John Hron, perpetrated by neo-Nazi teenagers.
"I want to be part of the Jewish community," Norén says. "But there is a limit-you can't share this history of terror and killing. I know so much about Jewish tradition and history, Jewish poetry means a lot to me, but I feel like a stranger. Nothing has changed in history since Auschwitz. We have these little pieces of Auschwitz everywhere."
"The day someone tries to sum up Norén's work," comments Johansson, "they will not be able to disregard Sju Tre. It might even be the play-which, ironically enough, can never again be performed-that he will one day be remembered for."
For all the bricks and hosanna s that have been thrown his way, Norén is a genuine Swedish anomaly. In Britain, he is a rare, strange bird; in America, a virtual unknown. In continental Europe, especially in Germany and France, he towers as a modernist truth-teller, his stature on par with the likes of Thomas Bernhard, Botho Strauss, Sarah Kane, Bernard-Marie Koltès and Jon Fosse. The appearance of In Memory of Anna Politkovskaïa in Belgium is no fluke, since many Norén plays have premiered outside Sweden: Hebriana opened in the Hague; Dragonflies in Kassel, Germany; Autumn and Winter in Copenhagen; On November 20 in Liège, Belgium. For Swedes, Norén's track record abroad confirms his work's pertinence and universality.
But it is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of American productions Norén has received thus far. The U.S. debut in 1984 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., of his 1982 semiautobiographical drama Night Is Mother to the Lars Norén in rehearsals in Brussels. Day was, in New York Times terms, a critical failure. Mel Gussow's uncomprehending review halted further Norén sightings on American shores for a decade ("From August Strindberg to Ingmar Bergman, we have learned about Swedish angst, but those two are supreme artists, while Mr. Norén, at least on the basis of Night Is Mother, would not be a welcome guest at their table"). The only other English-language Norén production of note has been Actors Without Borders of New York's The Last Supper, a sardonic 1985 satire about two estranged brothers and their wives who squabble after their mother's funeral, which played at La MaMa E.T.C. in 2004. (In 2003, when New York Theatre Workshop hosted a four-day, Danish-language run of the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen's Details, a moodily comic tale of two young couples entangled in complex relationships, the event commanded the third-string Times reviewer's attention only because Norén's play was being helmed by Bergman's filmmaker du jour, Bille August. Barely a word was mentioned about Norén's standing in Sweden or his glistening flair for dialogue.)
This glaring Europe/America disparity is linked to the under-representation of playable English-language translations of new Scandinavian drama-foreign tundra to most Americans. Until Bergman's death last year, practically the only Swedish theatre available to U.S. audiences has been a handful of Strindberg classics and the 12 Bergman productions that the Brooklyn Academy of Music has exclusively imported from Dramaten since 1988. During my visit to the 2007 Swedish Theatre Biennial in central Sweden , only The Courage to Kill, a 1978 chamber play that belongs to the autobiographical first phase of Norén's career, was performed with simultaneous English translation. An Oedipal drama set in a restaurant, The Courage to Kill pits a manipulative father (Claes Ljungmark, dithering from vicious tyrant to helpless old man) with his inchoately angry, emotionally infantile son (a Marlon Brando-like Tobias Hjelm) whose sexpot girlfriend (Sara Sommerfeld) the father sexually violates. Rivetingly staged by Teater Giljotin's artistic director Kia Berglund, this uncompromising play moves inexorably to the father's brutal death at the hands of his son.
One of the reasons Norén repudiates the Strindberg comparison ("It's very wrong," he says) is that his 1980s plays-Night Is Mother to the Day, The Courage to Kill and Chaos Lives Next Door to God-display a thematic continuity that aligns him more closely with his true heroes, Eugene O'Neill and the Edward Albee of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Conflict with the father, separation from an ailing but domineering mother, the struggle for self-identity, sibling rivalry, scenes of impotence and sexual frustration, drug addiction, liberation-all of these dominate this trio of plays. Based on his own poverty-stricken adolescence and early adulthood in the small rural city of Genarp in the south of Sweden, these piercing dramas about nuclear families torn by strife constitute his tortured blue period, which culminated in 1991 with And Give Us the Shadows, an epic about the vicious love-hate relationship between O'Neill and his last wife, Carlotta, set on O'Neill's 60th birthday in a house on the coast of New England.
Staged to great success at Dramaten with Max von Sydow and Margaretha Krook as the O'Neills, the play bears all the hallmarks of the early Norénsian style: a reclusive and creatively impotent protagonist; his sexually frustrated wife; and two sons, Eugene Jr., an unemployed actor and alcoholic, and Shane, a heroin user loudly protesting his innocence. But while Shadows's carapace hews closely to the historical facts of O'Neill's life, the emotional conflicts actually represent the obsessive dynamics of Norén's own unhappy childhood. "I was brought up with a family of four people, and we had a lot of addictions-problems with alcohol and drugs," Norén says. "Those characters in Long Day's Journey remind me of my family. It was one of the most perfect plays: the fog, the chairs, the foghorn, the lights turning into darkness and the fantastic actors who dare to be naked on stage-nothing else. In my plays, I'm always looking for that purity, that serenity, that simplicity. Shadows is about the relationship between work, art, love and children. When I had some success with my writing, suddenly I could earn more money in one week than my father could in a whole year. I felt some guilt about it. I found that I had the same problems with my kids as my own parents did. I was so concentrated about my work."
It was the elitist mania for all things Bergman that dammed up the river that could have transported a troupe of fresh Swedish voices (among them Kristina Lugn and Stig Larsson as well as Norén) to American eyes and ears. In Norén's case, Strindberg's and Bergman's pre-Prozac visions fogged up the critical lens with culturally ascribed stereotypes and misunderstandings: Too cold, too heavy, too gloomy, too introspective, too impalpable, too Nordic-such appraisals dogged the writer, even after he had shape-shifted into a second, sort-of-rose phase of dark-hued satires of the Swedish bourgeoisie. In such works as Munich-Athens, A Terrible Bliss and Creatures of One Day, even a self-professed Sartrean atheist shows that he cherishes wit, irony, laughs and the captivating musicality of language.
Seen in this light, Norén's own staging of War in New York this winter (using Marita Lindholm Gochman's crisp translation) will be a key occasion to dip into the fevered currents of Sweden's culture. His three recent dramas mark the fruition of Norén's third phase, a black-on-black take-no-prisoners mode in which he is reemerging as a livid humanist, a defender of the oppressed. The first of the trio, On November 20, a dynamite monologue performed by the German actress Anne Tismer, is based on the real-life diary of an 18-year-old student who in 2006 announced on the Internet that he was going to massacre his teachers and classmates in the German town of Emsdetten and then committed suicide. The ferocious Anna Politkovskaïa pays tribute to, without actually chronicling or discussing, the late Russian journalist of the title, known for her passionate coverage of the Chechnya conflict in which she sought to expose human rights abuses, and whose contract-style murder in 2006 at the age of 48 is believed to be connected to her opposition to the policies of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In essence, the play is a tough screed against the sexual abuse of children in war-ravaged countries, where normal relations warp and mutate into a dog-eat-dog quest for survival. In one telling scene, for instance, a man pimps a boy to a pederast who might be an officer of a non-governmental organization.
The starkly constructed War is also an incisive portrayal of the horrors of war, this time about refugees somewhere near Kosovo, perhaps. A blind man returns home after fighting a terrible war, to the surprise of his wife and their two daughters, who have long since presumed that he was missing or dead. Without sentimentality, War dramatizes the destruction of family values in countries torn asunder by genocide. "To tell you the truth, I'm very happy to direct War in New York," the playwright says. "I will do it much crueler than it is in the text."
"I did not write War for Sweden," Norén goes on. "Sweden has not known any wars for 200 years. I wrote it for France, because the French asked me for a play. But it has some significance in Sweden. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Sweden faced a difficult question: Shall we welcome the victims of the war?" (Sweden is currently dealing with an influx of refugees from such places as Africa, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. The country has taken the lead in providing refuge for Iraqis, who are largely barred from the U.S.) "I met Muslim people from Bosnia and other people who came from the war. It was our job to introduce them to Swedish society. So what I could write about was what they told me: their silent voices and footsteps. They told me that the war starts when your neighbor no longer says hello to you. How does someone survive? In War and Anna Politkovskaïa, I ask: Why do they go through pure hell?"
Norén believes that writers whose eyes have been opened to the effects of war, hostility, racism, anti-Semitism and poverty cannot continue to write psychological plays. "That's one road," he says. "I want to take the instruments and language of the theatre to the people." Except for Dance of Death, Easter and a few naturalistic dramas (like Miss Julie), Norén insists that Strindberg turns him off. "His middle plays are like carpentry, they're so perfect," he says. "Sometimes I find them boring. I've been writing for so long that I want to do things that I don't know I can do-I don't want to do the perfect play. If I know what will happen in a play, I stop writing it. I want to surprise myself. I'm looking for the moment when I am no longer me." Norén does admire Strindberg for "his attitude-he was always the first with something new from the continent. Strindberg was a fantastic thief; he took from Émile Zola and Maurice Maeterlinck and made their techniques his own."
Preoccupied as a director with a stylized, stripped-down aesthetics, Norén dislikes huge spaces "because they conserve the class system," he says. "I want audiences to share the same space as the actors. I want small rooms." Neither is he interested in becoming a brand name. "I don't think so much about how to be famous or how to make some career in the U.S.-not at all," he says. "I'm too old for that. I've been writing for 46 years, and I've received all kinds of reviews: fantastic, terrible, failures, successes. I'm immunized from them. In the evening, when I've written one good sentence, that's enough."
An unflinching observer of humanity's shadowland, Norén sees and styles himself as a dissident, profoundly at odds with the Swedish establishment. "I try to stay out of Swedish society-I don't want to be hostage to anything. If you are part of the establishment, then those people tell you that you can't do this, you can't say that, you can't act like that. It's a daily fight to stay outside." In the rehearsal room, on the other hand, a director earns his keep through his ability to solve problems. "It's not a question of authority but a question of who makes the move. When I try to direct with authority, I lose."
The label "Swedish playwright" means nothing to Norén, he says. "I'm a European. I know as much about Paris and Berlin as I know about Stockholm. I read the English newspapers. I read the German newspapers. I think my only home is in my language."
That non-conformist stance, that rebelliousness, is, of course, very Swedish.
Randy Gener is a New York City-based writer, playwright, critic, scholar and editor. He is the author of the plays "Love Seats for Virginia Woolf" and "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Pieces," among other theatre works. A contributor to the encyclopedia "Cambridge Guide to American Theatre," he is the senior editor of American Theatre magazine, published monthly by Theatre Communications Group in New York City. This article first appeared in the January 2008 edition of American Theatre magazine, published monthly by Theatre Communications Group in New York City. With the permission of the author, it has been reproduced here with minor editions.