The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Seeing the World in a Different Way

The sparse dialogue contains seething emotions and nihilistic life stories.

Jon Fosse started writing stories and poems when he was twelve years old and has gone on to be one of Norway’s leading writers. He has gained several literary awards, his novels and plays have been translated into thirty languages and his plays have been produced in almost every European country and outside of Europe.

I don't quite understand what is going on in my plays and in my writing. I'm not an actor and I haven’t worked in the theatre. It was a great surprise to me that I managed to write my first play and an even bigger surprise that it worked on the stage. My first novel was published and 1983 when I was twenty-three years old. I called it Red Black in homage to Stendhal’s Le Rouge et Le Noir. It's hard to explain why I called this play Purple. All I can say is the Norwegian word covers purple, violet and mauve but David Harrower, the translator, chose purple.

Purple could hardly be simpler. The action takes place in a cellar deep below a disused factory. At the start the Boy and the Girl enter the cellar and talk. The Drummer enters and after a while the Girl leaves. The Boy and the Drummer quarrel. The Singer and the Bass Player enter, stay for a while, then leave. The Drummer locks the boy in the cellar. The Girl then returns and lets him out.

My writing is a kind of extreme realism. If I am writing well with the pace well done it is realistic in a way that changes the realism into something else. Something behind the realism appears. In my plays I rarely use names and I don't describe appearances. The person only becomes a character when he steps onto the stage. They are more like fields of emotion and entities which are connected to one another.

This detachment makes huge demands on directors and young actors. The sparse dialogue contains seething emotions and nihilistic life stories. Jon Fosse has been compared to Harold Pinter, but he himself refers to Samuel Beckett as one of his influences, his favourite for ‘the strength of his pictures and the force of his writing in a very quiet and humble way.’ Indeed, Jon Fosse goes as far as to call Beckett , ‘a literary father, someone to look up to and to rebel against.’ In Purple very little happens on the surface but there is tension in the silences and between the people on stage.

I never try to illustrate anything or use metaphor. I just write it directly. The cellar is a safe place but it is also a threat. The play is full of ambiguities. I do not quite understand what the message is. Is the Boy bringing the Girl down to the cellar or is she bringing him? How much has happened between the Boy and the Girl? Is she still in a relationship with The Drummer?

With care we can piece together some of the life stories of the Boy, the Girl and The Drummer. We know that the Girl remembers the black guitar from the time she had been in the Boy’s room and she knows all about his family. We know that the Boy's family's life is bleak. He doesn't know who his father is, his mother is never there, the grandmother he loved has died and his grandfather drinks. We know that The Drummer feels he has some rights over the Girl. Everything else has to be mined from Jon Fosse’s frugal words.

The Girl’s in a transitional stage. She's moving on from The Drummer and she might move to the Boy. Later on there is mention of Fredrik, the new guitarist, and I think the Boy is imagining she is establishing a third relationship with Fredrik. Everything is insecure. It is moving on from here to there. It is a condition of being young that you are in between in so many respects. The Drummer goes into the cellar and sees the Boy with the Girl. He is jealous but he is not to blame for that. He gets a bit aggressive - that's understandable. One thing is clear, however, The Drummer had no intention of leaving the Boy locked in the cellar. In the end, when he gives the key to the Girl, he proves that he doesn't hate. In the end The Drummer is setting the boy free.

The tension between love and hate and violence in the final scene is almost unbearable. The Boy is torn. ‘Are you everybody's girlfriend? Are you going out with everybody?’ and he hurts her by pulling her hair hard. ‘You're a slut just like my mother.’ Then the girl strokes his hair and he strokes her hair, tenderness before a reluctant, almost guilty admission of love. ‘Even if you call me a slut you love me. You love me a bit even if you call me a slut.’ And then the Boy goes as far as he is able, damaged as he is. ‘I don't know. I don't think I love you.’

There is violence and aggression in relationships from both sides. Men and women are connected for better or worse. In one way we understand one another. In another way we never do. When I sit in my cottage and write, that is all I can do, write. If people find something in it that can be useful to them, that is great, but if not, that's OK. In a way I am a Quaker. There is something in me and in every human being that is a unique inner light. I try to point to it and if art becomes strong enough it pulls together a strong kind of identity. I believe in theatre and books. If you can paint a picture in your own way it might be possible for people to see the world in a different way. The world does not look quite the same afterwards. Writing somehow changes the way we look at life.