Margareta Sörenson 
Lars Norén’s oeuvre is a vast land of poetry and more than 100 plays. “Strindberg-huge,” as someone said when the Swedish playwright’s 70th birthday was celebrated in Stockholm on May 10, 2014. This land is dark, alienated, heavy with guilt and agony. Norén is an enfant terrible and a merciless critic of our civilisation. He is also warmhearted towards everyone, including his audience, who have to pay for privileges they never will obtain. His dramas are served always with a salty grain of humour and a sense of the absurd within normality: “How’s your mum? Aha, she is dead.”
The celebration took place in Stockholm’s City Theatre, where a row of Norén’s plays have met the audience, although he worked in residence at the National Theatre Dramaten during a long period in the nineties. In recent years, he directed and wrote for Folkteatern in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, with frequent working sessions in Paris with La Comédie-Francaise. He has never stayed faithful to institutions and regulations, only to his own writing. In the autumn of 2015, his play Give Us The Shadows, from 1991, returns to the National Theatre as a classic within the O’Neill-tradition of the house where Long Day’s Journey Into Night premiered in 1956. Eugene O’Neill and Harold Pinter are the writers that one finds most referenced in the work of Norén, rather than August Strindberg, the great, dominant author of Swedish drama.
Still, the reference to Strindberg is obvious for Swedes. No other writer in the twentieth century could claim to fill a space great enough to be compared to Strindberg. When Norén received the Pilot Prize in 1995, he was already called “the greatest dramatist in the Swedish language since 1912” (the year of the death of Strindberg). He received this accolade because, in the words of Per Wästberg, a member of the Swedish Academy which presented the Pilot Prize, “he has made the present time our home and exposed the anxiety beneath the surface of the welfare state. . . .”
So, Norén is Strindberg-huge. He offers faith and values, but no confession. He has put into words and onto stages the secular ideas of individual morality and of society as a collective construction. He has done so in a way that nails our time to our selves and includes a criticism of religion and its symbols. He asserts belief as a loss and a longing, yet also as a revolt against fixed ideas. It is easy to perceive Norén’s fictional world as one’s own. In it, one has the strange feeling of having the keys to many doors which are half open, in an endless labyrinth. It is an almost irritating discovery when one realises that other people, many other audience members, in fact, share this feeling of being addressed personally by Norén. An actor commented on Norén’s somewhat “scandalised” diaries: “he is murmering, things that I do not only identify with, but more. It is like me murmuring myself.”
As a critic, you have to live with being hated or, at least, looked down upon by Norén. He distrusts the establishment and the press profoundly. He has referred to “cultural journalists with a rat’s tail hanging out of one of one eye.” It is unfair, we know it, and even ignorant when it comes to working conditions among critics. However, from his point of a view, he might be right in some respects. “The critics have slowly rottened away. . . . They have nothing to give, to teach . . . they have adapted to the needs of the commercial market and its conditions.” Conditions in the media world have changed, that is true, but who can work independently of the contemporary conditions of their profession? Still, many among us critics are trying our best, despite the rapid changes. What is the future of our profession in the longer term? Who knows?
In any case, Norén’s dismissive attitude to we critics should not impact upon our judgements of his literary work. His “Strindberg-huge” place in Swedish theatre is a fact. Today, he writes new plays which are performed in parallel with older ones, dramas which are already established as classics. The first duty of a critic should be to put bias aside. Today, Norén writes hectically. He is an author challenging the Western style of life. He gives the impression of being in a hurry, as if he has an increasing need to write, before it is too late.
Norén has, over quite a few years, suffered from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and has left his artistic directorship in Gothenburg for this reason. In his most recent marriage (his third), a daughter was born in 2010. Recently divorced, he shares custody of the child with his ex-wife, actress Annika Hallin. The private life of Norén, which is not unlike that of Strindberg, can be followed in his Diary of a Playwright (2008) and the more recent Diary of a Playwright 2005-2012 (2012), the latter of which is more discreet as regards private issues and gossip. In these substantial books, thousands of details rush through the reader: garden work at the summer house in Gotland; take-away-soup from the deli next door; contacts with editors; the two grown-up daughters; actors and the robust co-director Ulrika Josephson. It all mingles with severe and deeply considered remarks on politics, ideology, social trends, literature, cultural politics and poetics. The diaries are as beautifully written as they might be hard to read in their seeming endlessness. My own impression is that, once you have entered this guided tour into the mind of another living person, you are stuck, hooked, helplessly orientating oneself in the experiences and thoughts of a human being who is very similar to yourself and your own thinking, yet not.
The debut of Norén, in 1963, was poetry. With the poetry collection Lilacs, Snow and the work in the decade to come, he was praised for his poetic “wild flow of words,” a model for young poets. Sometimes he was even called a writer of “schiz poetry”; in his younger years Norén was treated for psychiatric health problems, including electric shock therapy, which has caused headaches and unease throughout the writer’s life. In 1973, another poetry collection was published, King Me and Other Poems. A few novels followed, and his last pure poetry book, Heart in Heart, was published in 1980. The periods of poetry and drama writing overlap, until, finally, Norén decides to leave poetry and devote himself entirely to play writing. The final, and most public, breakthrough in theatre was in 1982 with the two plays Night is the Mother of Day and Chaos is God’s Neighbour, both rooted in the playwright’s own younger years, before he left his family, in his late teens; the titles are quotes from the Swedish poet Stagnelius (1793-1823). The young boy is challenged by the double faced daily life of the father, the owner of an inn in southern Sweden who suffers from severe alcohol abuse. His mother is dying of cancer. His elder brother frowns upon him and his love of jazz and literature. The plays are characterised by self-doubt and ambivalence. Their psychological realism, topped with symbolistic details, portrays a young person and his alientaton from both family and society.
Even before he stepped out into the limelight, Norén wrote plays that were staged both in Sweden and abroad, such as The Courage to Kill (1978) and Münich-Athens (1981). After the two more autobiographical plays, a flood of dramas were written, and staged both in Sweden and abroad, including The Last Supper (1983) and Calm (1984). Two parallel streams could now be observed in Norén’s writing: in one, a dark, cruel and pessimistic outlook on the world and the (Swedish) society; and, in the other, a group of plays, often referred to as “Chekhovian” dramas or “the summer plays.” In these latter plays, we see characters with a mild and sad smile, who have merely got by over the years, their lives being lived further and further from the dreams and plans of their younger years; plays such as: Autumn and Winter (1988); And Give us the Shadows (1988); Summer (1989); Time is Our Home (1991); and In the Leaves in Vallombrosa (1991). The “summer plays” were written during his period as a writer in residence at Dramaten, the national theatre of Sweden, and often designed directly for the actors of the house. He also began to work in the stage directing during this period, but distanced himself increasingly from “bourgeois” theatre.
With Romanians (1994), the more nostalgic and bittersweet period was ended. In the decade to come, Norén went ever deeper into the world that could be described as the backside of society. He directed his plays himself and took the place as writer in residence of another national theatre, Riksteatern, the touring national theatre. His focus and interest turned to the drop outs, psychotics and drug addicts that we, in the Western world, see and walk past daily, taking no notice of them as they try to survive in malls, the entrances to underground stations and the forgotten corners of well planned cities where well planned people live their well planned lives. In The Human Circle 3:1 (1998), Norén uses the classification term 3:1, which is used by social workers, as a title of a play which might be considered one of his most challenging. This exploration of different kinds of lives is bleak-yet-beautiful. There is a kind of solidarity beween these outlaws. Norén watches them, sees their dreams and takes a convincing perspective, underlining that each of these people had another life before they ended up on the street. One was a poetry writing teacher. Another was an insurance salesman. They were normal people with normal dreams.
One requires concepts as vast and complex as a huge church organ, with its many pipes, in order to try to describe Lars Noréns work. The plays often refer to Christian symbols or values. Norén is an outspoken non-believer, yet religious references are still relevant in discussing his dramas. Ideas such as mercy and guilt are ever-present in his writings, and there are clear signs of Norén referring to a humanistic heritage grounded in two thousands years of Christianity. Perhaps he has put into secular words the many ethical dilemmas of today, such as alienation, aggression, racism and ethnic intolerance.
The construction and composition of such works as The Human Circle 3:1, A Kind of Hades (1994), or Tristano (2001) indicate a shift towards a less O’Neill-inspired drama and a more contemporary style. Norén takes up his poetic experience, combining it with a more clear social consciousness. Increasingly fragmentary, the plays are becoming patchwork-like, with their nameless, almost anonymous characters, figures who are almost archetypes. The so called “Terminal”-plays, written around 2005 and continuously rewritten and staged in different combinations, are like minimalistic variations on a theme, as in classical music. They might be influenced by Norwegian writer Jon Fosse; Fosse’s plays were translated from Norvegian to Swedish by Norén in many cases. The parents of a young son who dies in one of the short plays might be the same people who come to a hospital expecting a baby in another play 15 or 20 years earlier. The middle-aged couple who visit an apartment might be older versions of the younger couple who are showing it to them. Vertigo-like labyrinths open up and drag the spectator into a game in which we think of age, years and life in the same way as the author.
The period in Gothenburg and the Folkteatern resulted in the play Fragment (2012) and in Norén taking part into the European project Cities on Stage, in which a number of European theatres exchanged plays and performances. Fragment is, as the title indicates, a fragmented reflection on a group of people in a European city; it could be Gothenburg or any other city.
The characters are all on their way down, socially. The social security systems, which are supposed to protect European citizens, prove not to be strong enough to carry those who are unfortunate enough to have more severe problems. The frightening thing with Fragment, which was staged as if it is in a garbage depot, was that the characters were descending in a way which offered no return. It was easy for the theatregoer to see and understand where they would end up. The play is a cruel study of a social utopia falling apart.
In one of the last of Norén’s plays, the fragmentary composition is further developed. Entitled 3.31.93 (2013)—meaning three acts, 31 charachters and 93 scenes, it has a structure which offers a great freedom for the stage director and actors. As is often the case with Norén plays, actors are delighted with the space given to them and the possibilities to create something of real significance out of few, wonderfully poetic lines.
The premiere of 3.31.93, at Stockholm City Theatre, was four hours long. It was directed by Sophia Jupither, a frequent interpreter of Norén’s work. The production opened with the stage as calm and still as a church. There were a few benches and chairs in an abstracted, deconstructed and reassembled space. It might have been a waiting room, or a clinic, or a room in a hospital, or a morgue, or a park lane, or a living room. In this space there was no mercy for all the poor, flawed human beings who congregated there. Suddenly in the play, a light enters from above, a clear idea is registered: there are no other or better people than the ones we can see here, those alive right now, who—despite all the hardships in their lives—manage to survive, to find new friends and lovers, and to have the force to continue to live.
Words such as “mosaic,” “fragments,” “musicality” and “rhythm” are obvious when trying to describe this play. Likewise its many situations and people, who are, at first, totally separate from one another, yet become knitted together through a network of contacts and liaisons, flashbacks and new connections and ruptures. Banal and mundane, the fine, carefully measured staging made the production grow and glimmer in a fascinating mirror effect of the audience. There was no type-casting, and no types, just ordinary people, as extraordinary as people normally are.
The somewhat rough humour which makes short visits in almost all of Norén’s plays is less evident in 3.31.93. It is as if it is getting late, and there is no time for laughter or for nonsense. Still, the two late books, Night of Philosophy (2012) and No One (2014) are punctured with humour; even if they both reflect a massive flood of thinking, words and reflections. There is, sometimes, an absurd and comic twist. Never irony, but sometimes sharp satire. These books are not novels, not poetry, but prose which is close in style to diary writing. The reader thanks the writer for the sudden stop, the space provided by a funny remark, a smile which offers some air, some room for the Me of the reader, and a moment for a quick glance in the mirror of the writer’s Me.
The latest, but hopefully not last, work, is the book Fragment (2015). It consists of text fragments, originally shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. In it Norén writes: “Fragments are bridges left when cathedrals fall down.” It is a sinister comment in our time of destruction of historical and religious monuments and deconstruction of values once shared.
 Margareta Sörenson is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, a writer and researcher in dance history. She writes for the daily national paper Expressen, and has written a number of books on the performing arts, the latest on Mats Ek, with photographer Lesley Leslie-Spinks. Her special interest in dance and puppetry has often led her to the Asian classical stage arts and increased her curiosity about contemporary ones.
Copyright © 2015 Margareta Sörenson
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