Saying the Unsayable, and Listening to Silence: Jon Fosse on How Writing Plays Transformed His Craft

Now what can I say about the fact that I ended up as a playwright?

I wrote novels and poems, and had no desire to write for the theater, but the time came when I did so because, as part of a publicly funded effort to get people to write more modern Norwegian plays, I was offered quite a large amount of money, for the impoverished writer I was at the time, to write the opening scene of a play. I ended up writing the whole play, my first, and it is still the most performed of all my plays: Someone Is Going to Come.

This first experience of writing a play was the biggest surprise I ever had in my life as a writer, because up until that point, both in fiction and in poetry, I had always tried to write what cannot be said in words in the usual way—in the usual spoken way. I had always tried to write the unsayable, which is exactly how the announcement of my winning the Nobel Prize put it.

What’s most important in life cannot be said, only written—to give a slight twist to the well-known remark by Jacques Derrida.

And so, in my fiction and poetry, I tried to put silent speech into words.

What’s most important in life cannot be said, only written—to give a slight twist to the well-known remark by Jacques Derrida.

But when I wrote plays, I could use silent speech—I could use silence—in a completely different way. All I had to do was write ‘pause’ and the silent speech was right there. This word ‘pause’ is without a doubt the most important word in my plays, and the one I use the most often: “long pause,” “short pause,” or just “pause.”

There can be so much in these pauses—or so little.

The fact that something cannot be said, the fact that something refuses to be said, or the fact that something is best said by not saying anything.

But what I am quite sure speaks through these pauses the most is: silence.

Perhaps all the repetition in my fiction functions similarly to the pauses in the plays. Or maybe this is a better way to put it: While there is silent speech in the plays, there is silent language in the novels, behind the written language, and if I’m writing well then I am necessarily writing this silent language too.

As a simple, concrete example: in Septology this silent language is what says that the first Asle and the second Asle might be the same person; this silent language is what says that the whole long novel, some twelve hundred pages in Norwegian, might actually be the written expression of a single, long-drawn-out moment.


But silent speech, or a silent language, speaks mainly from the work as a whole. Whether the work is a novel or a play on the page or a play produced in the theater, what matters aren’t the parts in isolation but the whole, which has to be in every tiniest detail as well. I might go so far as to say that there is a spirit of the whole, a spirit that speaks, somehow, both from very nearby and from a very great distance.

And what do you hear, if you listen well enough?

You hear the silence.

And, as others have said before: it is only in the silence that we can hear the voice of God.

Well, maybe.


To come back to Earth for a moment, I want to mention something else that writing for the theater gave me. Writing is a solitary thing, as I said, and solitude is good but only as long as the road back to other people remains open, to quote another poem by Olav Hauge.

And what I felt the first time I saw something I’d written performed on stage was exactly the opposite of solitude: community. Creating art through collaboration, which made me feel a deep sense of security and happiness.

This experience stayed with me, and it is no doubt why I continued as a playwright, feeling not just peace of mind but a kind of joy, even from bad productions.

Theater is really one large act of listening: the director has to listen to the script—or at least should listen to it—just as the actors listen to it and to one another, and to the director, and just as the audience then listens to the whole performance.

And for me, the act of writing is one of listening—when I write I never think it out in advance, I don’t plan anything, I proceed by listening.

If there’s any metaphor I would use for the act of writing, it would have to be listening.

If there’s any metaphor I would use for the act of writing, it would have to be listening.

And so, it almost necessarily follows, writing is like music. At one point when I was a teenager, I switched, so to speak, directly from playing music to writing. I stopped playing music altogether, and even stopped listening to music, and started writing, and in my writing I tried to create something I had experienced when playing music. And I did create that—and that is what I still do.


A Silent Language: The Nobel Lecture - Fosse, Jon

A Silent Language: The Nobel Lecture by Jon Fosse and translated by Damion Searls is available via Transit Books.

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