Oslo’s ‘nynorsk’ theater turns 100

Norway’s national theater dedicated to the nynorsk form of the Norwegian language is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a special program boasting 30 different plays, brisk ticket sales and a string of theatrical awards. Det Norske Teatret, which debuted amidst violent conflicts over the use of nynorsk, is still pushing boundaries and defining a new face of Norway.

Norwegians lined up outside "Det Norske Teatret" for tickets to "Hair" in 1971. PHOTO: Det Norske Teatret

Norwegians lined up outside “Det Norske Teatret” at its old location in Oslo for tickets to “Hair” in 1971. They’re still buying tickets for new productions. in “nynorsk.” PHOTO: Det Norske Teatret

The anniversary line-up at the privately owned but state-supported theater includes a dramatic interpretation of stories from the Bible, premiering on February 1, and a production of Antichrist, based on the controversial film by Danish director Lars von Trier. With the applause still fresh from an impressive year in 2012, during which the theater sold near-record numbers of tickets and received the most Hedda prizes (the Norwegian theatrical award) of any theater (four in total), it’s also celebrating 100 years of breaking new ground.

Det Norske Teatret (which directly translates to “The Norwegian Theater”) is today located in modern quarters at Kristian IVs gate 8, close to the venerable Nationaltheatret in downtown Oslo but with a different and more alternative philosophy. For 100 years, Det Norske Teatret has performed plays and later musicals exclusively in nynorsk. The Norwegian language has two official and diverse written forms - bokmål (literally meaning “book tongue” and reflecting the Danish that dominated in Norway for hundreds of years) and nynorsk (literally “new Norwegian” but rooted in regional dialects derived by language researcher Ivar Aasen in the mid-1800s). Whereas most Norwegians speak their own dialect, 85-90 percent of the population writes and speaks in bokmål, and it is the standard most commonly taught to foreign students of the language.

The newer "Norske Teatret" in downtown Oslo, where banners outside currently read "100 years old and still stubborn." PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The newer “Norske Teatret” in downtown Oslo, where banners outside currently read “100 years old and still stubborn.” PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Nynorsk, though, is popularly considered to be the more beautiful and creative of the two forms, despite being a challenge for foreigners in line with Norway’s various dialects. Even bokmål-writing Norwegians often claim that poetry sounds better in nynorsk, and many of Norway’s most famous novels and plays were originally written in nynorsk. Nonetheless, nynorsk is also considered as being under fire by the ever-increasing influence of bokmål.

Det Norske Teatret’s artistic director, Erik Ulfsby, is himself an Oslo-native and therefore speaks bokmål in daily life. Llike many other Norwegians, though, he’s convinced that nynorsk is a far superior language for the stage than bokmål. “It lifts you up from small talk and into art,” he told newspaper Aftenposten last week.

Journalist and philosopher Alfred Fidjestøl is currently working on a book that tells the history of Det Norske Teatret.  From the very beginning in 1913, the theater has had a lingua-political agenda to promote plays performed in “the Norwegian language,” in the words of the original founding document of the theater; “the Norwegian language” in that context meaning nynorsk. That stirred a fuss just after the theater officially presented its first production in 1913 (Ludvig Hoberg’s Jeppe på Berget), when a fight broke out in front of the theater that developed into a protest action with 20,000 demonstrators that lasted for six days and led to several arrests. Many local residents were angry that nynorsk had become obligatory in the schools (many still are), and when a nynorsk theater opened, it was too much to bear for some residents of the city then called “Christiania” after an earlier Danish king.

Det Norske Teatret has had a cast of thousands over the years. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Det Norske Teatret has had a cast of thousands over the years. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

From the stage of Det Norske Teatret one will still hear nynorsk and sometimes snippets of local dialects, but never bokmål. It is no coincidence that the theater was founded in the capital city; nor is it by chance that the theater was given its ambitious”Norwegian Theater” name. The nynorsk revolution was to take place at the very center of the Danish-Norwegian elite at the time, with King Haakon VII, born in Denmark, in the audience at the theater’s official opening. In 1913, the definition of Norwegian culture was the subject of heated debate then just as it is today, sparked this time by the appointment of Hadia Tajik, a young Pakistani-Norwegian Muslim and nynorsk-speaker, as Minister of Culture.

Det Norske Teatret continues to contribute to the debate over Norweigan culture and “Norwegian-ness.” In August 2012, it debuted a new three-year bachelor degree in drama studies in cooperation with the University College in Nord-Trøndelag called Det multinorske – the “Multi-Norwegian.” The program is only open to “students coming from a non-Western immigrant background” and also offers a year-long paid internship at Det Norske Teatret. From 53 applicants, four young aspiring actors and actresses were selected, all with African or Asian backgrounds.

Thomas Bipin Olsen, one of the new multinorske drama students, told Aftenposten that from the first year of its existence, Det Norske Teatret “was a theater that aspired to promote Norwegian culture and the Norwegian language. So I think that (founder) Hulda (Garborg) would be smiling – now we represent Norwegian society. It’s wonderful to be part of a theater that honors its traditions and at the same time isn’t afraid of being innovative.”

Another of the multicultural drama students, Kadir Talabani, explains why he believes in the importance of nynorsk in Norwegian culture: “It represents pride in one’s language; belonging and identity. It’s an honor to be able to be a part of it. And if it presents challenges, we’ll overcome them.”

Ulfsby also sees parallels between the founding of the theater 100 years ago and its current activities. He points out that Det Norske Teatret was founded by outsiders who spoke differently from the dominant culture – today, with the new multinorske students, outsiders will continue to play a defining role in the theater’s identity. Whether it’s small-town Norwegians with local dialects or multicultural Norwegians with international backgrounds, Det Norske Teatret has aspired over the last century to define the ever-changing face of modern Norway.

Views and News from Norway/Emily Williams

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