Bergen’s venerable national theater (Den Nationale Scene) has been threatened with a lawsuit from the mother of author Vigdis Hjorth, over the theater’s dramatic production of Hjorth’s novel Arv og miljø (Wills and Testaments). The theater seems caught in Hjorth’s family feud over her book, with Hjorth’s mother now claiming that the play based on the book violates her rights to privacy.
The letter from Inger Hjorth’s attorney came as “a bolt out of the blue,” according to outgoing theater chief Agnete Haaland. It claims that Inger Hjorth actually wants to avoid a public trial and therefore “invites to a dialog over a reasonable solution” before any lawsuit is actually filed. The letter to the theater suggests compensation in the form of NOK 250,000 per family member offended by the theater version of her daughter’s book.
The book itself sparked public debate over reality literature when it was first published by Cappelen Damm in 2016. Vigdis Hjorth’s family felt she had wrongly exposed them in her novel about family conflicts, inheritance and underlying claims of assault. Hjorth’s sister Helga responded by writing a novel of her own in 2017 entitled Fri vilje (Free will), in which she attempted to tell the family’s side of the family’s story.
This week’s threatened lawsuit surprised many, not just Den Nationale Scene, with several critics wondering why Hjorth’s mother threatened to sue the theater’s version of the book, instead of the book itself. The book, meanwhile, won Norway’s national booksellers’ prize in 2016 and was nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Vigdis Hjorth is considered one of Norway’s leading authors and recently was nominated for the Dublin Literary Award for an earlier book, Et norsk hus (A Norwegian house).
The play’s script follows the book closely, “therefore it’s puzzling why the book’s publisher hasn’t been sued,” drama critic Per Christian Selmer-Anderssen noted in newspaper Aftenposten. He added, however, that the play, which premiered in November, is “very strong” and thus may suggest portrayals of Hjorth family members more strongly than in the book itself.
Haaland, speaking on behalf of the theater, flatly rejects demands in the letter from Inger Hjorth’s lawyer. Haaland told local newspaper Bergens Tidende that the state-financed theater merely wanted to dramatize one of Norway’s “best, recent contemporary novels, because it’s extremely relevant. We are aware that there has been debate over reality literature tied to the novel, but we haven’t focused on that at all. We have not done any research on the Hjorth family, but worked with assault and family relations that are at the core of the novel.”
Jon Wessel-Aas, lawyer for the theater, said he can’t see how such a lawsuit can prevail. “We’re talking here about a theater production that’s a form of pure fiction and is not about any living or real people,” he told Aftenposten. Asking a court to censor literature, he said, would be akin to “tearing away the foundation of literature as an art form. If some people in real life insist on being identified as the fictional characters in the novel or the play, that must be their own responsibility.”
Tor Bastiansen Trolie, a drama professor at the University of Bergen, told Aftenposten that it can be “understandably overwhelming” when a theater “creates a situation and gives life and voices to people.” He nonetheless also finds it “very strange” that the family is threatening to sue the theater’s version of the book and not the book itself.
Inger Hjorth’s lawyer, Tony Vangen, declined to comment further on the threatened lawsuit. Nor would author Vigdis Hjorth comment or her publisher Cappelen Damm.
The threatened suit is the latest legal challenge facing a theater in Norway, after the live-in partner of Justice Minister Tor Mikkel Wara reported Oslo’s Black Box Theater to police for featuring their home in a play called “Ways of Seeing.” Wara’s home and car were vandalized not long after the play premiered.
“The artistic room is getting smaller,” Jon Refsdal Moe, former chief of Black Box Theater and head of Norway’s national drama school (Den norske teaterhøgskolen). “The artistic room is threatened by various groups that don’t recognize artistic expression as free expression.” He believes self-censorship is a bigger problem than censorship: “The freedom to express yourself without having to be held responsible for all the consequences of the real world is what’s really under attack.”