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According to Zeami, master spirit of the Noh drama, every great play has to contain yugen, "mystery." That being so, August Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata (1907) must be near the top of the 20th century's great plays. Simple, immediate, and unpretending, it's nevertheless impossible to pin down to any literal sense. Its images constantly shift their ground, its themes trail off or link up in unexpected ways. No one in it is exactly what he or she seems, though they all give us ample warning about what they may be. The action hurtles constantly forward, though a story never exactly takes shape and doesn't precisely resolve at the end. Influenced by Buddhist thought, the experiments of Symbolist painters and poets, and possibly by Strindberg's ventures in drug experimentation as well, the little three-scene chamber play, running roughly 95 minutes, is as rich and meaningful as a piece of the best chamber music—and about as easy to explain in literal terms.

The script's opening image is innocence personified: A young woman gives a young man a cup of water, while an old man looks on approvingly. But everything about this image is "wrong." The young woman, a milkmaid, is only visible to the young man; the latter, who has been up all night rescuing people from a collapsed building, is not a doctor but a poet, a student of languages. The old man, who has been spying on him for some time, turns out to be the financier who has ruined his father, and now says he wants to make amends. But at the same time, he claims that, on the contrary, the student's father has ruined him. In later scenes, the old man will get a horrible comeuppance—one that parallels the young man's description of his own father's public humiliation. And the luxury apartment house where the second and third scenes take place suggests the atmosphere of a building about to collapse: The characters are all, in their different ways, living but dead. The student's heroic rescue attempt at the collapsed building, which has made him a celebrity, is matched by his attempt to free a young lady from this death-in-life. The attempt fails: Just as the child whose rescue he describes in the first scene has turned out to be a phantom, the young lady's youth and health are illusory; her release is into death, not life.

The story's primal emotions (fathers and sons, betrayed love, cuckolded husbands) and its superstitious, horror-movie images (ghosts, prefigurations, mummies, vampires) are eerily intensified by the modern banality of the context: telephones, newspapers, business deals, opera tickets. In bustling everyday Stockholm, Strindberg saw the nightmares of the haunted past, and with him the hauntings ennoble the context, rather than the latter cheapening them: You could view his play as a moral corrective, eight decades ahead of its time, to Ghostbusters. In the media world everything's a joke; in Strindberg, comic as his writing often is, life and suffering are real. This world itself may be made of illusions, but the illusions supply us with a plentiful experience of pain.


The Ghost Sonata
By August Strindberg
BAM Harvey Theatre (Closed)

Ingmar Bergman, as you might expect, began with the immediacy of the pain. His production for the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden, which played here all too briefly at the end of June, stripped away much of the script's turn-of-the-century rococo and plush. The Young Lady's harp (which, in another ghost-story motif, begins to play by itself at the end) was gone, as was the vision Strindberg called for at the final curtain, Arnold Boecklin's once-admired painting Isle of the Dead. (Strindberg wasn't alone in feeling its influence: Rachmaninoff based a tone poem on it, and Val Lewton built one of his weirder horror movies out of it.) Göran Wassberg's set stripped the scenes to their bare essentials; as in his Doll's House of some years back, Bergman kept the players in each scene visible onstage before their entrances and after their exits, lurking in corners or looming on a tonguelike walkway that extended into the audience.

Over the decades, the play has been a repository for various kinds of artsily stylized staging. Bergman's was swift, lucid, and visceral. The spring from which the milkmaid poured water, like her milk bottles, gave off a viscid, greenish glow; its eerie purity was counterbalanced by the sight of the janitor's wife, on the opposite half of the stage, emptying a slop bucket into a sewer. (The gesture linked the work to Strindberg's epic Dream Play, with its Fairhaven and Foulstrand.) Hummel, the conniving old man, was a fiercely flamboyant performance by Jan Malmsjö, known here from several Bergman films but most familiar to Swedes as a star of musicals (his roles include Higgins in My Fair Lady, the MC in Cabaret, and Zaza in La Cage). His swagger and turnout, the malevolent, hawkeyed pleasure he took in his manipulations, were matched by Gunnel Lindblom as his former love, the now nearly mummified mother of the Young Lady. Her rich, low-toned voice seemed to emit itself from her rocklike, dead-eyed presence like radioactivity from a lump of uranium ore.

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