Haunted By Bergman

A Great Director Makes an Old Play Walk Again

Bergman heavily altered the shape of the text; this was his play and not Ibsen's. The early expository scenes were sharper and blunter; some of the data, like Oswald's medical prognosis, was moved down to late in the action. Mrs. Alving's several scenes with Manders were combined into one long one, much of it played static, on the long couch, both of them sitting stiffly till her getting up became a shock. Some of the language, including profanity, was modernized, and anachronisms thrust blatantly in. Most startling of all, for those who know the play, was the total deletion of Mrs. Alving's last speech, a nightmare hill that few actresses have ever climbed successfully. With her son as previously with her husband, Ibsen's Mrs. Alving is indecisive. 120 years later, Bergman made her make the decision, administering the fatal dose to the nude deranged creature on the green carpet, with a goblet of champagne left over from the earlier scene with Regina. This, at the very end, was the essence—not of Ibsen's text, but of the meaning of Ghosts today. At that point, pretty much everything you cared to argue about with Bergman disappeared, and the audience became one in appalled fascination.

Jonas Malmsjö and Pernilla August in Ghosts: Ibsen's mother load
photo: Stephanie Berger
Jonas Malmsjö and Pernilla August in Ghosts: Ibsen's mother load

Did some arguments linger? Yes. Jazzing the language as Bergman did seemed inapposite, given the tautness with which the 19th-century reality was created. Örjan Ramberg's Engstrand was strong and serviceable, but no more than that. Jan Malmsjö, so wonderfully sly last year as Hummel in Ghost Sonata, was a conventional and unmagnetic Manders; the character must be a pompous buffoon, but he must also be a charismatic man with whom this Helen would want to flee her husband. And the alternation of stasis with sudden movement meant that the production had to struggle to find its natural tempo, and didn't always succeed at doing so. I don't much mind, because, after it, I understood Ghostsmore fully than I ever have before; rather than obliterating Ibsen's text, Bergman's wild inventions and alterations were the kind that reaffirmed it by challenging it. And with three of his actors, he proved again that no one alive is better at molding performances as vibrant and rock-solid as acting can be. Jonas Malmsjö, Angela Kovacs, and most of all Pernilla August are stamped in my brain; there will be no other Oswald, Regina, and Mrs. Alving in my lifetime. Or if there is, I'll be damn lucky. Just the memory of hearing August's warm, throaty mezzo voice spout her defiance of Pastor Manders is enough to make me think the theater is a great place. To think of it while recalling her performances as Ophelia, Nora, Hermione, and Mary Stuart makes me realize that, thanks to Bergman, I have had reason to spend the last few decades writing about it. With him gone from the scene, I will have to hold on to those memories very hard.

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