Two Arts, Many Dimensions

Ingmar Bergman, 1918–2007

The last image of that production was as stark, and as sensually rich, as anything Bergman had ever done. Deleting the giant closing speech in which Ibsen's Mrs. Alving vacillates over whether to give her syphilitic son, his diseased brain collapsing in dementia, the poison that will end his life, Bergman guided Pernilla August, who had embodied so many heroines for him, into creating a strong, decisive, 21st-century Mrs. Alving, her deep-red dress like a spill of blood or wine against the deep-green carpet as she knelt to feed her now naked, infantilized son the fatal pills—helping him wash them down, ironically, with a flute of champagne left over from a toast the two characters had drunk earlier in the act. This was Bergman's bleak goodbye, to his life in the theater and to the era of modern drama that Ibsen had fathered. It was a true Bergman moment, a summing-up that both rebuked and quintessentialized the play from which he drew it—a moment without hope, but so densely packed with beauty, mystery, and tragic power that its existence was itself a sign of hope.

The bleak goodbye: Bergman's Ghosts  at BAM
photo: Courtesy BAM
The bleak goodbye: Bergman's Ghosts at BAM

That was Bergman's end. After it, his physical death last month seemed less a shocking loss than a tragic confirmation of news we had already received. He had long since become historic in the theater, and now the history begins to resonate. Two images from earlier Bergman productions come to my mind, to flank this stark central vision of death and hopelessness in modern life. One is his conception of the Prologue to the second half of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale: a darling old lady in a rocking chair, who, as she tells us "I am Time," pulls from her worsted knitting bag an old-fashioned, nickel-plated alarm clock. The other is the last instant in his staging of Mishima's Madame de Sade: A final quarrel between Sade's wife and mother-in-law has led to the mother knocking from her daughter's hand a just-published volume of the marquis's obscene works; while they are distracted, the maidservant, who has stood silently through the whole scene, darts her foot out and slides the book under her skirt. A sweet, extravagant gesture of revelation; a short, sharp, sardonic act of concealment: Between these poles, Bergman brought the world to life onstage.

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