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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.

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.

A third great performance came from Malmsjö’s son Jonas, as the heroic student Arkenholz. (There are hints that the character may in fact be Hummel’s son, in which case the old man’s plot to marry him to the Young Lady—who is actually his daughter and not her putative father’s—is truly nefarious.) Bergman’s opening image, in which young Malmsjö writhed his way up from the stage floor in panic, suggested that the whole play might be his dream, but the actor’s choices were all aimed at physical immediacy. He and Elin Klinga—the latter aloof, tormented, and seemingly near-blind as the Young Lady—went through what is often played as a rather genteel, disillusioning courtship as a species of violent roughhouse, marked by falls and grapplings that matched the fury and frustration in the lines.

There was no serenity in this ending: Bergman removed all traces of Buddhism in favor of his own most startling image. When the Young Lady died, the Milkmaid’s ghost came hurtling down the stage, to lie behind her in the same position; as the Young Lady’s corpse was removed, the Milkmaid rose, performing a slow, ambiguous set of contorted, vaguely Hindu postures that might have meant either ultimate peace or a haunting that goes on. As at every other point, Bergman’s fierce specificity turned out to share the play’s ambiguous richness. Even his choice of music was dualistic: Though the scene breaks were washed in the ripe, yearning strains of Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta,” the opening and closing moments used the sharp clacking sticks and low-toned hand drum that accompany entrances and exits in the Kabuki theater. I would say that Strindberg’s play had never been seen more vividly in New York in my lifetime, except that I cannot remember, in 30 years of theatergoing, seeing it in a production by any major theater or company at all. I am as ashamed of New York today as Hummel’s victims are of their guilty secrets. This city’s theater, like the living-dead household where Arkenholz finds himself, is poisoned at the very source of its life. But then, there would be no point in doing a play 95 years old if it weren’t about us; thanks to Bergman, we could see it in that light, even if only in Swedish, for five performances. Why our own artists can’t achieve such things may be the greater mystery.

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