Naked we come into this world, and naked Oswald Alving leaves it in Ingmar Bergman’s production of Ghosts. That this is Bergman’s farewell production, his last work for stage or screen, is an adult sadness: The man is 85; he has earned the right to do as he pleases. At the same time, he’s given us so many marvels that the temptation to wish for more is irresistible. At least we could hope for a glimpse of some of the past glories: Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, Mary Stuart, A Doll’s House, Ghost Sonata, Long Day’s Journey, Madame de Sade, Peer Gynt, Miss Julie. And now Ghosts. Not a bad decade and a half of work, for a man past retirement age. People who believe Broadway is the beginning and the end of what the word “theater” means should study that list of what has appeared at BAM for one- and two-week flashes. And I will point out that this cascade of glory and enlightening astonishment, from Sweden’s greatest living artist, came from Sweden’s state-subsidized national theater, performed by an all-Swedish permanent repertory company, with mostly Swedish creative hands on the production team. A country that thinks about the theater only in dollar-profit terms, and believes that only artists from abroad are qualified to do serious work, is never going to achieve as much, and is always going to be stuck with “Broadway” instead of the theater. End of sermon.
Not that Bergman’s achievement was perfect—whose is? The one new Swedish play in this sequence was a drama so undistinguished I’ve forgotten its title. Then, too, New York missed his production of The Misanthrope, apparently only through his captiousness about the state of the performance at the end of its Stockholm run; a man of 80 can be captious. And there have been aspects to each of the productions we did see that made this or that sector of the audience object. Not everyone feels that Claudius and Gertrude should simulate copulation with the whole Danish court watching, or that Krogstad would punch Nora when she calls him a criminal, or that the Autolycus scenes in The Winter’s Tale need rewriting. But that’s all right: Art is an awakening process, not a plea for consensus.
The main point is that these and countless other Bergmanite shocks, big and little, came about through an intense scrutiny of, and a passionate connection to, the text. The one thing you could never accuse Bergman of, in all the years of this extraordinary late blooming, was the Eurotrash directorial gimmick, glibly applied to a script on superficial acquaintance, that makes most productions by younger directors, on the international festival circuit, look just like each other. Bergman’s productions all accomplished the neat double act that is the height of directorial art: They all conveyed the dramatic essence of the play, argue as you might about the details, and at the same time they all looked and sounded and felt like Bergman. Nobody else could have created them. And when they latched onto the dramatic essence, they revealed images that struck you viscerally, driving home an understanding of the play that linked it permanently to Bergman in your heart. I can’t help it: From now on I will always think of mad Ophelia’s flowers as rusty bolts that clatter on the floor when Laertes touches her; of Leontes with his booted foot over the infant Perdita’s cradle; of Nora slamming the auditorium door behind her, destroying the illusionist stage and her marriage in the same act; of James Tyrone pulling the night’s last whiskey bottle from the base of a statue of the Virgin. These gestures and twenty dozen more like them were not gimmicks or even images; they were the life and meaning of the play’s action in the theater, in our culture, in history. Visibly, Bergman’s overriding motive has been to connect us to that, and through it to each other.
And so we arrive at Ghosts, a play that is both overfamiliar and unknown, quaintly archaic and frantically up to date, the burning scandal and censorable object of 120 years ago made white-hot again by our own moral backsliding and technological progress. Ghosts is an American play. It had its world premiere in Chicago, when it was still banned in every European city. The characters are evangelical Christians, affluent, prudish, and stuffy, whited sepulchers living in deep denial of every truth inside or around them; they might as well be Bush-era Republicans. Adultery, alcoholism, arson, assisted suicide, blasphemy, child abuse, fiscal malfeasance, hypocrisy, incest, marital rape, pimping, prostitution, and, for a big finish, dementia arising from sexually transmitted disease. You name it, Ibsen’s play has it. No wonder the weather outside is so rotten.
This material needed no enlivening from Bergman, and in fact his greatest achievement was to infuse it, in both fast and slow passages, with an eerie gravitas that seemed ethereal, not solemn. The name Alving evokes the Norwegian word for “elfin,” and there is something faintly supernatural about the goings-on in the widow Alving’s household. (The more common name “Manders,” in contrast, comes from the root word “man.”) Bergman put the ghostly back into Ghosts, tweaking the text and setting up the scenes to underscore the hideous inevitability of Mrs. Alving’s position, trapped in recapitulating with Oswald the agony she had lived through with her husband. Unlike Manders and Engstrand, the Alvings and Regina had red hair; Oswald’s was heightened by a bloody streak in it. In whiteface and baggy clothes suggestive of rapid weight loss, he circled the playing area like a wraith. Our word “ghost” comes from the German Geist, which means spirit in the inner as well as the Halloween sense; the Scandinavian word at the top of Ibsen’s text is more specific. Our equivalent for it would be revenants, things that walk again at the scene of their tragedy. Oswald, with his father’s pipe, lechery, and disease, walked again—an off-balance, reeling walk. Understandably, since the set’s handsome late-Victorian furniture—all green plush, in contrast to the red-haired figures—was on a revolve. The room, like Mrs. Alving’s fate, circled back on her. Her books that shocked Manders, of course, were red; she herself wore blue and then crimson; Oswald wore pale green, a sickly child of the room. Manders was in plum, Engstrand in black and gray, Regina in red (to Mrs. Alving’s blue) and then black.
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.
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 Ghosts more 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.