Theater disappears; film remains behind as evidence. And yet, paradoxically, theater is permanent and film evanescent. Ingmar Bergman, who died on July 30 at age 89, was a master of both arts. In film, he made a worldwide reputation, permanently altering both the shape and sense of what had previously been thought possible in that medium. In the theater, he made a reputation confined to his native country, and to the small circles elsewhere of those who love theater and were lucky enough to experience his productions.
He made this latter reputation doing only what great stage directors are supposed to do: taking on the finest works of dramatic literature and putting his personal mark on them in ways that magically managed to fulfill both his own vision and their authors’ deepest meanings. And whatever happens to his reputation in film—which the cinema snobs were already beginning to snipe at in the days following his death—his stature as one of the theater’s dominant figures over the past half-century is secure. Handed down from the memories of those who saw his stage work to younger generations who share their passion for theatrical greatness, the reverberations of what he achieved will probably outlast all the comments, positive and negative, of the cineastes. Film is a set of individual incidents; the theater is a continuum, where memory is a great keeper.
Bergman gave the theater’s memory countless treasures to keep. Film may have been an object of endless fascination to him, but the theater was for him, as for all of its greatest artists, a way of life. He began in it; he ended his career with a decade of triumphs in it; he wove its elements into his films. To inspect the chronology of his stage productions at www.ingmarbergman.se is to realize that he immersed himself in it his whole life long. He could and did give up filmmaking; theater was a force from which he could not keep away.
Born into a small, economically secure country with a stable government, a homogeneous population, and a long tradition of free expression and subsidized art abetted Bergman in both his careers; no one achieves such things alone. He also had the aesthetic advantage of being allied to one of the world’s great repertory companies, Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre or Dramaten; he displayed his grasp of the repertory system’s potential for greatness by becoming one of the world-class film directors, like Kurosawa or Preston Sturges, who built the cinematic equivalent of such a company. Like them, he cherished and understood the art of acting; he built his narratives in both forms on the bodies, faces, and voices of his actors.
Still, a director could have had all these advantages without achieving anything like Bergman’s stature. The secret of his triumphs lay deeper, within his own complex and often contorted personality. Both a skilled writer and a master visualizer, Bergman carried in himself the moral struggles of a sensualist who was also a philosopher. The son of a strictly pious Lutheran pastor, he seized on the arts as the aesthetic equivalent of forbidden fruit, the gusto of his enjoyment always tempered by aftershocks of guilt and despair. In this, he was not unlike the master playwrights whose works he molded so memorably: Shakespeare, Schiller, Strindberg, Ibsen, O’Neill. His inner battle contains, in a sense, the key to his astonishing knack for finding the one devastatingly memorable gesture or image that could seem in the same instant to outrage the play and yet sum it up perfectly. Did Shakespeare mean the ghost of Hamlet’s father to dash on at the climax and grip Claudius from behind so Hamlet could stab him? Did Ibsen intend Torvald, in the confrontational last scene of A Doll’s House, to find Nora so irresistible that the scene must be interrupted while he compels her to have sex? Does O’Neill say that the Tyrone family’s living room contains a small statue of the Virgin, a votive light always flickering before it, from a drawer in the base of which James Tyrone should pull the night’s last whiskey bottle?
Other directors might have hunted for such gestures to toss in as gimmicks; with Bergman, you felt in each case that the moment—and there were dozens of such moments—had come from a sustained and searching contemplation of the play. Each memorable stroke seemed the culmination of his intense scrutiny of the dramatic substance, the way a rose is the result of the intense attention a gardener has paid to the rosebush. And just as every gardener knows that the bush, and not he himself, has grown the rose, you never felt with Bergman (as one does all too often with lesser directors) that he was substituting himself for the play. Even when he offered the play as a work written by himself, as he did with the outrageous, harrowing, and unforgettable revision of Ghosts with which he closed his stage career five years ago, you felt Bergman’s need to serve Ibsen’s inner meaning in every shocking breach he made of Ibsen’s text.
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.
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.