Wielding Big Metal Shears, Bergman Cuts to the Heart of Ibsen’s Ghosts

If Ingmar Bergman’s production of Ghosts , which played all too briefly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is to be his farewell to the theater-as he says it is-my urgent, selfish response is to beg him to change his mind. “Don’t leave us!” goes the cry of all those who know his magnificent contribution over the years has been nothing short of heroic.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his radical re-imagining of Ibsen’s ghostly domestic drama for the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden, which he distilled into a furious, unspeakable tragedy. I found the last scene between Ibsen’s dying, suicidal son and his grieving mother so harrowing-“Mother, you must give me the sun!”-that I turned away, afraid to witness such unbearable, private grief. Theater is the private lives of other people made public-but it’s rare when we feel such blistering, raw emotion, particularly with “dated” Ibsen. Let some attention be paid, then, to Mr. Bergman’s miraculous farewell production.

The genius of this master of female psychology is that, while he’s no theater purist, he’s in search of the purest center of incomprehensible things-the marrow of bones, an essence. With Ghosts , Mr. Bergman has gone uncompromisingly after the primal emotional core, not just of the play or the dramatist-though they would be challenge enough-but of life ! You sense it deeply, this quest of his for some grace, some ultimate understanding in the terrible mess we can make of our lives. That he stumbles en route only makes the outcome of his Ghosts more liberating, more staggering.

But we must first rid ourselves of the literalism protesting Mr. Bergman’s free adaptation of the text, as if he were tampering with the sacred. There are enough laboriously faithful productions of Ibsen around the world to keep the museum-keepers content, and if a man can’t take a few liberties as he approaches 85, then when can he? The director has taken what he calls “a pair of big metal scissors” to the “iron corset” of the play and released the submerged fury within. His cuts and alterations might be sacrilege to traditionalists, but the inner message of the play has never been revealed as more tragically, appropriately savage.

It helps Mr. Bergman’s cause that the production has at its burning core one of the greatest actresses we could wish to see, Pernilla August, as the trapped, dangerous heroine, Helene Alving. Ibsen described Mrs. Alving as a version of “Nora who never slammed the door” on her husband, and there’s good reasoned to consider Ghosts a follow-up to A Doll’s House . Mr. Bergman rightly sees Mrs. Alving as “victim as well as executioner, sophisticated liar and merciless truth teller at the same time.” In his production of Schiller’s Maria Stuart at Brooklyn last summer, the beautiful Ms. August’s animal fury made fresh sense of the play, and in Ghosts she riveted us again on every level. She took us to the very heartbeat of the chamber piece and its painful search for truth among lives wrecked by lies.

Look at the essentials of the story: Mrs. Alving is building a public monument-an orphanage-to honor the memory of her late husband. Once done, she imagines that she and her son will be free. We learn the catastrophic truth as the play progresses: She despised her husband for his dissolute life and at one time fled the marriage for Pastor Manders, whom she loved. (Commentators have raised a good, rude question: Did she even enjoy sleeping with her husband? Why was she attracted to the prudish local clergyman?) Yet Mrs. Alving appears to be a free-thinking, modern woman. The tempted pastor sent her back to the fold, however, and she “seized power in this house.” She took ruthless charge of the estate. Her son, Osvald, was sent away to Paris to shield him from the truth about his father, who had a child, Regine, by the maid.

Ibsen always sounds forbidding, yet we cannot say he didn’t write rattling good yarns on the surface of more substantial things. When we join the action, Mrs. Alving’s son, now an artist and lost soul, has returned home dying. His one consolation-he sees it as his “salvation”-is his innocent love for his mother’s maid, Regine, in effect his half sister. “Ghosts,” Mrs. Alving remarks bitterly at the nightmare of her husband’s affair replayed through her son. “When I heard Regine and Osvald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts before my eyes. I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in all of us, but all sorts of old dead ideas …. They are not actually alive in us; but they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.”

“Relevance” with Ibsen is always … relevant . Ghosts is still meaningful today because of its exposure of, say, the sham of bourgeois marriage. To which we could add two Ibsen shockers, even by modern standards: the acceptance of incest and the curse of fatal disease (in this case, Osvald’s unnamed syphilis, inherited from his father). But these radical themes aren’t really what the play is about. If Ghosts is seen only in terms of its “relevance,” it will be back in the iron corset.

Mr. Bergman has released the real subtext of the play by grasping the bigger picture. It goes beyond the drama’s themes about psychological demons and the stifling legacy of parents to ask the question that’s central to all of Ibsen: How can we live honest lives?

In the midst of self-deceiving family values and society’s gigantic lies, Ghosts is asking us, who is prepared to struggle toward the truth? Who can do it-even if the truth kills? For by the evening’s agonized conclusion, the son is half-mad and begs to die-and with his death, all of his mother’s hopes are killed.

When Ghosts was first staged in London in 1891, one reviewer called it “an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly.” I guess he didn’t like it. It was too libertarian in its day. But it seems to me that in its tremendous undercurrent of emotionand need, the great achievement of Mr. Bergman’s version is that it rescues the initial shock of the play from history.

That’s some kind of miracle! Call it Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, with additional dialogue by August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman. The director’s twin gods are Ibsen and Strindberg. His Ghosts has thus borrowed dialogue from Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata as well as The Pelican (which was inspired by Ghosts in the first place), and the new production becomes his valedictory. Mr. Bergman points out that what The Pelican and Ghosts crucially share is their “volcanic anger.” But he proceeds to the tragic conclusion by stealth.

The lengthy, expository scenes between Mrs. Alving and the Pastor reminded me of Ibsen’s last words on his deathbed: “To the contrary …. ” The moral debate between them, I must say, made me droop a bit. Then again, the outer stage picture was quite conventional, though symbolically abstract and spare. The set, revolving full circle at a measured pace, lulled us into surprising things. Osvald, in a fantastic performance by Jonas Malnsjo, drifted through the action like a ghost, with a bleeding wound in his head, playing the clown like Hamlet. Yet the atmosphere of peg-leg Jacob-the blackmailing carpenter-was good old Grand Guignol stuff . Mrs. Alving and the confused, pious Pastor remained real enough. The play was opening up-but where was Mr. Bergman going?

Then, without knowing it, without even thinking it would be possible, I found myself gradually sitting forward in my seat until I was blown away. By the second act, the production had achieved the impossible. The director’s hybrid of symbolism and reality had taken Ibsen to the highest peak where pure fable is found. Within the fable is the near-pagan heart of the play.

“Mother, you must give me the sun!” The devastating line is Ibsen’s, incidentally. The ending is Mr. Bergman’s. The son, now naked and cradled in his mother’s terrified embrace, begs her to feed him morphine and let him die. “Mother, you must give me the sun!” Ibsen left the end ambiguous. But Mr. Bergman has no doubts: The son must be released from the pain of being alive, and released into the light.