"If I had to make a choice," Ingmar Bergman told a seminar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas a few years ago, "I would choose theater."
To the regret of millions of filmgoers, Bergman soon confirmed his choice. His magnificent "Fanny and Alexander" (1982), 5 1/2 hours long in its full televised version, is his finest and most serene film. But he also announced that it was his last, and so it seems to have been.
The film is about the enchanting children of the title, but perhaps more revealingly it is a warm and wonderfully affectionate--and clearly autobiographical--homage to the theater and to the life of the imagination.
Bergman has now returned full-time to the theater, in which he began more than 40 years ago as both a writer and a director, and which he never abandoned, even during the years when he was making "The Seventh Seal," "Persona" and all his other now-classic films.
His lavishly praised production of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," originally mounted at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, then presented at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in 1986, is now part of the Los Angeles Festival (Sept. 22-27, in Swedish, at the James A. Doolittle Theatre). It suggests that Bergman's life in cinema has equally informed his work in the theater.
As most reviewers have remarked, the lighting of "Miss Julie," changing and shifting over the course of this tumultuous and finally tragic midsummer night, is as much cinematic as it is theatrical, and it is so crucial to the moods of the production as to constitute a kind of chiaroscuro Greek chorus, commenting on and heightening the moods.
"I have written about 25 plays," Bergman told the students at SMU, "and the critics always told me they were lousy. I must say, today, I share their opinion." Yet it's obvious that his writing for the theater was an immensely useful preparation for the kind of intimate, intense drama of characters and relationships that Bergman was to write for the screen. Some of his films have the claustrophobic closeness of the proscenium stage.
In his first year as a director, in 1944, Bergman did three productions at the Helsingbord City Theatre, including "MacBeth," his first venture into foreign territories, as it were. In the years since he has directed plays by Albert Camus, Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Luigi Pirandello, Moliere, Chekhov and (often) Ibsen.
Yet it is Strindberg, that tormented examiner of the tormented relations between men and women, with whom Bergman has had the most persisting and probing association, dating back to a production of "Pelikanen" at Helsingbord in 1945. Bergman has done seven Strindberg plays, among them the rarely seen historical drama "Eric XIV," and an earlier production of "Miss Julie" in Munich in 1981. There are strong traces of Strindberg's "The Dream Play" and "To Damascus" in "Wild Strawberries," he has said.
Bergman was still a troubled teen-ager when he first began to read Strindberg, he told an interviewer years later. "He expressed things I'd experienced and which I couldn't find words for. I was stuffed with inhibitions. . . . I had difficulty in speaking, sometimes I even stammered a little, as I still do at times to this day. . . . I was shut in in every way."
But there was evidently a lot boiling inside the young Bergman. "Strindberg's aggressions--and my own--that's what made the deepest impressions on me," Bergman told the Swedish critic Jonas Sima. "Strindberg has followed me all my life. Sometimes I've felt deeply attracted to him, sometimes repelled."
Part of the affinity between the adult Bergman and Strindberg is obviously that the work of both reveals a fascination with women and a remarkable understanding of them. They differ markedly in tone: Bergman usually compassionate, however candid in his depictions, Strindberg more often misogynistic. Yet Bergman has defended the Strindberg view.
"While he's an obsessive worshiper of women," Bergman once commented, "he also persecutes them obsessively . . . his psyche is 50% woman and 50% man. You can see this most clearly in 'Miss Julie,' where the man and the woman never stop swapping masks."
For himself, Bergman explained to a Swedish friend, "I draw no special distinction between male and female. I have no decided view of women. I enjoy working with women, but . . . that's simply because I'm a man."
But what is evident is that even within the Strindberg canon, "Miss Julie" holds uncommon interest for Bergman. As a note on this production pointed out, Bergman discovered a line from an early text that Strindberg had dropped. It gave Miss Julie a just-visible facial scar from a wound she received from her ex-fiance.
The scar is a small but meaningful clue to Miss Julie's decidedly mixed attitudes about men, and it helps subtly to account for her precarious emotional balance as we meet her: arrogant and fragile, maniacally flirtatious and profoundly isolated. The scar seems also to symbolize a Strindbergian attitude that the relation between men and women is essentially war, punctuated by brief, pleasing, temporarily healing truces.
Writing in 1888, Strindberg was also dealing with the compounding difficulty, or impossibility, of love transcending class lines, as between master and servant or mistress and servant (a reflection of the ill-fated marriage of his own mother, a serving woman, and his father, a gentleman without means).
Yet the fateful liaison between Miss Julie and the family's manservant Jean somehow remains relevant, even in ostensibly classless and socially mobile societies like those of Sweden and the United States. Bergman has remounted a masterpiece to demonstrate its timelessness, not its nostalgic appeal. Class becomes a symbol of all the other divergences, as of faith and family, that love still cannot always conquer (even if the emotion is really love and not a night's reckless and lusty rapture as in "Miss Julie").
It is an odd experience to hear a play in a foreign tongue, and a reading of the English text before the Los Angeles performances will be useful--useful certainly for a full appreciation of Bergman's achievement, and the actors'.
Yet I once covered in Stockholm the world premiere of Eugene O'Neill's posthumous play, "More Stately Mansions," four hours plus and all in Swedish. At my side I had a translator, who whispered the lines as they were spoken, to the annoyance of our neighbors, although we had sat far up in the balcony to minimize the distraction.
But after a couple of acts, I was able to shush him to silence. I could feel and accordingly understand what the actors were saying. I shouldn't wonder if it's that way with "Miss Julie." The body languages, at least, of flirtation, guilt, obsequiousness and despair are very probably universal.
"In working with actors in the theater," Bergman said in Dallas, explaining his preference for the stage, "you really have to work with your intuition, and your intuition is your instrument." Years before that, talking about his first experiences in making films, he said, "I was wholly in thrall to the machinery--hile in the theater I felt free and uninhibited."
It is not easy to think of a film maker who has brought the machineries of the art form more totally under his command. But we will now have a chance to see at firsthand the mature Ingmar Bergman of the theater, free and uninhibited in the presence of the best play by the writer he has admired most and longest.