Theater has for so long played second fiddle to film that it must have seemed quite strange to many -- almost alarmingly so -- when Ingmar Bergman essentially retired from movie-making after completing "Fanny and Alexander" in 1982 to concentrate on writing and his stage work with the Royal Dramatic Theater of Sweden, otherwise known as Dramaten. Who would shut the door on a career that was still hauling in Oscars to focus on a theatrical syllabus of Strindberg, Ibsen and Molière? Had Bergman been a Hollywood director, psychiatrists would have been summoned and an all-purpose stint in rehab would have been prescribed.
He will always be remembered first and foremost as one of the most influential of European auteurs, a filmmaker whose enthralling forays into characters' interior darkness were unmatched in their psychological acuity and inward intensity. But Bergman, who died Monday at 89, will also go down in history as one of the greatest stage directors of the second half of the 20th century, a figure comparable to Britain's Peter Brook, Italy's Giorgio Strehler, France's Ariane Mnouchkine and Germany's Peter Stein.
He was certainly the best I have ever seen, a blazing interpretive talent whose productions offered the most thrilling X-rays of world classics. Bergman had a genius for illuminating the subtextual DNA of a drama, the psychosexual forces driving protagonists to their tragic clashes and crescendos. He may not have made a significant theoretical contribution to the art of stage directing, as Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski and Brook all have done, but as a practitioner there were few who could hypnotize with such lightning insight into the conundrums of dramatic existence.
His two great loves, the stage and the cinema, were twinned from the start in his family's nursery, which included both a puppet theater and a magic lantern -- all that was needed to spark the fantasy life of this brooding child of a mother ill-equipped for a neurotic artist son and a minister father whose turbulent, depressive presence was something the young Bergman desperately wanted to escape.
"Through my playing, I want to master my anxiety, relieve tension, and triumph over my deterioration," he wrote in "Images: My Life in Film." "I want to depict, finally, the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, and which I seldom and so feebly have given attention in my work."
What kept him working in theater well into his 80s, after scores of critically acclaimed productions and legendary status as a filmmaker, was that same intoxicating sense of liberation that drew his youthful imagination. "For me, the stage was a free zone, where everything was allowed," he told the New Yorker's John Lahr in a 1999 interview.
But it was a freedom that was put at the service of writers Bergman revered. No matter their language -- the English of Shakespeare, the German of Schiller or the Swedish of Strindberg -- Bergman had an unfailing ability to translate the subterranean rhythms through which an author most profoundly communicates.
My introduction to Bergman's stage work was his production of "Hamlet," which was presented in 1988 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and remains the most searing encounter with Shakespeare's masterpiece that I've had to date. It wasn't so much the central performance of Peter Stormare, a Hamlet dressed in leather and sulking like a rock star whose tour has just been canceled, but the way in which heightened theatrical choices liberated the entire cast into a purer realm of aesthetic being.
The fluid audacity of the staging, which refused to be hemmed in by a limiting concept, lent a modern edge to the metaphoric boldness of Shakespeare's poetry. On an encumbered set, Bergman conjured living tableaux that threw into relief the political and spiritual nightmares engulfing not just a peculiarly meditative prince but an entire murderous, power-drunk society.
Village Voice critic Gordon Rogoff described Bergman's "Hamlet" as the "most eloquent reading of Shakespeare since Brook's 'Lear,' " and it was followed by productions that made even the most familiar plays (such as Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night") fresh again.
More impressively, Bergman made sense out of such difficult dramatic fare as Strindberg's "The Ghost Sonata," a bleakly surreal tale about the intersection between the living and the dead that Bergman astonishingly rendered not just coherent but concrete. Conversely, he was able to open up the uncanny element in Ibsen's realistic play "Ghosts," the story of a son fatally marked by his father's sins. Here, Bergman moved from the medical to the mystical, in an ending that reached a near blinding Oedipal apotheosis.