Hjalmar Bergman Essay - Critical Essays


Hjalmar Bergman was endlessly fecund and inventive, a source of inspiration. Drama was his life—and he was one of the great fabulists. His dramaturgy can best be summed up in these three stages: the marionette plays (1917), the expressionistic plays (1918-1923), and the realistic farces (1925-1930).

Dödens arlekin

The focal situation in Dödens arlekin (death’s harlequin) is the death of Alexander Broman, the personification of an authority that has dominated family, business, and community to a state of tyranny and paralysis. The stage is his office, the empty chair a symbol of his absent and declining authority. Broman never appears, but his presence is felt in a thousand ways. It is here that the children converge. Bertil, the only son and the heir apparent, is too cowed from long parental domination either to approach the bedside of his dying father or to take any kind of decisive action. The daughter Tyra arrives with her engineer husband Lerche, to whom she was married because of her father’s will in the matter. She would rather have married Dr. Brising, the community doctor, who is in attendance; the relationship is, in fact, renewed. Tyra’s sister Magda wanted to marry Lerche, but again parental authority had it otherwise; Magda has become a hard, even brutal woman, to whom Bertil constantly turns for support.

The intrigue of the play is realistic, but an aura of commedia hovers over everything. Indeed, Dr. Brising is the “death’s harlequin” of the title. He calls himself a “death-doctor” because Broman’s overriding authority has left him no province except that of signing certificates of death. He dances to two kinds of bells, that in the death chamber and those on Tyra’s sleigh. They are not unrelated. As Brising puts it: “Death has a wonderfully stimulating effect—on the surroundings.”

En skugga

En skugga (a shadow) has been called “a proverb in one act.” It might as well be called a brief venture into allegory. In it, Bergman effectively fuses two themes, that of youth mated (or about to be mated) to old age, and the symbolic splitting of personality, somewhat in the fashion of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.” Erik spends the bride’s last night prior to marriage with her, while the aging groom-to-be lurks suspiciously outside her door with the mother. In the morning, before a planned elopement with Vera, Erik tries to dismiss his servant, who has guarded the rendezvous. Though Erik and the servant are two separate personalities, it is clear that Bergman intends to represent man’s better self dismissing his base, evil self. The evil self wins and stabs Erik, who is discovered in an ugly sprawl on the bride’s bed. Vera claims him in a passionate close: “He has eyes, lips, breast, arms, hands. And you call him a shadow? He gave his life for his honor. . . . He gave me everything I asked for.” Ultimately the “shadow” comes to signify sensual passion, darkly shadowing blood and violence; the real culprit is society.

Mr. Sleeman Is Coming

The third of these “marionette plays,” Mr. Sleeman Is Coming, opens with the interestingly contrasted dialogue of two impoverished old maids, Aunt Bina and Aunt Mina, who are about to marry off their young, lovely niece, Anne-Marie, to a desiccated old man, Herr Sleeman, the pillar of an adjoining community. In the second tableau of this almost ballet-like artifice, Anne-Marie disappears into the woods with her Green Hunter, but she is submissively back the next morning to accept the inevitable. There is real horror in the old man’s arrival. The movements of his body are grotesque; he repeats the words that the Green Hunter had spoken, turning their petals to dust. As Per Lindberg remarks, “Sleeman is the rubber stamp of that which once was life.” He is a symbol of the quiet, apparently friendly power that desiccates life and turns people into will-less marionettes. None of Bergman’s plays surpasses the delicate stylization of this graceful work, which has, quite understandably, become a favorite acting exercise in Scandinavia.


The immediate public response to the marionette plays was not good and Bergman, disappointed, experimented in another direction. Spelhuset (the gaming house) is Bergman’s best effort in expressionism, which means that it was not so much a play as a charade, in spite of its exquisite theatricality. The play was in step with the advances of German expressionism and used that movement’s whole bag of tricks. The presiding metaphor is not the theater or the circus, but the casino. “All the world’s a gaming house,” with its labyrinthine deceits, with the Manager as Ringmaster. Society has effaced character to the point of the generic: The Railroad King, First Croupier, Second Croupier, Bejeweled Beldam, First Cocotte, Second Cocotte, and so on. Much is dumb show and mumbo-jumbo. Karin and Gerhard, untainted youth, have managed to keep their identity and, hence, their names. Karin is involved in the gambling, wins a fortune at the expense of The Railroad King, but manages to make her escape with Gerhard in a lurid finale of conflagration and murder. The play did not find its way into production until 1930; Bergman himself was present, making his last public appearance in Sweden before he left the next day for Germany and early death. The play, as it turned out, was a premonition.


Sagan (the legend) is similarly slight in plot but rich in scenic effect. The lovely Rose would marry her doctor, Gerhard, if she had her way about it; Sune would probably marry Astrid, who worships him. Rose and Sune, however, are forced into betrothal by Family and Money, represented in a gallery of grotesques, of caricatures: the Rich Uncle, the Harridan of a Mother, the Effete Young Chamberlain, and the Heavy Aunt. Authority has its way, though just what happens at the end is not clear. Stina Bergman, who presided over the writing, says that Rose takes morphine and dies; the play says that Sune ecstatically drags her off shouting: “the sun, the sun”—perhaps a sardonic echo of the ending of Henrik Ibsen’s play Gengangere (pb. 1881; Ghosts, 1885). Bergman never really resolved the play because, as he thought, “it will never get played.” Nevertheless, it has been frequently staged, chiefly by Ingmar Bergman, though not yet as a film.

Though the core of the play involves Rose and Sune, the framework involves Sagan, a lovely young woman who is the mythic embodiment of unrequited love—the family curse—and also mistress of ceremonies. Invisible to the other characters, she introduces them, weaves among them, and provides the commentary and poetry of the play, like an unseen female Feste. It is a sad and lovely play that can perhaps best be described in painterly terms (Bergman was early—and briefly—a student of art): It is as if an assemblage of Rowlandson caricatures was embraced by a framework of Watteau. The nearest theatrical equivalent is Alfred de Musset’s On ne badine pas avec l’amour (pb. 1834; No Trifling with Love, 1890), also the sentiment of Bergman’s play, as an internal allusion makes clear. If there are ambiguities in the plot, there is no questioning the ritual power of this work, the most poetic of Bergman’s plays.


Porten (the portal) is another dark allegory in the expressionistic mode. Henrik, a political prisoner for an unspecified crime, has been granted clemency by the government after serving only two years of his ten-year sentence. His home has been reestablished; his family awaits him with some apprehension, as do members of the community who wonder what bought off his sentence. Some feel cheated out of the martyr that he was so long as he was in prison. Henrik appears, quoting from the opening stanza of Dante’s Inferno. He has passed through “the dark wood,” so harsh that death could hardly be more so. This, however, is no midlife crisis, as in Dante, but the edge of death. Henrik is a mass of tensions, hatreds, and suspicions of his wife’s possible...

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