August Strindberg’sThe Ghost Sonatadoes not suggest a realistic portrait of life, rather, like a dream, this play offers a subjective experience of the world. It is a highly modern text as it blurs the realms of real and illusion to expose the world in all its scary ambivalence, questioning the old doctrine and the notion of ‘one great truth’. In this way,The Ghost Sonatarequires a dramaturgy which rejects realist styles of theatre and adopts an expressionist form. The Ghost Sonata’sworld premiere, loosely directed by August Falck, was staged at Strindberg’s Intima Teatern in Stockholm (1908). Although the premiere did not exactly stun its audiences, it had planted the seeds for an expressionist dramaturgy which would later fully blossom and resonate in the set design, characterization, and overall rhythm used in subsequent productions. For example, Ingmar Bergman’s 2001 staging of the play in New York (done by Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden and presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music at The Harvey Lichtenstein Theatre) is an example of howThe Ghost Sonata was milked for its theatrical potential, conveying how this play’s dramaturgical journal has cleared the stage for something extraordinary.
Intima Teatern pioneered some major expressionist decisions made throughThe Ghost Sonata’sset design which would remain resonant in future productions. These included the use of a minimalist set design, the materialization of on-stage signs, and the close actor/audience relationship. Bergman’s 2001 production preserved these key dramaturgical concepts, yet tweaked and developed them in a way that spoke to a contemporary audience. For example, Bergman emphasized the ‘unknowingness’ of the minimalist bare space by incorporating large Black rehearsal screens around the stage. (Marker & Marker: 2002) He also changed and developed some of the script’s original use of signs, translating them for a contemporary audience. Hence, Bergman did not use the somewhat alienating original ending ofThe Ghost Sonatain which Arnold Bocklin’s painting ‘Island of the Dead’ materializes onto stage. As reviewer Vera Von Kraemer argued inSocial-Demokraten,for many, this original ending when done at the Intima Premiere, merely evoked a “landscape with pines” (Kraemer as sourced by Marker & Marker: 2002) Instead, Bergman ended his production with the milkmaid who danced into the darkness as the outline of the “Swedish Baronial Façade” briefly emerged. (Dasgupta: 2001) One reviewer found this ending “strangely disquieting”, reminding us that we are “born astride of a grave”. (Dasgupta: 2001) Constant signs of ‘recycling’ were also injected through Bergman’s personal incorporations of the upstage sewer drain which was juxtaposed with the downstage drinking fountain. These signs were further translated through a typically expressionist use of lighting, such as the hyacinths, which when hit by the light, reflected their glittering “botanical health” and youth. (Brantley: 2001) Ben Brantley notes how the detail prescribed through the 2001 production’s lighting “insinuates its way into your subconscious.” (Brantley: 2001) Bergman especially developed Intima’s close actor/audience relationship through his 2001 set design.
Intima aimed to involve the audience’s imagination in the dream-like experience through spatial closeness as they cramped the 161 member audience right up to the proscenium stage. (Marker & Marker: 2002) Yet, Bergman more effectively recaptured this close interaction by eliminating the actual delineation between the stage and audience. This was best illustrated at Bergman’s 2000 showing at the Malarsalen theatre. Here, the separation was completely eliminated and spectators felt as though they were ‘inside the house’, experiencing the dream through the student’s eyes. (Marker & Marker, 158: 2002)
The Intima Teatern production sparked an expressionistic style of characterization as it expressed the character’s inner souls and minds through a non- realist use of makeup, movement, and costume. Yet somehow, the effect seemed to become slightly farcical in the wrong kind of way. The character’s wore over-the-top, exaggerated makeup as some of their faces were painted completely white with sickness and starvation, other’s wearing what Bo Bergman called “makeup fit for a student farce.” (Bo Bergman inDagens Nyheter, January 22, 1908 as sourced by Marker & Marker: 2002) The characters spoke in highly stylized, heavy and deep tones, and some walked stiff like puppets. (Marker & Marker: 2002 ) Bergman’s 2001 production re-used these surreal and grotesque elements in the characterization, yet balanced them out with ‘human’ layers, further blurring the distinction between reality and illusion. The almost normal faces were juxtaposed with disturbing grotesque details which exposed the rotting souls hidden underneath these façades.
Such as the Fiancee, who exposed her oversized red ear, the Nobleman with a flesh- like piece of string emerging for his mouth and the Dark Lady who lifted her veil to reveal “an immense pustulant growth” on her left cheek. (Brantley: 2001) This juxtaposition between exterior and interior continued through the character‘s heightened/dance-like bodies, such as the daughter’s movement which combined aballet-like grace with irregular ticks and spasms. (Brantley: 2001) Vocally, the characters also shifted from naturalist to completely unnatural tones, especially the mummy as she lets out her loud parrot-like squawks then regresses back to an almost ‘normal’ voice.