If photography was the mother of cinema, then theater was the midwife. The first motion pictures, pioneered by Thomas Edison in the U.S. and the Lumière brothers in France, were largely devoted to life and its unadulterated slices. Both the kinetograph and the cinematograph were pressed into service of the real. Their task, to reveal life at its most unrehearsed moments: workers leaving a factory, kids leaping off a dock into the water, a boxer flexing. Early cinema had much in common with the flâneur of Impressionism: life's idle, unbiased spectator. Movement was enough to fill the theaters. Eventually however, audiences required more than just pictures in motion. Cinema had breathed new life into the photograph, had given its mother wings. But it was the theater that finally nudged film on to flight. On December 1, 1903, The Great Train Robbery (Edison Manufacturing Company), adapted from Scott Marble's eponymous stage melodrama, soared onto the screen as cinema's very first narrative film. From that momentous day forward, theater has served as film's primary template for storytelling in the flesh.
Literature too has shaped the development of film narration, but more on gestational terms. Literature has served as film's narrative blueprint, theater, its narrative prototype. In the art of storytelling, theater has always been film's closest comrade. Theater is the midwife of cinema. It was the theater that, to modulate a Socratic metaphor, drew out a second life from photography's first. Theater helped release the strange and wonderful thing residing patiently inside the Niépcean womb. With The Great Train Robbery, theater helped unleash the story in motion-pictures, perhaps film's greatest commodity. All the story in cinema betrays something of the theatrical impulse. Thus, theater and film are fundamentally related media that have shared a long osmotic history.
Many of the first narrative films were essentially filmed plays, proscenium view pieces shot at a distance in long takes. Early film acting was a product of earlier theater work, placing the highest emphasis on gesture. Many films first appeared within a theatrical framework, weaved into stage productions by the likes of Marinetti and Meyerhold. Max Reinhardt's theatrical lighting would set the tone for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Decla-Bioscop AG, 1920), and the look of German Expressionism in general. The term mise-en-scène, which originally referred to scenic design, would later be adopted to describe the shot. So many plays have been adapted into films and so many films have been staged. Thus, the conversation between theater and film has been long and fruitful. Orson Welles, David Mamet, Mike Nichols, Elia Kazan, George Cukor and Michael Curtiz all got their start in theater, not to mention a hoard of Hollywood's greatest Method icons. So many have taken part in the theater-film discourse, and bettered themselves for the experience. None however, have worked as extensively in both media as Ingmar Bergman, legendary filmmaker, revered dramaturge. Bergman began in theater in 1938 and ended there in 2002. In between, he made over sixty films, securing his place among the greatest auteurs of all time. Bergman's films were all tempered by his love for, and experience with, the theater. They were his greatest act in a three act epic.
Thus, Bergman's approach to cinema was decidedly theatrical. He had a singular feel for dramatic rhythm, a way of waiting for tension, pausing for resonance. He flourished with continuity editing, the long take, the meticulous composition and the slow pan. His techniques hovered over the poetry of the moment, the edge of dramatic tension. And of course, Bergman had a wondrous way with thespians; eliciting the tenderest, most intricate performances from actors that came off as well onstage as they did onscreen. Bergman's most famous film, The Seventh Seal (Svensk Filmindustri, 1957), was actually based on Wood Painting, a play he wrote as an exercise for one of his acting classes. In the same vein, After the Rehearsal (Cinematograph AB, 1984) is about the staging of Strindberg's A Dream Play, a production Bergman had put on four times in the past. Thus, Bergman's forays into both theater and film proved essential to the success and character of his oeuvre. In Bergman's words, “My films are only a distillation of what I do in the theater. Theater work is sixty percent."
Of all the trends Bergman carried over from theater to film, August Strindberg's chamber play may have been the most prominent. In his Letter to the Members of the Intimate Theater, Strindberg protests the tired conventions of classical dramaturgy and delineates a new kind of drama to help beat back the dust slowly gathering about the curtains. Conventional wisdom demanded plays in five acts, each with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. The end of each act indicated a space for applause. If the play was written in blank verse the last two lines had to rhyme. Climactic monologues were a must, not to mention tirades. Roles were specially crafted for stars, even if they conflicted with the general thrust of the narrative. Strindberg hated how contrived and suffocating the classical formula had become, how a fast set of rules had begun to dictate the kind of play one could produce. He hated the way playwrights were now slaves to stories they could no longer control, how the dramatic arc dictated the thematic flow of the narrative. There was no room for the leitmotif, no space for thematic reverberation. On the heels of Miss Julie, a ferocious one-act success, Strindberg began to see a way out of the traditional rut. Thus, he tossed all these structural conventions aside, formulating a faster, more intense drama which would meet the demands of an impatient public and open up the way for thematic ascendancy. This new kind of play revolved around “the concept of chamber music transferred to drama. The intimate action the highly significant motif, the sophisticated treatment.” Chamber music, with its structural latitude and emotional intimacy, was to be the model. Designed for four instruments, this genre of music was meant for the coziness of a palace chamber and, as Goethe so famously described it, resembles "four rational people conversing." It is useful to think of chamber music as conversation, as an intimate engagement amongst a small group of people who, though they might at times seem to wander off topic, always come round in the end. Thus, chamber music, above all else, describes a sense of emotional immediacy punctuated by thematic reverberation.
Strindberg drew the chamber play along these lines, organizing the drama into three acts, with a small cast, modest set design and intimate venue. The play would subject all the structural conventions of realistic playwriting to the thematic and tonal concerns of the drama. As Strindberg explains, "we seek the strong, highly significant motif, but with limitations. We try to avoid in the treatment all frivolity all calculated effects....No predetermined form is to limit the author because the motif determines the form. Consequently: freedom in treatment, which is limited only by the unity of the concept and the feeling for style.” Bergman went on to stage a number of Strindberg's chamber plays at various points throughout his career, most notably Strindberg's oft misunderstood masterpiece The Ghost Sonata.
The Ghost Sonata, modeled after Beethoven's "Geistertrio," is deeply indebted to the structure and rhythm of the chamber form. Organized around three acts, five characters and a unity of both space and time, the action takes on a force that could only be achieved through the smallness of the chamber paradigm. Coupled with this overriding intensity, is the leitmotif, the returning thematic phrase that punctuates each succeeding act. One of The Ghost Sonata's most pronounced motifs deals with generosity and its inevitable adulteration. At the beginning of the first act, the Student Arkeholz asks the Milkmaid to wash out his infected eyes. After some initial hesitations, the Milkmaid obliges, dabbing at the Student with her handkerchief. Only the night before a house collapsed, leaving a mess of dead and dying in its wake. Thus, the Student cannot use his own hands, for they have been contaminated by the wounded. This image, the gift of sweet water beside a poisoned world, designates magnanimity as the antidote to life's daily oppressions. Only through kindness can we wipe away the memory of our most recent nightmare.
Moments later however, the Student is confronted by the Old Man, Director Hummel, who observes the encounter from his wheelchair. Hummel informs the Student that his father never repaid a debt accrued to him in days of foolhardy speculation, that though he saved Arkenholz's father from misery he was repaid only with "the terrible hatred of those who owe a debt of thanks." Thus, Hummel asks for the Student's help, so that he may make good on his father's obligation. The Student complies, spurring Hummel to make Arkeholz's fortune as a way of repaying his general debt to society. As he accepts this new mission, Hummel takes the Student's hand in his own. Arkenholz recoils at once, crying out against Hummel's freezing hand and draining touch. The image has changed. Director Hummel is moved by a chain of obligation, not by a bending of the soul. Hummel's generosity is contingent upon recompense. For Hummel, the world and its hardships are mitigated more through negotiation than through kindness. We are only as moral as we are dependent. Thus, Hummel can't see the cruelty in raising old accounts with a stranger returned from the graveyard. For him, life has been nothing but an iron contract, "no sooner do you escape one trap than you find yourself in the middle of another." Hummel's relation to mankind is essentially vampiric. His every kindness represents a draining of the blood, his every investment, a costly return. Thus, each give becomes a take, each charity a sort of trap. This killing kindness is echoed throughout The Ghost Sonata, evolving with each recurrence.
The Cook and Maid of the Colonel's household don't even bother to disguise their traps as Director Hummel does; their courtesy is nothing but bald-faced malice. As the Colonel's daughter complains, the cook "boils out the meet, gives us the threads and water while she drinks up the bullion. And when we have steak she cooks the flavor out of it first, eats the sauce drinks the broth...it's as if she could suck with her eyes." The Maid marches to a similar tune, forcing the Daughter to redo her every chore. The Daughter herself is placed in ambiguous relation to charity. As the Student explains in his last climactic monologue, the Daughter has given him nothing but false hope, a withering glimpse of paradise. Her handsome house proved sick and sordid to the core, her shy affections, the gateway to venereal disease. She offered the Student Maya's exquisite veil only to tear it from before his eyes. The daughter is a kind of Indian giver, someone who offers only what they will later take away.
The Ghost Sonata itself participates in this twisted sort of charity. The play takes as quickly as it gives, practicing a vampirism not unlike Hummel's or the servants'. It gives us the gentle Buddha "with a bulb on its knees, out of which the stalk of a shallot has shot up, which bears a spherical constellation of white star-flowers!" As the Student explains it, "The bulb is the earth...the stalk shoots straight up, like the axis of the spheres...its upper end the...star flower...a reflection of the cosmos....Buddha is sitting with the bulb of the earth...so that he will see it grow out and upwards transforming itself into heaven. This poor earth shall become heaven!" The play seems to hold out some great hope for the dawning of utopia. But this hope is soon retracted in the succeeding section, where Arkenholz excoriates the daughter for her general stagnation, for her failure to work toward the Buddha's promise of paradise. Devastated, the Daughter dies instantly. Here, the gift actually kills its recipient. Sight kills the seer. The coldness of reality eliminates the daughter and her shimmering veil. The give and take motif comes to warn us about the play's own two gifts: candor and hope. With complete candor we will die of despair, with complete hope we will grow sick with complacency. Thus, the play strikes out for the golden mean. Christianity is the gift of candor, the recognition of a sinful world rife with inevitable suffering. Buddhism is the gift of hope, the belief in a way out, a heaven on earth that can be achieved through human decency. The play shows us the ugly world beyond the veil even as it points toward the heavens. Thus, it offers us the white flower without falling in for the white lie.
But as we turn our attention to the close of the drama we are reminded once again of Hummel and his charitable traps. As the Daughter lies dying, Arkenholz eulogizes over her fading form, appealing to the heavens, "And you sleep...sleep without dreaming, and when you awake again...may you be greeted by a sun which doesn't burn, in a home without dust, by friends who have nothing to hide, by a love without flaws. You wise and gentle Buddha, who sits here waiting for a heaven to grow forth form this earth, grant us patience in our trials, and the strength of will so that your hopes will not be disappointed." After all that talk of heaven on earth, the play goes in for the easy lie, the opiate of the masses, pie in the empty sky. The Student's vision of the afterlife is nothing but mental masturbation, a remote, unrealizable fantasy. How can this world ever house "a sun which doesn't burn" or a "home without dust"? It can't. There can never be a heaven here on earth. It is the fantastic in the Student's monologue which makes his appeal for patience so pathetic. Who will have the patience to wait for "a love without flaws?" Our last hope is relegated to that faraway light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Buddha and his heaven on earth have been replaced by Jesus and his posthumous salvation. Thus, the play snatches away our last hope for respite, as Hummel drains away the remaining strength from Arkenholz's hand.
Apart for providing audiences with tremendous insight into the intent of the narrative, the giving-motif also helps unravel the mechanics of both Strindbergian drama and the chamber mode. Because Strindberg's chamber plays do not follow along the peaks of Freytag's mountain, because they are not structured through narrative intrigue, rhythm becomes the most crucial element of organization. It is the flow from scene to scene, image to image, that guides the audience. The inexorable chain of cause and effect is subjected to the resounding motif. Like the theme in a musical composition, the motif returns again and again, sometimes when one least expects it, and often in variation. Without the motif to annotate the action, The Ghost Sonata would be a vacuous play indeed. It is the current of give and take, the Milkmaid's giving of water, Hummel's taking of hand, the vampirism from servant to servant, and then, the final exchange between Student and Daughter, that gives The Ghost Sonata its spiraling, breathless tempo. That is what truly weaves the drama together, what makes the play a sort of conversation between characters who, though they might appear to veer off topic, always come round in the end.
Autumn Sonata (Filmédis, 1978) too is cast in the chamber mold, bearing a resemblance to Strindberg's Ghost Sonata which runs deeper than the play's title. The film also revolves around a small group of characters, in this case four, to reflect the chamber quartet. The productions share a unity in time and place, the former occurring primarily in Viktor and Eva's vicarage over a twenty-four hour period. Thus, the action takes on an intensity that comes with the chamber play and its signature sense of insulation. The narrative itself progresses in a manner similar to the sonata form with an exposition-reveal-return structure to guide the action. At the beginning of Autumn Sonata we are given a sense of the major characters and the film's focus, the seemingly amiable, albeit enigmatic, relationship between Eva and Charlotte. Thus, the film's opening delineates the lines along which the bulk of the drama is to unfold. We then pierce through the Charlotte-Eva facade, exposing the ugliness of their antagonism in a reveal. Here The Ghost Sonata again comes to mind, with all the muckraking of its second act, to wit, the Colonel's sordid, decadent household. Then, as Bergman's film flutters to a finish, we return to the Sonata's original movement: a mother and daughter, pleasant, but from a distance.
Like Strindberg's plays, Autumn Sonata also pivots around the "highly significant motif." Theme, above all else, guides the pacing and progression of the narrative. Of all the film's currents then, language, may be one of its strongest. Language is something used and abused by all of Sonata's characters. It is the mirror of the film, something that can reveal or distort reality at will. Viktor opens the film with a soliloquy recounting his engagement to Eva and the quiet life they have led together ever since. But Viktor's words often take liberties with the truth and this idyllic image is no exception. Viktor and Eva have never been completely at peace with one another, or at least never in the way Viktor's words seem to suggest. The couple has not always lived a "quiet happy life at the parsonage." When discussing his wife with Charlotte, Viktor confesses that Eva never loved him, that she admitted to being incapable of truly loving anyone. Throughout the picture Eva and Viktor act more like old friends than old lovers. There is a hesitance in their interactions, a sense of mutual discomfort that refutes Viktor's allusions to domestic bliss. Viktor moves on in his opening remarks to read an excerpt from one of the published works in Eva's forgotten literary past. The passage hopes for a love that will one day give Eva the courage for true introspection. Viktor then declares, "I’d like to tell her just once that she is loved wholeheartedly, but I can’t say it in such a way that she’d believe me. I can’t find the right words." Here once again, words are more a barrier than a bridge, especially as they are directed at the audience rather than the person who needs to hear them most. But when Viktor finally does direct them to Eva herself he is dismissed. Eva tells him his own words "have no real sense" that, as a minister, he must be suffering "from a kind of occupational disease." At the end of the film, Viktor again reiterates his linguistic ambivalence lamenting, "If only I could talk to her, but it’s just a lot of dusty words and empty phrases." Ambivalence might be the best word to describe Viktor, a man who spends the majority of the film tiptoeing around both his wife and her mother. He is a man of dusty words, not a man of action. Viktor rarely says or does anything; he is unable to influence the crumbling world around him, largely because his gap between emotion and expression is so yawning.
Charlotte and Eva too are plagued by the inadequacies and abuses of language. Charlotte may be the film's worst culprit, using words to conceal her shortcomings from others. In her confrontation with Helena, Charlotte caresses her neglected, ailing child with all the sweetest of intonations, crooning, "I’ve thought of you so often, every day." In this way, Charlotte disguises her hatred of both daughters and the mess she has made of motherhood. As Eva explains, "I was brought up with beautiful words," but beautiful words alone. The only way Charlotte ever expresses any true emotion is through music. As she reveals while defending herself to Paul, "The critics always say that I'm a generous musician. No one plays Schumann's concertos with a warmer tone nor the big Brahms sonata. I am not stingy with myself." Into music Charlotte throws all the finer feelings of her being, all the feelings one generally reserves for life. Thus, her career in music literally and figuratively replaces her life as a mother. Music replaces language; art replaces life.
Eva too has a cunning way with words. Her invitation to her mother skirts sweetly around the shadow of their past and the distance of their present. In fact, like her mother before her, Eva is magnetized to the piano, leaving her career in literature by the wayside. Thus, she too finds a woodenness in words, giving them up for the clear fire of music. The exchange that best encapsulates language and its relation to both characters comes during the Chopin recital when Eva asks for Charlotte's opinion of her performance prodding, “I want to know what I did wrong.” To which Charlotte responds, “You didn’t do anything wrong.” Then, during Eva's late-night airing of grievances, Charlotte asks, "What did I do wrong?" To which Eva replies, "You did nothing wrong." The bookend here speaks volumes about the struggle between mother and daughter to elude, both one another, and the possibility for progress. In the words of Strother Martin, "what we've got here is failure to communicate."
Like Ghost Sonata, Autumn Sonata too is governed more by tempo than by a tightly structured narrative. It slides and swells with the ebb and flow of conversation. As Viktor talks to the audience, as Eva and Charlotte blather to each other, as Helena cries into the silent night, words are what pull the film from start to finish. Language is the motif and "motif determines the form." Thus, theater and film: the Strindbergian drama and the Bergman picture. The chamber film was the concept of the chamber play transferred to celluloid.
In her seminal essay "Film and Theater," Susan Sontag concludes a long, laborious comparison of both media with the following:
For some time, all useful ideas in art have been extremely sophisticated. Like the idea that everything is what it is, and not another thing. A painting is a painting. Sculpture is sculpture. A poem is a poem, not prose. Etcetera. And the complementary idea: a painting can be "literary" or sculptural, a poem can be prose, theatre can emulate and incorporate cinema, cinema can be theatrical. We need a new idea. It will probably be a very simple one. will we be able to recognize it?
In many ways, as I conclude this long, laborious essay on the gesamtkunstwerk, a term I remain unable to spell, I feel much like Ms. Sontag: wry, irreverent and a little weary of the intermedia phenomenon in general. I embarked on this project for many reasons, but diffidence may have been one of my most basic inspirations. My overt intention was to give readers a new appreciation for the cinema as something protean, a product of aesthetic collaboration. My covert intention was far more simpleminded. I strove to validate film through the veneration of other media. With Dali, Faulkner and Bergman I felt I could place film where it belonged: on the shoulders of giants. The paragone that erupted during the Italian Renaissance still rages. Which art is best? Can we include photography in this most hallowed pantheon? Can we include film? I am very tired of questions like these, of unending attacks on the avant-garde. I am sick of defending film against the skeptical student of art history or the petty English major. One thing this project has taught me: that I needn't bother. Film has been, is, and always will be, as profound and sophisticated as all the other arts to which we pay the most careful deference. But again, I am sick of such comparisons, of the hierarchy, of a world measured in arching eyebrows. Forget the staking out of artistic territory, forget the painterly, the literary and the theatrical, or at least, forget them as lines along which to do battle. Art is an egalitarian realm. One art can only aid another, if used in proper faith. That is our new idea.
Conway, Stephen. "Rhythm and Blues: Strindberg’s Chamber Plays." Sub Verbis: Stephen Conway. 1993. <http://subverbis.com>.
Knopf, Robert. Theater and Film: A Comparative Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Strindberg, August, Walter Gilbert Johnson, and 10 Stockholm .Intima teatern. Open Letters to the Intimate Theater. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.
Strindberg, August, and Joe Martin. Strindberg-Other Sides: Seven Plays. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
Sontag, Susan. "Film and Theater." The Tulane Drama Review Vol. 11 (1966): 24-37.
Törnqvist, Egil. Between Stage and Screen: Ingmar Bergman Directs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Pre