Through a Glass Darkly: New York Theater Workshop (Off Broadway) – New York

How does the Atlantic Theater Company’s stage production of Through a Glass Darkly compare to Ingmar Bergman’s Academy Award winning, 1961 film?

At first glance, staging a reincarnation of this masterpiece off-Broadway may seem like an overwhelming challenge.

“Take the opening shot,” said Bergman biographer and film historian, Peter Cowie, in a PopMatters interview. “[It] would be almost impossible to reproduce on a stage, of four characters emerging from the sea as from some primeval slime, making them at once different from most of us and yet also ‘Everymen.’”

Instead, in the opening scene, Jenny Worton’s stage adaptation, David (Chris Sarandon), Max (Ben Rosenfield), Karin (Carey Mulligan) and Martin (Jason Butler Harner) stand center stage, clutching a large fishing net.

This contrast demonstrates how visitors cannot attend the play looking for Harriet Andersson or Max von Sydow. They should come with a mindset, open to Bergman’s ideas in all their forms.

Cowie knew Bergman for decades. His authoritative scholarship includes contributing to The Ingmar Bergman Archives, published by Taschen, and providing the Criterion commentaries in DVDs of Bergman films. Cowie pointed out since Bergman’s death, the Swedish filmmaker’s family and the Bergman Foundation decided that his films should be made available for stage adaptations.

The story depicts a family vacation on a remote island off Sweden. Karin, recently released from the hospital, tries to mend and build the relationship between her adolescent brother, Max (Minus in the film) and their self-absorbed father, David, an ambitious novelist. Karin’s husband, Martin, hopes that the stability of steadfast love can prevent her relapse into schizophrenia.

Karin learns from David’s diary that her illness is incurable. She reads David is horrified by his curiosity to document her descent into mental illness. It is his chance to see into her madness and to use her for his writing. Karin breaks down in schizophrenic delusions, having sex with her brother. She returns to the hospital and her family tries to stitch together an understanding of the presence of God in the form of human relationships.

Cowie said Bergman’s greatest challenge in a stage production would have been “to preserve the intensity of the drama, while compensating for the loss of atmosphere afforded by the island of Faro, with its bleak seascapes, its rocky beaches and sense of isolation.” With a stage production, Cowie felt arguments between characters could gain in intimacy, given the proximity of a live audience.

The play pays homage to Sven Nykvist’s black and white cinematography. Cowie described black and white as a “process that renders life in stark, unrelenting terms.” The stage costumes, furniture and props adhere to a palette of blue, blue grey and white. Instead of watching movie stars in two dimensions of another time and place, the play invites viewers to peek over a fence at people who, at least on one level, appear like neighbors next door.

Karin hears nightmarish voices, reverberating with sound effects that envelope the audience. She disconnects from sanity, uncontrollably shrieking like a tortured animal. Her live performance is unnerving, not only to observe but also to bear silent witness to, as a party to David’s artistic curiosity. Audiences can darkly sense how people use one another in unthinkable ways for all sorts of selfish gain.

Cowie’s insights into Bergman’s psychology enrich both the film and theatrical experience.

Cowie said David was Bergman’s alter ego, cannibalizing those closest to him. As an artist, this was in his nature, like the scorpion to the frog, and his cross to bear. “Bergman felt that he used his nearest and dearest as a vampire sucks the blood of his lover, in order to get both subject matter and inspiration. Add to this Bergman’s religious background, and you have a pretty convulsive cocktail of guilt and anguish.”

Bergman’s father was a pastor, who rose to advise the Queen of Sweden. The weight of Bergman’s strict religious upbringing remains central to the story. The title echoes the Bible, Corinthians 13:12, “for now we see through a glass, darkly.” Some scholars have said the phrase references humans’ shrouded perception of reality. Others have taken it to suggest humans can never fully understand God. In the play, Martin tells Karin, “We see ourselves through others. That’s our reality. And that’s how we can feel love, again.”

Cowie interpreted the title to reference Minus’s coming of age. “The veil that drops from his eyes after realizing several things in the movie, not the least [being] the traumatic experience of having sex with his sister.”

Minus questions proof of God in the reality of the world. David responds, “Love is proof of God.” Cowie rejected the notion that Bergman meant to provide any suspiciously contrived answers, but said the time of the film, Bergman would probably have said, “God is love, love in all its forms.” The individual can see, define and find God, outside traditional confines.

On stage, in her mind, Karin enters a room, where God is not there. He has gone to another room, waiting for someone else. She has failed and is not worthy. She is excluded, with voices laughing at her from another room. In the film version, Karin sees God as a stony-faced spider that unsuccessfully tries to rape her.

Cowie said, “She is Bergman’s own disillusionment with doctrinal religion. There is, to his mind, finally no tangible evidence of God, benign or malign. Which is why he told me once that for him, Death was really just a switching out of lights.”

Through a Glass Darkly by Ingmar Bergman. Adapted for the stage by Jenny Worton. With Jason Butler Harner, Carey Mulligan, Ben Rosenfield and Chris Sarandon. Directed by David Leveaux. Limited Engagement through July 3. The New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street.

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Betsy Kim is writer living in New York City.