Considering the name Ingmar Bergman made for himself with masterpieces like “The Seventh Seal” and “Persona,” it seems fair that a quiet triumph like “Through a Glass Darkly” would be less popular than titles that stand among the greatest movies of all time. At least it developed a reputation as a worthwhile Bergman effort – even if you don’t take the Academy Award it won in 1962 for best foreign-language film into account. For Sweden’s most important filmmaker, “Through a Glass Darkly” was a notable look at the negative side of faith and family, subjects so massive that they influenced his next two films, “Winter Light” and “The Silence.” It all added up to a loose trilogy that became a career high, one that was essential to the director’s evolution.
It’s appropriate, then, that “Through a Glass Darkly” underwent an evolution of its own when Jenny Worton adapted it for the stage in London last year, premiering it a few weeks before the third anniversary of Bergman’s death. For the play, life goes on – it debuted this week at New York Theatre Workshop, as a matter of fact.
Of course, “Through a Glass Darkly” can work in plenty of other places, too, which Dartmouth College film professor Amy Lawrence attributes to the movie’s intimacy. “‘Through a Glass Darkly’ holds up particularly well because of its emphasis on family dynamics,” she said. “The issue of how to live with other people, the pain people inevitably cause to those they love and whom they’re closest to, touches people where they live.”
It’s anyone’s guess how Bergman hit so close to home with drama as unconventional as this. “Through a Glass Darkly” looks at the effects of schizophrenia on a young woman’s personality, and the different attitudes her father, husband and brother have toward her. Between the selfishness and needles and incest and divine intervention, it’s almost as delirious as its heroine.
Even though spiritual confusion’s a factor here, Lawrence insisted that it’s secondary. “‘Through a Glass Darkly’ has critical moments surrounding the conception of God, but it is less focused on theological issues than many earlier Bergman films,” she said. “It is a breakthrough film because of its concentration on family…This is more powerful than the supposedly ‘larger’ issues, such as the absence of God.”
Family life is more of a priority in the play, too, although its perception of faith is a bit clearer. Back Stage critic Erik Haagensen said that while there’s a fine line between tinkering and tearing apart, bringing new insight to existing works is crucial to adapting them.
“That should be the reason that you’re doing the adaptation,” Haagensen said. “In any adaptation, you have to be free to make it your own. Otherwise, it’s just going to be lifeless.”
Haagensen said he hadn’t watched the off-Broadway production, but saw the Back Stage review Andy Propst penned – one that faulted it for coming up short against the film, yet saluted the effectiveness of the performances. Besides, Propst said he appreciates the complications that come with bringing a movie to life onstage.
“You want to keep the intent there, and find (a way to enhance) the story by telling it live,” he said. “There’s a different dynamic in watching a piece of art that’s being created for you on the fly, in the theater.”
It’s likely Bergman would’ve agreed. After all, he directed a number of plays himself, but frowned upon the idea of adapting any of his films into one. “People had been asking Mr. Bergman’s permission to adapt his screenplays for 50 years, and he had never said yes,” co-producer Andrew Higgie told the Evening Herald. Later, however, Bergman caved in and approved the production. “I never found out why,” Higgie said.