I've been reading my way through the preposterous 3,600 page novel My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
It's not really a novel; it's a comprehensive and remarkably honest autobiography in six volumes. In the second volume he is in love, and his girlfriend loves the theatre, so he goes. He's not impressed, he says it's like watching fish in an aquarium. But then, later, he goes to see Ibsen's Ghosts, directed by Ingmar Bergman. And this is what he writes.
The first act was terrible, truly wretched it was,and in the interval, sitting at a terrace table with a view of the harbor, Geir and Linda chatted away about just how terrible it was and why. I was more sympathetic, for despite the small, cramped feel of the act, which colored the play and the visions it was supposed to be depicting, there was an anticipation of something else, as if it were lying there and waiting. Perhaps not in the play, perhaps more in the combination of Bergman and Ibsen, which ultimately had to produce something. Or else it was the splendor of the auditorium that fooled me into believing there had to be something else. And there was. Everything was raised, higher and higher, the intensity increased, and within the tightly set framework, which in the end comprised only mother and son, a kind of boundlessness arose, something wild and reckless. Into it disappeared plot and space, what was left was emotion, and it was stark, you were looking straight into the essence of human existence, the very nucleus of life, and thus you found yourself in a place where it no longer what was happening. Everything known as aesthetics and taste was eliminated. Wasn't there an enormous red sun shining at the back of the stage? Wasn't that Osvald rolling naked across the stage? I'm not sure anymore what I saw, the details disappeared into the state they evoked, which was one of total presence, burning hot and ice cold at once. However, if you hadn't allowed yourself to be transported everything that happened would have appeared exaggerated, perhaps even banal or kitschy. The master stroke was the first act, everything was done there,and only someone who had spent a whole lifetime creating, with an enormous list, more than fifty years' worth, of productions behind them could have had the skiull, the coolness, the courage, the intuituiton and the insight to fashion something like this. Bright ideas alone couldnot have brought this off, it was imposible. Hardly anything I had seen or read had even been close to apoproaching the essence in this way. As we followed the audience streaming out into the foyer and onto the street, not one of us said a word, but from their expressions I could see they had also been carried away, into the terrible, but real and therefore beautiful place Bergman had seen in Ibsen, and then succeeded in shaping.
Isn't that marvelous? I don't know a better account of what happens when going to the theatre really takes hold of you, often very slowly. He gets to the heart of tragedy, and explains why at its best it is exhilarating and not depressing; as sad and terrible as it might be it is above all real and beautiful and wild (I think of Biff and Willy at the end of Salesman). And Knausgaard recognizes that theatre, even great theatre, happens to people differently. Some catch the wave, others are left standing outside the aquarium.
Some of us saw a production of Ghosts in London this January, and we live to say Ibsen is more than a force of nature. As the New York Times critic noted, the terrific cast at the curtain were visibly shaken and exhausted; you wondered how they could put themselves through it night after night, it was if they had fallen through a black hole in universe, and taken us with them.
Lesley Manville (Helene Alving) and Jack Lowden (Oswald Alving) in Ghosts at London's Almeida Theatre, photo by Alastair Muir