What do you do when you are thoroughly miserable? A serious love affair is over, and a marriage to a wonderful woman is ending. Two of your films have bombed at the box office, and the head of your production company says he will ax you if you make another unmarketable drama. Your finances are extremely meager, but your body is even thinner, down to a measly 125 pounds. You have constant stomach pains and think you are dying of cancer (though later a specialist will determine that it is all psychosomatic). And you have a group of players who have been acting together for years and need a summer project. If you are Ingmar Bergman, you write a comedy.
He said it succinctly himself to a group of students at Southern Methodist University: “This was a terrible time in my life, and I was extremely depressed. So I said, ‘Why not make a film just for fun?’ I went away to Switzerland and had two alternatives: write Smiles of a Summer Night or kill myself.” How lucky for him and us that he picked the former.
The starting point was an old abandoned idea, An Ancient Chinese Proverb, a drama about a young man in love with his father’s second wife. That was contemporary; for the new comedy, he chose a 1901 setting. He had had a recent stage hit, in 1954, with The Merry Widow, and was doubtless also thinking of three comic masters found under the letter M: Marivaux, Molière, and Mozart. Costume, in any case, was good for comedy: period clothes, hairdos, and manners could elicit laughs from audiences who thought themselves above such carryings on.
Still, what kind of comedy comes out of such a deep depression? Not one for belly laughs or helpless giggles, though those too may occur. More likely was what Stanley Kauffmann called “a comedy more barbed than funny”—more cutting wit than rollicking humor. Then again, many of the world’s great comedies play out against a darkness lying in wait without or within. Think of Molière’s Misanthrope, Pirandello’s Henry IV, Shaw’s Pygmalion, or almost anything by Giraudoux or Anouilh, Kleist or Brecht, Chekhov or Beckett. Were this not the case, the result would be farce.
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