The Magician was the last script in the Bergman anthology I have, which was really the only reason I read it -- completeness and convenience. I'm glad I did.
It starts out much like some long lost story by Isak Dinesen. In 1842, troupe of . . . what to call them? Faith healers? Con artists? Charlatans? Magicians? Anyway, a troupe of magicians which includes a genuine witch pass through some haunted woods. Along the way, they're forcibly invited to stay as "guests" at the mansion of a city counselor in Stockholm. There, the police chief, a politician/rationalist and a scientist put the group through some tests, while the presence of the troupe disrupts the bourgeois order of the house. Suppressed emotions boil to the surface. The master of the house Vergerus, tries to bore into the mysteries Vogler, the head of the troupe, seems to possess. Vergerus also wants to seduce Volger's wife.
Vogler, artist, con man, mesmerist, operator of the magic lantern, wields a curious kind of power over his hosts, yet his power is ephemeral and illusory next to the brute force the guardians of society can exert. Racked by self doubt, Vogler can only find confirmation of his talent in the response of the audience. Capable of real miracles, yet reliant on chicanery, he remains mysterious to himself.
After a spectacular deception, then near disaster, the troupe triumphs. We enjoy a happy ending.
The script is also like Dinesen in its themes: what is the nature of identity? When does playing a role cross over into becoming real? How is it that you can lie your way to a deeper truth? Vogler, of course, stands for the Artist, and probably is a self-portrait of Bergman himself, struggling with faith, creation, and the flimsy yet massively powerful nature of cinema and theatre.
The mash-up of genres, the power of allegory, Bergman's unwillingness to explain away the genuinely supernatural elements of the script, the wildly veering directions in tone are all related to the theme. Perhaps the material ran away with him and his own obsessions took over. But his skill put those divergent elements to work for him, creating a totally original take on the nature of identity and art. I'm even more in awe of Bergman's artistic courage and craftsman's skill.