At the Theater: Hysteria!

Posted: May 22, 2009 in Braak, poetics, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: ,

HYSTERIA FINAL[small]_thumbThe Wilma again.  I keep going back here.  By coincidence, this is another play directed by Jiri Zizka, and it’s another play about two historical figures that you don’t think of as being contemporaries, but really were contemporaries, meeting each other and talking about things (see my chart; in this case:  Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali).  I don’t know if Zizka has a thing about this, or something, I don’t know.

Anyway, to be clear:  this was a good time out.  I don’t have any kind of quarrel with direction or acting or anything, because I rarely do, especially at the Wilma.  They have the resources to make everything look really good, and the means to hire talented actors.  But…

…but, the script.  I always have problems with scripts.

First of all let me say this:  it’s very hard to make a successful farce that treats with repressed child molestation and the Holocaust.  So, two points for ambition, anyway.  I admire the idea here, and I like the aggressive juxtaposition it provides; a wacky “Hide the McGuffin” comedy, where the McGuffin is actually a buried memory of childhood sexual abuse, and it’s Freud’s subconscious that it’s hiding in.

Hysteria should have, or could have, been a really good play.  A surrealist piece, in the vein of something like Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, pitting hyper-rational Sigmund Freud, in the last years of his life and on morphine to dull the pain in his jaw, against mad surrealist Salvador Dali leading a bizarre pageant of obscure symbols across the stage, all the while the embodiment of Freud’s subconscious is wet and bedraggled, wearing a raincoat and knocking on the window, begging to be let back in.  We get to experience the bizarre, densely symbolic and often contradictory soup that is human consciousness–a unique approach that would likewise serve as a commentary on Freud’s own, now-exploded theories of the by-and-large neatly-sequestered mind.

That’s a good idea, and I wish the playwright–Terry Johnson–had bothered to write it.  Instead, he gave us a roughly-sketched principle of a show, organized into three neat compartments.  First there’s the Hiding Farce, full of pretty standard comedic tropes–Salvador Dali speaks of himself in the third person, so there’s some confusion as to who he’s talking about!  Haha!  Two knocks means it’s time to come out of the closet, so Freud and his doctor get into a knocking gag (i.e., the doctor knocks once, so Freud knocks twice.  The doctor knocks twice, so Freud knocks once.  This time the doctor only pretends to knock, so Freud knocks twice–oh no!).   The woman that Freud his hiding shouts, because he accidentally hits her elbow–when the doctor turns around, Freud must pretend that HE was the one that shouted!!!!

I still find a lot of these jokes funny–there’s a reason that they keep turning up.  The problem is the compartmentalization–since only the first third of the play is a farce, the jokes end up being kind of pointless.  Yes it’s funny, and yes, if civilization has taught us anything, it’s that good humor is its own reward, but because Johnson wants the play to be more important than the jokes he’s put in, he doesn’t devote a lot of time to them.  This would have been a forgivable choice if he’d run the jokes directly against the serious material and the weird symbolism, but instead we’re given a Marx Brothers-light introduction that never actually goes anywhere.

Instead, his focus seems to be on the middle third of the play, in which a strange woman forces Freud to revisit one of his old case studies, a woman with a hysterical disorder that Freud originally diagnosed as the result of repressed memories about childhood rape, but then later changed his mind about.  No jokes (well, few jokes) here–the last one is Dali saying, “Now is serious?  I put on my trousers.”  That’s a funny joke, but you’re not going to laugh for a while; instead, a peculiarly well-informed woman spends forty-five minutes berating Freud for not knowing what the fuck he was talking about.

Now, I have a problem with this.  This is the second play I’ve seen about peculiarly well-informed women berating Freud for being an idiot, and I think it’s kind of mean and unfair to pick on Freud.  First of all, he’s dead, so he can’t fight back.  Second of all, of course he didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.  It was the 19th century, NO ONE knew what the fuck they were talking about.  In any science, the number of wrong hypotheses vastly outweighs the number of correct ones–it is this vast and constant accumulation of error that is the content of human wisdom.  Did it suck for Freud’s patients that he thought he was right about things he turned out to be wrong about?  Yes, of course, but at least they’re all dead, too, and so probably no longer troubled by it.  Freud’s contribution to psychological medicine wasn’t correct theories–it was the idea that there could be such a thing as psychological medicine at all.

Freud was wrong about a lot of stuff, and everyone knows it; but his contribution to human understanding is no more obviated by the fact that he was wrong about practically everything than Aristotle’s contribution should be ignored because he got the principle of inertia completely backwards.  Freud, you see, didn’t have the same benefits that we do:  namely, a hundred years of analysis of Freud’s theories.

Anyway, none of this matters, because just as Jessica (the peculiarly well-informed woman, who probably does not represent Freud’s subconscious so much as she represents the author’s desire to excoriate Freud) begins to suggest that Freud changing his mind about the etiology of hysteria was because of Freud’s own repressed memories of abuse, the third part of the play happens:  CUH-RRAAAAAZY!

The set turns into a surrealist painting, there are naked women everywhere, the clocks melt, there’s a swan, something to do with the Holocaust, I don’t know.  Dali explains that he was never there in the first place, this was all juuuuuuust a dreeeeeaaaaam wooooooooo…..

Plays about historical figures are weird.  In some cases, there’s a lot to be gained from them:  Salvador Dali is hilarious in this play precisely because of what we already know about Dali.  He is hilarious enough, in fact, that I spent a good portion of my time imagining Salvador Dali in other plays–I had constructed, in fact, an entire Salvador Dali cycle that I was going to call “The Persistence of Sur…really?”.

On the other hand, the general thrust of the piece (which, I believe, is Freud’s analysis as an expression of his own repressed psychology) is undermined by Freud’s historicity.  Humanizing Freud in this sense obviates what Freud has a historical character brings–psychological repression, after all, is psychological repression.  It’s as true today as it was at any other time–what do you have to gain by using a real, historical psychaiatrist in an argument like this?  Freud as an artifact of his culture, on the other hand, might have been stronger–Freud, in the play, makes the heated argument (only for a moment, so it’s easy to miss) that he HAD to change his hypothesis, because he was basically saying that all the rich people in Vienna had been raping their children.  That is an interesting approach, because there’s a resonance then between “Freud-as-a-Character-in-History” and “Freud-as-a-Product-of-History.”

Likewise, paralleling the farce and the serious business and the weird in three discrete sections, rather than having them belligerently bumping against each other throughout the entire piece, undermines the power that the juxtaposition brings.  Where we should be laughing only to realize that what we’re laughing at is something horrible–where the author should be making us complicit in the tangled interdependency of conscious and subconscious thought–we instead are given three entirely different and unrelated moods.

In addressing two of the greatest symbolists of the turn of the century, Johnson’s whole play seems to emphasize that funny things are funny, and sad things are sad, and weirdness never infects either–no matter what you may have heard, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  1. Hsiang says:

    So are you ever tempted to write one of these “two historical figures walk into a bar” plays?

  2. Hsiang says:

    Mebbe H.P. Lovecraft and Frida Khalo on a blind date?

  3. Hsiang says:

    Teddy Roosevelt and Emma Goldman?

  4. threatqualitypress says:

    Actually, yes: I was going to write a play about Scaramouche and the Scarlet Pimpernel, post French-Revolution. It was going to be chock full of disguises and swordfights.

    Instead, I think I’m going to write a play about Aphra Behn, that will be chock full of disguises and swordfights.

    I am, though, probably going to be working on a one-person show about Emma Goldman.

  5. Hsiang says:

    I think you’ll make a great Emma. You really have the legs for it.

  6. threatqualitypress says:

    I’m looking forward to finally having a legitimate reason to wear a corset.

  7. V.I.P Referee says:

    Sounds like a lost opportunity (the play—not the donning O’ the corset); what stories do people tell themselves to get through life–what happens when you have control over someone else’s story and you get it wrong?

  8. Amanda says:

    Thank you for writing this. I am seeing the play tomorrow and needed SOMETHING to go into it with. I think it’s fantastic that you say you usually like the Wilma productions, but always have issues with the scripts- because that’s all I ever find, as well! How funny…Well, it must be true, then. Two people sharing an opinion automatically makes a fact, right?

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