Thoughts & Musings

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes:
Terry Johnson’s Hysteria (2011)

The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, January 31st’s matinee performance.

©2016 by Eileen Warburton

It is therefore inevitable that we should seek compensation for the loss of life in the world of fiction, in literature, and in the theater. . . There alone the condition for reconciling ourselves to death is fulfilled, namely, if beneath all the vicissitudes of life a permanent life still remains to us.
Sigmund Freud, Reflections on War and Death, 1918

In June 1938, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) arrived in London with his youngest daughter Anna, both refugees from the Nazi Anschluss. Simultaneously, 34-year old Surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was eating snails in a Paris café. Freud was Dali’s great intellectual hero and major inspiration. He called Freud’s Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams, first ed. 1900) “one of the capital discoveries of my life.” Indeed, all the Surrealists reverenced Freud, whose theories inspired them and, basically, legitimized the importance of dreams and the unconscious as valid revelations of human emotion and desires. Freud’s exposure of the inner worlds of the unconscious, with his emphasis on the processes of repression and human sexuality, gave the Surrealists a theoretical basis for their art. Artist Andre Breton, author of The Surrealist Manifesto (1924) writes: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states—outwardly so contradictory—which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak.” Dream images and highly realistic technical rendering are fused, as Dali would put it, into “superior reality.”

Dali, over his plate of snails, had “just discovered the morphological secret of Freud! Freud’s cranium is a snail! His brain is in the form of a spiral—to be extracted with a needle!” (Dali is much given to exclamation points.) A moment later, he coincidentally read in his newspaper that Freud had gone into exile in London. The coincidence overwhelmed him and he turned to his own admirer, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (Grand Budapest Hotel anyone?), a close friend to Freud, to arrange a meeting. “ Zweig asked if Freud would meet “the most faithful and grateful disciple of your ideas among the artists,” “the only painter of genius in our epoch.” Freud agreed. Arriving, Dali was excited to observe a bicycle in the garden with a snail crawling on it. He took it as a sign. Dali later claimed he and Freud had “devoured each other with our eyes,” since neither spoke the other’s languages. Dali sketched Freud’s portrait—as a man combined with a snail. Freud muttered to Zweig in German: “That boy looks like a fanatic. Small wonder that they have civil war in Spain if they look like that.” Later, however, when Zweig had reluctantly shown the elderly man the Surrealist’s snail portrait, Freud thanked Zweig for the introduction, saying, “Until now I have been inclined to regard the surrealists, who have apparently adopted me as their patron saint, as complete fools . . . That Spaniard, with his candid fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has changed my estimate.”

So, a true story that inspired in inception of Terry Johnson’s play. Oh, but wait. Dali’s real visit was in the summer of 1938. Hysteria takes place in September 1939, during what’s called the “Phony War.” Germany has invaded Poland and Britain has declared war (Sept. 3, 1939). Germany and England are bombing each others’ military sites. However, civilian bombing won’t begin until 1940. So, there are no bombs over London. No bombs. Plenty of fear, however, plenty of preparation like gas masks and air raid drills. Plenty of hysteria.

Just as Germany was invading other parts of Europe like a devastating cancer, Freud was also dying of an inoperable cancer of the jaw, which had progressed for 18 years. In September 1939, he had reached the terminal stage of his illness and was tortured by the pain. By prior agreement, his doctor, a close friend, was prepared to administer morphine to Freud at a dose that would erase the pain and, within days, euthanize him. Morphine was begun September 21st, and Freud’s death occurred September 23, 1939. We are in the morphine-induced, hallucinatory dream world of the end game, wherein Freud revisits past incidents, including his most regrettable decisions.

As Freud is confronting his imminent death, this is, then, the calendar window for the visitations of three fantastical figments of Freud’s imagined past who come to make demands to his unconscious. Simply stated, Freud defines a dream as the disguised fulfillment of a wish, a repressed wish. The wish fulfilled would be the resolution of a conflict in the life of the dreamer. The wish is repressed because it’s too painful (result of trauma, guilt, etc) to deal with in the conscious mind. So the dream takes over, but distorting the painful reality into symbols, associations, and jokes, and censoring things that would either wake us or drive us mad. In Freud’s dream, presented in Hysteria, Freud is struggling with avatars of his own guilty conflicts, being pressed by his interlocutors to come to resolution and make reparation before he dies.

Freud claimed that our “enjoyment of a joke” was an indicator of what is being repressed in more serious talk. And it is Terry Johnson’s brilliance that he takes the “joke in the dream” scenario one theatrical step farther and plays the entire dream as farce, adding the images of Surrealism and its master practitioner, Dali, who often serves as a kind of master of ceremonies. Disguise, shifting identities, crazy chases, embarrassing naked partners hiding in closets, doors opening and slamming, tightly timed exits and entrances, hidden secrets, slapstick, a souped-up shell game of objects substituted, threatened destruction, mistaken valuables: these are the elements of dream, as Freud saw them, and they are certainly the elements of stage farce.

The first “ghost,” Jessica, erupts into Freud’s study as he nods over his books. Fiercely determined to re-enact one of his published cases, thirty years in the past, Jessica flaunts her sexuality, embarrasses Freud in front of the other characters, and imposes nakedness on his resistance. The nakedness is both her own and the guilty revelations she exposes in copies of letters showing Freud to have recanted his controversial positions on the sexual abuse of children for both personal and political reasons. Freud had abandoned his so-called seduction theory, arguing instead that the stories women had told him were not their memories, but their fantasies. Thus, he had abandoned his women patients instead of healing them. Turns out, Jessica is the daughter of one of Freud’s old cases, a woman who became a “successful case history” in Freud’s reputation, whereas, in fact, she tragically ended her life “a suicidal hysteric.” Jessica claims, in one of her many disguises, to be Freud’s anima: that is, his true inner self and the feminine part of his personality. Her presence is his confrontation with all the women that his analyses have failed and his theories have misunderstood. Jessica’s wild antics and threats to publish the letters are an indictment of Freud’s failed honesty and humanity, especially towards women.

Besides the divine Dali, the second phantasm who is forever posturing and adoring the master, third accuser Abraham Yahuda, is shocked and appalled upon reading Freud’s manuscript of Moses and Monotheism. Another true story, this confrontation actually happened. Yahuda, however, was just Freud’s neighbor in Hampstead, London. He was not Freud’s doctor (that’s Max Schur). And the discussion took place in summer 1938, the year before Hysteria is set, when, in fact, Moses and Monotheism was actually published. A Jew of genuine faith, Yahuda begs Freud to destroy the manuscript, arguing that its’ argument for atheism deprived sufferers of faith in God, especially Jews, “in these terrible times.” “You are not the only Jew who will die this year!” Yahuda exclaims. Furthermore, at the worst possible historical moment, Freud’s insistence that Moses was not a Jew, but an Egyptian aristocrat, robs the Jews of their role as “the chosen people.” In effect, Yahuda accuses Freud of abandoning his own people, the Jews, in their darkest hour.

Can Freud save Rebecca S. and the other case history women? Should he burn his manuscript in support of his people? Can he recognize the genius and impact of the artist inspired by his work? The visitors in his guilty dream offer these solutions, over and over and over. But the real decisions were made in a conscious past and can’t be undone by the guilty unconscious.

Freud and Dali take their places, along with Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Peter Cook, Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph McCarthy, Benny Hill, Joe DiMaggio, and a host of other historic figures in the repertoire of playwright Terry Johnson (b. 1955). Why, asked one interviewer, did Johnson always write about people that the audience was already familiar with? “No mystery,” Johnson replied, “I find it easier to write people who come pre-packaged. I find it relatively difficult to create characters.” Also, the audience arrives “with pre-conceptions that you can play with.” Almost unknown in the United States, Johnson has been a hugely popular, influential playwright in London’s West End since the 1980s. He is also a renowned director, both in England and the U.S.: La Cage aux Folles, The Graduate, Entertaining Mr. Sloan, Rain Man, The Libertine, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for a few. Films of his plays have won international awards and his television dramas have been broadcast worldwide.

The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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