Thoughts & Musings

Live by the Couch, Die by the Couch

The ShrinkRap Post-Show Talkback will be after
Thursday, February 11th’s matinee performance.

by Rendueles Villalba

An enduring image of death, of let’s call “the literary death”, includes a cataclysmic review – a cinematic summing up of the life that now faces extinction. Everything done, everyone loved, all the joys, all the traumas, all the guilt, all the dreams never realized, all the triumphs, all of the long forgotten flood of childhood return in a kaleidoscopic instant. Perhaps only in this fantastic moment do we achieve the oracular imperative to “know thyself” in any complete sense. This proverbial life review condenses our being to its essence, our ultimate worth. Though it is very possible, in fact probable, that such an event is merely mythic, it has a powerful hold on the imagination. We want it. Dare I say, we anticipate and rehearse it unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) throughout our lives, ironically living to some degree in the future for this final grand assessment. And all the while, we absurdly know it offers no bulwark to thwart our annihilation. If anything, the life review is a heightened watching moment of erasure. We witness the crushing totality of our passage to nothingness (or, if you prefer, the mysterious Next).

Is there anything we can do about this predicament? Of course there is. We can send someone else on the journey ahead of us – how ‘bout a life review professional, someone with the chutzpah to make a “science” of such a thing, and see how he handles it. Of course, we are talking about none other than Sigmund Freud, father of Psychoanalysis. This is the musing of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria. With Freud as our guide, we learn that the final moments of reckoning call for equal parts of laughter and courage. Rest assured, we will be caught with our pants down. Our superegos will see to it.

Johnson’s Hysteria imagines a series of hysterical visits as Freud nears death. It overlaps dream material, morphine induced delirium, and the seismic aftershocks of Freud’s radical effort at “self analysis”. For Freudophiles, Hysteria brims with delicious insider burlesque. The closet door speaks the language of high farce. Of course, Hysteria is a comedy. After all, isn’t the very concept of hysteria, the idea of the wandering uterus (that even men can suffer from), a ticklish proposition?   Granted, Freud evolved beyond this peculiar original meaning of the term. And yes, he played a key role in transitioning the concept to the contemporary view of bodily symptoms of psychogenic origin. But the word hysteria, retains connotations and popular usage of kookiness that seems ever-ready to embarrass its users without trying.

Freud famously declared, “I don’t know what women want.” Penis envy, even for Freud, is an insufficient (not to mention flawed) answer.   This ignorance however, was no confession of failure on his part, but an indictment of the deep incomprehensibility of women. Presumably no one can know what women want. Women feel, act and speak with their bodies in ways that defy rationality. This view sees all women as a bit hysterical. Today, this sort of thinking rings with patriarchal privilege and “micro-aggressive” misogyny. Is there a monolith woman? Does she have a singular want that is unknowable and unbearable? Any wonder why women might push back?

Freud (so rarely at loss for theories) was similarly bewildered by the Surrealist. He didn’t know what they “wanted” either. No amount of fawning adoration of Freud could win them reciprocal respect. Maybe it was their own doing. As described by their founder poet/psychiatrist Andre Breton, the core leitmotif of Surrealism was hysterical desire – overflowing, disorienting, startling. Only after the Surrealist scepter was passed to Salvador Dali, did the explicit focus shift from hysteria to paranoia – or as Dali called it, “the paranoiac-critical method” inspired by Freud’s theories about dreams. Whatever Dali called his creative method, hysteria remained the essential Surrealist muse. Like Breton before him, Dali made the pilgrimage to their patron saint Freud – only to get a modestly warmer reception than Breton. Freud would have none of their silliness and worried their association would sully his legacy in the larger cultural context.

The thought of the iconic figures of Freud and Dali meeting is irresistible nonetheless.   Johnson takes us there with slapstick flourish. Dressed in all of his self-described “truculent eccentricity”, Dali arrives at Freud’s threshold bursting with devil-may-care perversion. Hysteria-comes-a-knockin’ vaudeville quickly transpires. The staid patrician neighbor, Abraham Yahuda is on hand at the time of Dali’s visit, to supply hysteric-meets-obsessive humor.

The character of Yahuda offers an important clue to what we are watching in Johnson’s Hysteria. The actual Yahuda was a professor of Jewish scholarship, who met Freud and became a prominent critic of his final work, Moses and Monotheism. In Johnson’s rendering, the identity of Yahuda is merged with Max Schur, Freud’s personal physician during his final years. This blending is an instance of what Freud called condensation, a common phenomenon of dreaming or psychosis. As the story unfolds it becomes more and more bizarre, making the dream/psychosis read inescapable.

This vantage point sheds light on the mysterious third visitor, known only by her first name, Jessica. Is she, as she taunts, Freud’s anima – a Trojan horse invention of his disowned and disaffected colleague, Carl Jung? This interpretation is quickly tossed off as she re-enacts the case of a prior patient of Freud, alias “Rebecca S.”. Jessica is up to something. A review of Freud’s extensive published works will not reveal any case of Rebecca S. The details supplied in Hysteria however bear striking resemblance to Dora, Freud’s seminal case of hysteria. The altered identity of Dora as Rebecca brings us back to Freud himself and his self analysis. The only Rebecca (or Rebekka) associated with Sigmund Freud was the second wife of Jakob Freud, Sigmund’s father. Rebekka and Jakob’s brief marriage ended mysteriously and was quickly followed by the third marriage to Amalia, Sigmund’s mother. (Amalia was 19 year old at the time, and 21 years younger than Jakob). It appears all family memory of Rebekka was intentionally blotted out. Some scholars have speculated that she committed suicide. One can only imagine the impact this secrecy had on Sigmund’s fertile imagination and his complex relationship with his father.

Freud officially began his self analysis in the year following his father’s death in 1896. During the self analysis, he would formulate the fundamental insight of the “Oedipus Complex”, as well as write his masterpiece, Interpretation of Dreams. Salient to the story at hand, this is also when Freud revised his theory about the origin of hysterical symptoms. His original position claimed that childhood sexual abuse, usually perpetrated by fathers, was a critical causal agent. However, during his self analysis he observed that he and several of his siblings had hysterical symptoms. It was inconceivable that his father had abused them. Moreover, the prevalence of hysteria in his patients had become too great in Freud’s view, to have creditably resulted from sexual abuse. An “epidemic” of pedophilia was impossible and the suggestion of such would likely lead the medical establishment to cast him out as a crackpot. There had to be another explanation: infantile seduction fantasies. Children had not been abused. They had dreamed it up in the context of their Oedipal longings. While infantile seduction fantasies are possible, the wholesale rejection of genuine abuse as a potential causal factor, in at least some cases of hysteria, seems unjustified. This move is perhaps the most damning of Freud’s criticized failings. For many, it is the epitome of “blaming the victim”. This is the charge Jessica brings.

Hysteria is a deeply layered work that calls for much more elucidation than is possible here. It is comical, sublime, and moving. If hysteria is about the unwieldy, disruptive body – untethered from its willed mind, then any true appreciation of Hysteria should begin with the lived bodily moment. If you find your body experiencing hysterical heaves of laughter, then you’ve gotten the point of his brilliant theatrical gem.

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

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