Monday, January 17, 2011

Of Freud, fraud, and farce

Terry Johnson's Hysteria (now at the Central Square in a bright, cleverly-designed production from the Nora Theatre) is, I suppose, a car crash of different theatrical modes - but it's also something we never see anymore: a play of ideas.  Many ideas, in fact - perhaps more ideas than the playwright knew what to do with (or reconcile).  Jumping off from a single brief encounter between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí in 1938, Johnson attempts a pastiche of boulevard farce, surreal imagery, and a debate over the intellectual integrity of the founder of psychoanalysis - all  mashed up within one of the good doctor's morphine-induced dreams (perhaps his final one - Freud died from a morphine injection), in which guilt and self-doubt keep popping in and out of various psychological and metaphorical doors.

It's a bit like Stoppard in baggy pants, brandishing a banana peel, and if it sounds like too much - well, at times it is; still, despite a few strained moments in which the playwright awkwardly grinds opposing artistic gears, Hysteria mostly works - at times, in fact, it's even hysterical.  More importantly, it resonates, which plays almost never do anymore.

Why should this be?  Well, because Johnson understood the ingredients of his mash-up were all the stuff, shall we say, that dreams are made on: the chaos of farce is driven by repressed desires, as is Dalí's melting, death-and-sex imagery, as is the dream-state itself, as is analysis, too: combine the four and you have a multi-foliate structure that's expressing the same set of ideas in quadruplicate.  And this internal correspondence gives Johnson's script a heft, a kind of thickness, that even Stoppard, who's wittier and generally more sophisticated, doesn't seem able to conjure anymore.

The play opens on a dark and stormy night in Freud's London study - and the playwright has nudged the doctor's date with Dalí  to 1939, so air-raid sirens are rising through the rain, and Freud himself is in the last throes of terminal jaw cancer (all those cigars!), and receiving a shot of morphine from his distinguished neighbor, the scholar Abraham Yehuda (here, in another fudge, his personal physician).  Then he returns to a session of analysis - only where is the analysand?  The famous couch (below) is empty - could the good doctor, we wonder, have been attempting a last phase of his notorious self-analysis, before losing his train of thought?  Suddenly, however, there's a beautiful woman banging at the French doors, begging to be let in from the rain.  "I am your anima," she announces.

This is Freud on vacation - he took the couch with him.
Uh-huh.  Things only get stranger from there.  Within the moments, the girl has stripped down to her (Freudian) slip, then she's hidden (slam!) in a closet, then Dalí  appears, but soon he's down to his polka-dot boxers too, before jumping in the closet with the girl (slam!).

You get the idea, although trust me, most of the faux-Feydeau shenanigans are wittily brought off, and graced with surreal combinations of prop and costume.  And threaded through it all are cogent debates regarding Moses and Monotheism, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, and especially Freud's famous "Dora" case, in which he concluded that a "hysteric" patient's claim of sexual harassment (at the hands of her father's middle-aged friend) was actually evidence of a repressed infantile attraction to him (and to her own father as well).

Ah, yes.  From this notorious case has sprung a veritable river of (mostly feminist) critique - and no wonder, as Freud's logic here so lucidly, if unconsciously, revealed the glaring flaws in his whole method.  In cases like "Dora," it's hard to ignore that while the good doctor claimed to be creating a brand new science, his conclusions were entirely based on intuition and inductive reasoning, with no empirical proof on offer - or even desired.  Indeed, Freud's first conclusion regarding Dora was the opposite of his final one; either could be deemed consistent with her testimony - and perhaps unsurprisingly, Freud was happy to not investigate the truth of her claims, but instead concoct an explanation that let the "man of means" (as he termed Dora's tormentor) off the hook.

Of course everyone admits now that psychoanalysis isn't a science - it's an art, or specifically, a form of literature.  Literature reformulated as diagnosis, I should say.  For as Freud didn't have any kind of statistical back-up for his theories (indeed, the number of cases forming the basis of psychoanalysis is hilariously small), he leaned heavily on analogies to literature to make his case.  Oedipus Rex, for instance, was once merely a play; Freud made it a theory (even a universal one!) as part of his marketing plan.

Old Sigmund really surpassed himself with the "Dora" case, however; indeed, he got almost everything about poor Ida Bauer ("Dora"'s actual name) completely wrong (he even decided at one point that she was a lesbian!).  Luckily (like several of his patients), clever Ida dropped Freud like a hot brick, confronted her father's friend over his behavior, and soon felt a whole lot better (at least for a time).

When is a cigar not a cigar?
And good for her!  Nevertheless, an entire phallo-centric theory had been launched under which generations of women would labor in self-incriminating delusion.  So Johnson's conjecture - that subconscious guilt would be weighing on the father of psychoanalysis at the end of his life - is eminently believable.  Just as the contrast between Freud and Dalí proves eminently inspired.  For as Freud affected to be free of ego, so Dalí affected to be pure ego, all while supposedly devoting himself to mining the "subconscious," too.  Thus they're like funhouse mirrors of one other, and their opposed forms of conceit (one dour, the other flamboyant) bounce off each other beautifully - plus John Kuntz is back in his best form here, complete with a wackily inconthithtent Catalan lisp and a clueless self-regard that's so innocent it's almost sweet (in the throes of love he even cries out his own name rather than his partner's). Indeed, when Freud delivers to the artist a withering critique ("You are killing the subconscious," he proclaims), you may find yourself suppressing a sympathetic little "Awww...." (Don't worry, though, Dalí gets his own back - soon the walls are melting.)

Meanwhile erstwhile farceur Richard Snee makes a fine, if perhaps too vigorous, Freud - he's all befuddled patriarchal gravitas, just a he should be - while Robert Bonotto (a frequent commenter here on the Hub Review) does appropriately exasperated work as Abraham Yehuda. Together these three keep the lively Nora Theatre production bubbling whenever they're onstage.  As "Jessica," the girl in the Freudian slip, however, the talented Stacy Fischer has a tougher challenge, and perhaps director Daniel Gidron hasn't been too great a help to her in meeting it.  Gidron's always better at farce than feeling, and yet he seems to have directed Fischer with an eye toward maximum contrast with the Keystone-Cops mechanics that surround her.  Thus Jessica is dolefully earnest throughout - which only exacerbates that sense of grinding gears when she comes center stage with her complaints about "Dora" (in another slight fudge, this particular psychological totem seems to be a conglomerate of several cases, but never mind).  Hard as it may be to believe, Jessica's psychological distress should really be a little funnier.

And at any rate we should keep some level of emotional distance from her - because history has played its own joke on Terry Johnson's comedy, I'm afraid.  Hysteria was written just after a high tide of anti-Freud feeling - in the 80's, Frederick Crews had methodically torn apart the theoretical foundation of psychoanalysis, and Janet Malcolm had published In the Freud Archives; the intellectual case for repressed infantile sex fantasy seemed to be in tatters.

But then history, as it is wont to do, took a strangely ironic turn, leading many observers to wonder if Freud hadn't been onto something after all.  The rise of "Recovered Memory Therapy" (a debased mode of psychoanalysis) led to a rash of Dora-like accusations of sexual molestation - accusations that often resulted in high-profile lawsuits, court cases, and even some convictions.  Women in therapy began claiming their fathers had raped or sodomized them as children, or even subjected them to wild orgies and satanic masses.  And just a few years earlier, a similar wave of, well, hysteria had swept the day care industry (egged on by a few famous feminists) with fantastic charges of abuse  leveled at numerous day care providers (our own Fells Acres case was among the most notorious).

This time, of course, the women and children were believed - and families were torn apart, reputations were ruined, careers were destroyed, and innocent people were even imprisoned (sometimes for years) - even though over time, and under close scrutiny, almost all the claims cited in these proceedings fell completely apart.  The whole phenomenon, in fact, was something Freud would have predicted - it was a mass acting-out of repressed infantile sex fantasy.

This, of course, doesn't mean that all women are lying about their childhood sexual abuse - it simply means that not all of them are telling the truth.  Freud assumes one thing; feminism the other; both are guilty of a cardinal sin of inductive reasoning.  Perhaps it's too much to expect that Terry Johnson might have anticipated this final turn in Freudian history in Hysteria; but you kind of leave the show wishing he'd realized that every farce has its final twist.

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