Hysteria by Terry Johnson, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 24 April to 12 May 2007
About ten years ago, I queued for a long time in the West End to get to see this play, but never managed to get a ticket. So when I heard it was coming to my favourite place in Birmingham, I booked tickets immediately. Sad to say, when we saw it, four days after it opened, it wasn’t a sell-out, but it should have been. I won’t do the usual reviewing stuff about the actors, since I don’t watch enough TV to even know who they are, but let’s just say they were very good, and all the multiple meanings of the play were nuanced but definitely present. It is, of course, a bit of a farce – that’s the point, you know, Freud and humour and all that, and there are a few uncomfortable laughs as well as some audience-freezing dramatic/sad moments. But if humour is about what makes us uncomfortable, what we feel strongly about, and our repressed desires (with sex being top of all lists) then a farce is the obvious background.
The premise is that Freud, living in Hampstead in 1938 having escaped Nazi-infested Vienna, is visited by Dali. This much we know is true, and Dali said he had to meet Freud because he was the father of Surrealism, while Freud said afterwards that the meeting changed his views on modern art. But Johnson makes sure we see the relevance of other contemporary events, referring to Kristallnacht and, at one point, having a troop of mostly elderly Jews (denoted by the Star of David on their coats) creeping across the back of the stage. Yahuda, his friend and doctor, is also trying to get Freud to destroy a manuscript of a book which denies religion, particularly the Jewish religion, by saying that “Now is not the time to destroy what people are dying for”.
Freud is of course most famous for his work on hysterics, nearly always women, initially attributing it to a childhood sexual trauma. Though he was usually gentle towards his patients, they were, of course, just patients to him – case-notes. So when a young woman turns up and declares her mother was just such a set of case-notes – and that she subsequently killed herself, Freud has to look very carefully at his work, because he later denied his theories of hysteria. Johnson suggests this is because he felt this could cast a shadow over his own family, and indeed one of his last actions in the play is to ask Yahuda to delete a few words that suggest he might incriminate his own father. Integrity, then, in the work of someone who has had such an enormous impact on Western civilisation, is a vital pivot in the play. In a way, this is about the collision of worlds that the eve of World War Two precipitated: the Victorians and the Moderns, thinking and feeling. Dali and Freud represent two extremes, yet extremes that go well together and can discover much common ground.
One point that the play highlighted to me is that paintings that paint from life, that are not trying to represent the subconscious, such as the Pre–Raphaelites, reveal a great deal about the subconscious – a tiny flick of the brush, a choice of setting and colour and props can speak a thousand words. But in Surrealism, when the intention is to draw out the subconscious, perhaps the attempt to explicate the id in fact makes it simply more opaque, though what Dali’s paintings depict is certainly difficult to describe in words. For the first time, though, I saw a huge appeal in Surrealism as something which doesn’t obey the rules, which the logic of the psychoanalyst cannot deconstruct. There is a Surrealist denouement to the play, when suddenly the walls fly away, the young woman turns into Freud’s daughter, the clocks melt, the telephone becomes a lobster and the doorhandles turn to rubber when one tries to open them. It’s like a dream, or nightmare, because the rules even of physics have gone wrong and nothing is what it seems, and yet we have to believe it’s real life. Anything is possible, and that’s the world of the creative imagination – to go beyond the rules.
At the end, I was left unsure if perhaps none of this happened. When Yahuda gives Freud his medication at the end of the play, he warns him that he may hallucinate. And then, it starts all over again… So did all that really happen, or was it the product of Freud’s fevered imagination, worrying that he may have done the wrong thing by some of his patients, concerned about the collision of thinking and feeling that imminent death had brought him to? A play that requires you to make up your own mind is usually a good thing, though – there’s no point in having it handed to you on a plate. So, I think it was a product of Freud’s id. Which, of course, makes it even more significant, and certainly no less real, than if it had really happened.
One more thing. I’m working a lot on Gothic literature at the moment, and, despite being a farce, this represents to me a good example of modern Gothic. All the action takes place within an enclosed space, in which a hysterical woman is confined, trying to find a way to be (mentally) free. There is the family drama (the possibility of childhood abuse, the unknown and somewhat feared mother, the alienation of the small child grown into a young woman); there is the horror (of childhood abuse again, of the secrets of the id, of the nightmarish Surrealism, and of course of the imminent death of Freud); and there is the fact that 21st century Gothic does rely on the surreal, as much as 18th and 19th century Gothic relies on the apparently supernatural or unexplainable. When the walls fly away and the outside world is exposed, it is of course even more Gothic – with the Jewish women, the horrors of impending war; and suddenly the domestic space seems like the best place to be.