Mirror to Nature: Drama, Psychoanalysis and Society

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This book brings the insights of psychoanalysis to bear on drama in the western dramatic tradition. Plays which are discussed in detail include works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Wilde, and Beckett among others. The authors seek to show that the subtle understanding of conscious and unconscious emotions achieved by psychoanalytic practice can bring new ways of understanding classic works of drama.The argument of the book, set out in its introduction and exemplified in its discussion of individual dramatists and plays, is that western drama has represented the central tensions of societies as crises in the relationships of gender and generation, through dramatic explorations of the inner life of families. This is the common theme which links the book's analysis of Medea, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream amongst others. The value of this book lies in the originality of its analysis of individual plays, and the subtlety with which it brings psychoanalytic and sociological insights together.Mirror to Nature should be of particular relevance to those interested in the theatre, whether as theatregoers, performers or students, in psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, and in literature. Like the Rustins' earlier work on children's fiction, (Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children's Fiction) this volume on theatre shows a lucid and accessible way how psychoanalytic thinking can illuminate emotional experience in everyday life.Part of the Tavistock Clinic Series.

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1. Introduction: theatre, mind, and society

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Our particular interest in the plays we discuss in this book is in the states of mind and feeling, enacted through relationships, that they represent and explore on stage. We hold that from the Greeks onwards drama has been one of the primary symbolic forms in which emotional experience has been articulated in Western culture. Audiences have been continually drawn to the drama as a space for discovery and reflection, and authorities have been drawn to control the dangerous space of the theatre through censorship.

We are also deeply interested in psychoanalysis, whose subject-matter is the understanding of states of mind and feeling, in particular as these arise in the primary relationships of generation and gender, in families and their equivalents. One purpose of this book is to draw on the perspectives and insights of psychoanalysis in reflecting upon representative and admired works of classical theatre.

We consider plays by eight dramatists, stretching in their chronology from Euripides to Pinter. Although our choice of writers and plays may seem unsurprising—even conventional—to those familiar with the mainstream tradition of the theatre, it is also unavoidably somewhat arbitrary. We are plainly not attempting to produce a historical or explanatory survey of the drama. Instead, we have chosen to explore a number of plays by significant writers, to see whether an approach and a method can be developed that bring together our understandings of contemporary psychoanalytic thinking with this dramatic tradition. If what we have to say about these plays is of interest then it should be possible to extrapolate this way of thinking to other works. At any rate, that is our hope.

 

2. Medea: love and violence split asunder

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T;he story of Medea, which must be one of the most disturbing plays ever written, is well known. Medea, whose grandfather was the Sun-god, has, in a heroic exploit that long precedes the action of the play, assisted Jason in the capture of the Golden Fleece. It was Medea’s courage and ruthlessness that brought this adventure on Jason’s ship to a successful conclusion: to achieve this outcome she has killed her brother, and induced the daughters of Pelias to put their father to a horrible death. The couple have returned to Jason’s city, Corinth, where they have had two sons. However, Jason has now married for a second time: his wife, Glauce, is the daughter of Creon, the king. It seems that Jason’s prior marriage to Medea can be disregarded, since she is not a Greek but a “barbarian”. Jason presents his new marriage to Medea as a straightforward matter of interests—not only his own, as the husband of King Creon’s daughter, but also of the sons of Jason and Medea, who can now look forward to a life of wealth and honour. Why doesn’t Medea simply accept this, he asks her—if she did, she could remain in Corinth, living in comfort at least, with her sons close at hand.

 

3. Ion: an Athenian “family romance”

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I‘on is a remarkably modern play, nearly 2,500 years old. The 1994 translation of this seldom-read play, by David Lan (1994), and its productions in 1993 and 1994 directed by Nicholas Wright,1 arose from a recognition of its many contemporary resonances. It is an extraordinary feature of Euripides’ play, as with other works of classical Greek tragedy (Alford, 1993; Simon, 1988), that it explores states of mind similar to those that were later to become the principal subject-matter of psychoanalysis. As in the case of Medea, the central concerns are with relationships. In Ion, the initial focus is on the impact of earlier loss and separation on the mother-child relationship. There is also exploration of the meaning for a child of substitute care (a sort of fostering) and of the impact of infertility within a marriage. These intimate family issues also have a wider social significance, as we shall attempt to show.

We shall begin by telling the story of the play, as it is not as familiar as the better-known Greek dramas. Ion was abandoned by his mother soon after his birth and was brought up in the temple of Apollo at Delphi by the priestess known as the Pythia. When the play opens, he is described by Hermes, messenger of the gods, as having grown up at the temple, where he has become, in his youth, its chief caretaker. He seems innocent and without a care as he goes about his duties in the temple precincts. We see him sweeping the floor, scaring off birds, showing visitors around and taking an interest in them.

 

4. Shakespeare’s Macbeth: a marital tragedy

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What is the nature of the contradiction between the “universal facts of life” (see Money-Kyrle, 1968) and the unconscious phantasies, desires, or anxieties of the dramatic characters in Macbeth? This is the question we will try to explore in this chapter.

It seems to us that Macbeth represents the crisis of an emergent kind of intimate family. It shares this quality with Romeo and Juliet and also, though it is a less central issue in the latter play, with Julius Caesar.1 It is paradoxical that a play that is often regarded primarily as the representation of a monstrous couple does, in our opinion, depend for its tragic force on the implicit understanding that they also represent an emblematic kind of “modern” marriage, though of course one that fails in disastrous ways.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do not live out a sexually fertile and creative life together or accept their due place in a natural order of generations, which prescribes respect for parents and the rearing of children, who will eventually replace them. On the contrary, they murder the king and symbolic father, Duncan, and make violent war on all the other families who exist in the play. Macbeth has no children of his own; instead, he seeks to destroy all the children of his rivals, who might both remind him of his childlessness and threaten his kingdom and its barren succession. Perverse symbolic children are made by the three witches, at Macbeth’s request, with the intention of providing him with magical powers through which he can retain his usurped kingdom.

 

5. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: further meditations on marriage

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AMidsummer Night’s Dreamwas probably written during the same two years as Romeo and Juliet1 and offers another exploration of the themes of love and marriage, a comedy to match the tragedy. Scholars suggest that the two plays were often performed close on each others’ heels. But, as with all Shakespeare’s comedies, there are serious themes at the heart of the play. It is important that the violent and dangerous states of mind that are explored in these comedies are not wholly buried beneath their playful surfaces, so that audiences realize what is really at stake. The comedies explore “what might have been”, much as the tragedies do, but in a different and happier register. So in this play, we need to feel the panic of Hermia, the jealous fury of Helena, the confusion of Demetrius and Lysander, and the latent violence of the powerful.Theseus and Oberon, even though the framing makes it clear for audiences from early on that nothing terrible is in the end going to happen to them. We shall be arguing that a deep understanding of feelings and relationships is achieved in A Mid-summer Night’s Dream as much as it is in Macbeth, though it might seem that one play is to be taken seriously in a way that the other is not. Whereas we suggest that in Macbeth a modern, companionate conception of marriage is tested to destruction in conditions of war and violent political competition, we see A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a meditation on the attributes of mind, and the containing social relations,2 that might be required to make possible a “modern” marriage lastingly based on both passion and affection.

 

6. What Ibsen knew

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Ibsen and Freud

Henrik Ibsen—”our northern Henry”, as Henry James called him—was bom 28 years before Freud, in 1828. He completed his last play in 1900, and he died in 1906, six years after the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. Whatever Ibsen knew, therefore, he discovered before Freud’s writings were available to inform him.

Freud admired Ibsen. He saw in Rosmersholm a classical representation of the dynamics of the Oedipus complex, as Rebecca West is unconsciously compelled to repeat in the household of Rosmer and Beate the configuration that she had experienced in the home of her stepfather.1 But Freud had many reasons for admiring the great Norwegian playwright. Ibsen, like Freud, had to struggle against conventional authority—he lived virtually in exile in Italy and Bavaria for 27 years of his life. He was, like Freud, inspired by the south, in particular in Ibsen’s case by its apparent freedom and sensuality, compared with the cold and authoritarian qualities of the north. Ibsen, like Freud, saw himself engaged in a lifelong struggle for enlightenment and progress, and he transformed dramatic form as deeply as Freud transformed the science of psychology. But the deepest affinity between the two men was in their commitment to self-understanding as the core of their life-work.

 

7. Chekhov: the pain of intimate relationships

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Chekhov was a doctor, in what we would now call general practice,1 before he became a playwright, and he is like a good doctor, even a psychoanalyst, in his almost unvarying refusal to blame or judge his subjects.2 Instead, his interest is in understanding his characters as they are. He wishes us to recognize their suffering, to understand that its origins lie outside themselves, but also to see the cruel way in which they cannot help but pass on their mental pain to others—including, most often, those whom they most love. The characters in his great plays are linked by and trapped within these.circuits of suffering. Chekhov provides an anatomy of the different ways there are of coping or not coping with such pain, including the extremes of killing and suicide, of self-distancing by abandonment, and of narcissistic complacency—and also, at the opposite pole, in representations of a capacity for “depressive pain” suffered on behalf of loved others, of the highest order. It is the representation of such willingly shared suffering, for example at the end of Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, that often moves their audiences to tears of sympathy.

 

8. Oscar Wilde’s glittering surface

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Wilde’s plays are probably second in the British public’s affection only to Shakespeare’s—both the regularity of prestigious West End theatre productions and their great popularity in regional theatre as well as in the substantial world of amateur theatre attest to this fact. This is perhaps a good reason in itself for attempting to explore where their fascination lies. But there is also the very particular feature of Wilde’s writing, and indeed of his conversational feats, that the admiration of his verbal brilliance that is continually pulled out of us is so frequently tinged with paradox, an awareness that the comedy both conceals and evokes something other than the surface wit. The fact that Wilde’s own life was lived in such a theatrical fashion and that the unprotected, ever-innocent, childish impulse to display in public what is ordinarily more private was the source of such tragedy for him heightens our response to his writing. It is the record of something brilliant and gorgeous, but also damaged and vulnerable, and all of this consciously so. It is especially extraordinary when one keeps in mind that the period of his outstanding success in the theatre (1892-95) immediately preceded his disastrous series of court appearances and imprisonment, from which he never recovered.

 

9. Arthur Miller: fragile masculinity in American society

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The three plays that we are going to discuss in this chapter— three of Arthur Miller’s four most-performed and celebrated works, All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), and A View from the Bridge (1955)—are plainly, in important respects, “social plays”.1 The stresses to which their principal characters are exposed, which lead in each case to their deaths, can be traced through the action of the plays to deficits in their societies. These plays are set in the United States in the time in which they were written—thus they are manifestly critiques of Miller’s own society. This social critique is most explicit, as we shall see, in All My Sons, where characters openly debate different moralities: in Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge, Miller seeks to embed social criticism only through the audience’s response to the imagined life and fate of his characters. Here, to a greater extent than in the case of All My Sons, audiences learn to understand what will destroy the central figures of these plays in ways that are not fully articulated by any of the figures themselves. Indeed, it is essential to the tragedy of the major characters in the later plays that they cannot understand what is happening to them. Miller represents this situation in different ways in these two dramas. Death of a Salesman enacts the psychological disintegration of its main character, with a force that it is extremely painful to watch or read, even at this distance from its writing. Miller pushes the form of “social drama” to a new interior intensity in the dialogue of this play. A View from ike Bridge, by contrast, unfolds in a mode that deliberately recalls Greek tragedy, in that its main character, walled up in his identity, and defended against knowledge of his deprivation and pain, is pushed into his disastrous actions, which the audience is enabled to contemplate with understanding and compassion.

 

10. Beckett: dramas of psychic catastrophe

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What are Beckett’s plays about? Even 45 years after the first production of Waiting for Godot, this remains a challenging question, though many people, including Beckett himself, have thought this was not necessarily a productive place to start from, since it threatens to lead one away from the plays themselves. We might see this as analogous to Bion’s distinction (Bion, 1962a) between knowing about and getting to know— that is, the idea that there is a form of knowledge that evades the essence of the thing studied, and which should be clearly distinguished from an engagement with experience. This latter is necessarily an ongoing process and does not claim to take possession of the object of enquiry. The “known” will always retain some element of mystery.1 The question arises nevertheless because of Beckett’s break with previous expectations of what a modern play was supposed to be—that is, a representation of a more-or-less familiar patch of social life (usually taking place in a house or a room) with characters who are at least in part identifiable versions of social types. This apparent correspondence between the staged play and recognizable social and domestic reality had become especially the case for modern drama, in the work of its great masters, such as Ibsen, Chekhov,2 and Miller, as we have explored. Indeed, part of the achievement of modern dramatic writing had been to invest with tragic dimensions the experiences of characters whose social identities were not so different from those of the majority of their audiences.

 

11. Psychic spaces in Harold Pinter’s work

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Our chapter on Beckett drew attention to the implicit background of violence and social devastation in his work. We made reference to critics who have suggested that a major challenge to writers of the post-war period has been to explore the meaning of the extreme historical events of the twentieth century and their dire implications for human lives.

Harold Pinter’s work occupies a contiguous space. His friendship with Beckett, and his admiration for his work, suggests that he clearly recognized this. In post-war Britain, the dominant middle-class culture had to absorb not only the magnitude of these terrorizing facts, but also the entry into its cultural space of many new social experiences and voices. Writers, film-makers, actors, and critics from the working class began to obtain a hearing for their work, sometimes in the context of an explicitly political challenge to the “establishment”, as it came to be called. Plays, films, and novels came to feature working-class heroes and milieux in a new way.

 

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