Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?” —Sigmund Freud

The dream is the theater where the dreamer is at once scene, actor, prompter, stage manager, author, audience, and critic. —Carl Jung

“If you are waiting for me to break the silence, you will be deeply disappointed,” says Sigmund Freud at the beginning of Hysteria, British playwright Terry Johnson’s comedy about the pioneering psychological theorist’s final hours. Thinking he’s encouraging a recalcitrant patient to discuss her problems, Freud is actually speaking to an empty couch. The elderly analyst has evidently nodded off and dreamed he was back in Vienna, treating the troubled with his famous “talking cure.” In fact he’s retired from practice and is living in London, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria. But though he’s escaped Hitler, he can’t defy death. Cancer, caused by his compulsive cigar smoking, has eaten away half his jaw, making his life a constant battle against pain—a battle, history tells us, that finally ended when Freud’s physician, Max Schur, at Freud’s request gave his patient a fatal dose of morphine.

Cancer, euthanasia, psychoanalysis, the Holocaust—hardly standard subjects for a farce. And the play’s other topics include insanity, suicide, and repressed memories of incest. Yet a farce is exactly what Johnson set out to write. He hasn’t fully succeeded; Hysteria has many funny episodes, but it lacks the relentlessly manic mood of, for instance, What the Butler Saw, Joe Orton’s comedy about a psychiatrist trying to restore order to his clinic. But while Hysteria fails to sustain farcical momentum, it achieves something more impressive by melding fact and fantasy into a symbolically charged, historically illuminating theatrical dream.

Freud’s line about breaking the silence gets a laugh, but it also signifies Johnson’s real purpose. For more than a century much of the world has been waiting for the silence to be broken about one of the most troublesome aspects of Freudian theory. Near the end of the 19th century, Freud’s studies of women suffering from ailments such as paralysis that had no discernible neural origin led him to conclude that these were symptoms of “hysteria,” whose cause, he said, was “passive sexual experience before puberty”—that is, sexual molestation of young girls by their fathers. But he soon recanted this conclusion, declaring that the memories his analyses had unearthed were in fact suppressed fantasies of sexual desire for the parent. Was Freud’s change of mind sincere, or an opportunist’s bid for approval from the male-dominated scientific and publishing communities of his time? Did he deliberately ignore information that supported his original theory—perhaps because he couldn’t face the evidence that his own revered father had molested his sister?

This is the fundamental theme of Hysteria, whose action is almost entirely a dream Freud has on the eve of his death. It’s September of 1939—the year civilization and its discontents erupted into the world war that gave birth to the atomic bomb. (“Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they could have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man,” Freud had written nine years earlier.) The dream is populated by figures from Freud’s life who not only represent his conflicting attitudes toward unresolved problems but actually express displaced portions of his own personality. Among them is Abraham Yahuda, a Jewish biblical scholar who bitterly criticized the thesis put forward in Freud’s final book, Moses and Monotheism, that the Hebrew lawgiver was actually an Egyptian aristocrat; in Freud’s fantasy Yahuda symbolizes the prototypical disapproving patriarch while also containing aspects of Freud’s physician, Schur. Also running around is Salvador Dali, the Spanish surrealist whom Freud had met a year earlier; Dali exalts Freud as his idol while claiming to be his artistic heir—a claim Freud deflates, chiding the painter for robbing dream images of their power in the process of re-creating them on canvas. A nude woman who may be Freud’s daughter Mathilde makes a brief appearance later in the play-dream; tellingly, the only character who is probably “real” rather than dreamed is Freud’s other daughter and companion, Anna, who appears only as a voice on an intercom.

But the central figures are Freud himself and Jessica, a young woman who comes tapping at the windows of his study in the middle of the night. Freud at first thinks she’s been sent as a practical joke by “that crackpot,” as he calls Carl Jung. But Jessica won’t be turned away; she rips off her blouse, threatening to cause a scandal if Freud won’t grant her an audience. She claims to be the daughter of one of Freud’s former patients, a woman whose private pain was transformed in print into a celebrated case history. Jessica’s mother suffered from agoraphobia, anorexia, and paralysis until Freud’s analysis unlocked a fantasy—or a memory—of being orally raped by her own father when she was a child. For grim reasons I won’t reveal, Jessica insists on reenacting her mother’s analysis, enlisting Dali to take the role of Freud so that Freud himself can watch. And why not? As Jung would have it, he is the dream’s actor, prompter, stage manager, author, audience, and critic.

The dream’s farcical form is the lingering result of Freud having attended a performance of Ben Travers’s Rookery Nook, a classic example of the form. Hysteria is replete with hallmarks of the genre: a scantily clad young woman popping in and out of closets (Jessica), a flamboyant foreigner brandishing eccentric attitudes and an outlandish accent (Dali), and a hapless hero (Freud himself) trying to keep the chaos under wraps—and when he fails, explaining it away to a blustery authority figure (Yahuda). The action begins realistically enough—the only initial evidence that Hysteria is a dream is the 83-year-old Freud’s improbable limberness—but gradually slips into slapstick silliness: Freud resorting to charades to coach Jessica in the phony explanations she gives Yahuda for her presence; Freud chasing Jessica around his desk while singing his dialogue to the tune of “Havah Nagilah”; Freud trying to loosen the unconscious Dali’s trousers as the painter lies comatose on his couch, only to have Yahuda think he’s trying to sodomize the Spaniard. (This last bit is especially funny in light of Freud’s belief that the height of human pleasure was missionary-position heterosexual intercourse.)

The escalating madness finally explodes into a surrealist hallucination: a clock melts, a wooden door turns to wobbly rubber, a telephone morphs into a lobster, the book-lined walls of Freud’s study fly away, and the house is invaded by (among other things) two elderly women—surely Freud’s sisters—on their way to the Nazi death camps. This special-effects display may outdo anything previously seen at the sometimes spectacle-prone Steppenwolf, but it’s also a powerful expression of Freud’s emotional transformation as he confronts the huge harm he may have done women on the pretext of helping them. The man who wondered “What does a woman want?” comes to see that the real question is “What does a woman need?”

The Holocaust hovers over Hysteria; as Yahuda tells the cancer-ridden Freud, “You are not the only Jew who will die this year.” But the crime against humanity that takes most of the play’s focus is the one Freud himself may have committed. Especially today, when we recognize that child sex abuse is as shockingly widespread as Freud may have feared to acknowledge, the question of whether Freud deliberately suppressed evidence of what he once called “traumatic seduction” is far more than an arcane debate among scholars. Millions of women and men have been victimized by the belief that memories of incest were fantasies; if Freud knowingly perpetuated a false view, he was implicated in suffering on an untold scale.

Hysteria will be provocative and even shocking to much of Steppenwolf’s audience, though less so to followers of fringe theater. The play often invites comparison to the playfully probing wit and educated insights of experimental troupes like Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, whose rough-hewn works have routinely made ingenious connections among disparate historical figures, as Johnson does here (and as he did in his best-known play, Insignificance, which posits an encounter between Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Senator Joseph McCarthy in a New York hotel room). Under Martha Lavey’s artistic direction, Steppenwolf has made great strides in bringing into its fold younger, more adventurous troupes like Roadworks Productions and the Lookingglass Theatre Company; perhaps Hysteria will pave the way for Oobleck to work there too.

Meanwhile, for audiences unused to theater in this vein, director John Malkovich’s well-acted, impeccably designed, technically slick staging provides a fine introduction. Mariann Mayberry (the cast’s only Steppenwolf ensemble member—Alan Wilder, originally scheduled to play Freud, dropped out) gives a powerful, committed performance as Jessica, using a surprising vocal depth and richness to portray a suffering individual who’s also a sort of mythic heroine. Marc Vann’s Dali is funny but never over-the-top; Nicholas Rudall’s Yahuda is a perfect straight man for the other characters’ antics. Best of all is Yasen Peyankov as Freud: an actor of centered grace, he subtly distinguishes between Freud the dreamer and Freud the dream participant, movingly conveying his character’s response to his confusing but transformative journey. David Gropman’s set re-creates Freud’s study in vivid detail, from the towering shelves packed with books, classical busts, and primitive phallic totems to the quintessentially Freudian couch and armchair; Virgil Johnson’s costumes, Paul Gallo’s lighting, and Richard Woodbury’s sound (including Hindemith-like incidental music) ably aid Malkovich as he guides the cast and viewers through Johnson’s daft yet dark dreamworld.

Premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1993, Hysteria made its American debut at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1995. But this production is especially well-timed; 1999 marks not only the 60th anniversary of Freud’s death but the end of a century he helped define with his paradoxically pioneering and reactionary genius. Hysteria doesn’t solve the lingering mysteries of Freud’s theories about memories and fantasies of incest—it can’t. But it makes an important contribution by breaking the silence. And in holding Freud to account in the symbolically charged language of his own work—and thus honoring his greatness even as it criticizes his failings—the play demonstrates a seriousness of purpose and depth of compassion all too rare in mainstream theater. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.