First published on 18 Jul 2012. Updated on 1 Aug 2012.
“[T]he audience had gathered, dark shutters were closed at the windows, the footlights were turned up and the clinic began…” – physician’s description of JM Charcot presentation
In the late 19th century, pioneering neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot conducted weekly medical demonstrations in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Before an audience of medical students and practitioners, he would present patients afflicted with all manner of neurophysiological ailments and conduct live diagnoses. Charcot had a flair for the theatrical: his showings took place in a darkened theatre with his subjects illuminated in dazzling calcium light. The transcripts of these entertainments were formatted like a play script, complete with stage directions.
Sigmund Freud, then 30 years old, attended Charcot’s clinical hysteria presentations. That experience is believed to have planted the seeds of what would later become psychoanalysis. We might also imagine that Freud perceived, sitting with a captivated audience in that dimly lit black room, a connection between probing the unconscious and the dramatic theatre.
Freud tells us “artistic creations are expressions of very basic, even animal aspects of ourselves” says Simon Boag, a lecturer from Macquarie University’s Department of Psychology. “Civilisation forces us to not just express ourselves at a primitive level, but to elevate these expressions.”
Theatre is one such outlet. “You could think of the people on stage as a projection of one’s inner life in a manageable form,” Boag says. “It is, in some ways, meant to hopefully resolve some inner conflict.”
Director Simon Stone would appear to agree. Freud is, he says, a major touchstone in his body of work. Think of the resurfacing of repressed pasts in The Wild Duck and Death of a Salesman, the examination of perversion and extreme psychosis in Thyestes, the illumination of unconscious processes in Strange Interlude. In his latest work, an adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman film Face to Face,a psychiatrist is plunged into a dream-filled coma after a suicide attempt. It’s the first time a Stone production has delved into the domain of dreams – what Freud called the “royal road” to the unconscious.
Theatre, Stone argues, investigates exactly the same inner realms as psychoanalysis. “Freud’s study of people who are at the very extreme end of the spectrum – in order to be able to understand people at the less extreme end of the spectrum – is exactly what drama is,” Stone says. “It’s studying humanity in extremis to understand ourselves in our everyday reality.”
Freud knew his Greek drama. He appropriated the word ‘catharsis’ (from Aristotle’s theory of tragedy) for a psychotherapeutic context. Even more obviously, he referenced Sophocles in his conceptualisation of the Oedipus complex.
It was entirely fitting that Freud drew on Greek mythology, says Stone. “Some people think that those were just stories that people invented a long time ago about a guy accidentally having sex with his mother. As if it wasn’t actually invented as a myth to explore the very same things that Freud wanted to explore. Greek mythology was a way of creating a cultural catharsis in a time before discussing one’s own psychological problems was the norm.
“Through the process of being shocked, transformed, moved – or even finding it hilarious – you achieve a certain level of self-recognition.”
Ultimately, theatre productions – those of Simon Stone, anyway – serve a similar function to Charcot’s clinical exhibitions over a century ago: to help us learn more about ourselves.
Face to Face plays Sydney Theatre from Aug 7-Sep 8.
Simon Boag is the author of Freudian repression, the unconscious, and the dynamics of inhibition