Friday, 25 April 2008

Passion Plays

Any play where one of the central characters is a psychiatrist/analyst is ripe for some psychoanalytic criticism. “Equus”, Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play about a young disturbed man and his interactions with an aging psychiatrist, takes its place among the pantheon of psychoanalytically oriented plays. I encountered it last week in Sheffield where it has been performed with Simon Callow and Alfie Allen in the lead roles.

It is a play about seeing and interpretation. The central mystery is why the young man, Alan Strang, has behaved in such an extreme and irrational way- he has blinded six horses in the stables where he works. The rich imagery of the play offers a number of different interpretations, involving awakening sexuality and erotic shame, religious fervour and psychotic disturbance. The blinding, which is eventually (re-)seen towards the end of the play but which casts its shadow over proceedings, evokes both the Oedipus myth and the infamous eyeball scene from Buñuel and Dalí’s surrealist film “Un Chien Andalou”. Shaffer even throws in a few psychoanalytic teasers, such as naming the mother of the young man “Dora” Strang. You may recall that Dora (real name “Ida Bauer”) was an emblematic character in Freud’s life, representing one of his most important early case studies, a young woman he diagnosed with hysteria using his burgeoning kitbag of psychoanalytic tools. Dora Strang is both distant from her own husband Frank, Alan’s father, and resistant to Dr Dysart’s attempts to understand the family dynamics, perhaps because her explanatory frame is overtly religious, and the psychiatrist is the high priest of (ir)rationalism, of explaining human motivation without recourse to the infinite.

The analyst/detective goes about his business, gradually getting beneath the young man’s defences and tricking him into re-telling the story so that his motivations can be laid bare. What is particularly interesting about this play is that the analysis begins to work in reverse- as he looks for meaning in the young man’s behaviour, Dysart recognises that it is his own motivations that need to be scrutinised and understood. In an unusual move for the psychoanalyst, he turns his method upon himself, and the audience watches the analyser analysing himself, overcoming his own resistances, facing up to his own blind spots. And although the magistrate Hesther Saloman, who originally referred Strang to Dysart, listens to his musings and confessions, it is really the audience who are asked by Shaffer to decide what Dysart’s motivations are, to become the analyst to Dysart’s client.

Dysart is open enough to be a relatively straightforward case. After his many years of diligent psychiatric work with young people, it is the troubling case of Alan Strang which brings the insight that that he is being asked to eradicate something vital in his patient, the ability to worship, to be taken away from reason by passion. This is made all the more painful by the realisation that his own existence is passionless, his marriage hollow, his fantasies of a Bacchanalian existence in Greece mere bourgeois pipe dreams. And as Dysart gives voice to this anxiety, we the audience were invited to identify with him, to wonder to what extent we too are removed from the wider excesses of our passions, as we sat compliantly in rows, watching a performance rather than participating in one, being done to rather than doing. One of the play’s central motifs is the metal bit in the horse’s mouth, the means by which the wild animal is made tame, and a metaphor for the way that Dysart’s job controls him, calls him to tame the wildness in the young people he encounters. With the closing line, we wonder what our own metal bit might be.

More than a call to unreason per se, the play feels like a warning not to live without passion. Since its own birth, psychoanalysis has been preoccupied with the darkest excesses of violent rage and sexuality, both infantile and adult, and the efforts that we unconsciously make to keep these from conscious awareness. Shaffer is suggesting that there are parts of the psyche which should perhaps remain unseen and unanalysed, because to analyse is to tame, and to tame is to destroy. He seems to be issuing a call to rediscover the thrill of passionate worship and the all-encompassing nature of childhood urges. Thus it shares something with Maruice Sendak’s classic children’s story “Where the Wild Things Are”, where as he rages in his bedroom, little Max dreams/sails away in his wolf suit to a faraway land where he engages in creating a rumpus, before realising that his anger is separating him from his mother’s love and returning to his bedroom. Sendak’s story is currently in production as a Hollywood feature from the combined imaginations of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers. Contemporary psychoanalytic writing, such as Adam Phillips’ “Beast in the Nursery”, has attempted to re-analyse the young child’s passion without subduing it.

Is it enough to visit wildness and passion in dreams and fantasies, as Max does, and thence return to civilisation? Or can we find acceptable ways for living passionately in our waking hours, without consuming/being consumed by our own desire, as Alan Strang ultimately is?

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