The local 2015-16 entertainment season started, at least for me, with Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria. The play premiered in London in 1993 with the formidable title; “Hysteria: Or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessive Neurosis” As such, it joins Brad Fraser’s “Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love” (1989) and Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (2009) in a three-way tie for most awkward title of a contemporary play that I’ve seen and enjoyed. Honorable mention goes to Edward Albee’s “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?”. It appears the subtitle was dropped when Hysteria was published in 1995.
The play is a fictionalized account of a real-life meeting between psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and surrealist artist Salvador Dali. They met in 1938 in England where the Jewish Freud was living, having fled his home in Vienna ahead of the ‘Anschluss‘ between Austria and Nazi Germany. Afternoon tea shared by an analyst who plumbs the depths of the human subconscious and a painter whose work captures the stuff of dreams seems a natural inspiration for drama but an unlikely springboard for farce. In playwright Johnson’s hands it is both. Most of Act I is laugh-out-loud funny as Johnson employs every cliché of farce; scantily clad women, rapidly opening & closing doors, panicked attempts at misdirection, and a break-neck pace are all in evidence. There is so much more. The word hysterical has more than one meaning. Not all are funny.
The conflict of the play presents itself in the character of “Jessica”, a mysterious young woman determined to speak with Freud by any means necessary. Her presence, in various states of undress, fuels the farce but, as the reasons for her, seemingly obsessive, need to talk to Freud are revealed, the play becomes dark. It is not dark in the ‘dark comedy’ sense. The play becomes dramatically, viscerally, almost painfully dark. There are still elements of farcical humor but for much of Act II the audience must decide what is real and what is not and neither is particularly humorous.
Jessica’s revelations present layers of memory. Are Freud’s recollections of a his sessions with a past analysand real, or are they a self-serving rewrite of his personal history? Are the events that surface in the previous session notes recovered memories of horrific childhood trauma, or are they figments of the analysand’s imagination rooted deep in her psyche? There is no reliable narrator and the mantel of audience surrogate changes hands more often than Jessica’s scanties. The audience is challenged to make these decisions and the outcome affects how we interpret the actions of the characters on stage.
At times Hysteria is riotously funny. For those with even a passing familiarity with Freud and Jung it is also witty. The audience is left to create its own punchline about ‘Freudian slips’ as Jessica’s delicates change hands but the playwright is not above utilizing an obvious pun or double entendre when the opportunity arises. That said, Hysteria is not a play for the faint of heart. The themes explored are complex and incidents of trauma, while not depicted, are described in most graphic detail.
Another local company, sadly now defunct, described their productions as “talk provoking”. That description fits Hysteria perfectly. We talked about the play all the way home… and the more we talked about it, the more I liked it.