The importance of bad theatre

Drama exposes the limitations of therapy

27th January 2023
Jo Cohen Jones

Emphasising power over individuality makes for bad theatre. But it helps us make sense of current trends in psychotherapy, argues Jo Cohen Jones.

As a psychotherapist in training, I have long grown used to problems of difference and identity dominating my classes. Anxious faces and long silences ensue as my fellow students and I desperately struggle to understand the problems being presented to us while simultaneously holding on to our own experiences and ideas. But it was only when I re-entered the world of London theatre at the end of 2022 that I finally began to make sense of the paradox that confronted us.

My first outing was to Robert Icke’s The Doctor, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 Professor Bernhardi. The play narrates the fall of a doctor who refuses to let a Catholic priest administer the last rites to a 14 year-old girl dying from a self-administered abortion. She reasons that the appearance of the priest would terrify the girl, who thought she was recovering, while the alternative was to allow her to die peacefully. The child does not. In the furore that follows, she is told by a nurse that the priest has arrived but does not receive his ministrations.

This exercise of principle honours the doctor’s Hippocratic oath to do no harm but, in the process, unleashes a storm. The doctor stands accused of discrimination, a point driven home by the new adaptation writing black characters into the script who were played by white actors, men playing women, and vice versa. Rather than cementing the message however, this confusion of identities muddled the cast to such an extent that the only memorable figure is the doctor herself. Singled out for gross insensitivity, a TV debate scene leaves her vilified and ultimately abandoned and alone, having trampled on the feelings even of those she loves. One message is that analytic thinking in the exercise of duty is not enough. Affronted sensibilities on the part of the priest and others make it clear that lived experience of setbacks and slights trumps all.

In The Best of Enemies by James Graham, a 1960’s newsroom staged above a television studio sets the scene for the debate between American conservative William F. Buckley and gay writer and Democrat, Gore Vidal. Brilliantly conjuring a fractious political moment during the time of the Vietnam war, civil rights protests and the rise of a new, capitalist media, two names that era-defining names are brought back to life. The black writer James Baldwin, who famously defeated Buckley in a debate on the motion ‘The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro’, held at the Cambridge Union in 1965, is played by Syrus Lowe with an uncanny likeness. The black singer, Aretha Franklin, makes an appearance as does the famous CBS anchorman, Walter Kronkite, who is white.

Actor David Harewood does a good job in recreating Buckley’s languid drawl and laconic manner but with one major and another minor difference. Not only is Buckley’s outburst in the face of Vidal’s acerbic provocation tinged with uncharacteristic uncertainty, but a man whose forensic approach to social issues could now be labelled as white privilege is played by a black actor. Mark Lawson, reviewing the Young Vic production in December 2021 for The Guardian, suggested that the casting represents Buckley’s own experiences of prejudice as a Catholic in a deeply Protestant Republican party. But this supposes an equivalence of vulnerability which many would now consider to be problematic.

The third play I saw was Good, written by CP Taylor in 1982 and directed by Dominic Cooke. The story follows the moral descent of a German Professor and friend of a Jewish psychoanalyst, during the 1930s. The Professor, self-interested, cowardly and seduced by the promise of power, betrays his friend to become a Nazi and join the SS, rationalising every choice he makes so that, in his own eyes, he remains ‘good’. Confusingly, two of the actors play multiple parts. One moment a woman is Herr Professor’s wife, the next she is his mother, and then his mistress. Disappointingly, the Oedipal potential of such transfigurations are is not explored. Meanwhile, the Professor, played by David Tennant, has a startling Scottish brogue. Tennant hails from Scotland but the Professor clearly did not.

This jarring of identities in roles so particular in space and time and yet representative of something universally cataclysmic, helped me crystallise what had been troubling me about the other two productions.

Erasing individuality

David Tennant’s accent was so out of kilter with a German Nazi who played a central role in the devastations of Kristallnacht that it left me feeling somehow hoodwinked. Similarly, the moment by moment mutation of other characters in Good from good to bad to indifferent was like witnessing aliens from a John Carpenter schlock horror. The audience was not allowed to absorb the actions of the characters on their own terms and to judge their behaviour for themselves. Rather, the moral lessons had to be made explicit, to be told, by an accent, by transfiguration, by transgressions that could be anybody’s, including our own. We were required to understand that everyone has the potential to do evil things. We are all Herr Professor.

Similarly, in working towards the climax of Best of Enemies (when Buckley calls Vidal ‘you queer’ on live TV), the show misrepresents a man who, in reality, could lose his cool but not his self-belief. The appearance of James Baldwin cements the notion that the casting itself was a deliberate signal. Baldwin’s pained exposition on exclusion for the Cambridge debate was a landmark moment in the history of race relations, therefore Buckley’s reworked skin colour is more than a reference to his own vulnerability, as Mark Lawson suggests. It features as a symbol: it supposes that being black is de facto associated with vulnerability, and then reprieves us by declaring that we are all as vulnerable as a person of colour. The doctor, meanwhile, must do her job with something more than courage and integrity. She must understand that the power of her position is potentially more harmful than the diseases she sets out to heal.

Thus in different ways and through different narratives, all three plays deliver the same message: that our accent, our skin colour, the project on which we are embarked, is consequential only in the context of the distribution of power and the capacity to harm or be harmed. Under the skin we are all the same, and to deny this is to become monstrous. Emerging from the dark woods of university life, this denial of individual differences while simultaneously splitting the good from bad in terms of power – good priest, bad doctor, bad Nazi, good Jew, good black Buckley – has particular resonance.

Therapy seeks to treat patients with mental health problems by equipping the psyche to engage with reality: not my truth or yours, but an external chain of cause and effect that determines the conditions under which we live. As American psychoanalyst Robert Caper puts it, therapy aims ‘only by resisting the urge to achieve a cure with an interpretation can the analyst discharge his primary responsibility to the patient, which is not to heal him, but to help him recover himself’. What the patient does with this restored reality is up to him.

At the same time, however, therapists are tasked with relieving another’s experience of suffering, even when suffering is the outcome of being alive under real world conditions. An unforgettable exchange in the film Little Miss Sunshine has Frank comfort his disappointed nephew with an observation on Marcel Proust:

He gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing.

We see that trying to cure suffering creates a paradox. Anyone who sets themselves apart from the mainstream ends up either ostracised and suffering, like the doctor; or, like Buckley, magically transformed in appearance; or, like the Professor, at risk of becoming a monster. If, however, ‘recovering oneself’ means to confer agency and choice on others, then in the absence of a tolerance for actual difference we have the kind of problem that sends the daleks on Dr Who into extermination mode: an unresolvable contradiction.

Psychotherapy approaches this problem from the position that most of the time we don’t know why we do what we do. This is because in infancy, survival depends on burying wishes that do not meet with our caregiver’s approval in order to eliminate distress. Out of sight, theoretically means out of mind. Unfortunately, this solution is only ever partially successful. Conditions of threat arouse anxiety like a clarion call to the sleeping monster. This is why Buckley blew up in response to being called a ‘Crypto-Nazi’ by Vidal; the confrontation provoked him on an existential level that outstripped the merits of debate.

The therapist steps in when feelings become unbearable and, like a detective, searches for the unconscious, disappointed wish. The ‘cure’ is in the naming. Conscious at last, we can face our choices head on. Using the same principle across these three plays then, the deliberate confusion of identities points to something deeper than the coincidence of several directors wanting to put their audiences right on matters of good conduct. It suggests an existential unease and the desire to correct it so profound that it is replicated without intention.

So what is going on? The blending of different people into composite wholes has many similarities to the symbiotic union that Freud equated with religion. He called this urge to merge the ‘oceanic feeling’, longed for as a oneness with God and the universe. In reality he regarded it as a form of primary narcissism where there is no ‘other’ to separate us, akin to returning to Eden’s Garden or in other words, the womb. In utero, the infant’s needs are met before they are felt, eliminating all anxiety and danger. One has ceased to exist in the same way as Adam and Eve before they ate the apple from the tree of knowledge. The alternative to this condition of homogeneity is to be the doctor, unwanted and dispossessed. Along with this dispossession her medicine must go, too.

Such vanishings are the product of a dangerous logic. Natural empathy leads most right-minded people to aim for mutual respect, valuing one another equally, not discriminating against bodily or sexual attributes provided they do no harm, aspiring to fairness not only in opportunity but also outcome. As with all utopias however, the beginnings of both totalitarianism and failure are already there. Aspirations carry assumptions which different people will understand differently. Whether it is harmful to oneself or others to change gender without consultation depends on who you are talking to. Is it fair to give preference to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in securing a place at university? Calls to decolonise curricula in the spirit of lost voices and inclusion skate over crucial distinctions, to the extent that we risk unravelling the very benefits of modernity that gave room to identitarian politics over basic survival in the first place. The doctor may have offended the priest, but God forbid that medicine itself is sacrificed.

The consensus in my university class was that health has to mean the alleviation of suffering. As Caper points out however, even Freud cautioned psychoanalysts to ‘model themselves during psychoanalytic treatment on … a surgeon of earlier times [who] took as his motto the words: ‘Je le pansai, Dieu le guerit’, meaning, ‘I dress the wound, God heals it’. Indeed, this could account for Freud’s avoidance of engaging with the fascism that exiled him and murdered his fellow men. That role was taken up by the Frankfurt School of thinkers who, by marrying Karl Marx to the social sciences, paved the way for the critical theory, power dynamics and social justice that underpin our current culture wars.

Following the Freudian way then, the plays suggest first that we are the same: we all have a capacity to be evil and must be forcibly reminded of the fact lest we murder our friends, or pursuing independent principle we excommunicate ourselves, or commit a gaff on live TV. Salvation follows openness to another’s wounds, reflecting a mutual anxiety and the great dissolution where we do not exist separately in anything but the inconvenience of different bodies.

Telling us what to think

The plays I saw achieve this by a form of managerial messaging which tells us how we should behave and what might happen if we don’t. Rather than facilitating independent thought, where we are free to engage with the reality principle and make our own judgments, however, this has the bizarre effect of withdrawing agency and undermining our capacity to think at all. It is a shame that the Oedipal opportunities of the character confusions in Good were not fully realised. The resolution of Freud’s complex delivers what, in theory, the plays would like us to achieve; the maturity to be good people. We no longer need to kill our fathers, marry our mothers or gouge out our eyes in despair, because we have finally learned to tolerate the existence of the competing other knowing we have choice.

What may have precipitated such managerial dependency? Mental health requires an acceptance of those painful truths we hide from ourselves, and in a fractured world of new technologies, inequalities, massive population movements, disease and the threat of planetary implosion, it is seductive to imagine that we could all be in this together. Eradicating the other in favour of social justice, with its duplicitous sleight of hand on maintaining sameness and difference at the same time, would be the perfect solution – if it worked. The fact that, as Orwell observed, some are more equal than others and can omnipotently and omnisciently tell us so, is the clue to its phantastical nature. The poet Robert Frost adds, ‘Forgive oh Lord my little jokes on thee, and I’ll forgive thy great big one on me’.

The uncomfortable truth is we are not all the same, and it is only through difference that we can discover who we are ourselves. As much as we would wish it, prescriptions cannot bind us closer together in the equal value of human difference, because difference is a constant negotiation. Frost also wrote that good fences make good neighbours. To tear them down in the project of grand narcissism, where we can meld into the eternal comfort of the other’s embrace, is the grandest denial of them all.

The curtains fall, and returning home in the cold and dark I ask myself whether, like the German professor tempted into joining the Nazis, I too will be eroded by the seductive drip of social justice and succumb to acceptance of my responsibility to fix another’s difference while telling myself I’m good. After all, the alternative is to be cancelled and disenfranchised. Theatre may be fiction, but the fallibilities of its leading characters turned out to be all too real.

Jo Cohen Jones has volunteered in the youth offending system for the last ten years. She is currently studying Psychodynamic Psychotherapy.

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash.