Thursday, June 25, 2009

Theatre and Therapy: All My Sons

I remember a colleague remarking to me many years ago that at the end of the day if you can live with yourself then that’s all that matters.  There’s a lot of truth in that sage advice.  That’s what therapy is all about, no matter what its variety: it enables clients to learn to love themselves and begin to learn to live comfortably in their own shoes.

These lines owe their inspiration to a play which I attended last night here in Dublin.  I allude to All My Sons by Arthur Miller which is being staged at The Gate Theatre.

Greek Theatre:

Drama goes back to the very cradle of western civilization, and for my purposes here that means Ancient Greece.  After all, those ancient philosophers, mathematicians, poets and dramatists that came from that “cauldron of the sun,” laid the solid foundations for all that we hold dear in the Western World.  Firstly a brief note on Greek Tragedy, with which Arthur Miller was very familiar.  The preeminent dramatists were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, some of whose plays we read at college as a backdrop to our study of English drama. In these plays the tragic hero called the protagonist commits some offence, often unknowingly or unconsciously.  Then that tragic offence will return to haunt him at some stage in his career – oftentimes many years later.  For these ancient Greek tragedians the play sought to encapsulate all the fallout from that fatal offense and to distil its essence into a 24 hour time span. During the course of that day, the protagonist must learn his fault.  In other words he now enters the sheer hell of becoming conscious of his fault in all its implications and consequences.  He will suffer as a result, and perhaps even die. Our lecturers informed us that such learning was the point of Greek theatre.  In other words, or in their ancient world view, the gods were shown to be just and moral and social order were restored. Hence it is interesting to note that in All My Sons these elements are all present.  The modern play takes place within a 24 hour period;  presents us with a protagonist who suffers from a previous offense; and as well as that he is punished for that offense. Additionally, it explores the father-son relationship, also a common theme in Grecian tragedies.

Freudian Substratum:

I was also firmly reminded of a Freudian substratum in Miller’s play.  That’s not too surprising either as Freud was extremely well read in the classics both Greek and Latin and plundered many classical concepts, images and concerns for his great books.  Needless to say the father-son relationship as well as that of mother-son were themes in the Freudian oeuvre. Then there are all those unconscious motives replete in the very play – and the revelation of such unconscious motivations to the client or patient was and is the essence of Freudian analysis.  I got the sense of the old man Freud waving his finger at the protagonist - Joe Keller – as if to say: “Joe, you must look into the abyss of your unconscious.  You must face what you did wrong.   You must make your unconscious sin conscious.  In that way order will be restored to your soul.”  I remind my readers here that one of the goals of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious.  Unfortunately for Joe, because he has lived in denial of his wrongdoing and of his less than worthy motivations, he must be brought to book rather forcefully, if not violently. In Joe Keller, Arthur Miller creates a representative type of a modern successful ordinary man, decent, hard-working and charitable, a man no-one could dislike. But, like the protagonist of the ancient drama, he has a fatal flaw or weakness. This, in turn, causes him to act wrongly. He is forced to accept responsibility - his suicide is necessary to restore the moral order of the universe, and allows his son, Chris, to live free from guilt and persecution. Arthur Miller later uses a similar representative type, or if you  like, an everyman, in a criticism of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman, which is in many ways similar to All My Sons.

Christopher Bigsby, in a wonderful article called “Arthur Miller – Life, Politics, Plays” in the programme for the play perceptively tells us:

The truth is that nobody in All My Sons is without sin.  There is conspiracy against the past in which most of the characters have a vested interest.  There is a cruelty to the idealist.  Love is tainted with self-interest.  As in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the family at the heart of the American myth, stands as a denial of a wider responsibility.  Motives hardly bear inspection.  (Programme, 5)

I would go further.  There is a conspiracy against self-knowledge in this play.  None of the characters, least of all Joe Keller, wants to face the truth of self-knowledge.  One of the adages of the Ancient Greeks was “Man, know yourself!”  One often sees this adage attributed to Socrates – wrongly indeed, as it was an ancient inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi.  That’s where Socrates and many others got their wisdom.  Anyway, all the characters in this play are actively resisting knowing themselves.  In this sense they would make admirable candidates for therapy, but probably such characters never do go to therapy, that’s why they find their answer in a bullet. 

Bigsby also insightfully remarks that those on the right “see it [the play] as an assault on capitalism.  As a result of a campaign by the New York Journal American, which explained that Miller was a member of “several Red fascist Organizations” and a “Communist Playwright”, it was banned from being performed in the occupied areas of Europe, then under American military control.” (Ibid., 6)  It is also interesting and not too surprising that this play was also accused of being anti-family as well as anti-capitalist.

All My Sons was first staged in 1947 and it was twice adapted for film - in 1948, and again in 1986.  This production at the Gate is wonderful and is well worth going to see.  Being present at such a marvellous performance of such a wonderful play is nothing short of therapeutic as it welcomes our unconscious motivations onto the stage of our consciences, shines a conscious light on them and in sum redeems us with a wonderful katharsis.

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