Picture created by: Stephanie Machado
Portland Stage Company
May 6, 2022
A review and commentary of the play (one Jungian analyst’s interpretation)
For the Portland Stage Company’s opening of the musical Sabina.
Written by: Rick Bouchard, LCSW, IAAP,
Jungian Analyst, Scarborough, Maine
Briefly, this was a riveting performance, coming out of a remarkably accurate script accompanied by a small string and wind ensemble, reminiscent of the time of Jung and Sabina. There was a perfect balance of spoken lines, song and music.
Part of the purpose of this review is to appreciate the symbolism presented in the musical in honor of the psychoanalytic tradition; it was skillfully integrated by the playwright. For purposes of this review, when I use the word symbolism, I am speaking in Jungian parlance.
Personally speaking, it was exciting to watch this performance from a Jungian perspective, keeping my fingers on the pulse of, and appreciating, the symbolism, knowing the background to the story. That said, the story speaks for itself even if the viewer does not have that Jungian background.
NOTE: this review includes spoilers. For some, they may want to read it after the performance; or watch the show, read the review and then watch the digital version.
Sabina’s entrance was dramatic. The only prop in the middle of the stage, was a disarray of wooden items: a travel trunk, chairs, end tables and coat racks onto which Sabina climbed, standing on the trunk for a good fifteen minutes. A sad look upon her face and the mess and disarray of items are symbolic of the mind of our star; she has arrived at the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in 1904 as a patient. I am confident that there is a symbolic connection between the mass of confusion and the contents of Sabina’s mind and her subsequent catatonic stupor.
Psychoanalysts pay particular attention to language. So, in honor of that, we can say that by taking this place, as a woman, in a psychiatric hospital, Holtzman sets the stage for the story to come. Soon, the mess is cleaned up and the props put in their respective places on stage, foretelling Sabina’s mental order to come.
I was very pleased that the actors actually pronounced Carl Jung’s last name correctly. A common mistake is to pronounce his name, “Young.” How does one pronounce “Jung?” Like this: “Yuung”.
The olde word for a psychiatric hospital was “insane asylum.” Asylum means an institution offering shelter and support to people who are mentally ill. In fact, when the character Dr. Binswanger refers to the patients as “refugees,” Jung adds, “Yes – refugees from the land of abnormal.”
Sabina’s body arrived at the institute on an evening in 1904; however, her mind had yet to arrive because she was in a catatonic state. Until she felt safe and she knew she was actually being offered asylum, she would remain in that state. Carl Jung was eager to try out Freud’s new method, “the talking cure.” Jung made it safe for her to come out of her catatonia and to engage another person.
It was Jung’s aim to learn the language of his patient. His colleague, Dr. Binswanger, was perplexed. Binswanger asked, “how are you going to talk to a woman with no language?” Carl confidently explained, “You learn to speak theirs!” He was referring to the language of the soul (psyche).
Body language was immediately evident when Carl Gustav Jung entered the scene and was introduced to his patient. He was stopped in his tracks! Was he falling in love…, perhaps we can say, “…at first sight.” In Jungian parlance, we would say “eros” was constellated and awakened in the man and doctor, Carl.
Was Jung inflated? No more than his mentor, Freud. But the answer is “yes.” His inflation came through when he sang that he was “… the one who will take you [Sabina] through the darkest door into a world where you’ve never lived before.” He referred to himself as “a hero.” Freud referred to Jung as “a disciple.” And, while that is all inflation, it is the archetype (prototype or template) for the “hero.” Jung was intent on bringing Sabina home to herself.
We soon find that Sabina had not only become catatonic, but was regressed, moving in and out of flashbacks to an abused child at the hands of her father. Freud did not help matters any by consistently referring to her as “the child.” (The Child is another of the major archetypes).
Emma Jung, a future psychoanalyst herself, comes on the scene, and soon into the performance, announces that she is pregnant with their first child. Jung sings out of joy, but the actual actor slips and says, “We’ll turn your nursery into a study.” As an analyst, I found that an interesting real-time “Freudian slip” and was privately entertained.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Word Association Experiment was devised, a procedure in which the doctor presented 100 stimulus words to which the patient was to say the first word that came to their mind.
Jung did a lot with this procedure in his career. His theory was that when a person takes extra time to answer, or fumbles or even fails to answer…, the tester has stumbled onto one of the patient’s “complexes” (a set of unprocessed emotional themes), to be noted for later exploration in analysis. For example, in the play Sabina has these associations: Jung says, “finger,” Sabina says: “hand.” Jung: “save,” Sabina: “cure.” However, when Jung says to Sabina, “Father,” Sabina becomes agitated. At this point, Jung has activated the “father complex.” And, we find that it is quite complicated! We can now say that the father has just entered the stage (metaphorically) as an analytic object. And, we now know that the father is an important part of Sabina’s symptomatology.
Transference is a key psychoanalytic concept in which a person sees in the doctor an aspect of a previous relationship or experience. We may say that Sabina is transferring her father complex onto Jung.
A very creative use of the set on the stage is what the playwright called, the “anima/animus” wall behind the cast, silhouetting characters, a mix of lights, windows and doors, background voices, music and commentary, all full of symbolism. Pay as much attention to this as you can! (The “Anima” is the innermost sanctum of the man, while “the animus” is the innermost male aspect of the woman.)
In analysis, the first dream shared is the “initial dream,” or the “herald dream.” This is the dream that foretells the work to come in analysis. Sabina’s initial words were a yodel (a gentle call). Her first English words were “fire” and “daughter.” Not so gentle, these words and sounds were Sabina’s initial images from the unconscious, foretelling the story to come.
Jung had every intention of reaching Sabina. But to do so, he had to enter her world. Thus, he invited her to speak to him of her dreams and, perhaps erroneously, to speak with her of his own dreams as well. Binswanger was upset with Jung for speaking to a patient of Jung’s dreams. On the surface, this was Jung’s attempt to help her see the value of dreams, however, the subtext is that he overidentified with Sabina, and visa versa, and they even merged with each other. In fact, Dr. Binswanger tells Sabina, “He’s [Jung] showing you how to record your unconscious thoughts. He’s not inviting you to inhabit his dreams!” But, Sabina was lost in her complexes, including her projection that Jung was her hero.
Allow me to jump ahead to a part of the story that was not told in the musical. On Freud’s, Jung’s, Emma Jung’s and Sabina’s journey from Europe to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Jung and Freud were on the deck of the ship, Jung telling Freud his dreams. Jung attempted to level the playing field by asking Freud to share one of his dreams; Freud declined and said he did not want to “compromise his authority.” This was in large part the beginning of the dissolution of their relationship.
Nonetheless, Jung was not yet clear about the power and effect of sharing one’s own dreams with one’s patient. When you do, you share more about yourself than you expected. Jung was willing to share his dreams with Sabina, in his developing style, while Freud and Dr. Binswanger where not, as they knew the risks.
Reading Jung’s dreams…, about a woman…, with brown hair…, Sabina immediately believed that Jung was dreaming about her! The reason not to allow someone, let alone your patient, to read your dreams is they reveal far too much about yourself. Jung may have revealed to Sabina how he felt about her. Was it conscious or unconscious?
The outer boundaries of the analytic relationship need to be set by the analyst, in cooperation with the patient. This is called, “the frame” of the analytic relationship. In this musical, Jung reminds Dr. Binswanger that “disease attacks boundaries, and the physician is called on to cross a forbidden frontier to achieve a cure.” Binswanger retorts, “And the miserable truth about doctors is we are in thrall to the forbidden.”
In his actual career, Jung said, “You meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.” This is clearly stated when “we are enthralled by the forbidden.” In this story, “the forbidden” is the love that Jung and Sabina have been feeling. Act One ends with Jung and Sabina kissing for the first time. Jung has met his destiny and Sabina her projection.
By the beginning of Act Two, we have seen the important objects of the play: coat racks, carefully placed on the stage, off which hung garments (usually dresses) representing patients; Sabina; the analytic couch; silhouettes as a backdrop projected onto the anima/animus wall with tall doors and opaque windows; Sabina’s talk of fire in her sessions; Freud’s referring to Sabina as a girl; Sabina’s [also] abused, but now deceased, sister; Emma Jung, now a psychoanalyst, singing of balancing her career and motherhood; and, Sabina entering as a doctor.
Sabina has by now not only spoken, but she has found her voice. For example, when it is suggested to her to just make “small talk,” she retorts that she does not make small talk, but “big talk!” This ushers in the part of the storyline of Sabina and Emma fighting for their voices as psychoanalysts in a male-dominated field.
The actual Carl Jung believed that the world, both inner and outer, is a struggle of opposites. One goal of psychoanalysis is to unite these opposites. By this point, the story ushers in this conflict for both Sabina and Emma Jung struggling to be heard in their world dominated by men, namely, Jung and Freud.
A good example is the scene in which Jung suggests to Sabina, “I lead, you follow.” Sabina retorts, “You can’t be serious!” She is speaking of equality; he continues to talk about supremacy. Sabina instead suggests, “I lead…, you lead…, we’re two parts of the one whole, [and] two hearts make one soul.” Jung agrees.
Sabina’s primary theory is that of the death instinct. Many of our theories and analytic interests come from our woundedness. This is what is meant by the “wounded healer” archetype. It is no coincidence that Sabina, who lost her younger sister, subsequently seeks to understand death.
We continue to hear the tongue-in-cheek finesse of Sabina when Freud, finally acquiescing to Sabina’s obvious power as a woman and doctor, asks her if she would accompany him, an “old complexed man.” She responds, “I would not know where to find such a man.” Again, Sabina has not only found her voice, but uses it to put men in their places.
At this point, another stage is set: Emma sings about setting her work aside to be a mother, that she won’t step back, refuses to disappear and refuses to “give up her life to HER!” She is onto Sabina and Carl! At this point, she writes a letter to Freud demanding that something be done about this torrid affair between that former mental patient and her husband!
Jung, under pressure from Freud to end this relationship with his patient, realizes he must do so and tells Sabina, “I can’t be your doctor and your lover!” and he gives her a fee for her analysis, Jung tells Sabina her sessions will now cost “Ten francs!”
Abandoned once again by an older and most significant male, Sabina is thrown back into her trauma; the unhealed father complex resurges, and she instantly regresses. Jung advises her that she “cannot mistake symptoms for feelings.” However, this we now know to be untrue as feelings are embedded in symptoms, and symptoms are derivatives of complexes, at the heart of which are archetypes and a myriad of feelings.
Freud also has an investment in Jung’s ceasing his romantic relationship with Sabina; he urges her to end it. This is a rather disturbing moment in the play when Sabina is oppressed by Freud when he blackmails her by saying, “I can have you committed!” She sings a song in which she announces she must then “live with my disease…,” [vs. love]. Freud informs her that “he [Jung] made you feel that way to cure you.” And, she then sings, “I must live with my love!”
In the meantime, Jung and Freud are in the midst of their own parting. Freud: “The son rises up to kill the father [enters the Oedipal Complex].” Jung, “Would you have that be the story of us?” Freud, “It is the story of us.”
Jung was known for saying that anyone who does the work of psychoanalysis does so for the generations who came before and who either could not or would not do the work themselves. Imagine a set of parents go to analysis and works through their complexes; they would be less likely to pass these unconscious, unhealed, unmetabolized experiences onto the next generation. Otherwise, their children’s work is to become conscious through the process of analysis themselves to avoid passing on these complexes to the grandchildren and so on.
That said, I have often thought that if Jung and Freud had taken their own advice, they might have been able to do that which was necessary to salvage their relationship and come out on the other side more individuated. Perhaps for our psychoanalytic parents, there was too much ego, or too much politics, and too much at stake to come to a resolution. Consequently, they left it up to their successors [children], to modern-day Classical Psychoanalysts (Freudian) and modern-day Depth Psychologists [Jungian analysts] to heal this complex that has been real for a century. Fortunately, there has been some healing.
In one of the final scenes, Freud insists in a song, “TAKE THE PICTURE,” suggesting he may have known that it was imperative to capture the moment as it was fleeting, for he and Jung would be parting ways soon.
Sabina is crestfallen before the pressure to end her relationship with Jung and is contemplating ending her career as a psychoanalyst. However, Jung urges her not to “end her psychiatric studies.” She asks, “Because I was a patient?!” Jung answers, “Because you are a woman and other women will follow. I hope you will be one of them!” Fortunately, she does not end her studies and goes off to Vienna.
As an aside, the coat racks on the stage, each garnering a dress, or a straight-jacket, represent the patients. I was left to muse “why a coat rack?” and “why dresses?” Is it a commentary on how they treated women in those days, hanging their hats on the label of “hysteria,” offering them hysterectomies for a cure? And, why not suits? Because most of the suits were being worn by the doctors swarming around their patients. This is worth mentioning and worth further exploration. And speaking of hats, we tip ours to Freud for the talking cure and Jung for believing as he did in Sabina’s redemption.
At this point in the musical, we are presented symbolic material when in the background the opaque rice paper-like “anima/animus wall” lets silhouettes through as a backdrop, another layer of the story. Sabina walks backwards in time and enters a human sized door, which then expands. She has expanded and has become more than she was. She sings to Jung, “You inspired me, we inspired each other.” Jungians believe that memory is solidified when it is accompanied by an image. This is why images of dreams, fairy tales, myths and modern days stories help solidify gains in the analytic process. This is masterful and well-timed use of imagery in the production.
Something must have been healed for Sabina [particularly in regards to the father complex] as she once referred to Rostov, Russia as “my grave,” but now is considering Rostav as “her home,” At this point, she is planning on returning. She has become the hero for herself.
For those who do not know the story of Sabina’s death, she survived the first German invasion of Rostov-on-Don, Russia in November 1941. In July of 1942, the German army reoccupied the city. Spielrein, and her two daughters, aged 29 and 16, were murdered by an SS death squad. (The play alludes to it). We now see that the theme of death ran through Sabina’s story: her headaches when she encounters her darkest complexes; her theories of the death instinct; her sister’s early death; all maybe fortuitous, as now her daughters and she die together.
The audience sees a large silhouette of a door and the color of fire; Sabina is in that large door. “I can see the star through the smoke!” she sings. The door is right sized, her inflation, is made right-sized. She says that she wants her ashes strewn on a mountain with an inscription, “I too was once a human being.” She knew she was a person worth being paid attention to, whose theories and accomplishments would pave the way for those to come after her. She was a good mother who did her work so that the generations who came after her could benefit from her psychological triumphs.
Willy Holtzman captured the struggle of women at that time in the face of a male-dominated psychoanalytic institution. Fortunately, Jungians today are less likely to hang their hats on diagnoses, but rather take a journey with each patient in a non-pathologizing manner.
I wish Willy well in publishing this very important story.
DATES May 4 – May 22, 2022
DIGITAL ON DEMAND DATES: May 18 – Jun 5, 2022
RUN TIME Approximately 2 hours & 15 minutes, including intermission. There will be no concessions at this performance.
PRICE In-Theater $20-$68 • Digital on Demand $25