Freud, or the Interpretation of Dreams

Freud, or the Interpretation of Dreams was performed from the 11th of January to the 14th of March at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, with every night being completely sold out. 

When I arrive at the theatre, having heard some uncomplimentary remarks on the part of my colleagues, there is a large crowd, a throng. I imagine that many of the spectators have read Stefano Massini’s novel, Freud, or the Interpreter of Dreams, or they have heard it spoken about. The author, who is also internationally famous for Lehman’s Trilogy, his novel which went on to be adapted for the theatre, has studied Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in great dept, as he considers it one of the two fundamental texts of the 20th Century. 

Federico Tiezzi has overseen the theatrical adaptation. 

At the end of the performance, my initial amazement morphed into the idea that the audience, that packs out the auditorium every night, will have to discover (or rediscover) Freud, after a century and more of psychoanalysis, while, for analysts, his works are well known, and there is something disturbing about seeing “their” Freud on stage.

The piece begins with a graphic of a transparent curtain (designed by Giulio Paolini), on which lines are traced which converge at a point at the side of the stage: there is sat a man who holds up his head in the position of Rodin’s Thinker. The curtain-graphic is populated by couples in Nineteenth Century costume, who dance to the sound of one of the most famous Viennese waltzes.

The setting is immediately strong and clear, there is no doubt about it: we are in Vienna at the end of the 1800s. The music ends and Freud/Gifuni enters the stage, the lead actor, who hears the first creakings of the capital of the empire from within his office (which at times becomes a clinic for nervous illnesses), into and out of which patients come and go.

The protagonist begins one of the Brechtian monologues (perhaps at times a little too long, some critics have said) during which he meditates on the nature of dreams and on the suffering of the men and women who come looking for him. He listens to them and forces himself to find a thread that will give sense to the dreamlike images and reconstruct the hidden story behind what he is told. 

The dominant colour is dark, nocturnal, with sparsely placed white marble statues on the walls, the essential furniture, a large black sofa with an armchair behind and little more. The scene/office is delineated by a dozen doors on the back wall and to the sides, doors which very quickly become metaphorical passageways towards the unconscious. From these, various characters come and go over the course of the play, some to tell their stories, others merely figurative which wear animal masks, large lizards like those which animate the first dream of Freud himself. His investigation begins from this dream of ambition of which Freud recalls details over the course of the play, until the final interpretation.

In fact, this is the characteristic of the theatrical narration: the frequent scene changes, that accompany the interruptions and recommencements of recounts and stories. Only at a certain point they will reach completion, as if to underline that the understanding of hidden meaning is always the result of a progressive uncovering, piece by piece, all of which is orchestrated by a mind that associates and proceeds to unite fragments. 

In this dark scene, a female figure, Tessa W., who seems to have stepped out of a Klimt painting owing to her hairstyle and the clothes she wears, sits on a little sofa and talks about her hands which once wore rings but which are now bare. Freud listens to her enigmatic account and presses her on the subject of where her rings have gone and on who took them from her. Tessa W. stays on stage, unmoving on the sofa, like a suspended presence, while other characters enter and begin to talk about another story and other dreams. Wilhelm T., for example, who has always lived in exile from himself, voluntarily excluded from the world, has, however, a dream that returns every night which is about a river, three wooden boxes, and butterflies. Only later will it be revealed that they are the “remnants” of his memory, traumatised by a bereavement experienced when he was three years old, an unworked-through mourning which has blocked  his existence. Elga K., on the other hand, comes onto the stage accompanied by her husband, Oscar K, the living obstacle to the possibility of her getting access to the truth that torments her. 

Little by little, the spectator finds himself face to face with Freud himself, who in his turn progressively takes on his own identity, in a sort of autobiography, from his own depths. In the complex wanderings of his mind he finds himself, together with the memories of Freud as narrator, which are also those of his patients, who dream about themselves, and of the audience who bears witness to the slow conquest of self-awareness. 

The scenario seems to invite the audience to enter not only into the story which they are witnessing, but into the mind of Freud himself: he looks shocked and agitated by doubts, by his own dreams and by those of which he hears, in search of something unknown. He comes close to it in snatches, taking command over it little by little. The characters follow one another on the stage, which clearly becomes the intricate journey of the protagonist’s mind towards the discovery of the unconscious. In this sense, the play goes beyond theatrical representation, from which it takes cues of much grandeur in the scenography and beautiful period costumes, without forgoing contemporary digital special effects (words written in neon, graphics, music), but it also embraces something else, something related to the force and rigour of scientific research on the part of the founder of psychoanalysis.

One critic has written that the piece is more than a play, that it is a “ritual” which is renewed every evening: something living that happens along with the audience, which changes those who share in it.

There is a scene in which Freud argues with the patient Elga K, who expertly plays the role of the reserved wife, oppressed by a dominating husband, a fabric salesman, who treats her as if she were stupid: “you only have to put them back in their place, silk with silk, wool with wool. It’s easy.”, he repeats to her. Freud unexpectedly reveals that he himself is the son of a cloth merchant, Jacob, and that, when he was young, at the counter of the shop, his father would say the same thing to him, making him feel useless and stupid. The cloth, however, is a thread that leads to hidden stories, buried, difficult to narrate, threads of life that always revolve around a father, a mother, our being fathers and mothers. Freud, over the course of the piece, seems to pursue and try to re-tie the fabric that links him to and separates him from his father, who has recently died.

The theatrical fiction seems to recapitulate the story of psychoanalysis from its founder’s discovery to contemporary psychoanalysis, passing through the progressive acquisitions of transference, of counter-transference, of enactment, of acting (Freud who brings a ring, then a vase of violets to his patient Tessa W.), even as far as self-disclosure, when he reveals to Elga K. the common element of both of their stories, without losing the rigour of the scientist, who respects what he finds in himself and in others. For Freud, the memory of his father, Jacob, leads him to a painful reflection on his Oedipal conflict. In the case of Elga K., it will cause the emergence of the great pain, that of the mourning, which cannot be worked through, for her soldier son died in the war. For her husband, this very pain must be buried and denied. 
Freud deals with the Oedipal conflict with the father by stripping himself of his resistances, like the clothes which he strips off until he remains naked on stage, on which he walks in the middle of an anonymous crowd in a slow march from one side of the stage to the other. Is this an instance of triviality, of naiveté in the text? But it is also something essential in the representation of how each one of us is always naked, defenceless in front of our Oedipal phantasms.

The process of interpenetration and identification of oneself in the other and through the other is certainly the leitmotif of the piece, with the realisation that becoming aware of one’s own miseries and one’s own pains,  rather than being degrading, opens us up to profundity and to concern and care for the other. The pauses between scenes, signalled by sudden darkness, give the sign of fragmentation and discontinuity of thoughts that strive to arrange themselves in a story that makes sense, putting together the scattered pieces, the discoveries that follow one another, finding their deep meaning in the associative struggle. 

This is felt by the viewers as a narrative path divided towards the “inner”, by means of the continuous shift between the protagonist’s self-analytic/self-reflexive monologue and the entrances and exits of characters. At times, Freud’s monologues are given in the presence of characters who remain on stage, silent presences, unlit, in a foetal position, which seemed to me to be a brilliant representation of permanence, in the analyst’s mind, of cases, dreams, hypotheses that take shape inside him, waiting for an understanding and for a bestowal of sense which, perhaps, will come. 

The perspective of the scene, first flattened towards the back, leaves space for a progressive de-composition of surroundings, walls and ceilings until the show’s final coup de théâtre with a mirror in which the whole audience is reflected, as if to underline that the dreamlike enigmas that have been narrated are, in fact, our own, as they are those of the man who dared to go beyond the gates of the unconscious for the first time, using them as a key for deciphering it.

From this point of view, dreams are a poetic metaphor that drifts into scientific formulation, and the understanding of their deep meaning is masterfully treated.

Perhaps the beauty and fascination of the show, which the audience experience every night, lies in its having retraced the inverse path, from Freud as a myth to Freud as a man, who had the determination to go beyond the door of the unconscious through dreams, with fear, but also with the courage of the dauntless souls, accepting the effort and pain of self-knowledge. 

In a mise en scene which is like an adventure of thought and language, says the play’s director Tiezzi, we directly witness the construction of an interpretative system of life and of the world, not just of dreams. They are made of the scrap material of our psyches, which many let fall into nothing, and which some others collect like precious things. 
The play testifies to the historic moment in which that fundamental discovery was made, but it reconfirms, in the modern day, the fact of its being an extraordinary method, able to measure the power and obscurity of the mind.

After the triumphs in Milan, Freud, or the Interpretation of Dreams will tour to the main European capitals. If it arrives near you, go and see it, not only for the beauty of the play, but also to enjoy the admiration and the curiosity of an audience when they discover, or rediscover, Freud and the genius of his imagination. 

Paola Golinelli ( SPI)
Member of the IPA Committee on Culture