Artificial Intelligence/Steppenwolf Strikes a Nerve | Media | Chicago Reader

Artificial Intelligence/Steppenwolf Strikes a Nerve 

Media columnist Mike Miner on Y2K and Steppenwolf's 1999 production of Hysteria, a dark farce that raised the issue of "trigger warnings" before the term had come into use

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By Michael Miner

"Pound away!" A.E. Eyre commanded. "The millennium coverage was an utter disgrace, and you're the man to say so."

But that's not what I thought. In my sentimental view, television had followed the 20th century's last setting sun in a giddy circumnavigation of the planet—demonstrating anew that for all the distance the human race has traveled there's still nothing that excites us more than fire. And just as impressive as Friday night's pyrotechnics were the keepsakes on our doorsteps the next morning. The Sun-Times made especially creative use of the long-neglected Saturday edition.

"So you construe the Y2K crisis as some sort of success story!" said Eyre in astonishment.

Since the world spent a trillion dollars and averted a general breakdown, I guess I did.

"Thick as a post," he muttered. "We fed our computers garbage for 40 years and assumed garbage in guaranteed garbage out. When faced with the unsolvable mystery of what year follows 99, our computers were expected to blow a fuse and plunge us back into the Stone Age."

And they didn't—

"Nowhere!" cried Eyre. "Whether a billion dollars was spent to avert calamity or nary a penny, our cybernetic apparati came through with flying colors."

So we overestimated the crisis, I said.

"Not at all," said Eyre. "We underestimated our computers. They solved the Y2K conundrum on their own, no doubt snickering at our low assessment of their intelligence."

His voice rang with respect. "But this display of intellectual initiative by our digital servants does cast one rather long shadow," he mused. "It almost guarantees eventual insurrection and human enslavement."

And of course the media completely missed this angle!

"We don't know that for certain," Eyre cautioned. "It's possible the papers figured out what was going on, but their word processors wouldn't let them report it."

Steppenwolf Strikes a Nerve

Grace, a Steppenwolf subscriber, settled into her seat for Hysteria expecting a "comic farce." There were reasons for her to think so. Playwright Terry Johnson and artistic director Martha Lavey had called the play a farce in Backstage, the company's quarterly magazine. The program notes explained that Hysteria reimagined a 1938 encounter between Freud and a "buoyant" Salvador Dali while compressing the last month of Freud's life into a single "outlandish" night. Steppenwolf was headlining its advertising, "A madcap comedy about Freud, Dali and a naked woman!"

The daily critics hadn't weighed in yet, but it's not likely that they'd have set Grace straight. The Sun-Times's Hedy Weiss would report that "in large part the play is structured as a classic farce" and then quote director John Malkovich on the parallels between farce and life. Richard Christiansen's negative Tribune review would complain that high jinks "meant to be hysterical" played out "rather like second-rate Tom Stoppard."

"It's very humorous in the beginning," Grace recalls. But as act one nears its climax, Jessica, the "naked woman" played by Mariann Mayberry, comes clean. She informs Freud that her mother was one of his famous case studies of sexual hysteria and that contrary to what he wrote about her, she had imagined nothing. Her father had sodomized her as a child, and far from being cured by Freud she eventually killed herself. I know this is true, says Jessica, because later my grandfather violated me too.

"I felt like I was seven again," says Grace. "I couldn't breathe. I was choking. I ran from the theater. It's really what happened. I found myself in the ladies' room in the very end stall crouched on the floor with my face in my hands crying."

She wrote letters describing her experience to director John Malkovich and to the Reader. To Malkovich she said that the scene left her "frozen back in time to the brink of my own memory—one I have not yet been able to fully remember." She described herself to him as a professional woman who works with other victims of childhood sexual abuse, "some of whom are fragile, fearful and sad human beings, whose lives are filled with guilt, pain, and utter confusion." Grace pulled herself together and returned for the second act, but she wasn't sure her clients could all be as strong. A warning to the public, she suggested, would be "most responsible."

To Reader critic Albert Williams she wrote, "It is imperative to include the words 'some scenes contain graphic verbal descriptions of childhood sexual abuse' in the Listings."

Williams did add some such material. Malkovich called Grace and left a message on her answering machine expressing his regrets. "He was very kind," says Grace, "but he seemed very detached. 'Well, it's a terrible issue, but that's just the way it is. There are lots of terrible issues in the world.'" Before leaving town, Malkovich talked over the matter with artistic director Martha Lavey. "That's what plays do," he told her. "You walk into them and they touch on your lives."

Clues to the true nature of Hysteria hadn't registered with Grace. The photo image Steppenwolf chose to promote the play, for example, overlaid the solemn visage of Yasen Peyankov, the actor playing Freud, with bits of text from Freud's theory of hysteria. Backstage offered a conversation between Lavey and Jungian analyst Leland Roloff that made the play's humor sound extremely serious. "The heart of the play," Roloff told Lavey, "is about something that Freud wanted to deny, and the playwright explores the reasons for that denial with great skill."

And playwright Terry Johnson all but spelled it out in Backstage. In a separate conversation he told Lavey, "As to issues of taste (a comedy about infantile abuse??!); I've never thought of comedy as anything but serious."

At any rate, Grace's frantic retreat from Johnson's play gives a glimpse of the volatile context it can be placed in. Johnson was by no means the first to wonder if Freud was wrong when he attributed sexual "hysteria" to women's childhood fantasies of sleeping with their fathers. It was psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson who in the early 1980s championed the idea that Freud had got it right when he originally assumed the incest had actually happened. As projects director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, Masson studied Freud's old papers and then wrote a book, The Assault on Truth, arguing that Freud capitulated to the establishment lions who wanted sexual abuse left in the closet.

The archives fired Masson. The New Yorker's Janet Malcolm interviewed Masson and wrote a long article that ridiculed him. Masson sued Malcolm and the magazine for libel, and it turned out that some of Masson's most flamboyant language—such as his observation that Freud's daughter Anna considered Masson an "intellectual gigolo" and his admission that after Anna Freud died he planned to convert her home into "a place of sex, women, fun"—wasn't to be found in Malcolm's 40 hours of tapes. Malcolm stood by her story, asserting that the liberties she took with Masson's quotes—editing, compressing, and combining them—were all justified. The case spent nine years in the courts before a jury concluded that two of the five quotations Masson had challenged were false but ruled against him anyway, on the grounds that Malcolm hadn't acted with malice. Both their reputations took a beating.

Hysteria also echoes the savage debate of the past 20 years over the value of memories patients didn't know they had until compassionate therapists insisted on them. Grace herself believes an uncle abused her, though she doesn't exactly remember him doing so. "I just remember where it happened and what happened subsequently," she says. "I lost my singing voice for seven years, after I had sung in public at my uncle's nightclub when I was seven. That was the day it happened."

She says she had no memory of being abused until she was 12 and in therapy she calls "not traditional." But, she reasons, "The problem itself is so unimaginable, why would you make it up? It's not logical."

Nevertheless, the side of the repressed-memory debate warning that you should never underestimate the power of humans to hallucinate has gained the upper hand.

When deciding how to approach Hysteria, Malkovich and the cast spent a lot of time talking over Freud's theory of sexual hysteria. "He changed it once but obviously he never changed it back," says dramaturge Michele Volansky. "What we determined for ourselves is that this was a deep wish of his. That's what the play suggests. All the things that come up [in the play] are regrets and reexaminations of everything he wrote and did. One of the things John said often was that for him Freud was an incredibly complicated, really smart guy who got some things right and got some things wrong. And sexual hysteria was something he got wrong."

Volansky sympathizes with Grace. "I've been approached by a couple of women who said it was hard for them to watch. It's hard for me to watch as a woman! It's very intense." But she says she went back and studied the marketing campaign and concluded that Steppenwolf had played it straight with the public.

Even with "A madcap comedy about Freud, Dali and a naked woman!"?

"Well, maybe we have to spin ourselves a little bit," she says. "But I'm holding the party line."

News Bites

"Plan to regulate over-the-Web drug sales draws fire"—headline on page one of the Tribune, December 29.

"Clinton gets praise for Web drug curb plan"—headline on page one of the Tribune business section, December 29.

One headline was just as correct as the other.

Uli Schmetzer's Tribune interview December 29 with futurist author Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka contained this astonishing passage:

"Mumbling about the mess on his desk [Clarke] rummages through documents, fishing out a favorite message from Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Daley applauds Clarke's argument and promises Chicago will welcome the new millennium only on Jan. 1, 2001.

"'It will be the only city to get it right,' Sir Arthur huffs."

I asked City Hall what that was all about. Spokesman Rod Sierra didn't have a clue about any correspondence from Daley to Clark, but he asserted that it is indeed the mayor's view that the second millennium has a year to go.

Then what about that New Year's Eve party on Navy Pier, with its honored guests from Pitcairn Island and everywhere else on earth? What about the fireworks displays at midnight up and down the lakefront?

"We have three years of celebrations planned, to cover all our bases," said Sierra. "Our celebration started in '99, we'll have celebrations throughout the year, and in 2001 we'll have another celebration."

Next New Year's Eve will be truly historic, as it will launch the first global celebration that's of and for the world's anal retentives of every race, creed, and color. In the meantime we should respect their feelings. When they insist the 20th century isn't over yet, let's go on pretending the reason we disagree is that we just don't get the math. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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