From London: Pain, Medicine, Health and the Psychology behind Frederick Bruckner’s “Pains of Youth”

Posted on January 27th, 2010 by

Pain, Medicine, Health and the Psychology behind Frederick Bruckner’s Pains of Youth

“The original title Krankheit der Jugend means ‘the illness/disease of youth/of being a young person’.  Bruckner thus joins his contemporaries in extending the concept of ‘disease’ to society at large – a potent twentieth-century metaphor which could at one extreme underpin political ideology, while at the other inspire the humane literary genius of fellow writers Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain, 1924) and Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929).”

-Translator’s Notes to Pains of Youth by Frederick Bruckner (translated by Martin Crimp)

The Royal National Theatre in London is a publicly funded theatre company that has produced compelling, meaningful and powerful productions since its initial conception in 1963.  Pains of Youth was absolutely no exception.  Every single creative aspect to this production clearly and distinctly related itself back to the title, Pains of Youth.  This incredible creative synchronization between the actors, director, and designers, helped make this one of the most brilliant performances I have ever seen.

Pains of Youth focuses on the different relationships and emotional inter-weavings of seven medical students; an unassertive writer named Petrell, an innocent, almost child-like maid named Lucy, a matronly, smart, independent woman named Marie, a sensible, yet needy woman named Irene, a friendly, reliable, sometimes impassible man named Alt, a drunk, angry and damaged pimp named Freder and Desiree, a seductive, yet incredibly subdued duchess.  The plot focuses on Petrell leaving Marie for the new love in his life, Irene.  Marie begins to rely on her love for Desiree.  Meanwhile, Freder attempts to turn these ladies, namely Lucy and Marie, into prostitutes as an experiment to perhaps turn him a profit.  Because this was largely a character piece, the ensemble needed to be spectacular to keep the audience interested.  All around, with the exception of Alt, the performances were astounding.  Laura Elphinstone as Marie clearly showed her internal struggle in a powerful, yet never over the top manner.    Geoffrey Streatfeild, who played Freder, showed us a damaged drunk, who only unravels even further with every drink he takes.  Leo Bill, as Petrell, quite subtly showed us a scared boy in a man’s body.  Fueled by the incredible staging and directing of Katie Mitchell, each actor embodied their character perfectly with the help of a deep, layered and profound script.

Now, in order to unpack the creative choices that were made in this production, it is first important to note some of the themes covered in the script and story line itself.  Much of this show deals with the pain found in the youth of society.  Although set in 1920’s Vienna, we still see these issues of pain today manifested through relationship troubles, vices like smoking and drinking and the stress of deciding on a life course or career.  Buckner, the playwright, is very clear about defining “youth” as specific to the bourgeois class, in a way making the play a critique of bourgeois society and class altogether. As one character points out, there is only “Bourgeois existence or suicide.  There are no other choices.”

The play opens as Marie helps Desiree study for a medical exam.  By establishing this medical mindset and terminology immediately, the playwright is able to bring up medical references to pain throughout like Tuberculosis.  These references to diseases like Tuberculosis and its long term effects allow the playwright to tie these characters’ lives into the “disease of youth” and “disease to society at large”.  For instance, in the second act, , , Alt, Freder, Desiree and Marie are sitting around a dinner table.  Freder is incredibly drunk, as usual, and complains that his liver hurts and is affecting his brain.  Alt argues that Freder cannot feel pain in his liver even if his brain tells him otherwise.  Providing an example, Alt says that tuberculosis can eat away at one’s lungs and yet they never truly feel the pain.  Similarly, many of the characters here carry a concealed pain, like tuberculosis, that is not always felt on a daily basis in each character, but is still deeply affecting their nature and development as a whole.  Pain is not just external and physical for these characters, but emotional and internal as well.  An example of this internal pain includes Petrell’s boyishness, immaturity and inability to be self-reliant, of which many characters openly confront him about, yet he denies and refuses its existence.  In addition, we see this with the character of Marie and her refusal to acknowledge her overprotective, almost asphyxiating nature.  These concealed, unrecognized, pains act as a “disease of youth” in that they severely affect the outcomes of the rest of these characters’ lives, much like a disease.  Although we may not see the effects immediately, Petrell and Marie will become completely damaged and diseased by these “painful” behaviors in the end.

On the other hand is the pain that is felt, outward and exposed, often right in front of our eyes.  One main example of outward pain is a result of jealousy.  Petrell had just recently left Marie when Irene, Petrell’s new lover, attempts to make peace and offer Marie her friendship, or so it seems.  Absolutely ecstatic with anger, Marie begins to physically abuse Irene.  Here we see an initially unfelt and denied pain, jealousy, embody itself in Marie.   As a result, this embodiment of jealousy in Marie causes her to punish the source from which this jealousy came, Irene, with pain.  This punishment is the physical, felt and exposed pain of ripping out hair.  Another example of the recognized and exposed pain centers on the relationship between Freder and Desiree.  Desiree gives a chilling monologue about the more Freder drinks, the more he desires control.  She says Freder bites her, becoming more animal than human.  She contends that “Sex is one step away from pain.  And pain is one step away from death.”

The director made an incredible decision to place emphasis on the way in which each character chooses to deal with his or her own pain and self-medicate.  First, the directorial technique used could not have fully succeeded without the incredible set design.  As the audience initially entered the theatre, the large 1920s room displayed on stage had open cupboards, while all the rest of the furniture, tables and beds were covered with clear, plastic sheets.  Immediately as the play begins, white neon lights shine through the cupboards and side doors of the room, the sound of an electric chair comes beaming from the speakers.  Actors dressed all in black rapidly walk on stage, rip off the plastic sheets, and exit, leaving the furniture uncovered and exposed.  As the side doors are closed the white neon lights are replaced with soft amber lighting and the action begins.  Using this same technique of neon lights, electrical sound and black dressed actors throughout the play, the director is able to shed light on each character’s coping mechanism or self-medication for pain.  When Freder, the alcoholic, had just dealt with a painful situation he would freeze as the neon lights appeared with complementing electric sound.   Two actors dressed in black would carry out an item wrapped in a clear plastic sheet, remove the plastic and place the item: a flask, in his hand.  As the actors dressed in black slammed the side doors of the room, the neon lights and sound would disappear and the action would resume under the period lighting.  Each character was given a certain drug which they used including cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, poison, and even make-up.  This was incredibly effective and really brought out the importance of pain in the life of a youth even more for the spectator.

Because the director emphasizes these coping mechanisms as a medicine, the audience is provided insight into the topic of health that is brought up throughout the play.  The play, specifically through Freder’s line, argues that those who “put up a magnificent defense…are the healthiest of us all” yet still maintaining that “science would argue that health doesn’t exist.”   We see certain characters, specifically Desiree, who put up little defense to the pain she is experiencing, consequently unfolding into her ultimate demise.  Still, we see the majority of the characters kick, scream, claw and battle to put up a defense in hopes of fighting off the pain of their youth.  We see Marie combat her relationship issues and over-protectiveness and Petrell fight off his dissatisfaction and immaturity, among many others characters’ struggles.  Just as how Petrell contends that “science would argue that health doesn’t exist”, the characters’ emotional and physical health is almost non-existent at the close of the play.

The psychology behind Pains of Youth reflects on the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst, and what he assessed in his Civilization and Its Discontents.  He claims that “what dominates the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle…What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs.”  Freud eventually goes on to state that unhappiness is quite easy to experience and that we all deal with suffering from three directions: “from our own body…from the external world…and from our relations to others.”  Clearly, this entire play addresses the malcontent of the youth society and it is not difficult to draw parallelism between suffering from our own body (the concealed pains/”painful” behavior of Marie and Petrel that act as diseases), from the external world (the exposed and felt pains of Irene and Desiree) and from our relations with others, in this case every character in the play.

Lastly, psychology in this production cannot be brought up without mentioning the toying with topics of conscious versus subconscious.  Specifically, the character of Alt claims that sleep is used as an antidote, or a way to self-medicate the pains of being a youth, but as a result youths and their minds are always “still half drugged by sleep.”  Here we see something that is inherently good, rest and sleep, is being perceived as a harmful drug.  Following this dialogue Alt has with Marie, the director incorporates Swedish Gymnastics, also known as Swedish Movement Cure, as a way for the character’s to deal with the pain and stress.  Ultimately, this causes Alt and Marie o “come to [their] senses”, as Alt declares.  Swedish Gymnastics was originally a main form of physical education and became popular because it was believed to have inherent medical value.  This in itself is very telling of the through line of medicine and the consciousness of coming to one’s “senses”.  The use of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and painkillers wane these characters farther away from their senses, making them not fully conscious of their surroundings.  These drugs begin to bring out subconscious behaviors in these characters, for example the animalistic behavior of Freder only escalates when under the influence.  And lastly, in some cases, these drugs can cause a character to lose all consciousness and expire, as seen with the death of Desiree.  To address the subconscious, the director uses neon lights and black dressed actors who present the self-medication in a surreal world.  Whereas to address the conscious, or the pain and suffering we see unfold before our eyes, the director uses the realism of daily life.  This brilliant direction has paired text, action and interpretation beautifully.

As the play closed, I realized that with all of these references to pain, medicine, health and psychology, that theatre itself can so often be related to science.  Here, each character is its own organism.  Petrell and Marie have a parasitic relationship; a relationship in which one organism benefits and the other is harmed.  Freder turns women into prostitutes, or does “all these experiments”, as Desiree claims, whether they be scientific or not.  To put it in scientific terms, Petrell and Irene have a symbiotic mutualistic relationship, where both organisms derive a benefit.  To continue with scientific analogy, theatre is an organism in and of itself.  It is a living, breathing, growing and changing organism that is spawned from an environment and continues to be affected by said environment for the rest of its life cycle.  Thus, it was very fitting that the closing line of the play was Freder telling Marie to do the only thing that any living organism, whether it be a character in Pains of Youth or theatre itself, must do to keep living; “eat.”  For as Freder declares in the end, “life goes on.”

 


One Comment

  1. Ater says:

    I realized that with all of these references to pain, medicine, health and psychology, that theatre itself can so often be related to science.