New York

Dr. Charcot's Hysteria Shows

Ohio Theatre

Freud called Jean-Martin Charcot, the late 19th-century director of Salpêtrière, the Parisian asylum, an “artist, a man who sees.” What Freud and other doctors saw were Charcot’s présentations des malades, “hysteria shows” in which the doctor staged demonstrations of his experiments with hypnosis, seeking to analyze, control, and correct hysterical behavior. To 20th-century sensibilities, his methods come off as equal parts snake-oil charades and progressive medical practice. Charcot was among the first to insist that hysteria was a genuine affliction, and he used art as an important diagnostic tool, establishing a photographic studio at the hospital to make systematic, Muybridge-like visual studies of the expressions and poses of hysterics.

Intellectually complex and theatrically juicy, Charcot’s story provides plenty of material for a performance. Dr. Charcot’s Hysteria Shows, a collaboration between Lenora Champagne, Judy Dworin, Dianne Hunter, and their performing ensemble, is a multi-media assemblage of historical and theoretical takes. Like many such college-based efforts (most of the participants are teachers and students at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut), this ambitious bricolage was at times quite awkward. The piece’s environmental staging, which involved moving the audience three times in the first 20 minutes, was rudimentary, although the sets by Jerry Rojo—cage-like wire enclosures—were quite evocative. Some of the additional material (interpolated texts from, among others, Hélène Cixous, Florence Nightingale, Anne Sexton, and Lytton Strachey) made for an ill-fitting graft. Too many scenes were located in a dramatic middle ground, only tentatively suspended between stylized arrangement and bizarre material; didactically clear, they were often theatrically inert. Given the subject matter, there should have been at least one jolting shocker, some image or act that transgressed the bounds of rationality and taste—there wasn’t. And the key role of Dr. Charcot called for an inspired, over-the-top performance; Jaroslav Stremien’s was merely solidly competent.

Yet Dr. Charcot’s Hysteria Shows still succeeded in generating a consistent, low-grade frisson, a sensory subtext that viscerally conveyed the mixed motives of male doctors treating female patients. The urge to understand and heal was persuasively presented as inextricably mingled with the desire to control. One sequence captured the bolus of forces perfectly: a parlor waltz with doctors whirling patients evolved into a Dionysian frenzy of frantic gestures and flailing couples. Throughout the work, the fragile separation between the formally dressed, rational male doctors and the shift-clad, out-of-control female patients—a distinction that became increasingly tenuous as the piece progressed—made palpable an emotional sense of the politics of sex. The liberal, post-Cuckoo’s Nest attitude of empathy for mental patients and antagonism toward the medical establishment here became snarled in the more profound depths of male-female power plays. At this fundamental level, Dr. Charcot’s Hysteria Shows effectively stirred up the disturbing issues embedded in its rich material.

John Howell