Psyche & Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul

Case Studies: American Writers Encountering Psychoanalysis

Case Studies Checklist and Object Descriptions
Watch: Ginger Rogers and Barry Sullivan in Lady in the Dark

Case Studies documents early twentieth-century American writers’ interest in psychoanalysis, their private as well as public encounters with Freudian ideas and therapeutic practices. The exhibition illustrates writers’ creative engagement with psychoanalytic principles in published verse, prose, and drama, and their correspondences about related matters with friends and with their analysts.

The “Lyrical Left,” as the artists and activists living in Greenwich Village during the nineteen-teens have been called, believed psychoanalysis—along with socialism, anarchism, feminism, free love, and other “modern” theories and movements—might be employed in the service of social change. Max Eastman’s 1915 fundraising “Lecture Tour for The Masses,” a groundbreaking political and literary magazine, exemplifies the spirit of the moment: advertisements invited “officers of Socialist, Radical, Labor Union, Woman Suffrage, Collegiate and Literary” organizations to hire Eastman to speak about topics of then-current interest: Revolutionary Progress, Feminism and Happiness, Poetry Outside of Books, and Psycho-Analysis. In one issue of The Masses, an ad for Eastman’s tour shared a page with a call from the American League to Limit Armaments to “Mobilize Against Militarism in America” and a notice about special editions of Margaret Sanger’s “sex books” containing information formerly censored by governmental authorities.

Many writers and readers of The Masses believed that the constrained and psychically crippling social mores of “puritan” America were the source of neurosis, anxiety, and unhappiness. Freudian analysis offered the hope of catharsis, social and sexual freedom, and a chance to overcome the horrors of repression. In their lives and in their work contemporary writers adopted Freudianism with enthusiasm; playwright Susan Glaspell, who wrote the successful play “Suppressed Desires: A Freudian Comedy in Two Acts” with husband George Cram Cook, recalled: “Those were the early years of psycho-analysis in the Village … you could not go out to buy a bun without hearing of someone’s complex.” As the authors of magazine articles and newspaper columns about psychoanalysis, citizens of the bohemian Village—Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, and Mabel Dodge among them—played an important role in introducing Freudian ideas to the American public.

By the 1920s, psychoanalytic concepts had filtered broadly into popular consciousness; reading Freud was understood as a mark of one’s modernity, representing a path towards sexual liberation and signaling a dramatic break with Victorian social conventions. In popular novels and films, free-spirited flappers and kindred members of the “Flaming Youth” generation celebrated the pursuit of pleasure, often to the point of decadence. Characters in contemporary novels, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922), led lives of endless distraction, often explaining their behavior with off-handed references to Freud’s much-talked-about theories.

Fueled by their interest in the dynamic new concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis, writers represented in this exhibition explored the complex relationships between memory and language, sexuality and identity, dreams and culture, imagination and the unconscious. In revealing creative processes and intimate conversations among writers and analysts, Case Studies provides access to public and private aspects of those explorations.

—Nancy Kuhl, Curator of Poetry-Yale Collection of American Literature

Images: Moss Hart, Lady in the Dark, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Kurt Weill, Cleveland [Ohio] : New York : World Publishing Company, 1944, c1941. Featuring Ginger Rogers and Barry Sullivan. Hart was deeply engaged in his own analysis with Dr. Lawrence Kubie when he wrote Lady in the Dark, perhaps the first theatrical musical about psychoanalysis. Lady in the Dark tells of Liza Elliot, a successful but unhappy fashion magazine editor who goes into psychoanalysis with Dr. Brooks when she finds herself “going to pieces [for] no reason at all … [and] in a constant state of terror and anxiety.” The show’s musical numbers are occasioned by Liza’s reports to Dr. Brooks about her dreams. In his introduction to the play, signed “Dr. Brooks,” Kubie wrote: “In this gay and tender play … the struggle of a vigorous and gifted human spirit to overcome deepseated, unconscious, self destructive forces is portrayed accurately … out of the fantastic furor of her dreams, out of the artful analytic synthesis of memory and fantasy which emerge from these dreams in the analyst’s office, [Liza] recaptures the freedom of spirit which had been hers not merely before she had became ill, but even before the childhood hurts had forced it into a protective shell.” The wildly successful musical set records for ticket sales in its first season.

Case Studies Checklist and Object Descriptions
Watch: Ginger Rogers and Barry Sullivan in Lady in the Dark
Listen: Theatre Guild on Air production of Lady in the Dark

Written by Rebekah Irwin

January 29, 2011 at 1:53 am

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