Psychoanalysis and Theatricality

TO DISCUSS the significance of theatricality for psychoanalysis, and in particular for the thought of Freud, it is first necessary to distinguish what is commonly understood by theatricality from the quite different conception to which Freud appeals. If a certain notion of theater is crucial to Freud in articulating what distinguishes psychoanalysis from previous modes of thought, then this notion itself will have to be understood in a way that diverges from the familiar and still dominant use to which it is generally put.

Two citations can illustrate this use. The first is from the introduction to a book by Joyce McDougall, one of the relatively few analysts to have placed questions of theatricality at the center of her thinking. The passage I want to discuss glosses the title of the book that it introduces, namely, Theaters of the Ego (Théâtres du Je). McDougall explains the project of this book in the following terms:

The tragedies of Hamlet, Lear, Richard III entail the history
of men confronted by violent forces of their instinctual nature.
Traversed by storms of love and of hate, seeking now to
seduce and cherish, now to punish and destroy, each man was
obliged, from infancy on, to learn how to navigate between the
prohibitions and impossibilities of his life. Obliged to invent a
solution for each of the inevitable conflicts provoked by his
primitive desires, he had to find compromises that satisfied him-
self as much as others. With all these struggles, and as though
with an artistic palette, he sketched the portrait of that person
he believed himself to be when he says “I.” In fact, this I is a
character, an “actor” on the world scene who, in private, in his
internal reality, attends a more intimate theater whose repertory
is secret. Unknown to him, scenarios are organized, farcical


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Theatricality as Medium


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