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Mrs Klein by Nicholas Wright

reviewed by Robert M. Young

There were many moving moments and many distressing ones in Mrs Klein. For me there was one which was almost unbearable. There had been a reparative phase in the intense and often violent dialogue between Mrs Klein and her daughter, Melitta Schmideberg, and it seemed almost safe to draw breath. Then Mrs Klein spoke tenderly to her daughter, as daughter, but went on cruelly to distinguish her from her role as Dr Schmideberg, the psychoanalyst who fought her mother bitterly in public. 'But I am Dr Schmideberg', her daughter retorted with bitterness and defiance. 'And I am Melanie Klein', her mother roared. I felt nearly blown away - all the power and originality of that formidable psychoanalyst at the height of her powers was being used to crush her daughter.

What was so powerful and frightening about that moment was the simultaneity of roles: mother/daughter, great woman/insolent junior colleague. Each was trapped in roles which shifted from line to line and moment to moment; each used psychoanalytic insight to rise above her worst self— or appeared to do so, since this often turned out to be a rationalization for new defensiveness and cruelty towards the other. Each desperately needed the other but would attack any good moment as soon as it was clearly there. It is, then, a very Kleinian play, operating simultaneously at many levels, with powerful emotions coming thick and fast. I cannot say what someone with no experience of psychoanalysis would make of it, but for me it rang perfectly true.

As the play begins, we find Mrs Klein with her back to us, and Paula Heimann being told things about the contents of a box. Then Mrs Klein finds a poem, sobs, holds out her hand for comfort. Paula Heimann comes to her, kneeling. Mrs Klein goes on in this vein and then says brightly, 'That's enough for today' and produces tea. We learn minutes later that they have never met before and that Mrs Klein has bestowed on the younger woman (Klein is fifty-two, Heimann thirty-four) the role of house-sitter, editor, secretary, general factotum.

There are many moments like that when we discover just how odd, presumptuous, mean (Klein locks everything up, including the liquor cabinet, when she goes away) and spiteful the three characters can be. Melitta Schmideberg is horrid but desperate. Mrs Klein is a monster but pathetically in need of love. Paula Heimann is apparently deferential but triumphs in the end and gets what she wants: to become Mrs Klein's confidante and analysand and to replace her only friend, Melitta, in the role of Mrs Klein's daughter.

The play is set in Mrs Klein's sitting-room, and I saw it performed in the small Cottesloe Theatre, so intimate a space that at one point, when Melitta sobbed, I felt that it was someone in the audience who was unable to suppress expression of the powerful feelings that I, too, was having.

They made life seem so impossible, insight so fickle, so useless in one's own life — if anything a burden more than a solace. This was made more poignant when it became clear that Mrs Klein had analysed Melitta in her teens, as she had her son, Hans, whose death in a climbing accident provided the occasion for the action of the play. Melitta thinks she has deduced that it was suicide and sets out to use this knowledge to destroy her mother. She then thinks better of it and seeks to retrieve the letter before Mrs Klein has read it. She does so, only to give it back in a fit of retaliation at her mother's cruelty. Paula Heimann seeks to smooth things over and even constructs an alternative, less devastating, account of the son's death, only to evoke Mrs Klein's jealousy when it turns out that Hans had an older woman lover and was thereby perhaps free of his mother's control when he died.

We are repeatedly startled, as when we learn that Paula and Melitta are dear friends; when Melitta dramatically relinquishes her key, never to darken her mother's doorway again, only to tell Paula that she always makes that gesture and always retrieves the key. And so it goes — on and on, like Sartre's hell in No Exit. The performances are excellent, though Paula's (ZoŽ Wanamaker) face in repose was a bit too sardonic for my taste, and Gillian Barge did not fully inhabit Mrs Klein's histrionics. Melitta (Francesca Annis) was perfect — doomed never to escape her mother's immense shadow and never able to give and receive the love they both needed. When Melitta reveals that she has gone into analysis with Klein's arch-enemy, Edward Glover, Klein throws a glass of piss/wine in her face, and tries to force the torn-up shit/letter into her mouth, lunging at her and shouting that Melitta is a poisoner. Within moments she composes herself.

None of this will be news to readers of Phyllis Grosskurth's fine, though overinterpretative, biography (Hodder & Stoughton; Karnac paperback), graciously acknowledged in the programme and script. It is hard to believe that endurable and creative lives can emerge from these relationships, but we have the work of these women and the Kleinian tradition to show that they can. Even so, it is ghastly. I have heard people who knew Mrs Klein say that she wasn't like that; she didn't lock up the drinks, etc. Surely this is not the point of drama. The point is: is it moving and illuminating of human nature? I would place this play alongside Duet for One as a fine, dramatic rendering of what is best in psychoanalysis. If you cannot see the play, then the text is well worth reading (Nick Hern Books, 87 Vauxhall Walk, London SE11 5HF, £4.50).

Speaking of Mrs Klein's ability to compose herself, I found it hard to compose myself as the play ended. I had found it devastating. I had had the same feeling — almost unable to stand or move, or to speak for some time — on two other occasions near the time I saw Mrs Klein. Both were about parent/daughter relationships, and both shared the desolating effect of parents' vocations on children. In A World Apart, Ruth First's teenage daughter cannot comprehend her mother's devotion to the cause of black liberation and her detention by the South African authorities. How can a cause be set against the child's sense of abandonment and her need to see into the secrets and secret places of her mother's work? The story is told from the child's point of view, and is more moving than I can say. The comfort the child needs is given by a devoted black woman servant, who perforce neglects her own children while holding on to Ruth First's. It is through her relationship with the black woman's family that the child learns to begin to share her mother's commitment to black liberation. Unlike Melitta Schmideberg, Ruth First's daughter, Shawn Slovo, was able to transform her suffering into creative work. She wrote the script of the film about her relationship with her mother, while the three women who played the mother, child and black servant — Barbara Hershey, Johdi May, Yvonne Bryceland — shared the Golden Palm at Cannes.

Babette's Feast (based on an Isak Dinesen short story) must seem a strange film to set alongside Mrs Klein and A World Apart. In this case there were two daughters, and their lives were blighted by a religious vocation. Their father had been the leader of an obscure and austere Scandinavian Christian sect, and the girls had carried on his work into spinsterhood. Each had a chance to marry — one to a dashing army officer, the other to a singer — but the father stood in their way. After his death, they continued to serve the and dwindling sect’s ageing members.

Into their lives came a refugee from the Paris Commune (sent to this remote place by the singer), who worked for many years as an unpaid, devoted and brilliant servant and then had a major win on the lottery which promised to take her away. To celebrate, she prepared a feast, and what a feast it was! The photography of it is amazing. To the feast came the army officer, now a general, and it was only he who could really appreciate and name the great delicacies and wines that were served. The members of the sect had sworn not to be influenced by the meal — not to be corrupted by the Devil's work. But they were changed by it at a deeper level in spite of themselves; profound reparative work was done with respect to their bickerings, the sisters' lives and the general's nostalgia. And Babette, having spent her entire winnings on the feast, had shown what she could create, was at peace, and stayed in the village. The film ends with a sense of profound fulfilment and stoicism, with the most affecting things happening beneath the consciousness of the main characters.

Parents and children, the ravages of parents with careers, vocations, causes — whether psychoanalytic, political or religious. All these produce great insight, great struggles, great artistry. And people endure, trying to know, to bear and to transcend the burdens they carry, put into other people, and can sometimes and to some degree take back into themselves after undergoing some detoxification and transformation into something life-affirming. Art affirms and reminds one of these possibilities and hopes.  

Reprinted from Free Associations No. 17 (1989), pp. 146-49.

1608 words

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


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© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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