Intense and challenging, the National’s recent interpretation of “Pains of Youth” (which ran from October 2009 – January 2010) at the Cottesloe, under the skilful direction of Katie Mitchell, has the audience gripped throughout. It is a fast-paced play about medical students in Vienna in the early 1920s – their fraught, turbulent psyches trying to make sense of a world that was indeed itself troubled and traumatised in the aftermath of the First World War. The seven discontented and conflicting characters, entangled in searching, questioning, taunting relationships with one another, play out the diagnosis of ‘sickness/disease’ (‘Frankheit’ from the original title in German) that has been here attributed to youth (der Jugend) whilst serving as a metaphor for the sickness in society at large.
The play was written in the feverish era of the early 1920s by Ferdinand Bruckner (1891-1958). The New Objectivity was the art movement of the time and its mood was raw, provocative, functional and harshly satirical – elements that are clearly evident in this play with its edgy undertone and its ability to stir up the audience’s full array of sensations. In Vienna by this time, Freud had been on the scene; the medical faculty at the University had accepted its first female medical students; Veronal, the first prescription barbiturate, had been patented and marketed by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company (ironically later financing the Nazi regime) – all significant milestones for what had been anticipated at the turn of the century as a great future ahead. In the face of all this, the play encompasses the disillusionment that was in fact to come following the War and its effects (the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, huge inflation, the Spanish Flu epidemic, and great instability, unrest and devastation across Europe).
The play’s action mostly takes place in Marie’s room in Frau Schimmelbrot’s boarding house. (Some intimate action is left teasingly to our imagination in (Marie’s lover) Desiree’s room off-stage, just out of sight, sometimes within earshot.) Three overhead lights focus down on central stage action suggesting an operating theatre, an examination, alluding to the theme of sickness. Marie (played with appropriate intensity and earnestness by Laura Elphinstone) is up from the country, uptight, hard-working, committed, with ideals, and about to celebrate her graduation: “from now on, things get serious”. Over the course of twenty-five scenes, including one in which, overwhelmed by jealousy, she dehumanises her sexual rival, the moralistic, self-controlled Irene, by tying her “like a dog” to the sofa leg, Marie is stripped of her fervent idealism and is reduced in desperation in the last scene to accepting marriage to Freder, “the great destroyer” of her illusions: “Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices”.
The aristocratic Desiree, on the other hand, dissolute, reckless and languorous, opts for suicide, after numerous failed attempts to numb herself from the pain of failing relationships. “It wasn’t me you made love to, it was your own pain” she throws back at Marie. Desiree hates growing up: “everyone should shoot themselves at seventeen” she declares off-hand. Bruckner offers the audience, through Desiree, an alternative, cynical view about the value of the medic: “in disgusting charitable contact with total strangers – with the unwashed … the smell of iodine and carbolic… that stench for life… it’s absurd to sacrifice yourself for others… even when you are soothing their pain, they’d rather be alone”.
Each of Bruckner’s characters has their tragic flaw and the audience not only sees them (and itself?) as inescapable casualties of the times, regardless of social status (the naïve, manipulated maid no worse off than the clever, decadent Countess) but as “all the same pitiless bastards” unable to live pain-free. There is no choice short of suicide, yet there is a suggestion in the play that living life to the end is our one social duty towards other human beings and the only argument against existential futility. The male characters are equally trapped in their own predicaments: either weak and ineffectual, albeit romantic, Dolly; principled yet sexless, Alt; or insightful, drunken and goading Freder, who arrogantly claims, “they all come to me in the end”!
Despite this bleak view of humanity, “Nothing so distinguishes man from nature as his addiction to his own sickness and pain” (quoted here from the eighteenth century German Keats’ equivalent, Novalis), the play does not fall into dull indulgence; in fact the two and a half hours (including the interval) whiz by, thanks partly to the entertaining, punchy script (new version by Martin Crimp), full of irony and frank debate, and to the creative collaboration of the production which gets the pacing of the intensity just right: it weaves in exotic and gentle moments of Javanese dance and rhythmic gymnastics; innovative, stark black-and-white, forensic-type (lots of plastic coverings of props), fast scene changes; discordant jazz-inflected live and recorded rhythms that create an unsettling, anticipatory atmosphere… lots of comings and goings on stage like a farce (yet with gravitas)… it is indeed enthralling.
We are left at the end of this complex, exciting, emotional and intellectual dramatic adventure wondering about what it is to be human: the Freudian dynamic paradox of Eros and Thanatos having been played out before our very eyes – giving us an insight both into our incredible potential as humans to love and to create and into the impulse which arguably coexists in each of us that drives us towards death and destruction.
Theatre Critic, Medical Humanities