Into Her Wounded World: “A Spell for Fainting”

Symptoms … are in reality nothing but a cry from suffering.
We see only what we are ready to see.
–Jean-Martin Charcot

This is not a review.

The artists, WaxFactory, have left LA (after only three nights) for other countries, and are based in New York.

This is a meditation on — and, yes, an attempt to capture in a more durable form — their brief, disturbing work named (in postmodern orthography) #aspellforfainting.

Gillian Chadsey

Gillian Chadsey

You enter Son of Semele’s black box to see seats arranged in a single U-shaped row around an oblong white floor.  On it stands a woman in white.  Arms held behind her back, she wears a black blindfold.  You move past a large installation of equipment (where the audience usually sits) and find a seat, your feet on the white mat.  Beat.

The woman shuffles silently back to the wall.  Beat.  A tall man in a  hooded silver coat steps out of the dark (where the equipment is), goes to her and unties her blindfold.  He returns to the dark.

Soon, she sees you and begins to speak — but is cut short by a deafening, percussive assault.  It sets her vibrating around the floor like an iron filing on an electrified plate, trying to cover her ears. When the onslaught at last relents, she tries again to speak.

But for the rest of this 40-minute interview, her train of thought will be derailed.  By sudden roaring noise, by music, by items the man in silver silently sets on the mat, by an unnamed pain, a moment of memory …  while a constant stream of projections flows over her, painting her face and body with ever-shifting tones and textures.

Her story never finds the shape it begins by losing.  Nor does it end.  It simply runs out, like a desert river disappearing into sand.

Along the way she seduces, complains, jokes, sings, explains, wonders and wanders everywhere in the space and in imagined time.  She pulls a hidden liquor bottle from under your chair, downs a plastic bottle of bills, sleeps, dances, contorts, moans, prosecutes, confesses, convulses …

Prompted by the silent man in silver, talking at times with a man who mumbles scraps of therapist talk from a plastic toy tape recorder, she returns again and again to seek you, engage you, flee from you, caressing, recoiling, lap-dancing, collapsing …

She takes you on a harrowing Cook’s Tour of schizophrenia.

Or, more accurately, the woman (Gillian Chadsey) and her cohorts — the man in silver (Ivan Talijancic) and the unseen video artist (Shige Moriya) — create a journey that is both a simulation and a satire.

Having been a therapist, working mostly with people in long-term care for such chronic conditions, I know this land of agony too well.

What these artists are simulating — with license — is a process that went on for more than 30 years in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.  At weekly lectures, professors Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet demonstrated how hypnosis could be used to explore the baffling disorder known as “hysteria.”  Doctors came from all over Europe, the Americas and Asia to watch and listen — among them Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

What they’re criticizing satirically — without laughter — are the unwitting prejudices that saturated Charcot’s and Janet’s work, and the work of generations of neurologists, psychologists and psychiatrists who have revered (and fought) them as the “fathers” of their fields.

At root, these unconscious assumptions are patriarchal.  That life is a mysterious mechanism to be understood by rational analysis (which  includes killing and dissection).  That men are reasonable, born to be scientists, doctors.  That women are emotional, born to be patients, experimented upon, studied.

We recognize — and repudiate — these assumptions, being proud heirs of the  feminist revolution in academe, the arts and public policy.  We’re willing to agree that the Salpêtrière lectures were the late 19th century’s longest-running and most important freak show.

But we don’t get to enjoy the freeing distance that would let us laugh.  We’re in this woman’s space, she’s in ours, and we’re uncomfortable.

Like Charcot and Janet, Freud and Jung, and the thousands of doctors who joined them, we who attend #aspellforfainting are invading a woman’s suffering, violating her deepest privacy.  We can’t help feeling that.

We can tell ourselves we’re doing this in the name of art, not science.  We can say she’s an actor, who’s  agreed to become a spectacle, where Charcot’s and Janet’s patients couldn’t.  She’s not a patient but a performer, a co-author of this experience.  But then, the Salpêtrière women became performers and co-authors, too, displaying their symptoms and falling into trances week after week.

And in the century since, have things changed?  Therapists (like the one in the tape recorder) and artists (like Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams, whose portraits of “mad” women appear in the text) have continued to exploit suffering women even while empathizing with them, telling their stories in case histories and novels and plays, trying to love and heal them.

Is this play the latest violation in that long sequence?  We may hope to take away empathy from a simulation, rather than scientific knowledge from an experimental demonstration.  But perhaps we, too, are simply voyeurs who have paid to take part in a woman’s agony.

Suddenly,  words begin to unfold in my mind. “Demonstration” reveals demon-stration, peeling back the layers beneath which a demon lurks.  And de-monstration, removing the monster.  Then  “demon” reveals daimon, a divine energy animating a human, whether creatively or destructively.  And “monster” is the noun-child of the Latin verb monstrare, to show or reveal.

I now feel we are treading on holy ground, facing a mystery.

Women, the bearers of suffering throughout the patriarchal millennia that continue unbroken in most of the world, will continue to tell their stories.  In the mute language of symptom, or in the articulate speech of intellectual and political debate.

And in the ambiguous language of art, that draws us into raw  experience — no, make that deftly cooked or prepared experience — where we meet the mystery, and our own history.  And leave the theatre carrying it, heavy on our hearts and minds.

Comfort?  I take comfort in knowing that Chadsey’s fellow artists are males who collaborate with her, not — I hope — using her to make their art, but joining in art that grows out of her (and their) living struggle to confront the mystery and history we all share.

#aspellforfainting, created by Gillian Chadsey, Ivan Talijancic and Shige Moriya.
Presented by WaxFactory at  Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.