Although he has written more than a dozen works for the stage, John Patrick Shanley is best known to the general public as the author of the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1987 film, Moonstruck. There he explores the themes that occupy most of his theater work: the poetry of workaday life, and the arduous absurdities of love among the ordinary people of New York City. See more about him here.
By the time he was 40, he has written, he was facing the classic mid-life crisis, overwhelmed by "emotional turmoil and maniacal self-examination." As a result, he began reading works of psychology, including Krafft-Ebing's landmark work, Psychopathia Sexualis, and the speculations of Carl Jung. He explains how this play grew out of the confluence of these forces, personal and intellectual:
In 1886, a fellow named Krafft-Ebing published a book called Psychopathia Sexualis. The volume contains a series of case studies of German people with minor and major sexual disorders. . . . I bought the book because I have an unhealthy interest in sex and eccentric German people.
While reading it, Shanley says, he discovered that he himself was a fetishist, albeit of a minor sort (he twisted his hair compulsively while writing), and that this knowledge gave him a sense of connection with his "brothers and sisters in old Germany," as well as a giddy sense of being "slightly perverse and eccentric."
Then came his mid-life crisis. "I started reading Carl Jung. In depth and at length. . . . These tomes affected me much like Don Quixote was affected by reading a lot about romance and Chivalry. In the words of Cervantes, 'His brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.'"
He began to oppress people with his newly-acquired powers of psychobabble, clogging every conversation with mythic interpretations of everyday events (much like Howard in the play). Feeling at first that he was fascinating all his friends with his brilliant insights, he eventually realized that he had turned into a "raging bore." As he recovered from his Jungian intoxication, he began to perceive that a play was emerging from the experience.
Various characters had begun to take shape in me. One was this foolish fellow who had allowed his dream life to overtake his waking life. Another was a well-meaning fetishist with a problem. One was a psychiatrist, a brilliant psychiatrist who has been at it just a little too long. Then two women appeared, possessed of an opposite energy to the men.
The result, Psychopathia Sexualis, opened in February, 1997 at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York.
Most of Shanley's plays and screenplays are set in the worlds of blue-collar people in Brooklyn or The Bronx. Psychopathia Sexualis, by contrast, takes place in settings peopled by rich and sophisticated Manhattanites.
The first scene is in the apartment of Howard and Ellie. The stage directions don't tell us much about the appearance of this place, but we infer from Ellie's "chic" dressing gown and Howard's status as the retired manager of a fabulously successful mutual fund that it must be deluxe and fashionable.
The second scenes of both acts take us to the office of the allegedly "evil" psychiatrist, Dr. Block. The only scenic details mentioned are the presence of a leather wing chair with an "oriental throw pillow" and a "classic couch for therapy." The analyst's office is familiar terrain in plays and films about neurotic New Yorkers. Woody Allen's movies, for example, offer numerous versions of this site. Many such offices are located along Central Park West, an avenue of grand apartment buildings, churches, and museums. Though not as posh as Fifth Avenue, which runs along Central Park's eastern edge, this is certainly a fashionable street, and Block's office, while not luxurious, would probably reflect the affluence of the district.
The third location is "the sitting room of a Park Avenue apartment done up Texas style. . . . There's a gold-framed picture of young John Wayne." That last detail is telling. Park Avenue apartments--which house some of the city's richest and most socially prominent people--are far more likely to be decorated by museum-quality artworks than by pictures of John Wayne. Such eccentricity seems appropriate as this is the home of the character Lucille, described as a person of "gargantuan energy . . . like a hillbilly Aztec Evita."
The stage directions, then, are somewhat sparse, suggestive rather than fully descriptive. Each setting offers one or two details that tell us something about the character of its inhabitants: perhaps a look of conventional luxury for Ellie and Howard, an air of brash opulence for Lucille, and some touch of the sinister or threatening for Dr. Block.
Psychopathia Sexualis comprises four scenes, symmetrically arranged.
In each of two acts, the first scene is mainly a duet between friends. In the first act it is between two male friends, Howard and Arthur. In the second it is between two female friends, Ellie and Lucille. Each of these scenes has a similar outcome: in the first act, Howard agrees to confront Dr. Block on Arthur's behalf; in the second act, it is Lucille who undertakes the same mission.
In both acts, the second scene occurs in Dr. Block's office, and each time we see a psychological agon or sparring match between Block and Arthur's stand-in. And in each case the encounter is marked by startling reversals and wholly unanticipated outcomes.
This orderly arrangement of the play's structure stands in stark contrast to the psychological and emotional turbulence of its content.
The first duet between friends begins at the end of a cozy dinner party in Howard's apartment. Howard invites Arthur to share a nightcap with him, saying "this is sort of the best part of the evening isn't it. Good dinner, fire, a drink. . . . This is intimacy! This is real intimacy!"
As it turns out, both men get more intimacy than they bargained for, learning to their dismay that "it's hard to know anybody."
Howard gets the ball rolling by telling Arthur about his mid-life crisis: his resignation from the mutual fund; his consequent anxiety about how to spend the rest of his life; his emotional abuse of his wife; and the sudden arrival of portentous dreams. As a result, in an attempt to understand himself, he begins a passionate program of reading in the classics of psychology: Freud, Jung, Reich. Rather than enter analysis, he hopes to analyze himself, and thus demonstrate his self-sufficiency.
Impressed with Howard's openness, Arthur, on "an assumption of friendship" decides to reveal his own secrets to Howard. First he announces that he is about to marry Lucille, an acquaintance of Howard's. Howard is surprised but pleased, and happy to accept Arthur's invitation to be his best man. Still, he is taken aback that Arthur, whom he thought he knew so well, has kept this romance a secret.
But that surprise is dwarfed by Arthur's next revelation. After six years of psychiatric treatment, he is still crippled by a grotesque sexual fetish: he cannot make love in the absence of his father's argyle socks. "I have to know where they are. Be able to touch them. At the crucial moment," he tells his stupefied friend.
Bowled over, but impressed by his friend's frankness, Howard declares that "this is real intimacy." "Now," he declares, "it's my turn." If Arthur's secret was sexual, Howard's is professional. He resigned from the mutual fund to explore other possibilities in life. However, far from living contentedly in early retirement, he has tried desperately to get his job back and been rejected. As a result he must watch his replacement, Jerry, enjoying the success and money that he once earned. Far from being the paragon of stability and self-knowledge that he appears, Howard is really a puddle of anxiety and envy. "You telling me this incredibly personal sexual detail," he declares to Arthur, "makes me ashamed of how I've been unwilling to show you my weakness. . . . You're a good man. . . . and no more than a man, but then you don't pretend to be."
Out of this surprising sequence of self-revelations comes the climax of the scene. Arthur, worried that his psychiatrist, Dr. Block, is in fact an evil genius, discloses the terrible crisis he is facing in his therapy: Block has confiscated the crucial paternal socks. Thus on the eve of his wedding to Lucille, Arthur is unmanned. He pleads with Howard, whom he regards as a tower of psychic strength and an adept in psychological lore, to confront the terrifying analyst in his lair, to recapture the indispensable socks, and to return them to the needy bridegroom. Flattered and challenged, Howard accepts the mission, as he realizes in a burst of understanding that this is the ordeal for which, all unknowing, he has been arming himself since quitting the mutual fund:
. . . everything's for a reason. I've been sitting here reading these books on the human mind for two years. I didn't realize it, but I've been preparing for something. Sharpening my sword for a confrontation. Dr. Block.
With this insight, the scene ends, and we move in scene two to Block's office and the confrontation of these adversaries, one acting as Arthur's champion, the other as his nemesis. Or so it seems until Block begins to work his "evil" analytical powers on Howard.
No sooner does Block lay eyes on Howard than he formulates a devastating assessment of his character:
You're a power devil . . . . You're insular. Probably have a wife like an orbiting satellite. . . . You exist in lonely splendor. But! But! Something's gone wrong. . . . [You long] for the love of a man. True love! . . . [But] you will not choose a peer and lose your precious superiority! And the bold dragon slayer in you has become the prisoner of his own armor.
Howard is stunned that this stranger can read him at a single glance. He tries to resist, parades his knowledge of psychology, describes and analyzes his own dreams. But every thrust is turned aside by Block; or rather transformed into a devastating counter thrust against Howard. Block demonstrates that Howard's dreams are disclosures of his own weakness, spite, and vengefulness, and that his motives in visiting the psychiatrist's office, far from rising out of concern for Arthur's welfare, are purely selfish. Thrusting the captive socks at Howard, Block delivers his verdict on Arthur's supposed champion:
You came into my office under false pretenses. You have a man you call a friend. He has a severe neurotic symptom. You enjoy an unequal relationship with this man. He appeals to your vanity and you rise to the bait. . . . You want to give a man a crutch so he'll limp forever. I want to kick the crutch away and exhort him to walk! Who is this man's friend? Who is this man's enemy? Do you want the socks or not?
At which point Howard bursts into tears, acknowledging the justice of Block's indictment, and declaring his shame. But Block does not relent. He twists the knife repeatedly, telling Howard that he is "disgusting," that all he seeks is approval for himself, that he doesn't give a "damn about the bride and groom." Utterly undone by Block's assault, Howard acknowledges his defeat, refusing the socks his friend sent him to retrieve, and, as the curtain falls on Act One, accepting the penance Block exacts: he must tell Arthur all about his sordid behavior.
Act Two begins with a duet between Ellie, Howard's wife, and Lucille, Arthur's fiancée. Ellie comes to visit Lucille--who is trying on her wedding dress--to tell her about Arthur's obsession with his father's socks. Lucille is crushed. Unlike New York women, says this Texas Amazon, she wants to be happy, doesn't revel in neurosis, and can't abide the idea of psychological perversity. "I want a big, strong, confident, take-charge man," she says, standing under her picture of John Wayne. And Ellie finishes her thought for her, "You want John Wayne." But of course Arthur, a neurotic artist, is the opposite of the heroic westerner in every way.
Rather, it is Lucille herself who plays the role of the Duke in their relationship. "I think you are John Wayne," Ellie announces, while Arthur is "Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man." (The Quiet Man, directed by John Ford in 1952, provides some striking parallels with the plot of this play. John Wayne plays a disillusioned American who flees to his mother's birthplace, Innisfree in Ireland. There he meets and falls in love with Maureen O'Hara. They marry, but on the day of the ceremony the bride's brother refuses to pay his sister's dowry. Maureen O'Hara is outraged that her new husband allows the brother to deny her rights, and refuses to consummate their marriage until John Wayne fights for her dowry.) Thus, Howard having failed, it falls to Lucille to assume the role of Arthur's champion and to fight Dr. Block for the "dowry" of the fatal socks.
The final scene takes us back to Block's office, this time for a confrontation between him and Lucille. The tough Texas woman enters the combat as full of self-confidence as Howard was, and suffers just as dizzying a series of reversals in her struggle with the powerful analyst.
Block's first tactic is to undermine Lucille's self-confidence by accusing her of a lack of femininity: "The degree to which you succeed in being your father is that exact degree to which you shall fail in your womanhood."
He then makes a pass at her which he just as quickly retracts, saying he was merely playing a scene for Arthur's sake, a pseudo-seduction that would allow Lucille to bolster her fiancé's limp self-esteem by telling him she had resisted because she loved him. Block wants Arthur to believe his manliness has been restored, not by another man, such as himself or Howard--an outcome which would just continue his problem of dependency--but by a woman, which would be spiritually liberating.
But having been insulted by Block, Lucille refuses to do anything he says, including marrying Arthur, until the analyst makes an acceptable apology for slurring her femininity. Block obliges, lavishing sexual flattery and seductive gestures on her, even taking her in his arms and blowing on her hair.
At the moment of this embrace, Arthur, Howard, and Ellie burst into Block's office. Arthur seizes his flustered fiancée from Block's arms, and she cries out, "Arthur. You saved me."
Lucille then demands the socks, Block hands them over, and she and Arthur and their friends depart for the wedding. As they exit, Block exults:
797 sessions. Case closed. . . . Ahh. Wedding bells. That old familiar theme. Man and woman. The archetypal picture. Society refrains from the ordinary and returns to the grand ritual.
So it seems that his manipulations and reversals have succeeded after all in restoring a right relationship between Lucille and Arthur, one in which he becomes John Wayne, the two-fisted savior, fighting the villain for the honor of his beloved, and Lucille is revealed not as a cowboy Amazon, but as Maureen O'Hara.
The play ends with Block intoning a kind of blessing on the newlyweds in which he begs for understanding of Arthur's sexual irregularities because,
It's a roundabout road
Most of what there is to understand about the people in this play is straightforwardly revealed by their actions and by their speeches about themselves and one another. It is, after all, a psychological farce in which all the characters compulsively analyzes themselves and everyone else.
The most salient fact about these characters is that each is a walking contradiction.
Thus, Howard professes friendship, helpfulness, and a desire for intimacy with Arthur, but Dr. Block exposes him as a "power devil" who only wants to exploit Arthur's weakness and neediness for his own selfish satisfaction.
Ellie appears to be a conventional wife, emotionally and financially dependent on her husband, living a life of material plenty and domestic happiness. But in fact her life with Howard is pure pretense. He has become psychologically unstable, and economically incompetent. Ellie, however, must struggle to maintain a prosperous facade, to appear to have "the winning hand" in life so that she can continue to face her friends. In order to keep up appearances she has, in fact, become the family breadwinner, learning how to make money in the commodities market, which is to say, displacing her husband in the area of his own expertise.
Arthur, the struggling artist, oppressed by his father, seems to be pathetically incompetent at playing the role of a real man--a problem made ludicrously explicit by his erotic need for his father's socks. He turns first to Howard and then to Lucille for help in confronting Dr. Block. And yet it is Arthur who, at the critical moment, breaks into Block's office to rescue his fiancée, undergoing a transformation from Maureen O'Hara to John Wayne that amazes everyone.
Lucille, the "Aztec Evita," the brash and outsized Texan, seems like someone who would be invulnerable to Block's manipulations. Her cowgirl commonsense and her John Wayne-like directness would seem to put her beyond the wiles of such a New York neurosis-monger. Yet Block manages to get under her skin, to find her weak spot when he questions her femininity. Like Howard she too is undone by her unacknowledged weakness. Even though she recovers her self-confident swagger, we know that Block has maneuvered her into playing the role he scripted for her in the drama of Arthur's recovery.
Dr. Block is the most complicated character in the play. Perceived by others as evil, he nonetheless succeeds in making their happiness possible. When he explains one of his many psychological gambits to Lucille, she asks incredulously, "am I to pull together from this that you are a good guy?" And when Block confirms her surmise, her response is "that sticks in my craw." It sticks because recognizing evil Block as a good guy is a piece of complicated moral understanding as difficult to swallow as a Brillo pad. But Block requires such self contradictory judgments. As he says about his motives (and the first sentence might apply to all the characters in the play): "I am driven by obscure propulsions of my own. . . . Arthur was driven to Art. This is my Art. Arthur is my subject, and I must get him right."
Classical humanism views the individual as a fully conscious agent capable of making free choices guided by reason. The psychiatric paradigm of human nature challenges this perspective. It sees human beings as governed not by the conscious mind, but by the unconscious, and human choice not as guided by reason and reflection, but as driven by the irrational forces of the lurking id. Psychopathia Sexualis, named after a famous nineteenth-century German textbook of sexual aberrations, is a farcical exploration of this view of man.
Outwardly mature, accomplished, and decent, the characters in the play are revealed as victims of their unacknowledged inner compulsions and weaknesses. Strip away these peoples' conscious facades, the play tells us with a laugh, and you will find lurking behind them perversity, rage, insecurity, vanity. But that's no reason to give up on love.
Alongside this rueful sense of the weakness and corruption of human nature, the play offers the consoling realization that we're all in the same boat. As Block says when challenged to explain his outrageous behavior, "I'm a man." Which is to say I am a farcical compound of reason and unreason, darkness and light, the ludicrous and the noble. To say one is human is to say that one is flawed. And yet we have to live together in the world as it is and as we are, which means we have to find ways of loving one another despite our deformities:
ELLIE. Maybe your husband-to-be's a sexual deviant. So what? What's the harm? . . .
This is the fundamental interplay of the drama, an oscillation between repulsion and acceptance, between the understandable urge to flee from the monster that lurks behind every known face, and the necessity to stay put and accept the terms of existence. Arthur sums up the insight--and the hope--that underlies the play's farcical turmoil: "If you can know everything about me, and love me, then I'm saved."
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why does Howard interpret his dream about the Greek and the Roman as he does? What cultural stereotypes is he drawing on in this interpretation?
2. What is the relationship of King Lear and the Fool in Shakespeare's play? What does that have to do with Howard and Arthur?
3. What is the meaning of "fetish?"
4. Does fetishism have a moral dimension? Why might it be considered undesirable to be a fetishist?
5. Do you agree with Arthur that Dr. Block is evil? Why? Why not?
6. Why is Lucille attracted to Arthur? What does one offer the other?
7. What does Ellie mean when she says that Lucille is John Wayne?
8. What is the function of the story Lucille tells about the shooting at the wedding dress store on Madison Ave.? What does it reveal about her character?
9. Do you think Dr. Block is really attracted to Lucille? Or is he just pretending to be to accomplish his therapeutic objectives?
10. Do you think Arthur will get over his fetishism?