Naked Came the Schizophrenic: Willy Holtzman's revealing play about Carl Jung's mistress gets a local staging

Jan 21, 2009 at 4:00 am

Where do writers get their ideas? Five years ago New Jewish Theatre mounted a sensitive production of Willy Holtzman's World War II drama Hearts. That biographical script, much of which is set in St. Louis, was drawn from the war experiences of Holtzman's father. By contrast Sabina, which opens at New Jewish next week, involves iconic characters Holtzman never knew: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Yet the impetus for this play, which is mostly set in Switzerland a century ago, literally walked into Holtzman's home — in his wife's hands.

An editor at Random House, one day she brought home a remaindered copy of The Secret Symmetry by Aldo Carotenuto, a Jungian analyst who had discovered the lost diaries of Sabina Spielrein, the little-known protégé of Jung. "The book was in translation from the Italian and essentially unreadable," Holtzman recalls. "But there were treasures buried in it. I got through it eventually and found myself intrigued by Sabina. She had gone from being a patient at a psychiatric facility to becoming Jung's first private patient and eventually his mistress. She then went on to graduate with a degree in psychiatry. She was one of the few people to be caught between Jung and Freud who was not destroyed by them, which makes her story all the more heroic.

"I was very taken with her struggle. I think everybody works hard to reconcile their inner world with the outer world. Today Sabina would be diagnosed as 'borderline personality.' Those people in particular are tormented with this disconnect between inner and outer reality. On top of that, to have fallen in love with the man who helped cure her, and to then be betrayed by him for career and political reasons — maybe we all feel like we've gone through that. Especially writers, where the inner creative world clashes with the harsh outer commercial world."

When two producers asked Holtzman to write a play about the contentious relationship between Freud and Jung, he countered with a proposal for a script about Sabina. The first production at Primary Stages in New York in 1996 went so well that when Primary Stages moved to a larger space in 2005, at subscriber request Sabina was restaged as the inaugural offering. "I guess you can't go wrong having a play about psychiatrists in New York City," Holtzman suggests.

But he also took advantage of that revival to revise Sabina. "When I first wrote the play," he explains, "there was very little material available on her. I had primary sources, and a professor at Skidmore gave me a translation of Sabina's dissertation, which was about her own case of schizophrenia. But by the time Sabina was revived nine years later, there was a cult around her. There are books now. So I had to catch up with the research."

But there are no transcripts of Sabina's sessions with Jung. "It was a source of real anxiety for me when I first wrote the play," Holtzman says, "because I thought: How do I know what was said between doctor and patient? Then I realized that this kind of invention is wonderful dramatic license. So it gave me the freedom to figure out what the play should be dramatically."

It is not, however, dramatic license to have Sabina naked onstage at the outset. "Her patient file said that she was often out of her clothes and masturbating," says Holtzman. "So when Marin Hinkle played the role in the first production at Primary Stages, she exposed her breasts and had her hand in her pants. My good friend Kenny Marks was playing Jung. He had to do his first scene in front of her doing that. He said to me, 'Why don't you give her a puppy to hold, too? Then no one will listen to a word I say.'"