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Into the Shoulds - Sondheim and Freud

Into the Shoulds - Sondheim and Freud
Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Inspired by the stage version of "Into the Woods," this article provides an unusual psychological spin on the 2014 film.

Whether or not we agree with him, Freud was a genius. His cosmology is so compelling that it continues to pervade Western culture; nearly a century after he first developed it, his symbolic imagery still adds layers of meaning to literature, drama, and the visual arts.

It also enriches musicals, like "Into the Woods."

The irony is that Freud himself hated music, and considered it intrusive (according to his nephew, Harry). This alone could explain his dismal view of mankind, including his belief that the goal of therapy—or the best that anyone could hope for, even if they worked at it—was "to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness."

Now, this doesn't mean that all therapy is useless—it can work wonderfully well, given the right combination of talented therapist and motivated client. Like any healer/seeker pair since the beginning of time, the specific intellectual framework is less important than the fact that it's shared.

And they must share a place as well: a designated meeting ground where the healing and seeking can occur. (After all, the oracle never left Delphi.) Whether it's a couch or a temple, the place itself symbolizes wisdom. Each time you return you can measure your progress, because your old confusion lingers in the air.

Many Sondheim lyrics are laced with the kind of insights that are hard-won through therapy. There are also comical references to the people on both sides of the couch. In "Getting Married Today" ("Company") the altar-shy, hilariously neurotic Amy phones her analyst for help, but he can't see her til Monday, by which time she'll be floating in the river "with all the other garbage." In "Officer Krupke" ("West Side Story"), we meet two professional caricatures: the punitive social worker and the dotty Viennese psychologist.

But while psychological themes are found throughout Sondheim, only in Woods are the bittersweet lessons of the quest so prominent and so explicit. And only in Woods is there one sacred, scary place where everyone who needs answers must go.

So unless Sondheim writes something called "Tuesday on the Couch with Siggy," "Into the Woods" is his clearest mirror of therapy. At the same time, while agreeing that life can be full of frustration and despair, Sondheim gives us something that Freud never did: hope for change.

For therapy to work, it takes more than a place, more than believing, even more than the "aha!" moment when you finally trace the lineage of your pain. The process is much slower:

It takes care
It takes patience and fear and despair
To change...


And it takes two—including someone to tell if you do.

Such change will also require a visit to the woods—the cauldron of the id—where we confront the raw demands of our fears and desires. The truth waits there for those who dare to enter (just be sure you're home before dark...)

If we do dare, it's because we believe our wishes may come true, or at least our lives will make more sense, if we can unravel the mysteries that keep tripping us up:

You go into the woods,
Where nothing's clear,
Where witches, ghosts
And wolves appear.
Into the woods
And through the fear,
You have to take the journey.


The Tales of the Vienna Woods—i.e., Freud's—are similar to those told by Sondheim. For one thing, there's that unruly id, with its siren call of risky, selfish impulses, and there's also that mandate to finally face up to it, because "the farther you run, the more you feel undefined." But there's also help, in the ongoing presence of the Narrator/Analyst: he who describes, but does not judge.

In fact, all the problems found in Woods are familiar to any therapist (or any philosopher, which is essentially the same thing). Two of the knottiest are the necessity—and the risk—of choice:

You'd be better off there
Where there's nothing to choose
So there's nothing to lose


With choice comes responsibility—something else you can't avoid if your time in the woods (or in treatment) will have any meaning at all. People tend to get stalled when they blame all their problems on someone else—parents, of course, being the most popular candidates.

In fact, while the Witch could be blamed for daughter Rapunzel's arrested development—after all, she did lock her in a tower for many years—she also makes a good case for the ultimate futility of blaming, since everyone gets "smashed flat" at the last midnight, anyway.

Other therapeutic issues given musical form include trust and greed, courage and compromise, justice served and denied, and—perhaps most of all—love: love found, love betrayed, love lost. But whatever the issue, the goal is always the same: how to make the lessons clearer—and the pain a little duller—for the next time.

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