- Lady in the Dark as Musical Talking Cure
In his encyclopedic study Freud on Broadway, W. David Sievers called Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark the “first serious approach to musical theater based upon psychoanalysis . . . a milestone in American musical comedy as well as in the story of the influence of psychoanalysis upon the drama.”1 Given that the composer referred to the musical portions of Lady in the Dark as “three little one-act operas,” and in view of the work’s psychoanalytic subject matter, categorizing the work as an “opera after Freud” wouldn’t be much of a stretch.2 (The show’s backers would have balked at the label “opera” and its highbrow associations, of course, not to mention invoking the name of the great European psychoanalyst, Freud.)
In truth, the work really brings both senses of “after Freud” into play. It is “after Freud” in the sense that the enacted and musicalized psychoanalysis follows Freudian precepts, albeit not to the letter. And it is “after Freud” in that Weill saw himself as a composer working in what might be called a post-Freudian era, one that actually opposed psychology as a premise for art, whether in music or in drama. I’d like to address both of these connotations—both the historical and the systematic—as they pertain to Weill’s “musical play,” first, by situating Lady in the Dark in the broader context of his ideas about musical theater and, second, by analyzing its psychoanalytic elements. Some of these elements are Freudian; others are not so Freudian. This dual perspective in turn prompts the following question that derives from the ambiguity of “after Freud”: does Lady in the Dark represent a creative flip-flop on Weill’s part; or, conversely, can the two connotations of the title somehow be reconciled with each other?
The question of genre remained a central one for Weill throughout his career. Beginning with the one-act opera Der Protagonist, which juxtaposes high-voltage, late-Romantic espressivo drama with sardonic pantomime that breathes the cooler, more aloof air of a new objectivity, he drew on elements from disparate, incongruous traditions and conventions to frame his works. The medium conveys the message, and mixed media convey mixed messages. Consider another striking early example: the surreal ballet and film sequences in Royal Palace that place the mythological [End Page 134] action firmly in the here and now. In Weill’s third early one-act opera, Der Zar lässt sich photographieren, the gramophone tango underscores the incongruity of the fashionably attired despot. Modern dance music contaminates the classical Singspiel in the Mahagonny-Songspiel. Epic narration defines the neoclassicist frame of Die Dreigroschenoper. Choral commentary tempers the high drama of the epic opera Die Bürgschaft. Pastoral milieux are played off against a military state in A Kingdom for a Cow. Scenes drawn from biblical tales alternate with the story of a “timeless community” in exile in The Eternal Road. Traditional operatic arias and ensembles combine with Broadway production numbers in Street Scene. Folk song punctuates cinematic melodrama in Down in the Valley. And so on. In each case, the frame has significant stylistic and, more broadly speaking, conceptual consequences.
Lady in the Dark is no exception to Weill’s predilection for such dramaturgical counterpoint. Of the musical theater works that Kurt Weill wrote during his American years, it is the only one billed as a “musical play.” This fact may seem odd in at least two respects: first, the conventional generic label, which is quite nebulous and covers a whole range of works for the musical theater, could have been applied just as easily (if anything, less awkwardly) to several of his other Broadway works, yet it wasn’t. When he applied the label himself, Weill tended to do so in a broad, encompassing way. For example, when asked about the form he would use to express his ideas on the stage, he answered, “being a theater composer I would suggest the form of the musical play.” In response to the question “Is that something new?,” he replied with his own definition:
Not exactly. It is a form...