AGPA & ‘The Great God Pan’: Timing, Triangles and Trauma

Today’s rehearsal marked the end of our ‘play reading study group’ format whereby we combined play reading with a free associative discussion of the actors’subjective experience of the characters.Imagine us in a group therapists’ upscale private office, sitting comfortably in a circle of fashionable furnishings and original art, coffee in hand, and no immediate pressure to perform for an audience bigger than ourselves—private, protected and intimate.This necessary luxury helped create an emotional climate where trust could develop.
Now we are moving into a more traditional theater rehearsal phase. The new venue is a large conference room with fluorescent lights, mismatched hardback chairs and officewindows looking out onto a barren rooftop.  But the actors will get to be up on their feet, using their whole bodies and voices to connect with the power of the play and with each other. It’s a shock to the system at first, but the freedom to ‘let it rip’ without worry about disturbing the neighbors will outweigh the loss of creature comforts we so enjoyed in our study group phase.

The triangle is a meaningful metaphor in psychology and group work, especially with trauma survivors. One noteworthy concept, useful for our examining the dramatic action and characters of The Great God Pan, is the drama triangle.The DT was made popular 40 years ago by noted psychiatrist Stephen Karman who specialized in Transactional Analysis. His drama triangle conceptualizes what he believed were universal victim/perpetrator/rescuer dynamics operating within and between human beings. Damsel-in-distress, villain & hero is a popular interpersonal translation of this concept. 

The TA therapist sees dysfunction as motives, relational styles, behaviors and belief systems that reflect conscious and unconscious efforts to avoid true, authentic living.  This tripartite model can be applied both to the individual (as an internalized capacity to fluidly shift from position to position, rather than being permanently fixed in one role) and to interpersonal relations, whereby individuals can induce certain complementary behaviors in another in the service of ‘getting their way’. While we have many different clinical lenses through which to observe, reflect and interpret, the drama triangle is a particularly interesting one.  Imagining the characters of Pan as struggling to take responsibility for their lives, in an authentic and courageous way, seems intuitively right to me.  This is the struggle I also see the actors taking up in good faith as they work to empathically access corresponding parts of themselves, in the service of understanding their character.

In her book, The Body Remembers, trauma specialist Babette Rothschild, MSW states “the consequences of trauma … vary greatly depending on the age of the victim, the nature of the trauma, the response to the trauma, and the support to the victim in the aftermath… [Victims] may alternate periods of over-activity with periods of exhaustion as their bodies suffer the effects of traumatic hyper-arousal of the ANS [autonomic nervous system].  Reminders of the trauma they suffered may appear suddenly, causing instant panic. They become fearful, not only of the trauma itself, but also of their own reactions to the trauma. The body’s signals that once provided essential information become dangerous” (p. 13, 14).  The mind may or may not be capable of conscious memory of trauma’s origins. But the body remembers.

In The Great God Pan, the character Frank Lawrence has tentatively confirmed some basic facts of his childhood sexual abuse, using a mixture of partial cognitive recall, awareness of his body’s distressed cues and a confession of uncertain reliability by his perpetrator.  Therapeutic interventions have also helped him in his process of recovery. But he is not the only character in Pan with trauma history. Joelle, Cathy and Jamie are likely candidates. And if we consider the impact of vicarious trauma, a consequence of the bearing witness of another person’s trauma (an occupational hazard for therapists and caregivers), then everyone in Pan is suffering to some degree from the effects of traumatic stress.  And we/you as the audience risk being traumatized in the act of bearing witness to the characters’ bearing witness of trauma. No one escapes. Playwright Amy Herzog’s general interest in memory as a dramatic theme is subtly woven into the fabric of her play, ranging from benign forgetfulness to more traumatic responses of dissociation and denial and to aging-related dementia.
Last night, prior to today’s rehearsal, I had a ‘bad dream’. In my dream I was back working in the domestic violence clinic where I started my social work career, while simultaneously maintaining my private practice. My boss in the clinic of my dream is a Catholic nun whom I fear.  In the dream I thought, “What am I doing here! I should quit and just work in my private practice. This is too stressful”. When I woke and recalled the dream I thought, “What am I doing directing this play! I should quit and just work in my private practice. This is too stressful!” After the rehearsal I felt differently.  The courageous and creative work of my colleagues and the opportunity to share in an experience of learning, healing and growth with them makes the effort worthwhile.
The creative process takes a toll. Writing about the week-to-week experience of our work together feels like worthwhile resilience building.

Bob Schulte