Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Mrs Klein
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Mrs Klein

by Nicholas Wright

National Theatre

Cottesloe Theatre, 10 August 1988

The Infant Who Survives
by Margaret Walters

In 1934, Melanie Klein was at the height of her powers, settled contentedly in England with a reputation as an original, controversial thinker: She was already the fascinating and formidable figure who struck Virginia Woolf when they met at a dinner party as: "a woman of character and force and some submerged how shall say? not craft, but subtlety; something working underground. A pull, a twist, like an undertow: menacing. A bluff woman with large bright imaginative eyes."

She had come a long way Born Melanie Reizes in Vienna in 1882, she was the daughter of a not very successful doctor a Polish Jew much older than his wife. An older sister died when Melanie was four and her beloved brother Emmanuel when she was 20. As a girl she was ambitious, dreaming of studying medicine and perhaps specializing in psychiatry; but while she was still in her teens, she became engaged to Arthur Klein, a chemical engineer and friend of her brother and they married when she was 21.

The next few years were unhappy: life in a series of dull provincial towns with two small children, Melitta and Hans, was stifling and sad. But the family moved to Budapest in 1911, and she became a patient of one of the most brilliant early analysts, a close friend of Freud, Sandor Ferenczi. In 1914 her third child, another son, was born; her mother died; and she read Freud ON DREAMS. She never looked back. Encouraged by Ferenczi, she began to think of becoming an analyst herself. Her ambitions began to come true when she moved to Berlin in 1921. Her husband was working in Sweden, though they only divorced, arguing bitterly about custody, in 1926.

Child analysis was regarded as secondary still, a suitable job for a woman; and that's where Klein began. (Ironically, the major innovations and controversies of the next few decades would spring from child analysis.) She began to build up a practice, mainly with the children of colleagues (they believed in "prophylactic" analyses) and slowly established a reputation. According to Alix Strachey (like Klein, she was in analysis with Karl Abraham and was writing back to her husband in Bloomsbury), many of the German analysts patronized her: She was a woman, without academic or medical training, and often dismissed as "sound in practice but feeble minded in theory." Alix Strachey sometimes found Klein tiresome and faintly absurd: she never stopped talking, and-dressed up to the nines, "terrifically decollete, and covered in bangles and rouge" would insist on dragging her friend off to cafes and dances in search of adventures. But Strachey responded to her vitality and her restlessly creative mind; she became deeply interested in Klein's techniques and ideas and was largely responsible for bringing her to England, first for a series of lectures, then, in 1926, permanently.

Klein found England congenial; the British analysts were more open and pragmatic, and certainly more interested in working with children. She had already developed her techniques, using toys and play as an equivalent to dreams and free association with adults. By this stage, she had adult patients as well, but her most original work is about earliest childhood. Freud had said that "everything connected with [the] first mother-attachment seemed to me so elusive, lost in a past so dim and shadowy, so hard to resuscitate that it seemed as if it had undergone some specially inexorable repression:' It's precisely that shadowy stage that Klein tries to recover: She gives less weight than Freud to reconstruction of the past; rather she seeks the earliest phantasies and object relationships and defences as they're expressed, directly in a child's games, or she explores, through analytic transference, the psychic reality of the infant who survives, archaic, unmodified, in all of us.

Klein's work shocked those-and there were plenty of them even among analysts -who, despite Freud's work, clung to a sentimental and idealized image of infancy The baby she observes (with such passionate precision) is full of hate as well as love; it's racked by anxiety about external frustrations and threats, but also about its own angry and destructive impulses. It's envious, greedy, sadistic, and caught in a vicious circle, always expecting retaliation for its phantasied attacks. Klein maps the complicated and shifting mechanisms projection, introjection, splitting - evolved to deal with that rage and terror.

For Freud, the crucial point comes at three or four years old, with the Oedipus conflict; Klein believed that Oedipal conflicts start much earlier: Less than a year old, the baby moves into what she calls the "depressive position", and becomes aware of its mother for the first time, not as a collection of good and bad parts, but as a whole person for whom it has intensely ambivalent feelings. The way it manages its remorse and guilt and urgent need to make reparation for the phantasied damage done to the person it loves, is crucial for its future "normality" or illness. And in Klein's work, psychosis and normal development are not so far apart.

The lively debates around her ideas intensified in the late thirties as German refugees, including Freud and his daughter Anna, also a child analyst, arrived in England. Klein always insisted that she was simply extending Freud's work, building, for example on his late ideas about the death instinct; Freud, for his own complicated reasons, was less sure. But her theories, and her clinical practice, had become much more clearly articulated, and in many ways independent; a Kleinian school with its own nascent dogmatisms had emerged.

During the war a series of "Controversial Discussions" angry dogmatic on both sides, too often viciously personal nearly split the British Society. Klein's daughter throughout the debate, was an implacable opponent of her mother's work. They were never reconciled. Paula Heimann emerged as one of Klein's most articulate supporters, but by 1949 she, too, was protesting that she didn't want to spend her whole life in Klein's shadow and the two were estranged. Klein's creative energy continued into old age; ENVY AND GRATITUDE, as profound and challenging as anything she ever wrote, was published in 1957. She was still seeing patients, and still working on a paper ON THE SENSE OF LONELINESS, when she died in 1960.

Margaret Waiters is a freelance writer a regular contributor to BBC radio, and is film critic for The Listener
Credits
Melanie Klein Gillian Barge
Paula Zo Wanamaker
Melitta Francesca Annis
Music director/cello Gabriel Amherst
Violin Patrick Kiernan
Julia Singleton
Viola Rebecca Wexler
Director Peter Gill
Settings John Gunter
Costumes Stephen Brimson-Lewis
Music Terry Davies
Lighting Mark Seaman
Production Manager John Claus
Stage Manager Angela Fairclough
Deputy Stage Manager Paul Quinn
Assistant Stage Manager Valerie Fox
Assistant to the Designer Simon Basketter
Sound Nick Jones
Assistant to the Lighting Designer Linda Clayton
Costume Supervisor Stephanie Baird

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