Further contributions to the understanding of stage fright: what do psychoanalysts have to say?
When I wrote something about stage fright (Feb 20), I didn’t look to see if psychoanalysts had had anything to say about it. Now I’ve finished my essay, I had the time to look.
Why do psychoanalysts reckon performers sometimes get themselves fritted into non-performance? I found two papers which outlined all the various theories.
Both were by Glen Gabbard, a New York psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and academic. One was written in 1979, the other in 1983. Both begin with quotes from songs: the first from the Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends, the second from The Chorus Line’s The Music And The Mirror.
Like a good academic (and author of The Psychology Of The Sopranos), Gabbard read everything there was to read on the subject and summarised it for us lazier people. He found various ideas and theories about stage fright:
* It’s linked to anal erotism.
* It’s like blushing — gratification and punishment are combined in one symptom.
* It’s linked to guilt about early voyeurism — of the parents having sex, if only in the future performer’s fantasy world.
* It’s frozen self-regard — ‘narcissistic intoxication’ with oneself. (I really don’t get this one: narcissistic intoxication is scarcely unusual in performers: in fact, it’s more or less standard: the Madonna Complex maybe.)
* It’s castration anxiety — which the performer’s previous performances have failed to cover up.
* It sets in when the performer worries that the audience can see right through to his infantile sense of omnipotence.
* Performing is a secret attempt to recreate the perfect, idealised world of complete union with the mother — in the womb, perhaps — and the stage-frighted performer is worrying the audience will realise this is what he’s up to.
* A racial memory of being the outcast, ‘the stoned man’ is evoked — a Jungian one this. (By the by, in my — fairly extensive — experience, most performers are stoned men, after breakfast anyway.)
* It’s a flasher thing. ‘The performer is torn between the desire to expose his genitals to prove he is a fully-equipped sexual creature and the fear that the onlookers will find his equipment laughable.’
* The performer is a child. The audience is the adult. The child knows he is being childish and is terrified the adult will realise it.
* It’s linked to envy. ‘Performers tend to be an envious lot.’
* It’s linked to guilt. If I have something, it means it has to have been stolen from someone else. So I feel guilty. So . . .
* It’s narcissism.
Well, maybe. There are various variations on a basic theme there. There’s certainly something deep and uncontrollable going on with stage fright. I’m certain that it has meaning and that it’s a current reading of something historical — as that thing-of-the-past is re-read and reconstructed by the performer.
One idea I thought was a good way of expressing something that’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s spent time with musicians or actors. According to this view, performers are ‘mirror-hungry personalities’ — driven to look for approval and ‘sustenance for their famished selves’. They try again and again and fail again and again in ‘their desperate efforts to shore up a damaged self-esteem’. Even temporary success on stage only raises the prospect of future failure. So they fright themselves into inaction — which, at least, elides the possibility of failure.
Two last things. One, a witty line from Gabbard. ‘The childhood wish to romp about in the buff and display one’s genitals for all to see is revived in the act of performing.’ Again: think Madonna etc etc.
Two, a clever line from Gabbard, which resituates stage fright into the kingdom of the positive. ‘Perhaps it is fortunate that few performers ever completely master stage fright, for an intangible sense of communion between the performer and his audience might well be lost as a by-product of the mastery.’ Simple really: no possibility of failing also means no possibility of succeeding.