What Makes People Crazy?

Watching two people descend into madness and seeing the causes

Posted Aug 18, 2011

descent into madness
The sky was cloudless, the sun hovered above the horizon and then disappeared in a burst of orange and pink, and when the music came up, I hardly expected to be a schizophrenia spectator. But there I was, sitting in the audience at the Santa Fe Opera, watching a stunning performance of Wozzeck, with jagged, modern music by Alban Berg, and short, cinematic scenes based on the original, unfinished play by Georg Buchner (who died at age 23 in 1837).

Everything in the production-the dissonant, atonal music, the vocal gymnastics that leapt from melody to shrieks to half-sung words, the stylized vocal undulations and physical gyrations of the singers and dancers, the taut stage direction, the cleverly disintegrating set design-focused on the descent into madness of Wozzeck, the hero, antihero, mind-crumbling central character.

At first, I could distance myself from Wozzeck: after all, he is uneducated, a soldier, a barber, wracked by poverty. But with each successive note of the opera, his plight became more relatable: external pressure, abuse and alienation were pounding him. I thought of the daily news I read, and the broad swath of people I know and hear about who are suffering from economic distress, being humiliated at work but desperately clinging to their jobs, suffering from the infidelities of a mate, surrounded by unstable or toxic people, retreating into their heads, isolated, frightened, and steps away from mental disintegration. I stared at the stage, mesmerized: Wozzeck could be me, or someone I know.

Although, from what I can glean, Wozzeck is usually considered to be an opera about the main character's descent into madness, the provocative production I was watching made it patently clear: Wozzeck was being DRIVEN crazy. His girlfriend, the mother of his child, was cheating on him. When he caught her in flagrante, with the Drum Major, she continued her sexual dalliance in front of him. The Drum Major is a vain narcissist, but Wozzeck's impecunious beloved is seduced by his position, his gifts, and his animal sexuality. And the Drum Major rubs salt into Wozzeck's emotional wounds by taunting him and beating him up.

Wozzeck, caving in under the weight of poverty, can barely sustain his young child. He gains a little money as a barber for the Captain, who tells him to move slowly, slowly, because, in some way, it slows time down and staves off death. The Captain is obsessed with both time and death, and Wozzeck is merely a stone in the path of his life, to be stepped on. To earn a little more money, Wozzeck is a subject in a bizarre experiment by the Doctor, to see what happens if a man subsists on beans alone. The Doctor is a cruel, sadistic, heartless man, who sees people as objects to be manipulated and studied.

I will not spoil your opera experience by telling you exactly what happens to Wozzeck as he descends into pain, alienation and hopelessness, but it is a riveting dramatization of schizophrenia, alienation and violence. And the production leaves no ambiguity about what drove Wozzeck to this state: relentless economic struggle and the indifference and cruelty of the society around him have driven him mad.

A few nights later, still under the hypnotic spell of Wozzeck, I went back to the Santa Fe Opera for Faust. Although the tone of this masterpiece by Gounod is often much lighter, the theme of madness and a mind turning on itself are just as present.

We have all made Faustian bargains in our lives: we want something so badly that we are willing to trade our decency and morality to get it. In Faust's case, he is an old man who craves carnal satisfaction and youth. He makes a pact with Mephistopheles: he will become young again and win the heart and bed of the lovely, innocent Marguerite but the devil will own his soul. And, in the Santa Fe production, underscored by spectacular stage sets, costumes and lighting, the devil has a grand time leading Faust into a life of sexual self-indulgence.

Marguerite becomes the victim of Faust's lust, and it ends up destroying her. He gets her pregnant, in a society that rejects and punished unwed mothers, and then leaves her, to pursue his sexual adventures elsewhere. Marguerite is cursed and abandoned by her beloved brother, whom Faust kills in a duel. Driven to the edge of what is bearable, Marguerite murders her baby and is sentenced to hang. Faust returns to Marguerite, but it is too late. Just before she dies, she prays with such sincerity and passion that her poor suffering soul is carried to heaven and salvation. And where is Faust carried? To the hell he has bargained for?

It is possible to watch and listen to the opera with the distance of a spectator, but, if the human psyche interests you, you will likely get swept up into the inner life of the main characters. Faust is intelligent, a seeker, and unable to deal with encroaching age and a sense of all he has not accomplished. The life of the mind is not enough for him: his body craves the sensual, sexual abandon of youth. These needs are his shadow side, his bleak, obsessive thoughts, his unrefined, animal needs. He splits off from himself, abandons his sense of morality, and descends into his shadow side, taking Marguerite with him.

Like Wozzeck, Marguerite is a good, decent person who is driven crazy by pain, rejection, and isolation. Her parents are dead, and she lavishes her affection and attention on her brother, who ultimately curses and abandons her on his deathbed. She gives herself, heart and soul, to Faust, but she is just a stop on his dark journey into total self-indulgence.

At the end of the opera, where the singing is so searingly beautiful that I trembled in my seat, Faust becomes an old man again. There is the suggestion that perhaps the whole story was his own descent into madness, his own mental embracing of the dark side. He rejects it on his deathbed, and is saved from the horrors of the hell of his own mind.

The production was over. For a long moment, the audience held its collective breath and didn't move. Then there was a wild burst of applause and a sustained standing ovation. For the spectators, after both Wozzeck and Faust, it is clear that there had been catharsis. They had lived through madness but, happily, it was not their own.

If you go to the Santa Fe Opera (www.SantaFeOpera.org) there are entertaining, informative, not-to-be-missed free talks before the performance by Oliver Prezant. And if you want the world of opera to be unfurled for you, read Desiree Mays' book, Opera Unveiled (www.santafeopera.org/operashop)