A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma!

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyPeeling away Freudian assumptions to reach a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A radiant new production of the musical Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival re-interprets a classic American love story for contemporary audiences.  With bold innovations in casting, staging, and choreography, the OSF production differs in many ways from the 1943 Broadway stage version and the 1955 Oscar-winning film.  Far from changing the story, these innovations amplify and extend its original, joyful spirit.

This is especially true with “the Dream Ballet,” the elaborate dance sequence that ends Act I.  Created by the legendary Agnes de Mille, the Dream Ballet has become an icon in the history of American musicals.  The new OSF production, directed by Bill Rauch and choreographed by Ann Yee, intensifies the emotional energy of this central moment in the play and deepens our psychological insight into the feelings and motivations of the characters.

At the risk of theatrical heresy, I will say the OSF production of the Dream Ballet is better than the original. It goes further in illuminating the emotional heart of this dramatized nightmare, and it peels away the original version’s mistaken psychoanalytic assumptions about female sexuality to reveal a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyA quick recap of the plot: Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and Ali Hakim, a Persian traveling salesman, are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s girlfriends.

The OSF production makes two significant changes in casting.  Curly is played by a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, and Ado Annie is now Ado Andy, played by a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens.  The love triangles are the same, but the gender dynamics have changed, and the Dream Ballet changes, too.

The new production makes it easier to recognize that Laurey’s dream is not about a romantic choice between Curly and Jud.  The preceding scenes make it clear that Laurey only agreed to go to the Box Social with Jud in order to spite Curly (“I did it because Curly was so fresh”), and she confesses to Aunt Eller that she’s deeply scared of the brooding, resentful Jud: “Sumpin’ wrong inside him, Aunt Eller… I know what I’m talkin’ about.” In the OSF version, Laurey’s romantic desires are obviously inclined toward the female Curly, which doubly emphasizes her sexual disinterest in Jud.

What, then, is Laurey dreaming about, if not a choice of Jud versus Curly?

The dream begins with a playfully sensual dance, in which Laurey revels in the pure freedom of movement and feeling that open up to her within this imaginal space.  A spotlight tracks her as she dances and floats across the stage, casting an enormous, graceful shadow on the screen behind.  Then Curly enters the dream and joins her dance, along with other shadow spirits who further enliven the increasingly romantic atmosphere.  The dancing gradually morphs into a beautiful wedding procession.  But just as Laurey is ready to pledge her vows to Curly, Jud steps between them.

Everything suddenly darkens, as Jud takes control of the dream space and everyone’s behavior within it. He seizes Laurey, casts Curly aside, and forces all the other characters to conform to his personal desires, desires that have been stoked by the pornographic pictures in his smoke house.  The women from these pictures now enter into the dream and move around the stage like harlequin puppets, mimicking sexual acts with a robotic lack of emotion.

The most striking innovation in the OSF version of the Dream Ballet occurs at this point, when Jud commands that two characters with non-traditional gender presentations be forced to switch their clothing, so they look like a “normal” man and woman.

Laurey seems utterly helpless as Jud imposes his will on her dreamscape, turning it into a nightmare of paralyzing weakness and vulnerability.  When Jud rises up against Curly and violently attacks her, pounding her with wooden logs and punching her mercilessly, Laurey is terrified that Curly might actually die under the assault.

At that moment, Laurey’s agency suddenly returns.  She steps between them, letting Jud know she will accept him if he will let Curly live.  Jud agrees, the violence ceases, and the dream ends.

If, as I’ve suggested, the dream is not about Laurey’s romantic indecision between Curly and Jud, then perhaps their presence in her dream should be viewed in less literal terms.  Perhaps their significance is more symbolic or metaphorical in meaning.

A good way of testing that idea is to apply the “Gestalt” approach of psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970).  Perls taught that one way to explore dreams is to treat them as inner theatrical productions, with every element of the dream—each object, setting, and character—representing some metaphorical aspect of the dreamer’s own personality.  The dramatic conflicts in dreams reveal parts of ourselves that are immature, alienated, or not yet integrated. The better we understand these conflicts, the more fully we can grow into our innate potentials for health and wholeness.

This is just one way to look at dreams, and many others could be validly applied here.  But let’s see where a Gestalt approach leads.

For Laurey, her conflicts in the play revolve around one of the most frightening experiences of human life: falling in love.  If she yields to her feelings for Curly, Laurey will have to let down her guard and emotionally open herself more than she ever has before.  She will become a new interpersonal being, a sexually mature adult, an intimate romantic partner.  To fall in love is to undergo a total transformation of the self.  The first scenes of the play make it clear that Laurey is, indeed, falling deeply in love with Curly, who just as clearly loves her back.  But for some reason, Laurey cannot openly express her feelings.  What’s holding her back?

This is where the Gestalt approach may help.  Using this method, we look for aspects of Laurey’s personality that can be described metaphorically as an “inner Jud” threatening to destroy her budding love with Curly.  And here, I believe, we come to an intriguing notion.  At least twice in the early parts of the play, Laurey behaves in quite Jud-like ways.

First, Laurey’s response to Curly’s songs to her (“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love”) follows the same emotional trajectory as Jud’s response to Curly’s song to him (“Poor Jud”)—their initial enchantment with Curly’s alluring visions turning to bitterness and disillusionment at how far the visions fall from reality.  Laurey berates Curly after the “Surrey” song, saying “Why’d you come around here with yer stories and lies, gittin’ me all worked up that-a-way?”, before furiously slamming the door on her.  Laurey’s angry distrust blocks her from accepting the uncertain future of a romantic relationship with Curly, just as Jud’s angry distrust prevents him from forming any kind of relationship at all.

Second, when Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to the Box Social, her goal is not to spend more time with Jud, but rather to provoke a jealous reaction in Curly.  Whether intentionally or not, Laurey tries to manipulate both of them to suit her personal needs and desires.  She treats Jud as an impersonal tool, and Curly as a passive object for her to control.  This is ultimately Jud’s deepest character flaw: his obsession with dehumanizing fantasies of power and control that seem to fulfill his wishes but in fact only make it harder for him to become truly intimate with real humans.

None of this is to suggest that Laurey is exactly like Jud in all ways, or that we should feel more sympathy for his violent behavior.  Rather, this Gestalt-informed approach suggests the Dream Ballet is a metaphorical vision of why exactly Laurey is having so much difficulty letting herself fall in love: She’s too much like Jud. To enter into a truly mutual and loving relationship with Curly, Laurey must first deal with the problematic qualities she shares with Jud.  As her dream vividly portrays, these qualities will kill any chance of a real relationship with Curly.

Laurey seems unable to stop Jud’s attacks on Curly in the dream, until she makes the active, conscious decision to embrace Jud.  Again, this does not signal Laurey’s romantic preference for Jud.  In a Gestalt view, this means that Laurey realizes in the dream the only way to save her love for Curly is to take responsibility for her own Jud-like qualities and grow into a larger self that can encompass these energies without being overwhelmed or dominated by them.  This greater emergent self is prefigured in the OSF production with Laurey’s magnified dancing shadow, a dark but graceful harbinger of growth to come.

To sum it up in Shakespearean terms, Laurey comes to a realization similar to that of Prospero at the end of The Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” (V.i.275-276)

Unfortunately, when Laurey awakens she immediately (mis)interprets the dream in a literalistic way, as instructing her to choose Jud over Curly. It takes the second act of the play for Laurey to recognize her mistake and learn how to express her true feelings.  She finally agrees to join Curly in marriage, and she rallies the strength to confront the “outer” Jud and tell him he’s fired.  In both instances, Laurey speaks with greater confidence, maturity, and passion than ever before.  She has indeed grown to become a newly conscious being, sure of her own expanded power, and yet willing to open herself fully and lovingly to another.

I would offer this same argument about the meaning of the Dream Ballet in the original production of Oklahoma!, but it would be a tougher case to make.  This is why I say the OSF production is better than the original, which was overlaid with so many Freudian preconceptions that Laurey’s deeper conflict is harder to appreciate.

According to Freud, whose psychoanalytic theories were enormously influential in the mid-20th century United States, dreams are fantasy fulfillments of unconscious wishes, usually sexual, that remain unfulfilled in waking life.  The Dream Ballet seems to fit this theory perfectly: Laurey naturally desires a sexual relationship with a real man, not a boy, and Jud’s postcard girls symbolize her own repressed erotic wishes.  Laurey’s mind may prefer Curly, but her loins favor the hot, fiery Jud. To resolve this conflict and fulfill her unconscious wish, the dream sets it up so that Laurey’s embrace of Jud appears to be a morally virtuous self-sacrifice, rather than the lustfully satisfying fantasy it truly is.  Both ego and id get what they want.

In the original staging, with Jud and Curly cast as men, such an interpretation makes a superficial kind of sense, especially with Curly having a gun in the dream that won’t shoot, a classic Freudian symbol of male impotence.  And yet this interpretation depends on a theory about “hidden” female sexual desire that is problematic, to say the least.  It suggests Laurey’s resistance to Jud is actually repressed unconscious desire.  When she says no to him, she’s really wanting to say yes.

As I’ve noted above, there is nothing in the text to justify the idea that Laurey is romantically attracted to Jud.  Only if Freud’s mistaken ideas about unconscious female sexuality are smuggled into the story can Laurey’s character and dream be interpreted in this way.

The OSF production liberates Laurey from these psychoanalytic shackles and brings forth a more authentic dimension of meaning in her dream that was always there, but not as evident in the original version.  With Curly cast as a woman, it becomes clearer than ever that Laurey’s deepest conflict is not simply about sex, but about love—the frightening, exhilarating, and transformative experience of falling in love with another person.

 

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, May 2, 2018.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly BulkeleyIn August of 1991 I joined a group of dream researchers from the U.S. and Western Europe on a journey to Golitsyno, a conference center just outside Moscow in the former Soviet Union, where we planned to meet several Soviet researchers for a gathering organized by Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak.  Just hours after our plane landed in Moscow on August 19, the airport was suddenly shut down by the Red Army; a military coup against the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, had begun.  All communications with the outside world were cut off.  Our only source of information was the state television, which offered nothing of substance and simply told everyone to stay calm. Alas, we didn’t.  As heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets, our jet-lagged brains struggled to process a surreal mix of fear, disorientation, and uncertainty about where this violent rebellion might lead.

But we had come to Golitsyno to talk about dreams, so that’s what we did, as reality itself took on a strangely dream-like quality.  Amid the various lectures and panel discussions, the most memorable session by far was a workshop on dream theater.  One person shared a dream, the rest of us chose a role to play based on an element from the dream–e.g., a character, object, setting, or emotion–and then we all performed the dream as a group, with the dreamer as the audience.  The process brought out incredible moments of insight, collaboration, creativity, and much-needed comic relief.  We were connecting with each other in a way none of the other conference sessions had allowed.  The attendees spoke a dozen different languages, so every verbal exchange involved a slow and laborious system of translation.  But here in the dream theater, we could act and react to each other immediately, spontaneously, right in the moment.  We found the best way to make sense of a world teetering on the brink of chaos was to play with each other’s dreams.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Among the many vivid impressions from Golitsyno, this workshop gave me a deep and lasting curiosity about the oneiric dimensions of live dramatic performance.  Plays are collective dreams. That has been my hypothesis ever since.  A live theatrical show provides a magical space where people can dream together, where shared imaginal experiences can be created, enjoyed, explored, and amplified.  

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

It turns out this hypothesis has a long history in the psychology of dreaming.  When Carl Jung (1875-1961) taught classes on dream analysis to graduate students at the University of Zurich in the late 1930’s, he told them to start the interpretation of a dream by treating it as the personal theater of the dreamer.  Many dreams have a “dramatic structure” that directly parallels the structure of a theatrical play.  Jung showed his students how to identify four elements commonly found in stage dramas: 1) the locale, where the dream is set and who is present as a character; 2) the exposition, what kind of problem motivates the characters and launches the plot; 3) the peripeteia, how the plot unfolds and changes over time; and 4) the lysis, how the plot ends, with or without a clear resolution.  Analyzing a dream in these terms does not automatically produce a definitive, unambiguous answer.  That was never Jung’s goal.  Rather, his theatrically inspired approach was aimed at opening up new vistas for interpretative inquiry, highlighting potentials for creative growth while making sure the meanings stay grounded in the dreamer’s lived experience.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

The Gestalt psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970) took Jung’s approach a step further.  In his workshops and seminars Perls taught his students to reimagine dreaming as a theater of their own minds: “Every part, every situation in a dream is a creation of the dreamer… Every aspect of it is a part of the dreamer, but a part that to some extent is disowned and projected onto other objects.”  Perls emphasized the value of dreams in helping us become more aware of the alienated parts of our psyche, with the goal of eventually embracing those detached elements in a greater whole: “Dreamwork is the royal road to integration.”  By “dreamwork,” Perls meant a process of live psychodrama very similar to what we practiced in Golitsyno.  He asked for the dreamer to narrate his or her experience in the present tense, like a story happening right now, because “we want to bring the dream back to life.”  He gave the dreamer the title of “stage director” for an impromptu dramatic recreation of the dream, with various members of the group serving as characters, settings, and props.  Perls encouraged the performers to engage in spontaneous dialogues, the better to highlight unconscious projections and alienated parts of the psyche.

The dream theater method my colleagues and I learned in Golitsyno was not as directive and goal-driven as Perls’ approach, which focused on the therapeutic effects of provoking confrontations and reconciliations among the various elements of the dream.  Our practice was more open-ended, exploratory, and self-guided; it was not therapy, although it felt deeply therapeutic for many of us.

In his 1984 book Film and the Dream Screen, the literary critic Robert Eberwein used psychoanalytic language to account for the dream-like qualities of watching a movie.  Drawing on Freud’s theory that dreams reveal our earliest childhood memories of total fusion with reality, before there were boundaries between self and other, Eberwein claimed:

“Our experience of film permits us to return to the state of perceptual unity that we first participated in as infants and that we can know as dreamers. The ‘sleep’ in our experience of film, that is, will be seen to return us to the primal sense of unity with our dreams. As a result, we are able to watch and feel a sense of involvement in the images on the screen, the distinction between res cogitans (the mind) and res extensa (external reality) having dissolved as we enter into the oneiric world of film.”   

I don’t entirely agree with his views of early child development (humans are relational beings from the start), but I do believe Eberwein’s approach is helpful in highlighting a powerful dimension of dreaming energy that becomes activated when watching a movie.  Indeed, I believe this argument can be made even more strongly in relation to attending a live theatrical performance, where the visceral immediacy of the drama comes closer than any other art form to invoking the startling beauty and electric intensity of an actual dream.  In a play, the audience and actors share an imaginal space they create and hold together.  Within this space, a story emerges that grows and takes a unique shape according to their dynamic interactions during the performance–the live presence of the actors intensifying the emotional responses of the audience, and the live presence of the audience stimulating the creative talents of the actors.  The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable.  They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Last year I joined the board of directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, where some of the greatest theater on the planet is being created and performed.  From February to November, eleven plays (usually 4-5 by Shakespeare, one big musical, and the rest original commissions for OSF) are presented in three interconnected theaters.  The 2017 season performances began a few weeks ago, and just recently the 2018 season was announced, with favorable attention to OSF’s passionate commitment to presenting plays, both classic and new, that reflect the full range and diversity of the world in which we live today.  I’m very excited to do what I can to support the members of this amazing artistic community as they weave dreams and cast dramaturgical spells that transport audiences into imaginative spheres of beauty, wonder, and fiercely relevant insight.

 

Notes:

I wrote more about the Golitsyno experiences in a chapter titled “Dreaming in Russia, August 1991,” in my 1999 book Visions of the Night (SUNY Press).  My roommate at the conference center, Michael Dupre, wrote about his experiences in a 1992 article titled “Russia. Dreaming. Liberation.” (Dreaming 2(2): 123-134).

The Jung quotes come from the 2010 book Children’s Dreams (Princeton University Press).

The Perls quotes come from the 1970 book Gestalt Therapy Now (Harper).

In a future post I will write in more detail about the work of Robert Bosnak, who organized the “Dreaming in Russia” conference and who has done extensive work connecting dreams and theater, and Janet Sonenberg, who wrote the 2003 book Dreamwork for Actors and who has worked with Bosnak in theatrical contexts.

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 4, 2017, and has been slightly revised.