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Mrs. Klein by Nicholas Wright

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BBC Radio 4, 20 December 2008
 
Stories about psychiatrists who counsel their patients while leading chaotic personal lives of their own provide an intriguing premise for a story. Vincente Minnelli's 1970 film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever - based on a stage musical - offers a good example, with the shrink Pierre Chabot (Yves Montand) falling in love with his patient Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand), and finding himself transported into an imaginative world of the past, in which she becomes an aristocrat and he the servant. The vision is so attractive that Chabot eventually falls in love with Daisy and thereby learns to care for his patients rather than treating them as guinea-pigs in his research.
 
Would that Melanie Klein had learned this lesson. Based partly on biographical fact, Nicholas Wright's hit play told the story of her tempestuous relationship with her daughter Melitta (Eve Best). As portrayed by Janet Suzman, Melanie was the supreme egotist, treating her children Melitta and Hans as psychological case-studies by analysing their thoughts and desires and publishing the results in book form. This has helped to establish her worldwide reputation, but rendered her a terrible mother. Tiring of Melanie's endless Freudian intepretations, Hans rebelled by leaving the country and forging a relationship with an older woman. He died prematurely; but far from grieving for him, Melanie offered yet another Freudian reading of his motives. Meanwhile Melitta tried to pursue a career of her own as a medical doctor; but whenever she returned to Melanie's house she was treated like an infant, as if her mother could not entertain the thought that her daughter could live a life of her own. At length Melitta severed her relationship with her mother and returned Melanie's keys. Like Hans, she understood that the only way to pursue her own interests was to escape Melanie for ever.
 
The shock of losing both siblings might have proved too much for Melanie to bear; but she was such a self-centred personality that she persuaded Paula (Clare Corbett), another one of her patients, to fulfill the role. Wright ended his play with a macabre scene in which Paula played the dutiful daughter Melanie never had, promising lifelong devotion to her surrogate mother so long as the appointments keep coming. Wright left us with the disturbing thought that Melanie's experiences had taught her nothing about human behaviour; she continued to treat everyone as her patients, to be advised yet exploited for her own ends. Mrs. Klein was powerful stuff, requiring all three performers to display a range of emotions.