Representation of Trauma and Recovery in Bryony Lavery’s Play Frozen

by Katharina Dellbrügge (Author)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 26 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Trauma - More than a Medical Diagnosis
2.1. About the Concept of Trauma
2.2. Trauma Drama and Bryony Lavery’s Frozen

3. Thawing and Transformation
3.1. Agnetha - a journey towards acknowledgement
3.2. Ralph - a journey towards remorse
3.3. Nancy - a journey towards acceptance and forgiveness

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Bryony Lavery’s play Frozen consists of two acts and 30 scenes and was first performed by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1998. The three main characters of the play are Agnetha, an American psychologist, Nancy, a mother whose ten-year- old daughter Rhona gets abused and killed, and Ralph, a sexual serial killer who also murdered Rhona. All three of them can be regarded as traumatised characters and in the beginning of the play they are, literally, frozen, because they are “captured in and paralysed by their past experiences” (Wald 2006: 111) of dolorous events.

However, Lavery allows each of them to take a journey towards a melting of their frozen states: Agnetha learns to acknowledge the loss of her colleague, friend and lover; Ralph realises what he has done and encounters remorse for his crimes; Nancy progresses from a state of determined hope to painful bereavement and thoughts of revenge, but finally reaches a state of acceptance and forgiveness. Rhona, although absent from the stage, is the play's driving force. Her early and brutal death serves as a kind of “catalyst for the three characters' emotional awakenings” (Svich 2004). Simultaneously, the characters’ developments and interactions send the audience on a journey of their own. Among other things the play “explores the idea of forgiveness for unforgivable acts” (Falduto 2007) and we are forced to reflect on personal and moral questions raised by it: Would I be able to cope with such incidences? Could I forgive a man like Ralph?

While Act One consists of monologues which construct the three storylines in a mosaic fashion and illustrate the frozen conditions, Act Two is build upon some dialogues and contact between the characters. The peak of action is reached when Nancy visits Ralph in prison. This structure seems to correspond to Judith Lewis Herman’s statement that “recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation” (1997: 133). That the melting in Frozen does not necessarily correspond to a recovery from the individual trauma will be shown in the course of this term paper. Its aim is to investigate how the concept of trauma is represented in the play, which in this case implies a focus on the illustration of the characters’ frozen states and their “melting”. Therefore I will first provide an overview of the concept of trauma and will place Frozen into the context of “Trauma Drama”, before I move on to a close reading of the play.

2. Trauma - More than a Medical Diagnosis

2.1. About the Concept of Trauma

According to Kirby Farrell, trauma in contemporary culture “is both a clinical syndrome and a trope something like the Renaissance figure of the world as a stage: a strategic fiction that a complex, stressful society is using to account for a world that seems threateningly out of control” (1998: 2). Being a concise description of the concept of trauma, this section will examine these two aspects by focussing on the clinical definition of trauma as well as its appliance in cultural and social discourses.

In the beginning the term “trauma” (Greek for “wound”) was used to describe physical wounds (cp. Leys 2000: 255). Over a century ago, however, it “took the leap from body to mind” (Hacking 1995: 183), i.e. the psychological impact of traumatic events became more recognised and by the end of the nineteenth century the term began to be associated with a wounding of the psyche. Since then, different names were created for describing this impact, among them “compensation neurosis”, “nervous shock”, “hysteria” and “war neurosis” (cp. Yadin and Foa 2007: 178).

Nowadays, the classification of “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) has replaced or subsumed the earlier concepts. It became widely known after the Vietnam War, when its use as a legal defence for veterans elicited remarkable media coverage (cp. Farrell 1998: 11). Later on, campaigns of veterans and women’s advocates demanded that it should be included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Their request got fulfilled in 1980 and simultaneously the public’s awareness of the pervasive symptoms that follow the traumatic experiences of war and sexual abuse grew (cp. Wald 2007: 100).

The fourth edition of the DSM (DSM-IV) places the PTSD in the section on “anxiety disorders”, which includes mental disorders like Panic Attack, Social Phobia and Dissociative Identity Disorder (cp. APA 2005: 393). Accordingly, anxiety seems to be perceived as a core component of PTSD. The manual describes a diversity of possible traumatic events and reactions, which might indicate the onset of PTSD, and finally summarises:

The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present:

(1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others
(2) the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

(APA 2005: 427)

This summary indicates that the disorder is strongly connected to the triggering event and cannot be diagnosed in the absence of it. The class of events, which are considered to be traumatising, was consistently expanded and now includes a wide range of assaults, accidents and disasters experienced by oneself, family members or friends (cp. Luckhurst 2003: 29ff). In general, an event that is able to traumatise someone, “is so overwhelming that it cannot be grasped emotionally and intellectually at the time of occurrence and resists being accounted for in a coherent or meaningful way after the event” (Wald 2007: 96). This implies that apart from an immediate impact the trauma also has belated influence on the traumatised person who becomes “possessed by an image or event” (Caruth 1995: 5).

Furthermore, the PTSD diagnosis requires the person to meet three symptom criteria (cp. APA 2005: 428). Firstly, the reexperiencing of the event, for example in nightmares, flashbacks or psychological distress at exposure to reminders of the event. Secondly, the persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event and a numbing of general responsiveness. Thirdly, the occurrence of increased arousal, for example sleep disturbances, outburst of anger or difficulties with concentrating. These symptoms must persist for a minimum of one month and they must cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (ibid.: 429). If the symptoms persist longer than three months, PTSD is regarded as chronic (ibid.).

Such descriptions might lead to the assumption, that the traumatic event is the sole cause of PTSD. The fact that only twenty per cent of those who experience such an event develop PTSD questions this (cp. Rousseau and Measham 2007: 278). It rather seems, as Arieh Y. Shalev suggests, that these events are “necessary, but certainly not a sufficient cause of PTSD” (2007: 207). He argues that other factors such as education, inheritance, social bonds and childhood experiences have to be taken into account, too, because of their influence on the individual grade of vulnerability.

In addition to this individualised perspective on trauma, it also bears implications on a societal level. As humans are suggestible by emotions and behaviour of others, traumatic symptoms like fear, arousal, sorrow or anger can be seen “as a category of experience that mediates between specific individual’s injury and a group or even a culture” (Farrell 1998: 12). Moreover, “human trauma is essentially embedded in language and in other species-specific complex signalling processes” (Shalev 2007: 220). This was evident, for example, when many civilians who were not under direct threat expressed PTSD symptoms in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (cp. ibid.: 220). In that sense one can argue that PTSD embeds a kind of contagiousness.

Maybe that has contributed to the fact, that its “rise as a medical concept has been concomitant with its fast-growing importance in artistic and popular discourses” (Wald 2007: 94). Today the term “trauma” does not only refer to a medial concept, it rather serves as an explanatory pattern for individual fates, society issues and collective phenomena. According to Roger Luckhurst (2003: 35) this trend started in the 1990s, when trauma began to operate in different discursive terrains such as law, health care, history, self-depiction, media and art. He even argues that this development caused a “cultural obsession with trauma” (ibid.: 40). This claim is supported by the fact that the concept of trauma increasingly occurs in scientific articles or theories as a cultural trope. Essays using labels like “wound culture” (Seltzer 1998), “traumatized communities” (Erikson 1995) or “traumaculture” (Luckhurst 2003) are only three examples among many others. Another indication is the young, but fast-growing and widely recognised interdisciplinary field of trauma studies. Taken together, trauma can indeed be considered to be a dominant cultural formation for Western societies (cp. Wald 2007: 2).

World views based on this concept, though, bear certain inconsistencies and problems, especially when it is applied in the articulation of subjectivity:

The idea of a ‘traumatic subject’ is peculiarly paradoxical: trauma is, after all, held to disaggregate or shatter subjectivity; trauma is that which cannot be processed by the psyche yet lodges within the self as a foreign body, dictating its processes and behaviours in opaque and alarming ways. To organise an identity around trauma, then, is to premise it on exactly that which escapes the subject, on an absence or a gap. (Luckhurst 2003: 28)

Why nevertheless a trend occurred to define subjectivity and consequently society in terms of such gaps, is not easy to answer and would go beyond the purpose of this term paper. What matters in this context is the existence of “a public gathering around the wound and the trauma” (Seltzer 1998: 109), as questionable as it might be, and in particular its influence on the area of theatre.

2.2. Trauma Drama and Bryony Lavery’s Frozen

In analogy to the notion “traumaculture” the genre “Trauma Drama” came up to describe dramatic works, which have been produced since the late 1980s and implicitly or explicitly focus on trauma issues (cp. Wald 2007: 5). Once accepted that society and individuals are strongly influenced by traumatic events and the concept of trauma, such plays “might be closer to audiences’ notions of reality than more traditional dramatic forms” (ibid.: 216).

Apart from the deployment of the trauma theme, these plays share some other characteristic features. Firstly, as the topics dealt with are rather cheerless, Trauma Drama tends to include comic elements (cp. Wald 2007). These elements provide relief to a certain extend, “but also serve as an instrument of humiliation and offence”, and due to their “merciless and sarcastic quality” they even enforce the dark atmos- phere of a play (ibid.: 128). Secondly, they normally depict trauma from a pre- or post- traumatic perspective and do not stage the original traumatic scene (cp. Wald 2006). This reflects the suggestion of trauma theory that trauma is constituted belatedly and that the traumatic event itself escapes narrative memory (ibid.: 115). A third common feature of Trauma Drama is the non-realistic treatment of time and space (cp. Wald 2007: 143) which again reflects the belated and non-understandable character of trauma. In addition, this blurring of spatial and temporal boundaries creates an atmosphere of dislocation which reflects, according to Cathy Caruth, the nature of a traumatic event: it refuses “to be simply located” and insists to appear “outside the boundaries of any single place or time” (1995: 9).

Another characteristic of Trauma Drama is the creation of “an aesthetic of traumatised realism” or even “psychopathological realism” (Wald 2007: 158) which is achieved via different means. The action is set in identifiable, contemporary places and therefore encourages the “audience’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in the story and characters presented” (ibid.). This “stage realism” is eroded, though, by aprivileged representation of the internal reality of the protagonists, which might be achieved at the expense of neglecting the external reality (ibid.). Moreover, the plays employ traumatic modes as dramatic modes, i.e. they draw on two typical modes of representing the traumatic event, namely acting out (in a non-narrative fashion) and working through (with the help of narration) (cp. ibid.: 99).1 Despite such resemblances it should be recognized, that “the plays stage the figures’ symptoms with reference to, but by no means strictly according to, the established clinical syndromes involving traumatisation” (Wald 2007: 95). As will be shown in the following passages, Bryony Lavery’s Frozen reflects all these characteristic features and consequently can be considered as an example of Trauma Drama.

Comic elements can be found throughout the play and are especially present in the character of Agnetha. How she manages her outburst in Scene One, for example, has a comically professional manner, because she incorporates therapist and patient at the same time: “She forces herself to explode into spurts of anguished howls, as if mourning were a scheduled, self-contained activity like an exercise session.” (Brant- ley 2004) Additionally, Agnetha shows a sarcastic humour at several points. In Scene Six she gets drunk on the plane and thinks of a headline for her thesis while writing on her laptop. As she is waiting for the flight attendant to come, she keys “Brandy Refill… a Forlorn Hope?” (18)2. Shortly after she writes a comically tragic hate-mail to her dead friend and even sends it. Her sarcasm is also apparent during her meetings with Ralph. In Scene Six, for example, the following dialogue takes place:

Ralph assents … big accommodating gesture. As she measures his head. He sniffs her.

She writes.



Agnetha: No.

I think probably Chanel Number 19 and a mild and gentle soap.

Stop being dangerous, Ralph. (36-37)


1 Ruth Leys (2000:40) refers to the narrative quality of these modes as mimesis and diegesis.

2 All other blank page references in brackets also refer to Frozen.


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Representation Trauma Recovery Bryony Lavery’s Play Frozen


  • Katharina Dellbrügge (Author)

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Title: Representation of Trauma and Recovery in Bryony Lavery’s Play Frozen