Representation of Trauma in contemporary British Drama

Trauma in Beside Herself by Sarah Daniels

Term Paper 2009 17 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1 Introduction

2 Encountering The Traumatic Event

3 Living with Trauma

4 Facing Trauma

5 Conclusion



The daily overload of trauma in contemporary media is brought to the audience almost simultaneously to the actual event. Today reporters and camera teams siege the scenes of train and plane crashes, suicide bombings or school bombings shortly after their occurrence. The public is often left in shock assailed with impressions by the multiple channels of information as newspapers, radio, television or the internet. General interest of media hardly involves uncovering the long-term effects of such traumatic experiences. Hence media quickly loses interest if new traumatic events occur. Suitable examples for this exploitation of trauma are numerous, the latest one being of Kassandra who was imprisoned in a gully by a fourteen-year-old boy. After reporting a week about victim and perpetrator the topic got quickly dropped and the pictures of the tsunami victims in the Pacific Ocean rose into the centre of media attention. These daily appearances of individual and collective traumatic experiences lead scholars as Kaplan to regard trauma as a basic experience for people of the twentieth century (Kaplan 2005: 24), which can without doubt be adapted to the beginning of the twenty-first century as well. Other scholars as Luckhurst even speak of a traumaculture to describe the contemporary culture’s obsession with the topic of trauma (Wald 2007: 2).

While media often leave its audience stranded with the horrible images of traumatic events it is up to literature, movies and art to create a fully-fledged picture of the phenomena of trauma. Especially incidents that might at first hand seem to miss the potential of a traumatic experience or appear to be too frequent are taken up by these modes of representation. Therefore this paper deals with the play Beside Herself by Sarah Daniels, a British playwright, who succeeds in transporting trauma by letting the audience immerse into the daily life of the protagonist Evelyn. By applying psychoanalysis and contemporary trauma theory upon the play this term paper will argue that Sarah Daniels presents trauma in Beside Herself as a complex phenomenon rather than a single incident. Daniels avoids a direct confrontation with a traumatic scene on stage but lets the audience observe Evelyn in her daily struggle living with trauma. Throughout the play they get fed little by little with the different aspects of Evelyn’s trauma finally witnessing the encounter with her perpetrator, her father George. Although bringing in much of contemporary trauma theory this term paper will furthermore show that the basic concepts of trauma as created by psychoanalysis are still influential and applicable today.

The general structure of the paper will be build up by theoretical aspects of trauma, which will afterwards be applied upon the play Beside Herself. As a starting point, the first chapter of the main section will examine trauma from the perspective of its origin. Characteristics of traumatic events and their powerful impact upon the individual will be addressed. A closer look will be taken at the influence of social oppression in reference to traumatic experiences. Chapter two will concentrate on the consequences of traumatic experiences upon the individual and living with the traumatic memory. Therefore mechanisms of defence as repression by Freud and dissociation as described by van der Kolk and Hart will be discussed. The last chapter will deal with the individuals’ possibilities to overcome or face trauma. Hence testimony and the psychoanalytic theory of catharsis will be of interest. As with the origin of trauma, again aspects of social oppression will be addressed.


At the beginning of every trauma, according to Sigmund Freud, stands an event which confronts the psyche with an unbearable amount of information in a short period of time. The psyche is incapable of processing this amount of new information in such a short period and in a common manner, which results in an energetic imbalance within the person (Freud 1999: XVIII 284). What kind of event confronts somebody with an insurmountable amount of information depends on the individual sensitivity of the person (Freud & Breuer 2004: 9). Thus what makes a traumatic event different from any other event is the incapability of the psyche to consciously process the current situation according to common schemes. This notion of the traumatic event concentrating on a neurological explanation for the disruption within the human psyche points at Freud’s medical background. Freud who exercised as a doctor was especially interested in the mental disease of hysteria. Based on his observations and documentations of hysteric patients, Freud claimed that the aetiology of neurosis was one or more sexual traumas during childhood. This theory known as the seduction theory was later abandoned by Freud who concluded that it made no difference whether it was a real event or an infantile fantasy which served as the origin of the trauma (Freud 1999: V 152 ff). Caruth gets to the point when stating that a traumatic event “takes place too soon, too suddenly, too unexpectedly, to be fully grasped by consciousness” (Caruth 1996: 101).

Instead of direct representation of a traumatic event on stage Sarah Daniels works with the disruption of the protagonist Evelyn and other characters of the play. Therefore the audience does not witness a traumatic event but nonetheless is able to understand that the experienced events of the characters had a traumatic impact. This understanding derives from the recounts of the victims but also through the presented disruption of the characters. As the play employs an indirect representation of trauma, the dramatic force of the play evolves from the desire of the audience to gain insight about the causes and origins of a certain behaviour shown by the characters throughout the play. In the case of Evelyn the tension rises by getting more information about her and Eve, and the causes for her strange behaviour. This tension dissolves in one of the last scenes of the play when Evelyn confronts her father and he confesses her abuse.

Judith Herman puts forward a modified explanation for the uniqueness of a traumatic experience. Her argumentation displays a more psychological approach and assigns the traumatic event the power to overwhelm the ordinary human adaption of life (Suleiman 2008: 276). Furthermore she asserts that,

“Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They shatter the construction of self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.”

(Herman 2001: 51)

Compared with Freud Herman points to a revaluation of personal relationships and the self-understanding of the individual within the world. Hence traumatic events destabilise the individual and leave it in a vacuum unable to handle and assess the experience. This lets the individual arrive at the conclusion that nothing is as it has been before.

In Beside Herself the consequences of the destabilisation of relationships with others can be observed. Evelyn behaves awkwardly in the interaction with others. When Evelyn reports to Nicola about her abuse she tells her about her feeling that anyone knew or at least could have suspected what happened between her and her father. She felt disgraced by the others who smiled about her obedient behaviour towards her father when he ordered her to wipe herself with a hankie. At that time she even suspected her mother to know about the abuse through her father because she believed that certain words which had significance for her, must have been obvious for her mother too (Daniels 1994: 179f).

The current clinical conception of trauma calls for the uncommonness of an event to be traumatic. Laura Brown who works as a professional psychotherapist brings forward a contrary perspective. In her article ‘Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma’ she criticizes the criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’ (DSM III) for a traumatic event within the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Based on the clinical definition common events, regardless of their individual impact cannot be traumatic. But many events, which have the effect of being traumatic, are far from being uncommon. As Brown states in her article “as many as a third of all girls are sexually abused prior to the age of sixteen. “Incest wasn’t unusual, wasn’t ‘outside the range of human experience.’” (Brown 1995: 101). This goes hand in hand with Freud’s notion that the traumatic force of an event lies within the individual sensitivity, making it unnecessary for an event to be uncommon.

Daniels emphasizes this prevalence of sexual abuse during childhood by the occurrence of three further instances besides Evelyn’s. In the occasion of Nicola the abuse is never directly addressed. But throughout the play it becomes obvious to the audience that her stepfather abused her at the age of fifteen (Daniels 1994: 140,147,188). Gaynor Brittain reports about another case of abuse. She and her husband are representatives of rate-payers and she tells the audience in a monologue at the beginning of part two of the play about the abuse of her daughter by her brother (Daniels 1994: 160). The last instance of abuse is addressed by the committee of St Dymphna’s when reporting about Dawn as a possible candidate for a spot in the community home (Daniels 1994: 127). This high occurrence implies the commonness of sexual child abuse within society. At the time of the play this topic slowly moved into the focus of public debate through plays like Beside Herself which addressed it and showed that the topic was hushed up so far.



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ISBN (Book)
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University of Cologne – Englisches Seminar
Trauma Contemporary British Drama Drama Theatre Sarah Daniels Freud Psychoanalysis Literature Psychoanalyse Literaturwissenschaften Zeitgenössisches Britisches Drama



Title: Representation of Trauma in contemporary British Drama