Is there a doctor in the house?: Next week Freud steps on stage in terry Johnson's

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THE GREAT American critic Lionel Trilling once observed that the relationship between Freud and literature was a reciprocal one: if Freud's teachings had exerted an unparalleled influence on writers, it was no less true that imaginative writers had exerted a profound influence on Freud. Trilling might well have gone on to note that the type of literature which had told most deeply in Freud's intellectual development was dramatic. He admired Dostoevsky and Dickens and Don Quixote, but it was the playwrights who helped shape and corroborate his clinical insights. Had the father of psychoanalysis not learned so much from Sophocles, we might have had to learn to talk about the Copperfield complex.

There is one area, though, in which the reciprocal relationship between Freud and the dramatists - and their more recent counterparts in the movies - shows an interesting imbalance. Freudian notions, whether straight or diluted, can be found in just about every present-day manifestation of the cinema and theatre, and there is a glut of dramas about therapy or mental illness, yet there are remarkably few decent - or even moderately entertaining - plays, films or shows about Freud himself. The latest contender in a not unduly crowded field is Hysteria (sub-titled Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis), a play for the Royal Court by Terry Johnson, which concentrates on the final year of Freud's life, when he was living in exile at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead.

Somewhat in the manner of Johnson's earlier play Insignificance, which ran some variations on an imaginary encounter between characters modelled on Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Senator McCarthy, Hysteria takes flight from two of Freud's real-life encounters at Maresfield Gardens: the first with the eminent Jewish historian Professor Yahuda, who begged him not to publish his iconoclastic study Moses and Monotheism at such a dreadful time for their people, and the second with Salvador Dali, who made a lightning sketch of Freud and declared that the dying man's cranium was surrealistically reminiscent of a snail.

Theatre critics have yet to return a verdict on Hysteria, which also includes a tendentious account of Freud's suppression of his theories about infantile seduction fantasies. Without pre- empting the reviews, though, it can be said that Johnson's play, with its spirited amalgam of Rookery Nook-style farce and Daliesque hallucination, is a very long way from the plodding expositions of psychoanalysis that other playwrights have inflicted on the world. Indeed, it might at first appear that the least objectionable representations of Freud have been the ones which have been most openly fantastic or whimsical. Few of these have been quite as enjoyable as the encounter between Lorelei Lee and 'Dr Froyd'in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at the end of which the disconcerted analyst advises the girl to go away and cultivate a few more inhibitions.

Nicholas Meyer's lively romp The Seven-Per-Solution (1976) came close, however. Adapted from his own best-seller, this had Freud (played by Alan Arkin) joining forces with his contemporary Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) to solve a kidnapping case, thereby making some amusing capital of the ways in which the legendary attributes of both Victorian sleuths have become interchangable in the popular imagination: cocaine, consulting rooms, clients with too much cash.

No such sly myth-mongering flavours the cameo appearance by 'the Frood Dude' in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - a movie whose gleeful idiocy lends a fresh nuance to the title Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious - although there is a certain daft charm to the scene in which Freud analyses Keanu Reeves in two minutes flat. Whimsy has its limitations, too, as was amply demonstrated by Freudiana, a musical which opened in Vienna a few years ago to howls of execration from most of the local reviewers and all of the local analysts: 'Banal, absurd and trivial', fulminated the President of the Austrian Freud Society, ' More of a social symptom than a musical.'

Unlike the man himself, Freudiana never made it to London except in the form of a record, and it's not hard to see why. The anguished heroines and heroes of the classic case studies, from the Wolf Man and Little Hans to the ever-popular Dora (subject of at least one avant-garde film and a stage play) and the Rat Man, pranced across the stage like clowns, while the main plot concerned a young man who, after spending a night on the couch, plucks up the courage to ask a girl for her phone number. Enough to make you pine for bourgeois repression, really.

Yet Freudiana did have one interesting touch. It represented Freud solely by the smoke of his carcinogenic cigar, and with this single stroke of tact came surprisingly close to the approach of a much more intellectually substantial piece, the Hugh Brody / Michael Ignatieff film Nineteen Nineteen. Here, Freud appears only as an off-screen voice (spoken by Frank Finlay), so that the experience of watching the film is a partial replication of lying on the analytic couch. Good Freudian analysts are the opposite of good children: they should be heard but not seen.

It may be that this visual inhibition is why one reason why so many attempts to dramatise Freud's ideas have failed to take off, though a more prosaic explanation lies in the sheer difficulty of Freud's theories - intricate in themselves, and subject to endless revisions both during and after his lifetime. Paul Schrader, who in the early eighties spent many months trying to write a play about the early history of psychoanalysis for the National Theatre, was eventually forced to abandoned the project for just this reason. Despite the appeal of the main situation, which concerned the clash between Freud and Jung as embodied in the treatment of a young Russian woman, Schrader found himself unable to resolve its richness into a plausible dramatic shape: 'I wrote out a list of twenty-one possible themes for the play and I couldn't get behind any of them.'

Others had travelled down the same tortuous road as Schrader, and came back with much the same tale of woe. The most famous of these pilgrims was John Huston, whose biopic Freud is still the unslain patriarch of the psychoanalytic genre, for all its many weaknesses. And if Freud's life story can rival the fascination of his theoretical works, the production history of Freud, as reported by Huston in his autobiography An Open Book, is often a good deal more gripping than the end product.

First, there was the farcical episode with Jean-Paul Sartre. Huston, having decided that he wanted the tale of Freud's descent into the unconscious to be as dark and sulphurous as Dante's journey into the Pit, sent Sartre dollars 25,000 and got back a screenplay some 300 pages long - enough, that is, for a film lasting more than five hours. Huston invited Sartre over to his manor house in Ireland, and, after weeks of discussion - or, more exactly, relentless Sartrean monologue - about how the script might be made more economical, the French philosopher came up with a revised draft much longer than the first.

Then, before Universal would back the still-unwritten film, Huston had to argue long and disingenuously with the Catholic Legion of Decency, which in the early Sixties still had the power to ruin a film at the box office. This obstacle past, Huston had to junk another screenwriter, who was bent on making Freud into a lovable Warner Brothers eccentric, and began work on a third script with Wolfgang Reinhardt, the son of Max. As the months of rewrites proceded, Reinhardt increasingly began to side with Sartre against Huston, and the atmosphere grew ugly. Finally, an acceptable version of Sartre's script was thrashed out, pre-production was completed and the actor cast to play Freud showed up. It was Montgomery Clift. . .

To give a full account of what happend on set of Freud would require Freud's own powers of psychological evocation. Clift's heavy drinking was among the least of his problems, and actor and director were soon locked in an Oedipal conflict muderous enough to make an ancient Theban feel at home. Clift's self-pitying tantrums and Huston's frustrated rage left predictable scars on the completed film. Even so, it is still a richer and more intelligent piece than might be expected. Huston himself concedes that Clift had exceptional actorly skills: 'Monty looked intelligent. He looked as though he were having a thought. He wasn't, Christ knows.'

Perhaps Sartre's instincts were right after all, and the edifice of Freud's life and thought is simply too complex for the two or three hours' traffic of the stage or screen. Even Anthony Burgess, who incorporated a gripping account of Freud's exile into his novel The End of the World News, has yet to give us the opera about Sigmund he has been planning for some years. Perhaps, too, the process by which Freudian analysts are trained is sufficiently close to the principle of apostolic succession that every analyst is really a fantasy surrogate for the good doctor, and therefore every movie about therapy is essentially a film about Freud; if so, any attempt at direct portrayal would be superfluous.

It would certainly be interesting to hear what the professionals have made of the popular image of their profession in recent films, and of what this might imply about our culture's view of the great founder. A good place for them to start might be with the cannibalistic therapist played by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. After all, the historical character with whom Freud most closely identified himself throughout his lifetime was not Oedipus of Thebes, but Hannibal of Carthage.

(Photograph omitted)