Sabina:  A musical (review)

A review of Sabina by Patricia Reis
On Stage at Portland Stage May 4—22, 2022 • Streaming May 18—June 5.


SABINA SPIELREIN Stephanie Machado (AEA), LUDWIG BINSWANGER Jason Michael Evans (AEA), CARL JUNG Philip Stoddard (AEA) in SABINA by Willy Holtzman, composed by Louise Beach, lyrics by Darrah Cloud. Photo by Mical Hutson.

What’s Love Got to Do With It? 

Love is the heartbeat of this play.  Human love is portrayed in all its complexity and confusion. There is the father/son love between Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung that initially motivates Jung’s need to prove the validity of Freud’s “talking cure” by undertaking his first psychoanalytic patient, Sabina Spielrein.  There is Freud’s love for Jung, his young protégé, with whom he entrusts his legacy with the hopes that his “Jewish science” of psychoanalysis will be vindicated.  There is married love as portrayed by the relationship between Jung and his wife, Emma. And there is the so-called “love cure,” between Sabina Spielrein and Carl Jung, patient and analyst. These   forms of love suffer flaws and profound betrayals with ensuing consequences for all.

The playwright, Willy Holtzman, and his team, composer Louise Beach and lyricist Darrah Cloud get great credit for exploring each of these relationships with historical accuracy, showing the individual struggles of each character and their impact on the others.  Five actors, including Binswanger who floats amongst the couples, exponentially expand the relational dynamics.  Billed as a “musical,” the experience is more operatic giving the lyrics and dialogue gravitas, occasionally relieved by what feels almost operetta slapstick. The actors’ singing is at times breathtaking, underlining the wide range of emotions.

The set design is spare—the requisite patient couch, the coat trees dressed with white patient gowns or doctor’s lab coats—representing the fact that this is taking place within a Swiss asylum.  Most effective is the background screen.  When unlit, it gives the impression of a grey gridded institution with doors that open for entry and exit. When lit from behind, it transforms into moonlight, sunlight, as a background of silhouettes for other characters, or most eerily, for terrifying visions.

Sabina Spielrein whose story is at the heart of the play, is a woman said to be “lost to history.”  In one sense this is true.  Like many women, her actual life story was erased, and suppressed, her contributions to the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, although acknowledged in the play, are ultimately co-opted without credit. Most sensationalized and sexualized projections of her interactions with Carl Jung such as A Dangerous Method, or A Secret Symmetry are romanticized fictions where Spielrein is portrayed as an eroticized character—a dangerous young woman, an hysteric, a schizophrenic, a seductress— tantalizing commercial fare.

Like the restless dead, Sabina Spielrein continues to haunt the imagination.  Thanks to Willy Holtzman and his team, we have a more complete portrait of this remarkable woman, her life and her contribution. In an interview, Holtzman says, “You get to a point with Sabina, where it feels like she is speaking to you.  You’re almost a conduit for her lost story, and you have to honor that.”

One does not need to know the historical details of these characters to enjoy the play, to get the meaning and intention, to parse the complicated dynamics. Most adults can relate to some aspects of love misunderstood and betrayed. While the mood of the play begins on a somber note with a catatonic, mute Sabina, (Stephanie Machado) a hyper-kinetic Jung, (Phillip Stoddard) and a concerned Freud, (Bruce Sabath) things soon evolve when Sabina begins to speak and she and Jung take off on a word-association spree that makes them both love-struck giddy. Feeling finally seen, and possibly understood, Sabina feels Jung believes in her. In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes, Sabina is struck down by one of her “horrible headaches” and she foresees her own death with her two daughters at the hands of the Nazis.  Jung thinks she is hallucinating telling her she doesn’t have daughters.  No, she cries, “This is prophecy.”

Their love, the transference and counter transference known to be an important element between patient and doctor, is addressed. To be seen and believed is love. The powerful emotion must be kept within carefully prescribed boundaries. The responsibility is on the physician who holds the position of power. When literalized into sexual engagement as happened with Jung and Sabina, there is potential for great damage. The most we get on stage is kisses, embraces and declarations, but the message is clear and the energy is palpable.

Jung is so grateful that Sabina finally breaks her silence and speaks to him that he gives her his dream journal, his first boundary crossing.  He, too, is in need of being seen and believed. The boundary violations that ensue would guarantee at least a loss of license, reputation, and if it were done today, a possible jail sentence.  Freud is confided in and does his best to cover up the scandal, primarily to save his own work. Sabina absorbs the hit and fights for her love.  Emma Jung (Sarah Anne Fernandez) has one outstanding solo.  The long-suffering wife of a “wanderer” husband, the mother of Jung’s child, she has ambitions beyond being in the background.  She sings, “I will not step back!” and we believe her.

In the end, everyone is transformed, even Binswanger,(Jason Michael Evans)  the man of science, who understands that something more powerful than his galvanic skin response studies has happened. Sabina has a tender sisterly rapprochement with Emma Jung. The two women will not be victimized. They gain strength and agency individually and together. With Emma’s encouragement Sabina goes on to finish her doctorate becoming the first woman psychoanalyst. She writes and gives brilliant papers at psychoanalytic conferences, speaks about how there is no “God” only the god within everyone, informs Freud of the “death instinct,” and how it is attached to life and rebirth, teaches Jung about the power of myth and archetypes. Her ideas are praised, “You are our teacher” proclaims the converted  Binswanger.  Against her protests, Jung and Freud proceed co-opt her ideas as their own. The character of Freud who appears with cigar in a smoking jacket robe signifying his end, has an unexpectedly hilarious soliloquy in which he chides Jung over his behavior with Sabina, then ends with a burst of “Mazel Tov!”

In the end, it is Sabina who transforms the most. From a fragile, brilliant young woman with tics and other exaggerated reactions of traumatic grief over early childhood abuse and the death of her beloved younger sister, she never gives up on her visionary capacity. She emerges as a woman with a sense of self who wants her death notice to be carved onto an oak tree saying  “I too was once a human being. My name is Sabina Spielrein,” She does not deny her mental illness, her experience as a patient, she disdains heroics, does not give her power to the “great men,” as she makes and stands by her manifesto on the power of love. She wears the white lab coat as she is now a doctor who proclaims,  “Disease attacks boundaries”

Eventually, as a mature woman, she decides to return to her birthplace in Stalin’s Russia with the intention of starting a clinic. The time that has elapsed is noted through a change in costume. Her skirt is knee-length, she wears heels. Freud has died. In his final appearance, Jung is given a solo about being alone on his night sea journey where he will keep rowing into the dark unknown.

Along with the theme of patient/doctor boundary violation, there is a strong cultural subtext of anti-Semitism given that both Freud and Sabina are Jewish. The last scene is the most chilling. The cast of four characters remain at the front of the stage. Suitcase in hand, Sabina walks into the red-orange backdrop.  Opaque black curtains enclose her figure in a rectangle until suddenly the last black curtain falls and obliterates her.  The audience breaks out in an explosive applause.


For those wishing more information on her biography beyond the scurrilous, there is an extensive article on Wikipedia. I highly recommend Angela M. Sells’ Sabina Sielrein: The Woman and the Myth, (New York University Press, 2017.)  Unlike most books from the psychoanalytic community where the discrediting terms “hysteric” and “mistress,” “death wish”cling to descriptions of her, Sells’ deeply researched work has the advantage of a different perspective.  One in which Spielrein’s diaries and letters carry her actual voice.

The historical facts of Sabina Spielrein’s life are not without drama. Born on November 7, 1885, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, the oldest of five children, her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both rabbis.  Her parents were extremely harsh with a tyrannical father and mother given to beating.  Education was prized and provided for. Sabina was clearly precocious and spoke four languages by age six.  She studied piano and became an accomplished musician. When Spielrein was fifteen, she witnessed the death of her beloved six-year-old sister, Emily, from typhoid. This death combined with the abusive parental environment had a devastating effect on the young woman.  The blows both physical and emotional took its toll and she suffered a breakdown and was admitted to the Burghölzli Treatment and Care Institution (or Psychiatric Clinic) in Zurich on August 17, 1904.  She was nineteen.  Diagnosed as “hysteric,” and “schizophrenic,” Spielrein became the first patient of Carl Jung, a new doctor, ten years her senior.  Under these circumstances, the relationship grew into what was later called, “the love cure,” or “the dangerous method.”  In other words, the ethical boundary between patient and therapist was breached when she was institutionalized and continued for another four years.

Jung confided in Freud, as did Spielrein. She was in treatment until 1905, declared “cured” after a year in the institution, and went on to obtain her doctorate and became the rare woman psychoanalyst, treating patients, writing and delivering papers on her areas of interest–women’s sexuality, child development, schizophrenia, and the death instinct.  She remained in communication with Jung and Freud and attempted to reconcile them.  Their rift was too great and never recovered.

There is controversy about who ended the relationship between Jung and Spielrein.  From the content of her letters, Spielrein was the one who called it off, despite much suffering which she acknowledged for both herself and Jung. The relationship has been called both a “romance,” an “affair.  Spielrein has been accused of sexual seduction.  Very few commentators in the psychoanalytic community take into account the power differential between doctor and patient. Their obvious intent is to preserve Jung and Freud’s legacy.

After obtaining her doctorate, Spielrein left Zurich and went on to practice as a psychoanalyst but found it hard to find work enough to support herself and her daughter., Renata. Her husband had abandoned them. He had fathered a child with another woman and had been living with her. Spielrein returned to her hometown of Rostov-on-Don in about 1924 where she eventually reunited with her husband after a separation of several years. In 1926, Spielrein gave birth to a second daughter, Eva. In the beginning, she lived in Moscow, worked with colleagues on a training program at the Moscow Psychoanalytic Institute. She became director of the child psychology department at the First Moscow University and served as pedagogical doctor at the Third International, a kind of children’s village. Initially receptive, Stalin later banned psychoanalysis. Spielrein’s three brothers, who had meanwhile developed academic careers, were arrested under Stalin’s reign of terror and killed in a Gulag.

Spielrein returned to her home town Rostov-on-Don after her husband died and continued her work under cover.  Caught between Stalin and Hitler, her death remained a mystery for a number of years. In 1942, Spielrein, together with both her daughters, Eva and Renata who were in their twenties, were shot as Jews by Nazis who had captured Rostov for a second time on July 27. Neighbors saw them being herded with other Jews, toward the “Snake Ravine” just outside the city, where men of Einsatzkommando 10a from Einsatzgruppe D killed them.  They were buried in an unmarked mass grave.  Sabina Spielrein was fifty-seven.


Patricia Reis is a writer and psychotherapist.

Visit the SABINA show page here.