Home #Hwoodtimes FREUD ON COCAINE: Howard Skora’s Comedy about Freud’s Early Experiments with the...

FREUD ON COCAINE: Howard Skora’s Comedy about Freud’s Early Experiments with the Magical Drug.

By Robert St. Martin

Howard Skora, playwright and director of Freud on Cocaine

Sherman Oaks, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/11/24 – Friday evening was the opening night of Freud on Cocaine, a new play by Howard Skora at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. This comedy takes on the early obsession with cocaine by neurologist Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and the writer of many fascinating theoretical books about the human mind. Freud’s contribution to the thinking of the 20thcentury was huge, although it might be said that his only tendency to self-analysis began quite early in his life. This comedy in two acts by Howard Skora begins with Freud’s early belief in the palliative powers of cocaine, which he touted as a panacea for pain, exhaustion, low spirits, depression, and even morphine addiction. At the time, coca like morphine was not a controlled substance and the German pharmaceutical company Merck sold both. The first act of this comedy shows us the younger Sigmund Freud starting out on his medical career, his attempt to woo a German woman he met and his friendship with fellow doctor Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow. In a set of hilarious sketches, Freud tries to win the hand of young Martha Benays with his knowledge, awkward wit, and enthusiastic recommendation of cocaine. He also tries to help out his morphine-addicted doctor friend Ernst Fleischl by recommending cocaine as a cure for his addiction to morphine.

Sigmund Freud (Jonathan Slavin) trying to help his friend Dr. Ernst Fleischt with the pain from his morphine addiction.

These are the facts and Howard Skora plays loose with them in his own inventive way, providing a contemporary twist to the promise of cocaine as the drug of choice in the 1880s and also in the 1980s, at the height of the disco rage on the music scene. Incorporated into the play are musical tags from hit disco tracks of the 70s and 80s vintage: They provide an amusing commentary that the audience seemed to enjoy, although, in some ways, they detract from the serious underbelly of the play’s message which emerges more in Act II, entitled “The Nightmare.”  Jonathan Slavin stars at Sigmund Freud in this production and he seems a bit too nervous, high-strung and campy.  He is obviously drawn to the more powerful figure of Dr. Ernst Flieschl, the Berlin surgeon, for whom Sigmund (in real life) may have an unrealized homosexual desire. Played by Aarron La Plante, the figure of Ernst Fleishl towers over Slavin’s Freud, as if his physical size and booming voice is a combination of a father figure and an object of male desire. I don’t know if this casting was intentional, but it certainly reads that way. At any rate, Freud tries to convince Ernst that cocaine will eliminate his dependency on morphine for his chronic pain.

Freud’s wife Martha (Sara Maraffino) refusing the magic powder offered

The bedraggled courtship of young Sigmund with Martha Benays (played by Sara Maraffino) is one of the more entertaining comedic set-pieces, as Martha’s meddling mother (Sigute Miller) is less than impressed with Sigmund and wants to take her daughter back to Berlin and away from Vienna. Eventually Sigmund uses his “magic powder” to help woo Martha, who loves the tingling sensation of cocaine. When Martha’s mother packs up her family and returns to Berlin, Sigmund secretly keeps writing Martha and sending small bits of cocaine into his love letters. The marriage deal is eventually cinched when Martha’s mother tries some cocaine and suddenly believes in the genius of young Sigmund.

A very humorous set-piece is Freud’s encounter with Emma Eckstein (played by Amy Smallman-Winston) who he is treating for her hysteria, which is supposedly caused by her constant playing with her lower parts (a common belief at the time). Freud attempted to use hypnosis (which he learned from study in Paris) with Emma, but to no avail in getting to the root of her hysteria. In an age of crazy half-ass scientific theorizing, Freud’s friend Dr. Ernst was convinced that there was a “nasogenital” nervous link between the nose and the vagina. So, he proposed cauterized Eckstein’s nose with a gram of cocaine. After three botched surgeries, Eckstein was almost killed by Dr. Ernst’s inept surgical procedures, and Freud himself was present for those surgeries. This part of the failure is fleshed out in Act 2 of the play.

Sigmund Freud (Jonathan Slavin) snorting cocaine, as his wife Martha observes

One of the other scenarios teased out through this comedy is Freud’s relation with the head of the Merck Pharmaceutical Corporation, headquartered in Berlin (where it still is today) and run by Emanuel Merck (played delightfully as a very gay entrepreneur by Barry Brisco). Emanuel Merck needs Sigmund to push their product, cocaine which they manufacture in powder and liquid form. In exchange for agreeing to continued research into the medical uses of cocaine, Merck offers Freud a supply of free “product.” The repartee between Merck and Freud is fraught with homosexual inuendo, which is perhaps overdone but an obvious crowd-pleaser.

Howard Skora wants the audience to know that “Everything in the play that appears insane is actually true. The comedy comes out of looking at the past through the lens of the present. We see how even someone as brilliant as Freud was a slave to the science of his time. The data and studies he relied on were published by an American periodical called the Therapeutic Gazette, owned by George Davis – the same man who owned Parke-Davis, the largest manufacturer of cocaine at the time. Until his dying day, Freud insisted that cocaine was not addictive. What scientific beliefs do we hold today that might seem equally crazy in the future?”

Martha (Sara Marafiino) suddenly finding cocaine to be an interesting experience.

There is considerable disagreement among Freud experts as to the extent of Sigmund Freud’s own use of cocaine, although he believed in its therapeutic effects long after he ceased using cocaine himself. Freud on Cocaine is based on Freud’s Cocaine Papers, which contains his letters, notes, dreams and recollections on the therapeutic use of cocaine, some of which were published in 1884 under the title “Über Coca.” In 1882 at age 26, Freud began his medical career at Vienna General Hospital. His research work in cerebral anatomy led to the publication in 1884 of an influential paper on the palliative effects of cocaine, and his work on aphasia would form the basis of his first book On Aphasia: A Critical Study, published in 1891. Over a three-year period, Freud worked in various departments of the hospital. His time spent in Theodor Meynert’s psychiatric clinic and as a locum in a local asylum led to an increased interest in clinical work. Freud’s own use of cocaine occurred in the 1880s and it seems (as is shown in Act II of Skora’ play) that Freud, more or less, quit using cocaine by 1891, due to pressure from his wife Martha and the haunting impact of the death of his friend Dr. Ernst Fleischl.

Dr. Ernst Fleischt (Aarron La Plante), playing chess with Sigmund Freud (Jonathan Slavin)

We learn in the play that Freud’s claim that Fleischl-Marxow was cured of his addiction was premature, though he never acknowledged that he had been at fault. Fleischl-Marxow developed an acute case of “cocaine psychosis,” and soon returned to using morphine, dying a few years later still suffering from intolerable pain. The application as an anaesthetic turned out to be one of the few safe uses of cocaine, and as reports of addiction and overdose began to filter in from many places in the world, Freud’s medical reputation became somewhat tarnished. After the “Cocaine Episode,” Freud ceased to publicly recommend the use of the drug, but continued to take it himself occasionally for depression, migraine and nasal inflammation during the early 1890s, before discontinuing its use in 1896.

This comedic rendering of the tale of Sigmund Freud and cocaine serves up many amusing scenes based on the known facts of Freud’s well-documented life and work. The underlying issue of cocaine and other pain killers and their continued connection to big pharmaceutical companies had its origins in the late 19th century and continue to haunt our medical practices today from which many benefit and other suffer the pains of addiction. We laugh at the folly of young Freud and others believing that drugs could remedy their afflictions. We also sense his woe with the failure to save his friend Dr. Ernst from his hidden morphine affliction. There are serious topics introduced in the play and passed over quickly: One of these is Sigmund Freud’s belief in the “talking cure,” of delving into the subconscious of his patients and analyzing their dreams. This remains the cornerstone of psychoanalysis and many kinds of psychological therapies.

Howard Skora’s play is a comedy and, as such, dances over the surface of things without delving too deeply into the complexity of Freud’s own mind or his densely theoretical musings. There are many faces to Freud and, depending one’s own exposure to his writings and one’s own experience with any like of psychological counseling or therapy, the way we look at Freud will vary hugely. Skora has good fun with the excesses of Freud’s early career, and perhaps, that is the best way to handle this interesting topic of Freud and cocaine. On a more serious note, was Freud’s constant use of tobacco: Freud reportedly smoked 20 or more cigars a day. When Freud, at the age of 67, was diagnosed with cancer of the soft palate his doctor strongly advised Freud to stop smoking cigars. He tried for 7 weeks, but soon returned to smoking cigars.

The ensemble in Howard Skora’s Freud on Cocaine

Skora’s first play, Miserable with an Ocean View, featured Oscar nominee Patty McCormack in a wildly unorthodox comedy that was the recipient of a Valley Theatre Awards nomination for best play, and ran for five sold-out months. His second play Damaged Furniture was a top-rated original comedy on Los Angeles theater review circuit. His most recent play, Gaslight House, which he also directed, premiered in 2022, received rave reviews. Starring as young Sigmund Freud is Jonathan Slavin, known for his work on Home Front at the Victory Theatre, and TV’s Santa Clarita Diet, Dr. Ken, and Better Off Ted.

Freud on Cocaine opens FridaySept. 8, with performances thereafter on Saturdays at 8 p.m. from September 9 through November 4. General admission to all performances is $40, with VIP seating (first three rows) available for $50The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks, CA 91423. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (818) 687-8559 or go to www.whitefiretheatre.com