Freud, Artificial Intelligence and horror in ‘Sandman’

After a friend told Adie Mueller about ETA Hoffman’s 1816 short story “The Sandman”, first published in 1816, she became intrigued by the idea of turning it into a piece of theatre. Mueller, a German drama professor with two children, dearly wanted to act again, and wondered if Hoffman’s tale of a young man who becomes bewitched to the point of suicide by a female automaton could be revived for the modern era. So she reached out to her friend, playwright and teacher Mike Carter, and asked him if he could create a theatrical text out of the story. The play, “Sandman”, that they have created is a painful and moving piece, but intended primarily as a horror story, as both Carter and Mueller emphasise when I meet with them to ask about the play and its creation.

 

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Carter, already interested in the Gothic and how horror can be used on stage, was instantly drawn to the story. “Freud wrote an essay on the uncanny”, he tells me, “and cited Hoffman’s story as the epitome of that concept. Adie and I both enjoyed the challenge of creating a disturbing and uncanny experience for the audience and people who see it tell us how freaked out they are by it!”

Mueller and Carter worked together, improvising scenes in the studio which Carter would then write, over a period of several months. The play they produced is tense and magnetic, and certainly leaves the audience as shaken and “freaked out” as Carter could wish. For him, he says, Hoffman’s tale had parallels with our voyeuristic way of viewing each other today, via the internet and webcams. In his play, Hoffman’s automaton is replaced by a terrifyingly lifelike sex robot – such as have now been created – and the play makes us explore the emotion behind this male need for the comfort of an artificial companion.

The play has been performed already at the London Horror Festival. While it does not contain extreme violence or gore, the horror of the story lies more in the sense of unease that pervades the piece, as Carter tells me: “Hoffmann’s story defies rational explanation – and that’s part of what creeps you out when you read it and leaves you feeling disturbed at the end – it just doesn’t add up. Once you can explain something, it’s no longer scary. And that’s the experience we give the audience: they must play a part in piecing together the narrative and try to make sense of what they’re watching, but they will leave with some unanswered questions.”

 

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The play certainly requires concentration on the part of the audience – Mueller plays a number of characters who address us directly, and the time frame is not always linear. But, as Carter explains to me, as the audience fit the story together like a jigsaw, this adds to the intensity and mystery of the experience.

I ask Mueller why this story captivated her imagination so quickly. “It’s always difficult to say why you feel interested in something,” she tells me. “It’s a bit like explaining why you’ve fallen in love with someone. Usually, you just do. If I rationalise it, the story is incredibly evocative. It talks about quite universal themes, such as the child’s dread of the dark, the eyes, whether we are able to see reality or whether our view of reality is distorted by our fears and desires, whether there are some dark forces that have power over us or not.”

When I ask Mueller how important the Sandman story is now, she credits its relevance to the rise of Artificial Intelligence: “The questions ‘What is reality?’ is particularly pertinent in the digital age. A lot of our thinking and actions are influenced by the algorithms that feed us information online. Private companies target and influence individuals through social media in election campaigns without them even knowing. So we are under the influence of forces we don’t understand; and our personal data is used in ways we don’t understand. I’m less clued into artificial intelligence, but Mike recently found a documentary about the rise of the sex robot. An American company will launch the first sex robot this autumn! So the idea of creating an automaton to provide companionship for men is no longer science fiction.”

Science fiction or reality looming ever closer, Carter and Mueller’s show is a haunting and enchanting venture into both the future and past, using a powerful story whose mysterious fascination certainly remains undiminished.

‘Sandman’ runs at the ZOO theatre 140 Pleasance at 4:20pm from 17th-28th August

 

Emily Lawford