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Cohn, H.W. (1989). The place of the actual in psychotherapy. Free Associations, 1W(18):49-61.

(1989). Free Associations, 1W(18):49-61

The place of the actual in psychotherapy

Hans W. Cohn


In his brilliant production of the opera Hänsel and Gretel at the London Coliseum last year, David Pountney cast the same singer as both mother and witch. The implication was not, I think, that the children saw their mother solely as a witch, that they had internalized a ‘bad mother’ which appeared as a witch in their phantasy. The mother turns into a witch before the audience's very eyes, and at a moment when the children are not present. The producer took seriously the fact that this mother — driven by poverty, admittedly — had decided to abandon her children in the forest, in ‘the very thick of it’. ‘They won't find the way back home,’ she says, ‘and we'll be rid of them’ (Grimm, 1812, p. 56). There was in actuality a destructive streak in this mother's psychological make-up, an aspect we might well consider witch-like.

We may assume that Pountney had been influenced by pschoanalytic writing, but it could not have been by Bettelheim's interpretation of Hänsel and Gretel. There, ‘the mother represents the source of all food to the children, so it is she who now is experienced as abandoning them, as if in a wilderness’ (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 159).

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