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  • Writer's pictureChiara Greco

The Unconscious Self in 'Overtones'

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Alice Gerstenberg's play and its legacy on theatre, feminism, and female unconsciousness

photo credit: heights player

Chiara Greco, Nutgraf Press Creator


Alice Gerstenberg's one-act play Overtones was first written in 1913 and was one of the earliest examples of a play which dramatizes the unconscious, specifically the female unconscious. The play follows a conversation between two women, Harriet and Margaret. The women are presented solely in their relationship to a man. The play’s two characters are also accompanied by their “primitive” or their unconscious selves Hetty and Maggie. Using two women to play one character was a convention which had not been done before Gerstenberg introduced this play. By doing this Gerstenberg separates the women’s inner and outer selves along the same lines as Sigmund Freud discussed in his theory of identity. While the women's conversation centres upon one man Gerstenberg inadvertently discusses themes related to psycho-analytical theory, feminism, desire, and duality.


The idea that female sub or unconscious, for the two women in the play, is focused or centred upon a man is problematic (when of course taking it at face value and considering it in a modern context). Though despite this alleged problem, Gerstenberg gives the women dimension in a setting and time where dimension would otherwise not be given. In other words, by portraying female consciousness and unconsciousness through Sigmund Freud’s construction of the Id and the Ego, Gerstenberg presents a multi-dimension woman in the early 1900 Victorian era when women in theatre (and in general) were not necessarily represented as multi-dimensional.


Gerstenberg addresses psychology and the Freudian understanding of identity through this unconsciousness or sub-conscious behaviour between the two women. It is also relevant to note that Overtones is recognized as the first example of visually depicting the Freudian split between the Id and the Ego. The portrayal of the two women as having “primitive” versions of themselves sets up the distinction between an outward public self and inward private self—the Ego and the Id which Gerstenberg physically separates into two different women. This distinction Gerstenberg sets up with the two women again follows closely to Freud’s theory of the self.


Freud’s analysis of self-hood rested largely on the concepts of the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego. These concepts for Freud describe theoretical constructs which account for the activities and interactions of the mental life of a person. For Freud, the Id, the Ego and the Super-Ego make up the facets of identity and in most cases people experience a Freudian split, where the Id takes over the Ego—this is exhibited through the women slipping into their “primitive” selves throughout the conversation. While the audience's attention is centred on the more "polished" versions of the women, the counterparts appear in jarring speech covered in a veil. This portrayal, or representation, furthers the Freudian idea of a split persona. Gerstenberg literally separates and differentiates the Id and the Ego through the speech, appearance, and behaviour of the women and their counterparts.


Apart from a psychoanalytical view, Gerstenberg also works outside of the traditional play. In fact, Overtones is the first of its kind by portraying unconscious behaviour. As such, the play initiated a significant trend within twentieth-century American drama. Gerstenberg also relies heavily on expressionistic devices so as to get her message across. In using two different actresses to portray each woman’s counterpart the audience hears and sees what the characters say, think, and feel. This glimpse into the unconsciousness of each character was never done before and also furthers its historical legacy by portraying the hidden female unconscious, which of course was not explored in plays before Overtones. The choice to portray the women's counter-parts as separate further leads the audience to create a disassociation between one's "primitive" and "polished" self. This choice is one which would have impacted how the audience felt toward each character and each woman.


Now, in 1913, there is no doubt that Gerstenberg’s play would have been considered part of feminism. While the play is not explicitly focused upon what it means to be living as a woman in the Victorian era, the play does implicitly represent this. Again, there is no explicit discussion about the suppression of women or inequality but these concepts are made wholly apparent by acknowledging the situations both women find themselves in. To put it simply they are each stuck with total dependence on their husbands whom they are discontent with leaving them feeling trapped. What is notable here is that the women, as their "polished" public selves, never speak upon this topic rather their “primitive” selves discuss their discontent and desire for more. This implies the learned behaviour of how a woman should be. It is also relevant to note that the only way out of each of their situations is to begin a new relationship with a better man. The women have no resources to stand on their own, their choices were extremely limited and this is represented in both the conscious and unconscious levels of the play.


This idea of women’s outward appearances being different from their inner thoughts and feelings I think can be related to today still. While feminism has changed quite a bit, societies view of who a woman should be is still relatively stuck, though of course much more open to change. The same goes for feminist thought and theory, inclusion and representation has expanded on this realm greatly from when Gerstenberg was writing this play, but of course we still have a ways to go.


For the early 1900s feminism was quite limited in representation. For a historical context, around this time many women were beginning to leave their homes and enter the workforce, alongside this the Suffrages Movement in the United States was also taking place. Due to more women entering the workforce their identities expanded beyond wives and mothers. With this newfound independence, an independence which neither women in this play can afford, they began to push the bounds of what was acceptable for women. This lead to the movement of the “new woman” which granted more power, opinion, and determination to women of the 1900s. Though of course with this came a surge of backlash and resistance over the “proper role” of women in society. Gerstenberg’s play presents this clash of binaries—who a woman was and who they were forced to be. Ultimately, this debate birthed a feminist movement and a drive for women’s rights. While the play again does not directly touch upon any of these movements Gerstenberg presents the unrest of female consciousness. Though, if this play were to be made now in 2021, there is no doubt that the representation of female consciousness would be much more developed.


So, with all things considered, there is no doubt that Gerstenberg’s play does find itself in the historical context of feminist thought. But, Gerstenberg’s play also has a long lasting impact on the theatre in general through her choice of expressionism and representation. Overall, Overtones represents a historical feminist play hinged on female desire explored from the unconscious level.


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