Tim Sanford on Placebo
I was fascinated to learn from Melissa’s restless and plangently witty new play, Placebo, that the derivation of the word stems from medieval ecclesiastical customs. According to one of her characters, Jonathan, a Classics Ph.D. candidate, certain well-to-do families would sometimes hire sham mourners to sing vespers for the dead. Because the first word of these vespers is “placebo,” meaning, “I shall please,” these mourners-for-hire eventually earned the shorthand appellation, placebos. It took several centuries for the steady course of etymology to bring about its current clinical definition.
The central storyline of Placebo does center upon a medical drug trial for a “female arousal drug” called Resurgo administered by Louise, a young resident at a pharmaceutical company. A colleague of hers quips: “I heard about it. The female Viagra,” to which Louise responds, “Well, Viagra’s purely about penile mechanics whereas this drug aims to get inside a woman’s mind.” Right off the bat, we enter terrain that resides somewhere in the grey area of the psych-soma split. Should we take at face value that male desire pertains to body mechanics and female desire comes from the mind? If this is the case, wouldn’t the placebo for such a drug trial possibly be more prone to eliciting the placebo effect? The one drug trial participant we meet does seem particularly susceptible to the power of suggestion.
It does not take long for the play to assert its thematic implications well beyond the narrative reach of this drug trial. As the bumpy romance between Jonathan and Louise heads towards classic Gibsonesque irresolution, I found myself thinking more and more about this word, “psyche,” which means “soul,” and the Latin translation of “placebo” as “I shall please.” The real precipitating event of the play comes when Louise tells Jonathan about a conversation with her dying mother where she found herself precipitously telling her mother she and Jonathan got engaged. Jonathan agrees there is no reason to take it back. But the real effect of the thoughtless remark runs deeper. It is as if their relationship has taken a placebo and they are suddenly in the middle of a drug trial. Louise told this white lie to her mother to please her, but she has brought a whole new pressure to bear on them. Will their relationship rise to a higher level because they are engaged? Or will they become more keenly aware of the flaws in their relationship that keep it from rising to that level of commitment?
Where does desire lie? The myth of Psyche and Cupid tells metaphorically of the link between the soul and desire. Humans try to lasso the profound root of conjugal desire in their souls through rituals and institutions like marriage to try to arrest time and keep the sublimely ephemeral ecstasy of passion alive as a sustainable, eternal flame. But it doesn’t come automatically. The study of desire and arousal Louise works on assumes some kind of link between the soma and the psyche. There must be a drug that can make the desire to desire create desire. But is there? Where does pleasure lie? Placebo: I shall please. But whom do I please? Do I please myself? Do I please you? Placebo Domino? The “placebo effect” suggests our minds affect our bodies. Actually, if it’s a psychosomatic dynamic, it might be more accurate to suggest our souls affect our bodies. I suspect Melissa might squirm a bit at all this talk of souls and “domino.” But there’s no question in my mind that the great, continuous temptation the play describes is the temptation to leap. Sometimes we leap into faith; sometimes we leap into faithlessness. And sometimes, as Melissa says at the end of her piece, we just stand at the cliff edge and cross our fingers.