Sigmund Freud is notorious for, among other things, asking the question, “What do women want?” The Archipelago Theater production of A New Fine Shame reminds us that some women of Freud’s time weren’t afraid to answer that question directly. But their ideas have been lost to history just the same.

A New Fine Shame is a one-act musical drama about the life and loves of writer and lay psychoanalyst Lou Andreas Salome (1861-1937). The Russian-born Salome spent most of her adult life in Germany. An independent and intellectual woman, she published 15 novels, over one hundred essays (many in psychoanalytic journals), and books on Freud, Ibsen, Rilke, and Nietzsche (the latter was the first major study of Nietzsche ‘s work).

Over the course of her life, Salome captivated Nietzsche, romanced Rilke, and stole Freud’s heart. Salome was passionately interested in spirituality and in the psyche, and was committed to developing models of friendship and love that defied the conventions of her time. Not precisely a feminist–though she was acquainted with German feminists of her day–she refused to subordinate her desire for a community of intellectuals to the bourgeois requirements of monogamy, marriage and family. She rejected numerous would-be lovers and husbands, was often involved in romantic triangles, and never consummated her 30 marriage to Friedrich Karl Andreas, a professor of west Asiatic languages at the University of Göttingen. Her self-proclaimed ideal life consisted of living with a like-minded intellectual man in separate rooms connected to a common living area.

Lou Andreas Salome is a fascinating subject at this particular historical moment. Psychoanalysis wanes, eclipsed by the medical revolution in mental health, at the same time that the possibilities for the kind of life Salome envisioned–including a female sexuality that could rejoice in its “new fine shame”–are increasingly threatened in this era of aggressively Disneyfied family values and right-wing assaults on reproductive rights. Lee Siegel, in a 1996 Atlantic Monthly article, calls our present moment “modernism’s plastic aftermath.” “We go back and try to relish modernism’s extremist nose-thumbing at a depersonalizing modernity,” Siegel writes, “and soon we feel as though we were celebrating the most disturbing qualities of contemporary life.” A New Fine Shame concentrates on the way Salome thumbed her nose at depersonalizing gender roles, and her insistence on friendship and intellectual exchange as the basis for relationships, rather than focusing on the disturbing conflation of art, sprituality and sexuality that tinges many strands of modernist thought. Yet the drama does so by surrounding Salome with the three historical giants she is famous for having known. It’s ultimately somewhat unclear what newness and fineness meant to Salome in any constructive or imaginative sense, because the hour-long production focuses upon her rejection of the conventional roles that even Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud assigned to her.

This production is the result of a collaboration among Joe Piperato, who composed the music and plays Rainer Maria Rilke, Ellen Hemphill, who co-directs and plays Lou Andreas Salome, and Nor Hall. Hemphill and Piperato (a former student of Hemphill’s) have worked together on Archipelago productions since 1993. Terry Beck co-directs and plays Friedrich Nietzche. The collaborative model is clearly integral to this production, and appropriately so, given its subject matter: Intellectual camaraderie and aesthetic experimentation were crucial to Salome, who wrote “human life, indeed all life, is poetry.” The performers are accomplished, with Hemphill’s steady alto voice matched by Piperato’s graceful tenor. Beck and Greg Hohn as Freud are humorous and engaging, primarily because the co-writers are not above tweaking audience expectations regarding the well-known historical figures they revivify. The foursome is as likely to parody psychoanalysis as it is to take it seriously, which is in keeping with Salome’s own practice of challenging Freud’s theories of sexual difference. At one point, the three men queue up in a comic roundelay of suitors, all spurned until F.C. Andreas threatens suicide if Lou refuses to marry him.

The environment is both intimate and off-putting. The stage is an appropriately triangular composition, with the audience forming the hypotenuse and a full-length transparent scrim forming the vertex. A Freudian would have a field day analyzing this as a modernist entrance to the womb, and the directors provide ample support for that interpretation. Lou emerges from this opening carrying a skirt full of rose petals. The angular, smooth-walled set contrasts nicely with period furnishings and costumes, hinting at the tensions of late Victorian and early modern European society. A playful tone underlies an elaboration of similarity and difference in the set and musical score as well. Each of four wooden chairs is associated with a different character–a stool for Rilke, for example, and a smaller, child-sized chair for Nietzsche. Musical motifs allow voices to combine while maintaining distinctive elements associated with each character–in particular, romantic melodies for Rilke. The musical accompaniment relies heavily upon strings; the score, executed by a talented quartet on cello, viola, violin and piano, blends romantic and modernist elements.

While this brief musical portrait of Salome is engaging, I left the theater wanting more. The production favors the elaboration of her personal relationships–her role as a muse to great male thinkers–at the expense of the larger questions about historiography and representation that one might ask about such a fascinating figure. Historians disagree about the degree to which Salome’s influence on men derived from sexual and emotional relationships or from intellectual partnerships. According to Biddy Martin in Women and Modernity: the Life(Styles) of Lou Andreas-Salome, literary critics who have psychoanalyzed Salome posthumously claim that she was unable, rather than unwilling, to be a proper woman. One author claims she was a victim of male fantasies of the ideal woman; others see in her the personification of turn of the (last) century stereotypes such as the sexually voracious new woman. Salome’s own work is often viewed as derivative of that of her mentors, or merely an expression of her eccentric personality.

Is it possible in the year 2001 to represent what a woman such as Lou Andreas Salome wanted independently of the famous men she knew, and more importantly, independently of the famous men we know? Salome may have aspired to be a thoroughly modern woman, and may be worthy of continued attention, but not only because she was involved with great male thinkers.