Stanton reviews "My Zinc Bed," a new play by one of Britain's most notable stage directors, which deals with AA, whether alcoholism is a disease, and whether alcoholics can resume social drinking. The program for this play features a long quote from "Diseasing of America," as well as including a long discussion of the Audrey Kishline case. The play seemingly indicates that people are doomed to be alcoholics, not so much by their genes, as by their existential place in life, but it certainly does not endorse AA as a positive solution for their anguish.

Further Reading

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, 5 October 2000.

A Psychologist Reviews a Play About Addiction

Review of David Hare's "My Zinc Bed," at the Royal Court Theatre, London, September 7 - October 28, 2000

Stanton Peele


When David Hare's representative contacted me for permission to reprint four paragraphs from "Diseasing of America" (my book about how our cultural beliefs about addiction have been conditioned and exacerbated by the "12-step movement" view of alcoholism as a disease), I was impressed. My work had never before been tapped by a leading literary figure. To make a long story short, I decided to come to London with my wife to see the play — "My Zinc Bed."

Before actually attending the play, I was able to pick up a copy of the program and the play itself. For one thing, mine was not the only quote from a work on alcoholism/addiction to be included in the program. Indeed, my name appeared in another quote. This was in a newspaper story from the Observer (July 16, 2000) about the case of Audrey Kishline, the founder of Moderation Management (a support group for those seeking to reduce their drinking), who had driven drunk and killed two people. My quote in the article was, "Isn't it ironic that her most extreme case of intoxication came after she quit Moderation Management? AA didn't have the answers for her either."

Other quotes included one from Thomas Szasz: "Excessive drinking is a habit. If we choose to call bad habits diseases, there is no limit to what we may define as a disease." Another was from Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story." Knapp is an AA devotee who trashed moderation for alcoholics in a Salon article about Kishline. Nonetheless, the quote from her book in the "Bed" program emphasized the experiential nature of addiction: "I loved the way drink made me feel, and I loved its special power of deflection, its ability to shift my focus from my own awareness of self and onto something else, something less painful than my own feelings."

Together, the quotes represented a remarkably thoroughgoing exploration of some rather technical clinical and epidemiological issues in addiction. Among the lines quoted from my book were "Addiction is a direct result of the psychoactive effects of a substance — of the way it changes our sensations" (an example of which would be the Knapp quote) — and which for me proves the nondisease nature of addiction. Also quoted from my book was the line, "Some people seem to behave excessively in all areas of life." That Hare thought these quotes about whether alcoholism is a disease and whether alcoholics can resume drinking in a controlled manner relevant suggested that the play would be unusually close to my professional interests as a psychologist.

For Hare, addiction fits in with his concerns about the individual's position in the economic and social scheme of things. His concern with addiction is another variation of his ongoing meditation on the nature of the contemporary individual's existential place in a pitiless and bleak world. "My Zinc Bed" has three characters — Victor, an Internet entrepreneur and former communist; his wife, Elsa, a beautiful Danish woman played by the actress Julia Ormond ("Sabrina"); and a poet, Paul, who comes to work for Victor. Paul is a just-recovering alcoholic who attends AA. Elsa also was a drug addict and alcoholic, but had become a moderate drinker under Victor's tutelage.

From the start, Victor and Elsa are concerned to debunk AA to Paul, along with the idea that alcoholism is a disease. At their first meeting, Victor tells Paul it is untrue "that one drink will take you on the road to hell," as AA teaches and Paul accepts ("It saved my life"). For Victor, "The cult makes rules. It demands obedience. The cult has invented the slogan: One Drink, One Drunk. But it isn't actually true. If you had cured your own addiction . . . you could perfectly well drink socially again."

Speaking of Elsa, Victor intones, "she regarded her escape from AA as a far greater triumph than her escape from addiction . . . . [She felt] they were replacing her dependency on drugs with a dependency on coffee and confession." In order to trap her in this dependency, they had to "preserve that fear and to magnify it, they were forbidding her self-respect." Elsa continues along this line when she meets Paul: "It's for life. For the rest of your life you're an unexploded bomb." She elicits from Paul that his lying to his former lover extended beyond disguising his drinking to quite fundamental elements of their relationship — Paul thought his lover a bad actress, and hid his contempt of her. "Paul," Elsa tells him, "you are not addicted to alcohol. You are addicted to blame."

Eventually, partly due to their prodding, Paul drinks again, and predictably goes on a binge. In fact, when Paul is drunk, he is the most devastating of all of them about AA. "It's so wonderfully convenient. 'I'm feeling better today.' 'Are you? Are you? Really? You must be denial.' . . . I mean, no chance you might actually be getting somewhere, no chance you might actually be achieving something . . . . People say, 'You drink to escape your problems.' . . . you could say that given that I can't solve my problems, escaping them isn't such a bad idea."

For Paul can only write poetry while drinking. More basically, he can only achieve intimacy when drunk. Speaking to Elsa (with whom he has an affair), Paul says, "Alcohol is bound up in love. . . . Elsa, I can love you and drink. Or I can not love you and not drink. That's the choice." Elsa replies, "Nothing in between?" to which Paul answers, "No."

So, it is true that Paul cannot drink socially. Moreover, it becomes evident that Elsa's recovery is quite fragile itself — depending as it does upon the older and more powerful figure of Victor. Indeed, Victor himself becomes the most self-destructive figure in the play. For while he is a controlling figure, and the only one who seems to have command of himself, he is filled with doubt about his move from social action to economic enterprise. Victor claims that: "Life being - as we know — all too easily — a series of patterns, a series of addictions. . . . I'd rather break free of the addictions, thank you." Victor, the character with a social perspective, wants to know, "How do you explain the current passion for addiction?" Imagining his obituary (when he is laid out in his "zinc bed"), Victor describes his path from communist to cynical capitalist, "He went from believing people could do everything for each other to wondering whether they could do anything."

So does the play prove Victor, and his social experiments — with communism, capitalism, alcoholism, and humanity — wrong? In fact, does the play reinforce AA's view of alcoholism? In the sense that people are incapable of change, Hare is saying that recovering from addiction may well be impossible. But this is not a tribute to AA. Far from it, Paul admits that it was only after he had a drink that "fear [was] held for a moment at bay . . . . [while he was] beginning to feel [he] could live." Thus, when at the end of the play, Paul declares, "I have to go to a meeting," it is anything but an affirmation of the AA solution. It is rather an affirmation of human frailty and futility. For Hare, alcoholism is no worse — nor more incurable — than addiction to ideologies and religions that people rely on to cushion themselves from inevitably painful existence.

While I agree with Hare that addictions to substances serve such existential functions, I do not share Hare's existential pessimism. People can overcome addictions, just as they can improve their place in the universe. Perhaps this is the difference between a psychologist and a playwright; perhaps it is the difference between an American and a Brit. Indeed, the man sitting next to me in the theater was reading Henry James — the greatest literary explorer of the cultural differences separating Americans and Europeans.