The 60s and 70s
During the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a push to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. As a result, what had been a private matter between families and institutions became a matter of public concern. In Pippin, Schwartz demonstrates not only the potential devastation for the mentally ill that are uncared for by their loved ones, but creates a means for audience members to understand how the mentally ill are driven to suicide and other violent acts.
At the same time, there was a shift from long-term to short-term psychotherapy due to an increase in patients who wanted to find relief from their everyday lives. Thus, the 1970s were labeled the Age of Depression due to its rise. In 1972, Wall Street Journal published an article on depression, which said, “For those who cannot find a cure, suicide is often the result. The suicide rate of known depressives is 36 times that of the general population.” According to Bob Fosse’s biography Fosse, this article and quote resonated with him greatly.
It is most likely that Pippin suffers from depression. This is displayed via the voices in his head (The Players) that manipulate him to failure and the belief that he is worthless. Another significant marker of depression is an inability to get out of bed in the morning. Going off of this, Catherine, Pippin, and Theo are candidates for this symptom.
Esther Terry suggests in Musical Storm and Mental Stress: Trauma and Instability in Contemporary American Musical Theatre that Pippin has PTSD. After experiencing the trauma of war, he is unable to silence the players, who provoke his symptoms. Symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing trauma (nightmares and flashbacks) and avoiding the trauma. Terry notes that Pippin re-experiences the trauma by the players’ manipulation- leading him to sexual acts and murder- and his stance of anti-violence. PTSD is an interesting diagnosis because Pippin was written during the Vietnam War, which is highly associated with PTSD. However, PTSD was not officially recognized until the 1980s.
Pippin, Suicide, and Depression
In May 1973, just months after Pippin opened on Broadway, Bob Fosse checked into a psychiatric clinic for depression. Those working on the show all agree that Pippin’s journey was the same as Fosse’s: both trying to be extraordinary, both unable to find happiness, both tempted by death. Thus, a great deal of the darkness in Pippin’s story came from Fosse, whereas Schwartz and Hirson aimed to write a more sentimental piece.
Later in life, Schwartz came to realize that Fosse’s instincts about Pippin were correct. Schwartz said, “In essence they represent the part of all of us that is never satisfied, the hunger that can never be sated, the desire for excitement and glamour that is impossible to achieve, the unfulfillable urges that lead us to self-destructive behavior, excess, depression for some, and mania for others (or for the same people at different times.”
Leading Player makes it clear that the players are all within Pippin’s head, meaning that “Pippin is making himself fail at everything; and Pippin is convincing himself to commit suicide by self-immolation,” according to Scott Miller. The audience also becomes a reasons for Pippin to kill himself. As Leading Player has orchestrated the plot, the audience would be greatly disappointed if they are not given the grand finale that they were promised. Schwartz and Fosse, though they agreed on very little while developing the play, did agree that this was a play about self-destruction and longing for death.
Catherine and Theo
While Pippin struggles with finding meaning and suicide, Catherine is fighting self-hatred and doubt. There is clear distinction between the way Leading Player treats Pippin and how she/he treats Catherine. Leading Player plays off of Catherine’s insecurity. She/he notices every small error that Catherine makes, and announces it immediately. In the 2013 version, Leading Player also makes comments about Catherine’s age and the mole on her face. Not only is she ridiculed for her intelligence and performance, but her appearance as well. Leading Player breaks Catherine down without manipulation, thus, displaying a second battle, which Catherine is able to overcome as well.
The new ending to Pippin, called the “Theo Ending” demonstrates the cyclical nature of mental illness as Theo must now battle the voices in his head. Schwartz wrote that he believes this ending is the most effective because Pippin and Catherine, “look on helplessly as they realize that their son, like all of us, will have to wrestle with his own demons and make his own choices.”