Interrogate Current And Historical Attitudes English Literature Essay

"Mental health is used positively to indicate a state of psychological well-being, negatively to indicate its opposite (as in ‘mental health problems’)" [1] however, in connection to madness images of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates are immediately conjured. Such is the fear or amusement that madness creates in the general population that we have quite a rich lexicon to describe it. Terms used in the English vernacular have included ‘away with the fairies’, ‘bananas’, ‘crazy’, ‘crackers’, ‘deranged’, ‘on another planet’ or just ‘mental’. Most descriptions imply alienation with the mad being under an extra-planetary influence. So, how have we come to such narrow conclusions about those who are medically classified as mad? Through practice we undertook on the module we were able to investigate further.

We began by reading Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy, The Bacchae. The god Dionysus has returned to Thebes seeking revenge on its inhabitants, more specifically his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus. "Two stereotypical and enduring descriptions of madness since ancient times have included violence and aimless wandering." [2] The Bacchae lives up to such expectations as Dionysus drives his army of women (Bacchantes) to tear (his cousin) King Pentheus’ body apart piece by piece; "tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead." [3] What was intriguing was that although written around 405 BC Greek tragedy occupies a regular space in the London theatre season. It was interesting to ponder over the reasons behind how such plays transcend history to be valuable to a modern audience. Helene Foley questions whether or not this is because Greek plots can aim at uncovering deep psychological truths without degenerating into soap opera, "due in part to the presence of divine forces and a public, political setting in the remote past, providing a more complex notion of motivation that can be projected by reduced modern characters in the present." [4] 

We watched Dionysus in ’69, a 1970’s film by Brian De Palma. The film is a recording of The Performance Group’s stage play of the same name, an adaption of The Bacchae. The performance is a contemporary adaption used to commemorate America’s cultural politics at the time. The Civil Rights Movement made great changes in society in the 1960’s, it was a time of liberation and to a certain extent, equality, until 1965 when massive troop build-ups were ordered by president Lyndon B. Johnson to put an end to the conflict preventing North Vietnam from overtaking South Vietnam. The draft was accelerated and anti-war sentiment grew in the US. College students organised anti-war protests, draft-dodgers fled to Canada, and there were reports of soldiers reflecting the growing disrespect for authority, shooting their officers rather than following orders. This was a time of unrest and mass hysteria, conformity was no longer the only option. The performance Group staged their unrest in the form of Dionysus in ’69. The film certainly presented a modern outlook of The Bacchae but still retained its key narrative: power shadows over all men.

The myriad of personalities and attitudes of Shakespeare’s characters are certainly some of the most renown in all Western literature. The depiction of mental illness and the corresponding treatment of madness within Renaissance society are never more vividly depicted than in King Lear. Shakespeare’s plays, and in particular King Lear, have been a favourite source of clinical observation and diagnosis for psychiatrists for the past two centuries. Most authors agree that the description of Lear’s mental symptoms is remarkably consistent and close to life. King Lear presented an underlying condition which manifests itself in Lear’s deterioration as the toll of the cataclysmic events catch up to him. In our study of King Lear we noticed that the relationship between mental health and society’s norms are as relevant in Shakespeare’s portrayals as it is today in our own culture and treatment of present-day afflictions. We all too commonly place demeaning labels on people who are behaving in a strange if not decidedly aberrant ways. That was as true during the Renaissance as it is now.

Moving closer in time to that we exist in now, we explored the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, visiting London’s Young Vic’s production under the same name. Although set in Alicante, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s play gives a strong flavour of the conditions faced by those classed as insane in the Jacobean period. The sub-plot is set in an asylum presided over by Alibius, who fears the "daily visitants" [5] – those coming to gawp for their own amusement – might seduce his wife Isabella, a matter only temporarily resolved by locking her up. The Changeling blurs the distinction between the witless and the sane to the point where all characters are all seemingly mad.

"In 1622, the year The Changeling was licensed for performance, charges were brought against the servants at Bethlem hospital – also known as Bedlam – for cruelty. Two years earlier, the "Poor Distracted People in the House of Bedlam" published a desperate petition but relief was not at hand. A decade later, a visitor described the "cryings, screechings, roarings, brawlings, shaking of chaines, swearings, frettings, chaffings" that emanated from the building." [6] The Young Vic’s production of The Changing channelled this same feeling of intolerable confinement through its set design. Designer Ultz incarcerated the company by staging the audience behind netting on one side and in special wooden booths on the other, as if there to observe wildlife.

Dramatic changes took place in the theory and practice of psychiatry during the nineteenth century. Large county asylums were built and the insane were separated from the destitute and the criminal. They emerged as a distinct social category. Whereas before madness had been described and explained within supernatural frameworks, now the causes of insanity could be classified under four headings: "predisposing and exciting causes and physical and moral causes" [7] . We are now able to translate ‘moral’ as a rough nineteenth-century equivalent of the contemporary term ‘psychological’. Nineteenth-century ideas on insanity form two streams of thoughts which are a development of Hobbes’ and Locke’s view on the matter. Hobbes presents a stereotyped view of the madman – "one of outrage and licentiousness in the absence of intellectual guidance." [8] Locke, on the other hand, held a more sober view of insanity, suggesting that madness is a self-contained defect of reasoning. Although both Philosophers predate to the seventeenth century, these standpoints provide the departure for later schools of thought.

Changes in society’s characteristic responses to insanity reflected upon advances in medical knowledge and understanding. It was progress here that made possible more precise and refined diagnosis, as well as more humane and effective treatment. Science and humanity were then united and given visible and concrete form in the network of new, purpose-built, publicly funded asylums, monuments of moral architecture that more than one contemporary commentator was moved to regard as "the most blessed manifestation of true civilisation the world can present." [9] 

Madness is defined by the attributions of others and the transgression of the fundamental rule in adult society of being able to render one’s behaviour intelligible to others when required. This ‘intelligibility rule’ is a characteristic of societies not individuals. Consequently, madness is a social judgement not a medical-scientific fact. Moreover, not only are exceptions tolerated to the intelligibility rule, to various degrees in various societies but conformity to the rule of reason or rationality does not always produce healthy outcomes.

It is true that mad people are unintelligible to others and so lack credibility as citizens. However, it is also true that sane people may act reasonably and intelligibly but be highly destructive. The threats of warfare and ecological degradation to humanity as a whole, the pursuit of genocide and the building of concentration camps have been the collective outcome of sane people acting in a reasonable and intelligible way, according to the norms of their parent society.

Many of those hostile to a naïve mental illness view of madness have argued for concerted efforts to create productive conversations between normality and madness, with the assumption that advantages might accrue in both directions. Relevant examples here were of the works of Ronald Laing and Michel Foucault, who noted that in modern societies, the dialogue between reason and unreason has broken down.

For our final piece we began to wonder how performance can highlight the intersections and separations between how madness is experienced internally and perceived externally. Inspired by performance artist Bobby Baker who spent eleven years battling mental illness, an experience she recorded in performances and hundreds of private drawings, we wished to present madness as an artistic and creative outlook. Through countless readings of texts it became clear that we were always looking through a window at a patient and never really seeing what is that they see. We felt that Antony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia was a valuable resource in pertaining to our aims.

Neilson’s play is about a young woman suffering from Dissociative Disorder. It is in two contrasting acts, with the first a vivid and colourful recreation of Lisa’s dream-like imaginary life and the second a realistic presentation of the hospital ward in which she is receiving treatment. In this way the play attempts to give the audience a notion of how the condition affects the sufferer. We are provided with a narrative of Lisa’s direct experiences with her subconscious mind, an inexplicable yet absorbing world. Neilson’s play transports you between two contrasting border zones that can be analogised as between childhood and adulthood, sanity and insanity, sensation and numbness etc. Audience members experience Dissocia with Lisa and so form their own interpretation which is the beauty of Neilson’s play as no assertions are cast and no labels given.

We reorganised the structure of Neilson’s play, disrupting its dramaturgy of two halves to create the two worlds of Lisa’s Dissocia and treatment within the same space. Through this the boundaries between selfhood and the outside world have disintegrated presenting our audience with the idea that the battle between chaos and order is in fact within us all and the possibility that we all in some way could be classified as mad.

In our pursuit to capture the emotions of a patient suffering from a mental disorder we also looked into Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis. 4.48 Psychosis was Kane’s final play and consists of a speaker preparing the audience/reader to "watch me vanish" [10] , rather ironic given Kane’s untimely suicide in 1999. In fact, the speaker’s last lines "please open the curtains" [11] are speculated to be Kane’s theatricalised exit or goodbye, a dramatised suicide note if you will. The play is hauntingly personal, allowing spectators/readers glimpses into a fractured mindscape of potentially Sarah Kane herself. 4.48 Psychosis "uses dramatic form to represent a mental state in which distinctions between reality and delusion have broken down." [12] Caridad Svich commented on this disjunction with reference to the revival of the original Royal Court production when it toured America in 2004: "Mental illness is not held up for view as a case study here; the audience is rather asked to enter the state of illness: to experience with artful distance the pain of thoughts fractured, seemingly divorced from the self." [13] We felt that Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis fed neatly in relation to Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, it exposed the isolation and anguish felt by patients which we wished to showcase in our own adaption presenting the interior struggles of a madman.

We challenged Neilson’s dramaturgy of a colourful Dissocia and a bland reality through constructing a more dark and sinister Dissocia. We edited the text to exaggerate this, for instance, we decided not to include Jane as this character provides comfort and security for Lisa and by excluding her we were able to present our audience with an image of isolation and suffering. We felt this confronted audiences about their perception of mental health more head on than Neilson’s original structure of the play.

It would seem that there are many theatrical resources detailing madness throughout the centuries however, it would also seem that there is much left to explore and create. In recognition of Sigmund Freud, we as a society have become deeply interested in the human psyche – the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious. Antony Neilson and Sarah Kane have contemporised madness and theatricality by observing the condition within its interior; as a consequence our outlook on those deemed insane is one of acceptance compared to that before the eighteen hundreds. We now live in a time where it is common to suffer with depression or anxiety disorders, the phrase "I feel depressed" is colloquial of our age. However, to indulge in the experiences of those who suffer most could make for an interesting study. Ethically it is dangerous territory yet is nonetheless a playground for artists as those with recesses as delusional as Lisa (The Wonderful World of Dissocia) provide us with raw expression without any social constraints or pressures. It is this idea of truth that provides a great basis for the stage. The only question is whether people truly wish to be informed of such possible hidden manifestations or continue to judge those suffering from mental health conditions by their labels, separating them from we.