The Reading Room: A review of ‘Performance, Madness and Psychiatry’


Performance, Madness and Psychiatry

Isolated Acts

Edited by Anna Harpin & Juliet Foster


Reviewed by Femi Oyebode

National Centre for Mental Health

25 Vincent Drive

Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2FG


In the spring of 1836, John Clare (1793-1864) visited Peterborough and accompanied Mrs. Marsh, the bishop’s wife, to the theatre to see Merchant of Venice. At the beginning of the fourth act, Clare became restless. In the scene where Portia delivered judgment, Clare stood up and addressed the actor performing the part of Shylock: “You villain, you murderous villain”. Frederick Martin 1 wrote

“Great was the astonishment of all the good citizens of Peterborough…Such an utter breach of decorum was never heard of within the walls of the episcopal city. It was in vain that those nearest to Clare tried to keep him on his seat and induce him to be quiet; he kept shouting, louder than ever, and ended by making attempts to get upon the stage. At last, the performance had to be suspended, and Mrs. Marsh, after some difficulty, got away with her guest”.

Soon after that event Mr. Skrimshaw, a surgeon, saw Clare and declared “what, indeed, was obvious to all the persons in the house – that the poor poet was a lunatic”.

This book, edited by Harpin and Foster deals with many of the issues that are raised by the account above: What is the nature of mental illness? How do we come to recognize it? What is the right (morally right) stance to take in respect of it? In what way can theatrical (P)erformance be distinguished from (p)erformance in everyday life? And, so on. We can and do denote a theatrical space as a place designated for performance and this is not necessarily merely a building. In traditional society it might very well be a clearance in the forest first encircled by trees and then by a circle of people. The theatrical space in this arrangement is literally centre stage and the theatrical performance is encircled (What Elias Canetti terms “The Crowd as a Ring”) as it is in an arena. Think of the Roman Coliseum or the Grand Amphitheatre in Ephesus, or Congo Square in New Orleans. In contemporary European tradition, the stage is at an elevated focal point, usually at one end of an oblong building. Convention determines where the actors play and how the audience behaves and this is always being re-defined by playwrights. There is a sense in which the distinction between being a spectator or an audience is itself a commentary on the implicit rules governing what is expected in theatre. We go to see a play but sit in the auditorium as part of an audience whereas at a football stadium we are spectators. To return to John Clare, one could argue that in performing from the audience’s space, Clare was making of himself a spectacle and this breach in the usual conventions of behavior was a social signal that all was not well with him. In essence he had breached the implicit rules that governed how theatrical space is utilized.

Harpin and Foster write in the afterword to their wonderful book

“This is a book about madness, space and performance. In it we have paused over these three concepts and their interrelations in order to try to better understand the cultural politics and meanings of madness. The diverse, even clashing voices in the collection evidence how far this remains fiercely contested terrain”.

The remarkable achievement is that the editors, despite the extent of the contested and disputed territory, have managed to produce a text that sticks to task, that is thematically unified, except for the first chapter. Richard Stern in his chapter “Smart’s Authority and the Eighteenth-Century Mad-Business” focuses on Christopher Smart, a poet and Dr. William Battie who may have treated him. We are told that Smart was admitted to St. Luke’s where William Battie was Head Physician in May 1757 and discharged in May 1758. He was later admitted to Potter’s private madhouse in 1759 and discharged in 1763. He was arrested in April 1770 for debt and died n prison in May 1771. Stern’s approach is to examine the use of language in Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno and Battie’s A Treatise. There is practically no reference to the nature of theatre nor is there reference to the problematics of performing madness, of representing madness in language, or of the true dilemma of what one does when challenged by obvious anomalous experiences and behaviors that cause concern.

Stern writes

“I want to conclude this chapter by firstly celebrating Jubilate Agno as a poem. At the very least, it is a voice from the madhouse at a time when many other people in similar circumstances were silenced. The content of the poem challenges psychiatry to justify its terminology, its methods and the language that it is using. It represents the richness of felt experience and warns against a rigid determinism. It also shines a light on confinement as seen of the perspective of the confined, where there can be a sense of double-suffering, or of suffering played out again and again: suffering as mental disturbance, alienation, isolation, social death, and the suffering under the fact of confinement…”

This is all very well, but the superior tone of admonishment of an abstraction termed “psychiatry” does little to sketch out what Stern’s own contribution would be in a complex area that demands more than merely clever and righteous statements. John Perceval’s (1803-1876) A narrative of the treatment experienced by a gentleman during a state of mental derangement; designed to explain the causes and the nature of insanity deals comprehensively with the facts of confinement and makes a clearer, more directly eloquent and, fulsome case against unnecessary confinement. For a description of the subjective experience of severe delusions and hallucinations including a legal argument against incarceration Daniel Schreber’s (1842-1911) Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is unparalleled. And, if it is poetry written under conditions of incarceration that one seeks then John Clare’s poetry written whilst he was at Northampton Asylum or Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1937) poetry written whilst at the City of London Mental Hospital speak to the distress, the emotional turmoil and the desolate inner landscape that is mental illness.

Juliet Foster, in her chapter “Performance in Bethlem, Fulbourn and Brookwood Hospitals: a social psychological and social historical examination”, deals with theatrical performances in psychiatric hospitals. This is a reminder of what has been lost with the closure of Asylums. This is not to glorify asylums but rather to say that community care has not fulfilled all its promise and the idea that communities will embrace the mentally ill was just that, idealistic. The paradox is that there can be even more isolation and alienation in wider society than in asylums. Theatrical performances were only one of the variety of entertainments put on in asylums, dances were another popular form of entertainment. John Burnside’s poem “The Asylum Dance” and Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum take the asylum dance as a centerpiece of asylum life. Foster concludes that

“Entertainment…is centred around the idea of providing a diversion or a distraction, or even a link in some way to the world outside of the asylum, and to everyday experiences and practices”.

It isn’t often that the literature on asylums recognizes and acknowledges the desire to do good, to alleviate suffering in the residents, and to harness the humanity of the staff in the service of their charges.

In the section titled “Applying Performance”, first Susan Cox in her chapter “Reflections on autonomy and ethics in research-based theatre and then Sarah Rudolph’s “Whose mind is it anyway?: Acting and mental illness” deal with the intricacies of ‘acting mad’ in theatre. There is here an assumption that theatre has an implicit educational if not moral purpose. Cox talks about

“When applied theatre is successful in opening us differently to experiences of mental illness…we may reflect from a new vantage point, on the implications of our own forms of engagement with mental illness, such as through understanding what it might be like to live with dementia…”


“Challenges include the ethics of fictionalizing the real life experiences of research participants and the problems that can arise when participants and/or audiences over-identify with the physical or mental health conditions being performed, perhaps even becoming re-traumatized by a highly convincing theatrical performance”.

This view suggests that a special duty of care exists towards the audience when theatre tackles sensitive issues. This is on the face of it a thoughtful and caring position. But, it can also be read as assuming vulnerability in participants and audiences in special settings that inexorably results in self-censorship. The implication is that there are matters that are too sensitive to be enacted. Or, that there are particular enactments that will be more troubling than others. All audiences bring with them, into theatre, inner life of varying composition. Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire or the Tyrone family in Long Day’s Journey into Night depending on the sensitivities of the audience have the capacity to provoke disquiet in individuals who have been raped or whose parents have a strained marriage, etc. One could argue that the power of theatre resides precisely in this confluence between what is being played on stage and what is jostling for resolution in the mind of the audience. To make the point again and in a different way, I hope that a mobile library in a psychiatric hospital would have books of all kinds, not a list of the most supposedly innocuous texts so as to protect patients from troubling texts.

Rudolph’s chapter is a must read for anyone with an interest in the use of theatre in psychiatry. It examines the pitfalls as well as the triumphs of this area of work. It makes the point, that ought not to need making, that mental illness is not a metaphor, it is a real lived experience. Schizophrenia or dementia does not stand in for other matters, they are not symbols infused with meaning with the goal of speaking about a world in schism or a degenerate world, etc. And, mental distress is multifarious in presentation. The experiences are manifold. It may be true that ‘dramatic’ enactments in which florid gestures and violent outbursts occur are easier to comprehend but in fact life is more subtle, more nuanced, and hence representations that recognize that agony is best suggested than caricatured would ultimately be closer to the truth of mental illness.

The final section “Theatrical Maladies” is a tour de force. Bridget Escolme takes Ophelia and analyses different productions of Hamlet with a view to discovering the underlying motifs, the rationale for the varying portrayals. She traces “how different historical epochs have mapped their fears and wishes around children onto their fears and wishes around the ‘mad’…Questions of how ideas of insanity produce Ophelia and how Ophelia produces ideas about insanity…”. Hers is a feminist reading but her conclusion that there is a tradition of “calming and confining Ophelia and her representation” can just as easily be read as a fear of madness per se. Greek theatre kept mad actions from view and the Roman theatre only rendered visible the mad fool, innocent and funny, and thereby unthreatening for the audience. There is a way in which madness is hidden from view but it may be true as Escolme argues that madness is the more malignant, “embarrassing and disturbing” in a woman. Harpin’s final chapter “Dislocated: Metaphors of madness in British theatre” addresses the question of what it is, metaphorically, to be mad. This is quite distinct from using mental illness as a metaphor, a symbol for matters unconnected to it. It is examining what it is like, metaphorically, to be mad. This understanding is important because it gives a handle on the experience and allows it to be accurately represented in art. Harpin starts by saying that in relation to madness

“First, there is the recurrent sense of journeying that attends on madness. Secondly, the dominant notion of place renders ‘mad’ experience an inherently geographical encounter. Madness, then, is figured as a location, as site…To be mad is to be…displaced, dislocated, gone”.

She goes on

“Juliet LH Foster’s study of mental health service-users’ representations of their experiences argues that mental illness frequently figures as a place (woods, clouds, traps, prisons, abyss, pit) or journey (mountain, tightrope, maze, tunnel)”.

The challenge then is how to embody the metaphor, how to concretize what is beyond language, that which is unspeakable. That, after all, is what drama is.

To return to John Clare, his performance at the theatre during the production of Merchant of Venice signaled a dislocation within. And, this dislocation was made visible in his speaking from the auditorium to the actors on stage. Theatrical representation of madness could learn from this event, that speaking from the ‘wrong’ place is a possible expression of madness. And, this might involve shifting the balance of where the audience is in relation to the stage and emphasize that the person sitting next to you in theatre, that is your neighbor, like you is liable to emotional turmoil.

I will leave the last word to Anna Harpin

“Plays locate madness precisely along a spectrum of human experiences without ever flattening out the particularity of the encounter…dramatists encourage a political reflection on the nature and boundaries of ‘health’ and ‘illness’.



  1. Martin, Frederick (1865) The Life of John Clare. Gutenberg Ebook no B470 [ and]


(Visited 941 times, 1 visits today)