On Madness and Theatricality

“Madness and Theatricality” is the name of a studio practice course taught by my friend and colleague Bridget Escolme at Queen Mary; it’s a thoughtful, critically engaged exploration, via performance-making, reading, and discussions, of what it means to put mental illness on the stage, and to use the stage as a platform on which to explore what mental illness means to individuals and to the societies that (often) judge them. This course has been top of my mind lately, as Bridget and I have been involved in a project to develop a collaborative Masters of Science program in the creative arts and mental health at Queen Mary. We’ve been learning from our colleagues in the medical school; hosting discussions with the exceptional artists and educators at CORE Arts, Pallant House/Outside In, Daily Life, Ltd., and elsewhere; and, of course, seeing stimulating performance.

Two recent pieces have got me thinking about the ways in which we, as tuned-in members of twenty-first century society, talk now about mental and emotional wellbeing, sickness, recovery, and that loaded term, “therapy” – and about how we might do so in more nuanced ways. One of these performances has been far more influential and widely visible than the other; neither is “correct” in its representation of mental illness – whatever that might mean – though one, I think, is far more productive than the other in its rendering of the weave between “illness” and “art”, as well as in its thinking about what it means to be a “patient” (and how to recognise the limitations of that term). Both use humour; both invite a certain sadness. Both engaged and troubled me, but in very different ways.

This blog is about teaching, performance, and activism, and in that sense it’s about thinking ethically and critically about the issues that matter to teachers as well as to students. As a perfectly healthy teacher who takes medication for what is technically classified as a mental disorder (according to the American Psychiatric Association), I’ve been noticing an awful lot of my fellow “sufferers” around these days, both among faculty and among students. Some come to my office to speak with me directly about their difficulties; others struggle quietly, waiting too long to seek support; still others are sick of being diagnosed and classified and made to conform to boxes on forms and labels on pill bottles. For better and for worse, mental illness and wellness are now as much a part of the lingo, and the experience, of university teaching and learning as are books and tuition fees. Talking about the representation of these things needs to be part of our critical idiom too, then, as we work through who we are, who our society seems to think we are, and who we hope to become. For me, reflecting on these two, recent performances in tandem has been part of that working-through.

The first is Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s new, widely acclaimed film remaking Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and starring Cate Blanchett in the role of the Blanche Dubois figure. Like most intellectual types, I’m a fan of Allen and was keen when I heard rumours that this was by far his best film in years, harking back to the heyday of Annie Hall; I also adore Blanchett and find her a tremendously thoughtful interpreter of challenging female characters from the modern canon.

Blue Jasmine is well made, funny, charming and pleasurable in all the ways you’d expect from vintage Woody Allen; it’s also shockingly classist, using, I suspect, the excuse of Williams’ own rather stereotyped Stella and Stanley to turn both Sally Hawkins’ Ginger and Bobby Cannavale’s Chili into lightly but firmly disdained comic relief. But raging elitism isn’t a new thing for Allen, and while I object to it here I’m not especially troubled by it, because Hawkins and Cannavale are particularly strong and able actors who make of their characters terrific, complex, contradictory figures, at once sure of the respect they are owed by those “above” them yet doubting of the respect they can offer one another. As I’ve reflected on the movie, it’s not the camera’s mocking of Ginger and Chili that’s stayed with me; rather, it’s the ease with which Allen frames Jasmine as “sick”, perhaps irretrievably so.

Blanchett’s performance is virtuosic, her Jasmine at turns hateful and pitiable and smart and gorgeous and funny. The problem is that every time we get a sense of Jasmine’s intelligence, warmth, and talent, the camera pulls back to show her falling prey to hallucinations, inappropriate talking in public, and other behaviour that has been standardized in our contemporary imaginations as just plain “mad”. For those who don’t know the play, Streetcar frames Blanche, the fallen sister of the slumming Stella, as lost to nostalgia and reverie and regret to an almost debilitating degree; she ends the play carted off to hospital as she delivers her famous, dubious line about relying on the “kindness of strangers”. The play’s “mad” plot is part of Allen’s intertext, in other words, but while Williams’ Blanche is by no means one-dimensional, and is arguably a victim of male violence and social stigma (for her sexual choices as much as for her pretensions to grandeur) rather than simply a sick woman, Blanchett’s Jasmine has, in the end, no place to go but crazy. Every time Blanchett offers depth, warmth, or complexity, for example, one of two things happens: either we see her ordering a Vodka martini (thus suggesting alcoholism explains her problems), or we see her talking to herself/others as though she is reliving a scene from her past with her philandering husband (thus suggesting a broken heart has shot her into some form of psychotic break). She’s interesting and remarkable and lovely to watch, and I want to invest in her, follow her into her world – but then, all of a sudden, I’m given a sharp, well-executed reason for disconnecting, for remembering that, after all, she’s just sick and needs help.

I don’t want to diminish Blanchett’s achievement in this film; an actor in a Hollywood blockbuster (which is what a Woody Allen movie, give or take a few million in receipts, always is) can only do so much with the lines on the page he or she is given, and Blanchett creates as attractive and compelling a figure as I can imagine, given the script. But the limits of Jasmine as a representation of a woman struggling with a combination of difficult social and economic circumstances (Jasmine has lost everything, including her marriage, and moved to San Francisco to start over) and a possible illness are clear in the fact that we’re never given to believe Jasmine can really come out of this one without some sort of medical intervention. She’s not hauled off to the ward at the film’s end, but she might as well be.

On the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Fantasist, a puppet and physical theatre piece created by Theatre Témoin and presented this past week as part of the Suspense Festival of puppetry in London. Creator/performers Julia Yevnine, Catherine Gerrard, Julia Corrêa, along with co-deviser and director Ailin Conant, weave a world in which we begin and end on the ward Jasmine might anticipate, and yet that space is so much more than just a hospital room where benevolent care is doled out to needy, difficult women. For one thing, the “patient” is also an artist, and – more importantly – is the “fantasist” of the title; as the show’s press materials explain,

In the mind of the fantasist, the real and the fanciful become dangerously blurred. As Louise gazes into the night, her fancy takes form. Objects move, time changes … and a seductive stranger opens up a world of exhilaration and magic.

These are the “glorious heights” as well as the “murky depths” of what it means to live with bipolar disorder, rendered on stage as an experience at once conducive to pleasure, to safety and comfort, to childish innocence, to forceful adult sexuality, to exceptional artistry, and to creative destruction, and yet also shown to be harmful, difficult, and painful for the artist/fantasist, drawn to protect her harsh but creative world even as her “jailer”, the consultant Josie, strives to protect her from that world with pills and injections, as well as kind words and gentle physical contact. Who is the threat here: Josie, or the mysterious blue man (a stunning, morning-coated, gentleman puppet)? Who offers the elusive “cure”: friends and family, pills and needles – or the potion the blue man proffers, and which the manic, Muppet-like, wardrobe-dwelling, half-broken but still-feisty female disembodied heads encourage Louise to drink? What’s better: making gorgeous paintings on canvas, walls, and doors, then destroying them – or “slowing down” and sleeping, recovering, letting the body relax and breathe? The performance offers these questions but no answers; Louise’s inspiration is also her illness, and the pros and cons tend to balance out disturbingly well. I found myself riveted, mesmerised, troubled, enchanted, and hurt; as Louise disappeared into her wardrobe in the show’s final moments I was not sure what had happened to her, and not entirely sure if it was a bad thing.



[Julia Yevnine as Louise, with puppets, in The Fantasist]

This isn’t to say, of course, that The Fantasist “celebrates” bipolar disorder as a source of genius, rather than staging it as illness; in fact, it does both, and far more mundane things in between. The thing it does that Blue Jasmine fails to do, in fact, is exactly this: it offers us a picture of mental dis-ease that asks us to question our assumptions about what it means to live in and with an altered mindscape, and that suggests the ending need not entail a journey onto the ward for all “patients” at play’s end. Louise, after all, escapes the ward, just as Jasmine appears to be heading for it. But, again: we’re not entirely sure if that’s a good thing, either.

I see friends, colleagues, and students struggle every day with versions of Louise’s blue man, inhabiting Jasmine’s pain but not drowning in it. Why can’t our most popular representations of “madness” do a better job of performing the murky, grey areas, the complexities as well as the confusions of living with variants of the DSM’s cold, hard diagnoses? Surely we owe our students, not to mention one another, better models of living with these experiences, so that we might reassure and comfort one another, certainly, but also so that we might come to know ourselves better.


6 thoughts on “On Madness and Theatricality

  1. We are working with Ailin Conant and two of her actors on DRA339. Lets check the diaries. This is a great piece Kim: thanks. Enjoy Reading Week. Ax

  2. Kim, this is a fascinating piece, thank you. I wholeheartedly agree with your point about the lack of representations of people living in these “grey areas” – I struggle to think of any good examples in fact. I will be seeing The Fantasist…

  3. Hi Kim:

    I enjoyed reading this post, as I share your interest in the gendered portrayal of “madness,” onstage primarily, but in this case on screen as well. I became very intrigued some years ago by the representation of madness (particularly erotically-induced madness) in Flaminio Scala’s commedia dell’arte scenarios. In a paper I published on the commedia actress and the performance of the “pazzia” (mad scene, typically induced by disappointment in love), I explored what I then called the “speak, strip, run” formula, in which the inamorata’s distracted state is signaled first by confused, gibberish speech, then tearing or removing some clothing, and finally running away (away from her domestic space), the physical flight a manifestation of her loss of sense. I was struck by how similarly Jasmine’s increasing mental distress is conveyed by Blanchett in her rambling mutterings and eventually, at the end, her wandering from the relative safety of her sister’s home, her expensive clothes disheveled and drenched in perspiration. Certainly a large part of the popularity of the “pazzia” scene in the 17th century was the risqué thrill for the audience of seeing the actress partly undressed. That the actress’s nude or partially nude, imperiled and straying body remains a powerfully transgressive presence even in today’s tediously flesh-drenched media iconography is, well, fascinating to me.

    I share much of your discomfort with Allen’s reworking of Williams’ more complex Blanche Dubois here. In contrast, for example, to one of my Allen favourites, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which dares to explore, in a rather chilling way, that the world is not in fact necessarily fair and just, I found Blue Jasmine offered rather simple / simplistic moral trajectories: the “bad”, ie Baldwin’s character, is punished, his family, victimized yet also complicit, suffer accordingly, the weak but essentially virtuous working class end up where they began, and the pure, patrician politician (there’s an unusual take!) is saved from falling with the fallen woman.

    I think, looking at gender more broadly, the perhaps overlooked character (and actor!) here is Alec Baldwin’s Hal. He is also operating within the rules and pressures of the American “success” class story as it pertains to men, and given his choices, including his ultimate choice to take his life, we can also see him as suffering mental disorder. Although we are not invited to follow his story as we are Jasmine’s, his suicide is a quiet yet potent ellipsis in the narrative. In some cultures suicide is not necessarily equated with mental illness and indeed can be read as rational or honourable, but I think we tend to feel it is pretty much by definition an act of madness or at least extremis. Certainly his choices have a disastrous impact on Jasmine, but I could not help feeling an intense, anguished sympathy for him and the plight he has placed himself in. I thought Baldwin was superb, particularly in the confrontation scene with Jasmine, his torn emotions so evident under the repressed veneer. Replacing one trophy wife with a younger one seems a sad, inevitable progression in the confining script he must follow. I am tempted to cut Allen some slack on the classism issue, if only because he does explore, at least obliquely, the impact of this masculist gendered script on the character of Hal. By coincidence, I am currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s very engaging, if slightly predictable, The Corrections, which explores, inter alia, the effect of our Western idea of career “success” on the male psyche. The more materially successful the men in this novel are, the more they suffer depression / anxiety. I suspect this may be in part why Franzen has been compared with Cheever.

    Anyway, this is meandering, but thank-you for helping me to expand and extend my thoughts on this “maddening” – so to speak — but very engaging film. I wish I could have seen the puppet play!

    • Thanks so much for this, Clarissa! It’s a salient reminder of how important taking male experience and perspective into account is as we unpack what can sometimes feel like completely straightforward feminist issues in performance. I share your discomfort with the handling of the Baldwin character, and wonder if the movie didn’t simply seduce me into “forgetting” about him because the film is designed to focus so wholly on Jasmine’s (flawed) perspective, and to invite our laughter at it (among other things). In the process, as you note, it marginalises what are two extraordinary, damaged, equally flawed characters – Baldwin’s Hal, and Alden Ehrenreich’s Danny, Hal and Jasmine’s son.

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