In 1891, recent Bethlem physician George Savage railed against the deterministic contemporary view of mental illness in the Journal of Mental Science, asserting that “insanity is … to a great extent a social as well as a medical question.” Savage’s view was by no means a novel one, however: in the 1840s and ‘50s, the expansion of the asylum system had been motivated in part by a belief that removing individuals from those elements regarded as the “exciting” causes of their illness – including work or social pressures – was an important step towards cure. No doubt, as many historians have suggested, the professional aims of asylum doctors were not absent from this focus: nonetheless, Pat Whymark’s production perfectly captures the optimistic humanitarianism, and the accompanying uneasiness over the effects of “civilization” on the mental health of the nation.
The play, a new production by Common Ground Theatre Company, was performed for the first time in London last week. Partly based on Anne Digby’s historical account of the Quaker York Retreat, founded in 1796, Whymark also used her own reflections on modern experiences and psychiatric treatment. Thus, the mixed hope and anxiety of lay asylum superintendent John Hale (played by Julian Harries), perhaps also provides a comment on the at times uneasy contemporary relationship between medical and “moral” treatments (the York Retreat and contemporary institutions, including Bethlem, regarded diet, exercise, occupation and re-education in self-control as essential elements of therapy).
The play’s strength lies in the firm rooting of the characters in their lives outside the asylum, such as the story of Faith, who has for a long time suffered from melancholia. During her illness, her husband isolates her in the home, informs her that her child is dead, and (somewhat anachronistically, given that the play is set well before the Married Women’s Property Act) forces her to sign away her property to him. The lawyer who witnesses her signature, Mr Travis, is also later admitted to the asylum. Travis’ scenes are some of the most evocative of the play: his fear and desperation touchingly portrayed by Alfie Harries, while other actors crouch around the stage, providing a whispered backdrop of the voices that haunt him.
With humour, pathos, and great attention to historical detail, Whymark’s play provides interesting engagement with a variety of mental health issues, and a sensitive portrayal of some of the ways in which illness might affect ordinary life. In some areas, unfortunately, the surface is barely scratched: we are given no insight into the aggressive attendant Mr Sudell, who attacks asylum inmates and subsequently disappears, or Hood’s occasional violence, and the side-story of Hale’s son’s rejection of medicine for poetry is rather hackneyed. Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of Hale’s calls for self-restraint among his patients, the much debated diagnosis of “moral insanity” and Travis’ guilt over his legal misdoings might have been explored in more depth: how can society regard a person morally responsible, if not legally? This is an issue rarely confronted, but often encountered today in press, public, and even medical reactions to mental illness.
For more information on Common Ground Theatre Company – a group set up by Pat Whymark, Julian Harries and Lynn Whitehead to give young people with a passion for theatre the chance to work alongside professional practitioners – visit their website.