Stage & Screen 2

This post is part of a series. Please start reading at ‘Stage & Screen 1’ nearby.

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New ways of looking at the mad were supplied by the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing and his colleagues in the 1960s. Madness was seen as a reaction to an impossible situation and treated as a crucial stage on a developmental journey that should not be aborted with drugs or electroshock but encouraged to unfold. This unfolding might be protracted and would depend on the constant, almost sacrificial ministrations of sympathetic therapists. The idea of the ‘asylum’ – a benign place of shelter – was revived and in 1965, at Kingsley Hall, in the East End of London, Laing, Berke, Redler and others began to offer residential support and radical therapy to a number of schizophrenic patients.

Mary Barnes is probably the best known of those who were recovered from – or guided through – extreme disorder by the methods of the Laingian group, which shortly formed into the Philadelphia Association. Barnes lived in a state of terror and distress much of the time, smearing her faeces on the walls and speaking incomprehensibly. Her therapist, Joseph Berke, refused the notion of the schizophrenic as as a gobbledegook-spouting loony, preferring to see both the unsettled speech and the erratic behaviour as unconventional but consistent, readable codes that might be deciphered by one who was prepared to listen and learn. Barnes was given a space in which to regress and eventually emerged from her psychosis to become a painter. She and Berke wrote of their work together here.

Everyday life at Kingsley Hall was documented by the film-maker Luke Fowler, whose work is exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in London until June 14th. In his film ‘What You See Is Where You’re At’, showing continuously at the gallery, Fowler examines the world of David Bell, one of Laing’s most floridly expressive ‘mad’ patients.

I used to seek out, in the 60s and 70s, lectures and conferences at which Laing spoke and grew accustomed to the Q & A periods in which Bell would rise from his seat and hold forth. He had the aplomb of a seasoned orator and the mischievousness of a standup comic. His speeches, usually in response to a point Laing had made, were very hard to understand. They could be compared, probably superficially, to passages from ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ but at least with the latter came the option to read and re-read at one’s own pace. Laing would listen intently to Bell and, in front of the conference crowd, embark upon dialogues with him. He would, apparently, answer ripostes from Bell in his own slow, hesitating but thoroughly lucid manner leaving the audience impressed but rather wishing they, too, had understood the question.

What sticks in my mind as much as the spectacle of Bell’s fluent but arcane declamations was his habit of sweeping his hand compulsively across his left brow whilst speaking. So frequent and forceful were these actions that he had created on his temple an area of self-inflicted male pattern baldness.

Laing’s radical psychology did not only demystify the madman, it implicated the madman’s family and also the society in which the family found itself.

05.06.2009

Continued in ‘Stage & Screen 3’…

Stage & Screen 5

This post is part of a series. Please start reading at ‘Stage & Screen 1’ below.

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In his editorial introduction to the January 1968 special edition of ‘Scalebor’ mental hospital magazine, price sixpence, 24 year old ‘schizophrenic’ inmate Patrick Schofield refers to “the hundreds of men and women who find themselves living and working” in the hospital and states “We have tried to make the magazine an expression of their real suffering, their conflicts and their pain. We hoped to include their hopes, but we did not think it right to invent them for you.”

These words are the preface to an essay stapled at irregular intervals between the variously coloured and crudely reproduced A4 sheets of the DIY publication. Perhaps Patrick thought that his incendiary critique would be less easy to rip out if he packaged it thus. The essay is titled ‘Strange Admissions: the fear of madness and the madness of fear.” Shortly after publication, Patrick was thrown out of the loony bin and sought help from the radical shrinks of the Philadelphia Association (see ‘Stage & Screen 2’).

Here are some excerpts:
” Within Scalebor there are three main types of job: you can be a psychiatrist or therapist, a nurse or a patient. But these words are nothing more than labels. Many people at Scalebor take this labelling so seriously they completely lose sight of the fact these labels are only very approximate indications of the tasks people do. It is only when we are nearing the verge of madness that someone can claim that the staff are superior to the patients because they are staff and the patients only patients.

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It might be useful to look at what is happening inside Scalebor in terms of games theory and transactional analysis. The game is called ‘Mental Hospital’; there are two sides opposing one another within the hospital, one called ‘staff’ and the other ‘patients’. At the moment we shall confine ourselves to the game between nursing staff and patients; the ‘psychiatrists’ play it rather differently than the nurses.

That there is ceaseless conflict between nurses and patients is quite obvious; the game itself is far more complex. The patients are merely the counters with which it is played; anyone who wants to develop this can find themselves hours of amusement in following the daily struggles between nursing, administrative, psychology department and medical staff; how they play one another off, stab each other in the back, shift the blame and the responsibility. What is important here is the prize; and the prize to be fought for is power. That is, power over the patients. This can be exercised directly (nursing staff on the ward) or by gaining control of all the other sectors of control.

These battles are so heated that the supposed reason for the hospital’s existence – the welfare of the patients – has become merely the issue around which the feuds and vendettas are fought.

Let us focus on the major outline of the staff’s game. Its object is clearly to control the patients so that they may be maximally exploited (‘cured’) before they are ejected back into the outside world. If the staff as a whole can frustrate and nullify everything the patients try to do, this will make their task extremely violent but quite easy. It is therefore their aim to ensure that nothing, absolutely nothing happens. This would of course be impossible unless extremely violent techniques were brought to bear. It is these techniques that effect and maintain that terrible feeling of silent murder that pervades the hospital.

The only counterploy available to those who find themselves cast as patients (they are the only group in the hospital who are on the receiving end all the time) is to get clear of the place as soon as they can. If the patient goes along with the staff’s idea of what a good patient ought to be, he must wreak the most awful violation upon himself. If he feels that he must not do this then he must break with the passivity he is ordered to realise. But within the game there is no room for an active patient. It is enormously threatening to the staff’s attempt to keep control, for a patient that argues, criticises and does things of his or her own initiative gives the lie to the staff’s belief that the patient is purely an object-animal.

The only organisation that Scalebor manifests is that of permanent mobilisation against the patients. The staff cannot bear to look at the chaos within themselves so they project this out onto the patients and try to abolish it out there. “

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Patrick Schofield’s essay continues in this manner. It dissects and analyses the relationships between all the contending groups in the loony bin and produces a compelling picture of the patients as a group of hapless, useful ‘object-animals’ who serve to dynamise the submerged but psychotic objectives of cabals of incarcerated professional healers.

Towards the beginning of the excerpts Patrick turns the propositions of ‘game theory’ against those who vie to heal him. These useful concepts – premised on an inescapable performative alienation at the very heart of ‘everyday behaviour’ – hark back to 50s transactional analysis (and probably, in Patrick’s case, to Eric Berne’s book ‘Games People Play‘ (1964)) but draw attention to the scripting and role playing that are generally unacknowledged in everyday life. They are, of course, taken for granted in the performing arts.

Vaulting blithely over the intervening decades I will, in the next post, offer some comments on two movies that straddle the millennium: ‘The Truman Show’ (1998) and ‘Synecdoche New York’ (2008). Ten years apart, they demonstrate the shifts in ownership that have come about with regard to matters of theatricality as the latter have corroded the notion of unpremeditated and unselfconscious behaviour.

09.06.2009

Continued in ‘Stage & Screen 6’…