Mental health is being discussed more and more everyday, Sambhavi Sudhakar looks at how mental illness is portrayed in the theatre.
Mental health is a subject of much avid discussion in recent years. A topic that is generally approached with more sensitivity and caution than that of physical health, mental health has always garnered much exploration and attention in literature, film, and media. It is often associated with either romantically-oriented plots or depicted as psychologically stirring narratives that explore the complexity of human nature. Regardless of plot art serves as an excellent platform to educate masses on the complexities of mental illness.
There have been several stage productions on the subject. Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, contains autobiographical elements as it chronicles his own family’s addiction to alcohol. The depiction of a family divided by substance abuse serves as an influential narrative in educating audiences against indiscriminate consumption of any element that may pose a threat to its individual, social, and emotional stability. Korie and Frankel’s Grey Gardens, a musical adaptation of the documentary of the same name, follows the lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale. This adaptation narrates the tale of a mother and daughter who regress from a socially sound status to poverty and ruin in their dilapidated home. Obsessive compulsive disorder, dementia, and schizophrenia are among the illnesses highlighted by this show and it does not shy away from the stigma surrounding them. Much like Long Day, both pieces are instrumental in carrying a strong message with regard to familial unity and stability being of utmost importance.
A study conducted by L. Yotis, C. Theocharopoulos, and C. Fragiadaki observes how theatrical performances can be effective in reducing the stigma directed towards mental disorders. The study also explored how playback theatre involves certain techniques which familiarises actors with the effective portrayal of mental illness on stage. In this manner, there is an effort both on the part of the performers and the audience to gain a fresh perspective on mental health and its intricacies.
Mark Liermann’s Water by the Spoonful showcases two parallel storylines in which the principal characters are suffering from addiction. A former war veteran named Elliot suffers from PTSD and is addicted to pain killers. The second storyline follows the lives of characters suffering from cocaine addiction attempting to resolve the problem by interacting on an online platform. As both the narratives intertwine, the prime characters derive emotional strength from their interactions with one another. Given the social isolation of characters due to their addictions, the play makes an attempt to stress on the importance of communication and solidarity amongst people.
“Even musicals have been impactful in their depictions of mental disorders.”
Even musicals have been impactful in their depictions of mental disorders. Next to Normal by Brian Yorkey, chronicles the life of Diana Goodman who is suffering from bipolar disorder. The story depicts how her illness impacts herself and the rest of her family, as Diana has both good and bad moments while the story unfolds. The 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Musical Dear Evan Hansen, follows the story of a teenager suffering from anxiety. Praised for shining light on how his social life is shaped by anxiety and how social media and the internet can serve as contributing factors, it is no wonder that the musical took home a total of seven Tony Awards in 2017.
“Theatrical performances handle subjects like mental health far more cautiously than other forms such as film.”
Theatrical performances handle subjects like mental health far more cautiously than other forms such as film. This is owing to the fact that film productions often dramatise the illness. In this respect, many films of the drama genre often employ mental illness as a theme to orchestrate romance between the main leads. Similarly, many films of the horror or thriller genre use the theme of mental health to portray incidents of crime and violence. This leads to the illness often being either trivialised in favour of romance or stigmatised as deviant, an occurrence which seems relatively absent in on stage performances.
“Film productions often dramatise the illness”
Bare: A Pop Opera, written by Damon Intrabartolo, draws deeply on cultural context and their influence on an individual’s mental health. The show follows the lives of two young Catholic boys, Jason and Peter, who fall in love in a highly conservative community. The musical drives home the disastrous results of being deeply pressured by a repressive society and the efforts people will go to in order to maintain the social norm, irrespective of their own mental wellbeing.
The above productions serve as honest portrayals of mental illnesses which are impactful in terms of reaching out to the audience. In more ways than one, these productions address the complications with regard to mental illnesses, studying how they are deeply intertwined with familial, societal, and institutional factors. They are presented objectively, with ample attention to finer details affecting mental health.