Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

A “Bedlam” of vision

September 9, 2010 · 3 Comments

“Doctors, patients, poets, Christians and cannibals” are what the program for “Bedlam”, Nell Leyshon’s new play, promises.  The first female-written play ever to be produced for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre focuses on Bedlam Mad Hospital, an institution whose practices are drenched as much in sex, exploitation and alcohol as in science.  Visionary?  Maybe.  Crazy?  Absolutely.

The central plot revolves around Dr. Sidney Carew, a “mad doctor” who typically treats patients with a mixture of leeches, solitary confinement and contempt.  It’s only when a new governor with some modern ideals comes to town that the doctor’s methods begin to be questioned.  As Carew’s questionable sanity and alcoholism are brought to light, we begin to wonder if the “mad doctor” is, in fact, mad himself.  All this time, we see a few separate plot threads take shape- one regarding May, a beautiful, crazed country girl apparently tipped into madness after the departure of her beloved “Billy”, and another detailing the strange pseudo-sexual rapport between Laurence, a self-proclaimed genius playwrite, and Gardenia, presumably his former mistress.  Intriguing?  It certainly should be, but what could (or should) have been a probing examination of sanity, sexuality, and ethics in medicine quickly devolves into a mismash of conflicting messages and mindless staging.  What’s most disappointing, though, is the fact that not a single character or plot is developed to its potential.
Throughout the play we see a cast of colorful and crazy characters, many of them immediately interesting and compelling (a mad painter who’s violently obsessed with capturing the likeness of a beautiful but insane patient- what’s not to like?), parade vulgarly around the stage.  Leyshon conceives these characters to inhabit her Bedlam Hospital but she seems to have stopped there- the only character in whom we see any sort of change or development is Dr. Carew as he tumbles further into madness.  By the end of the play, May, the beautiful, insane patient, is still every bit as beautiful and every bit as insane.  Laurence is still as self-infatuated as he is when we first see him.  Billy is still naive.  The governor is still an unbelievable Disney-inspired Prince Charming.  The painter, from whose first scene I was excited about and attached to, is forgotten and unexplored.  It’s as if Leyshon didn’t get the memo.  She has a device (portraiture) through which to develop something really, truly poignant:  at what point does physical beauty lose out to inward ugliness? can art drive someone to insanity? should obsession be followed or suppressed?  There are so many routes that could’ve been taken here.  Instead, the painter is dragged into a cell early in the second act and not heard from again.  What a waste.
To make matters worse, the thematic concerns of the play are almost as muddled and confused as the staging (which isn’t helped by the fact that the lights at the Globe are permanently fixed).  Leyshon’s primary motives are obvious- she wants to shed light on the humanity of the so-called “mad”, and on the inhumanity of how they are dealt with.  It’s a perfectly noble aim.  There’s even a point at which Tom O’Bedlam, a patient, gives a rather beautiful soliloquy pleading with the audience not to forget the man he once was.
The problem is, (warning- about to give away the ending) the laughable final scene in which a blindly infatuated Billy marries May, who is still hearing voices and talking to birds, thematically contradicts Tom’s speech entirely.  There is absolutely no humanity in May.  Her madness is even used as a device of humor during what should be the emotional climax of the play.  “Let’s all laugh at the stupid crazy people” is not, I think, what Leyshon intended the lingering message of her play to be.  But that’s what I came away from it with.  I’ll give it this- the play had its funny moments.  The rapport between Gardenia and Laurence was well-written.  But I can’t forgive Bedlam for kicking to the curb the beautiful and complex paths it could’ve easily taken.

Categories: 2010 Patrick
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   mattg // Sep 10th 2010 at 03:13

    This is a fantastic and accurate piece Pat. You’re interpretations of a wasted play not taking advantage of its potential is quite right. It just goes to show that in London theatres are more inclined to take on shows that might not do well in the name of experimentation (no pun intended….or was it?)

  •   battilaj // Sep 14th 2010 at 20:25

    I only just found this post. I think it’s insightful and completely correct. It seemed like Leyshon was trying to write her play in keeping with Shakespeare’s work by including cross dressing and bawdy humor, but she did so at the expense of any well developed themes.

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Sep 19th 2010 at 07:46

    I would have to respectfully disagree. I LOVED Bedlam and was very moved by it.

    Having read multiple articles on the show (including interviews with the playwright), I believe the purpose of the play was not to expose all the evils and corruption of Bedlam (anyone with any transitory knowledge of the institution would already have known about that) but to present vignettes of those whose lives were influenced by the asylum. We are given hope, at the end, that Bedlam will improve under Doctor Maynard, but, as you mention Pat, May is still mad at the end- she can’t ever escape her time there. The real Bedlam was surely not changed from corrupt to progressive in a day, and the play does not try and say that it was- it merely presents us with snapshots of the transition from inhuman cruelty and misunderstand to the enlightenment of social reform.

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