Talk

Director’s notes

Staging: Written for thrust or proscenium stage but would work in the round. The characters remain on stage throughout the performance, exiting to half-lit areas at the back or side of the playing area. The set is bare apart from a desk and two chairs as indicated.

Sound: Music. Railway station effect in final scene.
Setting: 1854. The criminal wing of Bethlem Asylum for the Insane.
Note: some of the action is stylised. Character’s statements, for example, are recalled by having the characters themselves make them.

Background

Treatment of the insane in the 1850s had changed little since Medieval times. Restraint – the tying down or shackling of patients to their beds or their cell walls – was commonplace as were other forms of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. It was around this time that the doctors in various institutions in Britain and Europe began to experiment with a range of more humane treatments.

Plot

This is the story of two doctors working within the criminal wing of Bethlem Asylum. Doctors Charles Hood and George Haydon strive separately for alternatives to the medieval horrors of restraint, but are united in their abhorrence of such institutionalised brutality.

Passionately convinced that ‘exposure to the sublime shall restore the mentally distressed to reasonableness’, Hood works to create an artistic environment within Bethlem. This approach contrasts with that developed by the more interventionist Haydon who works with the writers and artists within Bethlem, attempting to explain what he sees as the link between the images within their work and the feelings they experience. As the latter’s more radical methods begin to attract the attentions of an already sceptical non-reformist Government Commission, however, theirs is a relationship that comes under increasing strain.

It is also the story of the Bethlem inmates upon whom Hood and Haydon practice their well-intentioned but largely ineffective approaches. The poet, Emily Clayton, had been incarcerated by a husband increasingly troubled by his wife’s radical writing and her insistence upon the significance of childhood experience to the creation of an emotional self. Richard Dadd, the artist, had been committed following his trial and conviction for the murder of his father and whom, it was recognised, had lost his senses.

A chance meeting with Emily Clayton brings Dadd and eventually Haydon to a recognition of the power of childhood experience. Referring to them as stories that must be heard, she tells Dadd that ‘…hell is a heart filled with unheard stories’. At last Dadd is encouraged to talk and, in his more lucid moments, provides Emily with a companionship that goes some small way to easing her great sense of loss over the separation from her young children.

Seizing upon its potential, and in spite of Hood’s demands that he ‘cease all this talk’, Haydon seeks to develop this approach, seeing it as the means to genuine reform. Starting with Dadd, he takes the artist through what we might now recognise as a form of therapy and the first steps towards an understanding of his past and the images of loss and rage that appear to surround him.

However it is all too late. Troubled by the highly-charged effects upon his patients of Haydon’s increasingly interventionist approach, and anxious to provide evidence to the Commission of his own sound management of Bethlem, Hood announces an end to Haydon’s work and Richard Dadd’s removal to the new, purpose-built asylum at Broadmoor. Paralleling Hood’s approach, its strictly non-interventionist regime of passivity and craft-based pursuits is one that Haydon knows only too well. Dadd departs into obscurity and Emily descends silently into institutionalised psychosis.

Regaining the Commission’s confidence, Hood wins his reforms and Haydon’s work ceases altogether.

The traditional approach to the treatment of the mentally ill is personified by the characters, Ward Sister Grey, and the orderly, Fowles.