Wednesday, 12 February 2014

“Is it in a crazy-house for females that I'm landed now?” Psychiatric institutions and the theatricality of madness in John Millington Synge’s drama by Claire Poinsot

In this month's blog post, Claire Poinsot, a visiting doctoral student from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3, at CHOMI last year, writes about her research on psychiatric institutions and the theatricality of madness in the work of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge.

Raging madmen, true idiots born, and raving maniacs

When Old Mahon sees his son Christy being acclaimed by the villagers in The Playboy of the Western World (1907), he does not recognise the cowardly young man who tried to kill him a few days earlier. “Is it in a crazy-house for females that I’m landed now?” the old man exclaims, incredulous. The comical reference to the asylum here serves a pragmatic purpose – to emphasize the situational turnaround that made poor Christy a playboy. But one cannot help but notice the recurrence of such references to psychiatric institutions and symptoms in Irish drama during the Celtic Revival. John Millington Synge (1871-1909), one of the most famous playwrights of the period, peopled his plays with “raging mad[men]”, “true idiot[s] born” and “raving maniac[s]” “foaming”, for whom “madhouse[s]”, “crazy-house[s]” or more properly called “asylums” were the only possible end.

Could madness be a defining theme of Irish writing?

Did these representations of madness echo the actual structures and strategies of the care of the insane in Ireland? This would evidence the fact that the playwright knew about psychiatry; how could artists be acquainted with medical discourse? From a literary point of view, what did the recurrent reference to madness entail in terms of stylistic effects? Were these mentions of the various psychiatric symptoms, nosologies and institutions a mere stylistic effect, a hyperbolic vulgarization of the medical lexicon meant to emphasise the linguistic vivacity of the characters and the destabilisation of society during the nationalist struggle? In that case could madness, and more precisely identity and memory disorders be a defining theme of Irish writing? These are some of the questions I aim to bring into focus in my thesis.

Psychiatric discourse and Irish drama

The celebrated Irish scholar Declan Kiberd wrote that “the first [way to interpret a classic] is to interpret it historically, in terms of the ideas and events of its own age. One of the most useful services a scholar can perform is to create the conditions and materials out of which a work of art first came.”[1] With this quote in mind I came to the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland in April 2013 to try and recreate the medical context in which J. M. Synge’s but also W. B. Yeats’ plays were written. I meant to determine the extent to which psychiatric discourses pervaded Irish drama through newspapers articles, advertisements, and vulgarized representations of madness in paintings and other literary texts; this theory would help qualify the traditional representation of the Celtic Revival as a merely backward-looking movement.  In this post I would like to outline some of the key stakes of my research by focusing on the example of asylums in John Millington Synge’s drama.

John Millington Synge (1871-1909)
Image from:

A potent, dramatic setting

Though Synge deplored the effects of modernity on Irish traditions and literature in his preface to The Playboy of the Western World, he was concerned with contemporary medical debates. This can be linked to his declining health – he was to die of Hodgkin’s disease in 1909 - but also to an intellectual interest in the question of mental health in particular. The playwright repeatedly mentions asylums in his works, and also includes popular representations of madness, thus informing us of the way mental disease was perceived at the beginning of the twentieth century in rural Ireland. The system of care for the insane in Ireland had steadily developed since the end of the eighteenth century. In 1900 indeed, there were 22 district asylums, 12 private asylums, 4 charitable hospitals for the insane and a Central Criminal Asylum in the country. All in all 21,169 patients were accommodated in psychiatric institutions in Ireland according to medicine historian T. Percy Kirpatrick.[2] Asylums had therefore become a prominent part of the Irish landscape but still inspired awe and defiance, and playwrights were keen on exploiting this potent, dramatic setting.

Conflicting representations of the asylum

Synge used the asylum in his plays either as a fantasized place where patients were deprived of their freedom and individuality, or on the contrary as a place of quietness and beneficial isolation, far from the vicissitudes of society. Such conflicting representations of the asylum mirror those that could be found in newspapers as scandalous testimonies on the supposedly awful conditions of living alternated with laudatory praise of the board of governors’ and medical superintendants attempts to promote activities and humane care for the “lunatics”. The asylum is never the actual setting of the plays, but it features in several of them, most prominently so in his first play When the Moon Has Set Yeats and Lady Gregory rejected in 1901. The protagonist, Colm, hears a “nearly crazy”[3] woman moan and scream as he walks across the bogs. Bridget tells him about the tragic story of Mary Costello and her stay at the Asylum in those terms:

it’s ten years she was below in the Asylum, and it was a great wonder the way you’d see her in there, not lonesome at all with the great lot were coming in from all the houses in the country, and herself as well off as any lady in England, France, or Germany, walking around in the gardens with fine shoes on her feet. Ah, it was well for her in there, God help her, for she was always a nice quiet woman, and a fine woman to look at, and I’ve heard tell it was ‘Your Ladyship’ they would call her, the time they’d be making fun among themselves.[4]
The idyllic depiction of the institution is contradicted a few years later in The Shadow of the Glen (1903). In the following excerpt, a Tramp tries to convince a woman living in an isolated glen that living on the road is the ultimate form of freedom, though the life of a tramp is not devoid of fear. He admits it implicitly when he declares:

TRAMP (Speaking mournfully) […] If myself was easily afeard, I'm telling you, it's long ago I'd have been locked into the Richmond Asylum, or maybe have run up into the back hills with nothing on me but an old shirt, and been eaten with crows the like of Patch Darcy—the Lord have mercy on him—in the year that's gone. 

The Richmond Lunatic Asylum

The Richmond Lunatic Asylum, opened in 1815, was probably the most famous asylum in Ireland; it is here depicted as society’s attempt to regulate the outcasts’ alternative way of life, but also as an avowal of failure for those who are unable to cope with harsh conditions of living and a dreaded sanction for this lack of courage. As for the spectacular and apparently unrealistic case of Patch Darcy, he was probably inspired by the real case of farmer John Winterbottom Synge heard about when he was staying in County Wicklow. Winterbottom apparently did take off his clothes and ran away, only to be found dead weeks later.[5] Synge notes the importance of the structures of care for the insane in the Wicklow peasants’ imagination: “when they meet a wanderer on foot, these old people are glad to stop and talk to him for hours, telling him stories of the Rebellion, or of the fallen angels that ride across the hills, or alluding to the three shadowy countries that are never forgotten in Wicklow – America (their El Dorado), the Union and the Madhouse”.[6] Therefore the comparatively numerous references to asylums and workhouses in his drama correspond to his own almost anthropologist observations of Irish rural life. Real psychiatric institutions and cases were a source of inspiration for the Irish writer and give a somewhat realistic background to his depiction of madness whereas in other excerpts madness is staged in its popular conception. This shows how the beginning of the twentieth century was a transition from traditional views of madness to an increasingly scientific stance that began to pervade Irish society as a whole, with artists as the advance guard in the process.

The Lower House of the Richmond Lunatic Asylum (later Grangegorman)
Image from:

A peculiar climate

As a layman, Synge had a limited knowledge of the aetiology of mental illness; he therefore resorted to traditional interpretations and attributed the seemingly high proportion of mental diseases in Ireland (a question that was a matter of debate and speculations at the time) to the peculiar climate of the island:  

[in Wicklow] when the sun rises there is a morning of almost supernatural radiance, and even the oldest men and women come out into the air with the joy of children who have recovered from a fever. In the evening it is raining again. This peculiar climate, acting on a population that is already lonely and dwindling, has caused or increased a tendency to nervous depression among the people, and every degree of sadness, from that of the man who is merely mournful, to that of the man who has spent half his life in the madhouse, is common among the hills.[7]

Was insanity on the increase?

“Is insanity on the increase?”, Dr William Corbet wondered in 1874, or was it simply a matter of increased structures of care and a better knowledge of madness ?[8] Whether it corresponded to an actual observation or not, there was indeed an inflation of the number of insane at least in Irish drama…or to be fair of people labelled “mad”. Unsurprisingly, the words from the lexical field of madness that are the most commonly used in the Playboy are those that have “contaminated” everyday language as terms of abuse, such as “fool”, “mad” and its derivatives (“madman”, “madness”). This general hyperbole entails an exaggerated and deformed representation of Irish rural society and takes part in a process of rhetorical undermining of the characters by one another. One should keep in mind the comic potential of the medical terms of abuse and interjections for the audience, since almost all of the characters have their mental health questioned in the play, from Old Mahon whose “cracked skull” could cause delirious hallucinations to the Widow Quin who murdered her husband and Christy himself, “the loony of Mahon”. By repeatedly using the lexicon of mental illness, the playwright stages an unstable world, a society on the brink of collective madness where no truth or character is permanent but transitory and fluctuating.


The clinical symptoms of madness in the play are fascinating to analyse in that some of them actually resemble real clinical cases recorded at the time. To give but one brief example, Old Mahon tells the Widow Quin that he was once committed to a lunatic asylum where he had hallucinations probably caused by delirium tremens. He proudly presents himself as a “a terrible and fearful case”, and goes on : “there I was one time screeching in a straitened waistcoat with seven doctors writing out my sayings in a printed book.”  As often in an Irish context,[9] Mahon’s madness is attributed to an excessive drinking – a feature satirists were keen on using in pamphlets and caricatures. “I have never heard the men [in Kerry] talk for half an hour of anything without some allusion to drink”[10], Synge himself remarked in his notes. Mahon’s violence is such that he has to wear a straitened waistcoat, at a time when it was most often only used in potentially dangerous cases after the reports of the commissions denounced abuses. The description he makes of his hallucinations strongly resembles the clinical cases described by famous Irish psychiatrist Conolly Norman  in the “Note on Hallucinations, II”  he read in front of the Medical Section of the Academy of Medicine in Ireland on March 13th, 1903.[11]  Incidentally Norman is well-known to us literature students because he is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses as head of “dottyville”....the Richond Asylum! The sensation of having rodents crawl around or on him Mahon describes (“one time I seen rats as big as badgers sucking the life blood from the butt of my lug”) was frequently recorded by Norman in his case studies.

Madness and the limits of identity

“O, isn't madness a fright?”, the Widow Quin wonders in The Playboy. It is indeed since madness in literature is often evidenced by spectacular symptoms – hallucinations, fainting or raging fits etc. The example of spectacular manifestations of madness in drama are numerous - one can think of raving, half-naked Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear (even if his madness is feigned!), or of apathetic, hallucinated Martin who thinks he is a prophet in Yeats’ play The Unicorn from the Stars (1908). Interestingly enough “rage” and “raging” (and to a least extent “raving”) are often used by Synge. The dramatic dimension of mental illness corresponds to the popular representation of madness as can be found in numerous artistic productions and obliterate less “spectacular” symptoms (these adjectives are not chosen lightly in a theatrical context of course). My research will examine how madness allows the characters to experience the limits of their identity and memory and favours creativity and dynamism in language that may result in modern experimentations, which is one of the main ideas I would like to explore further in my thesis.

Literature and medicine

In this post I meant to give a brief overview of the way literature could echo contemporary debates of psychiatry, from the prominence of alcohol as a cause of mental disease to the use of straitjackets and the conflicting representations of asylums in society. Literature and medicine are by no means impermeable discourses but impact one another notably through a circulation of medical vocabulary in everyday speech. Researchers are increasingly interested in medical humanities and Irish literature has a lot to offer; let’s hope that this will lead to fruitful collaborations between historians and arts researchers such as the one I was lucky to experience at CHOMI.

Claire Poinsot is a doctoral student at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3. She may be contacted by email at claire "dot" poinsot "at" hotmail "dot" fr. 

[1] Declan Kiberd, Irish classics (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2001), p.x.
[2] T. Percy C. Kirkpatrick, A Note on the History of the Care of the Insane in Ireland up to the end of the Nineteenth Century (Dublin: University Press, Ponsonby and Gibbs, 1931), p.34.
[3] J.M. Synge, When The Moon Has Set, in Ann Saddlemeyer, J.M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume III, Plays, Book I (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982), p.159.
[4] Synge, When The Moon Has Set, in Saddlemeyer, op.cit., p.161.
[5] TCD MS 6218, 23/7/1902, 30/7/1902 and 4/9/1902.
[6] J. M. Synge, “The Peoples of the Glens”,  In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (Dublin and London: Maunsel & Company, Ltd., 1919), p.27.
[7] J. M. Synge, “The Oppression of the Hill”, In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, p.14.
[8] William J. Corbet, On the Statistics of Insanity, A Paper read before the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, On Tuesday, 21st April, 1874 (Dublin: R. D. Webb & Son, 1874), p.4.
[9] See W. R. Dawson, Alcohol and Mental Disease, reprinted for the Author from the Dublin Journal of Medical Science, June 1908 (Dublin: John Falconer, 1908).
[10] J. M. Synge, “In West Kerry”, In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, p.100.
[11] Conolly Norman, “Note on Hallucinations, II”, read before the Medical Section of the Academy of Medicine in Ireland on March, 13th, 1903, reprinted from the Journal of Mental Science, April1903 (Hanover Square and Dorking: Adlard and Son, 1903).

No comments:

Post a comment