Representations of mental illness in the period dramas of Steven Knight
One of the central functions of period drama as a genre is not only to represent and mythologise the past, but also to draw parallels between significant cultural issues past and present. Open dialogues about mental illness are increasingly prominent in the contemporary public sphere, but it was not always thus: those suffering from such maladies were routinely marginalised, excluded from civil society, and in some cases confined physically to primitive mental asylums such as the infamous Bedlam. In this chapter, I analyse the period dramas of Steven Knight, whose work is immersed in the dark underbelly of British history. Employing a framework that places significant emphasis on evolving discourses – both social and scientific – surrounding mental illness and its treatment, I seek to understand the real history informing Knight’s narratives, and how these representations resonate in the present day. Focusing specifically on the BBC series Peaky Blinders and Taboo, the essay examines discourses around PTSD, institutionalisation, hereditary mental disorders, and the cultural constitution of ‘madness’, and analyses how Knight’s characterisations help to demystify popular perception of the concept, in historical and contemporary terms.
This afterword considers the significance of medical history in period dramas in the current context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. It considers the popularity of period drama as a source of entertainment and escapism, examining the extent to which such dramas include medical storylines. It then goes on to explore the significance of particular themes in medical history, such as gender, patient/practitioner power relationships, and patient voice, particularly as they relate to the chapters in this collection. In doing so it demonstrates how such analyses bridge the gap between academic histories of medicine and popular public discourse, furthering effective public communication and dissemination of scholarship. The afterword then goes on to examine the particularities of the small screen as a medium for engaging with the history of medicine, considering the advantages and disadvantages in relation to films and written fiction. It explores the limitations of dramatising or fictionalising the past, particularly as it pertains to histories of health and medicine. Locating this debate in the current pandemic context, it argues that medicine and caregiving in period television dramas root escapist fictional narratives in the embodied reality of lived experience.
The historical setting of Beckett’s Film in 1929 is conventionally related to the significance of that year in the history of film. But Beckett's use of the device of the ‘angle of immunity’ suggests an additional historical context. Both the setting of Film in 1929 and its production in the early 1960s prompt me to inquire into the medical meanings of ‘immunity’ in a film whose damaged protagonist, dilapidated setting and production in the sweltering heat of New York in July prominently raise issues of health and disease. I supplement my inquiry into the medical meanings of Beckett’s ‘angle of immunity’ with an exploration of the concept’s social significance. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s and Roberto Esposito’s reflections on community, immunity, and autoimmunity, I note that O’s flight in Beckett’s Film is not merely a flight from perception but also a flight from community. This flight from community manifests the destructive, autoimmunitary logic of the self/not-self dichotomy that the immunological revolution succeeded in placing at the heart of immunology as Beckett was shooting his film.
The BBC television series Poldark (2015–2019) is an adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels about a Cornish family that begins as the main character, Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner), returns from the American Revolutionary War. Set between 1783 and 1802, the narrative occurs at a time when the medical profession was beginning to establish itself. The Mammoth Screen production of Poldark is adapted for television by Debbie Horsfield, who combines several medical storylines and physicians into the character of Dr Dwight Enys (Luke Norris). This chapter begins by outlining the dominant health care practices and beliefs of the time, then considers significant medical stories over the five seasons of Poldark which indicate that Enys is at the vanguard of change in the medical profession of the period. The medical and other issues Enys encounters illustrate the class, gender, and social concerns of the era. He compares favourably with contemporary doctors in his search for medical knowledge, his extensive skills and experience, his good bedside manner, upstanding character, teaching role, and subject specialism. By analysing the storylines, it is apparent that Enys is represented as a metonymic sign for the professionalisation of medicine and the emergence of the consultant.
Our chapter investigates the notoriously maligned figure Branwell Brontë, the little-known brother of the Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, as depicted in the BBC’s To Walk Invisible (2016). Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the series validates the longstanding myth that Branwell was not simply the family failure, but a reprobate bent on wreaking havoc and misery on everything and everyone he touched. For many Brontë fans and scholars, Branwell was little more than a nuisance who left a black mark on the Brontës’ otherwise legendary reputation. In highlighting the domestic turmoil that plagued the Brontës’ lives throughout the 1840s, and shrewdly communicating the devastating impacts his destructive behaviour had on the Brontë household, To Walk Invisible brings into sharp focus Branwell’s ills, addictions, problematic behaviours, and psychological torment. Despite its popular and critical success, one of the more underappreciated features of the series is its strong evocation of the cultural politics of mental health in both the mid-nineteenth century and contemporary society. Victorian physicians’ understanding of Branwell’s symptoms, including substance abuse, behavioural inconsistencies, and emotional outbursts, were apt to be diagnosed under the umbrella of ‘madness’ or ‘insanity’, terms loaded with connotations of moral failings rather than any accepted medical disorder. Our chapter looks at the political ambivalence Wainwright evokes around the Brontë brother. We argue that the implied medicalisation of Branwell’s behaviour generates a long-overdue discussion about the extent to which history has unduly maligned him and the way that the drama’s informed retrospect generates an important debate about Victorian medical narratives more broadly.
Featuring twelve original essays by leading Beckett scholars and media theorists, this book provides the first sustained examination of the relationship between Beckett and media technologies. The chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett’s work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception, and the scholarly study of this work. Greatly enlarging the scope of earlier discussions, the book draws on a variety of innovative theoretical approaches, such as media archaeology, in order to discuss Beckett’s intermedial oeuvre. As such it engages with Beckett as a media artist and examine the way his engagement with media technologies continues to speak to our cultural situation.
Beckett’s television plays stage a seeming disparity between their often difficult and affectively challenging subject matter, and the deliberate aestheticism and formalism of their representational strategies. This is made even starker by the austere formal qualities of their medium: the limited, rigidly framed TV screen, its flatness, the shades of grey in a black and white broadcast, the stark televisual light, produced by the firing of a cathode tube onto the television screen, the frequently ‘flat’ or ‘indifferent’ tone of their voice-over and the often ‘staring’ camera eye, as Beckett called it in his manuscript drafts. And yet, the answer to how the plays’ affective content is communicated seems to reside precisely in the unusualness and precision of their form, in the clinically framed shots and the abstracted, calculatedly affectless sets, in their detailed foregrounding of the artifice of representation, in their late-modernist, minimal, pared-down style, even in the brevity and semantic reticence of the scripts.
This chapter discusses the concept of exhaustion in Beckett’s literary texts and plays. The course of the argument follows Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Beckett, but relates the concept of exhaustion to the history of science and media studies. Since the nineteenth century physiology and psychiatry have investigated the effects of exhaustion, which ultimately leads to the destruction of the subject. Deleuze argues that exhaustion may also bring an unforeseen possibility or the emergence of invention. Beckett’s notion of media helps to grasp the nexus between exhaustion and invention. Since the technological basis of a medium is constantly evolving and changing, there is no single entity, apparatus or essential technological feature that constitutes ‘theatre’, ‘film’ or ‘radio’. Beckett makes inventions by exhausting the possibilities that are intrinsic to a medium and by stripping it bare to its inherent dispositive.
This chapter analyses Beckett’s reconceptualisation of the body in his later theatre – Happy Days, Play, That Time, Footfalls and Not I – against the background of his work for radio and, to a lesser extent, television in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing in particular on All That Fall, Embers and Eh Joe. Through concepts such as intermediality, remediation and embodiment, it argues that Beckett’s early opposition between technological and non-technological genres, in terms of physicality and voice, becomes increasingly untenable in the 1970s, which leads to a re-embodiment of his theatrical work by way of radio’s disembodying influence. The chapter thus shows how Beckett’s exposure to new media throughout his later career invited him to revisit as well as revise his own preconceptions about drama in its various forms, and use that experience as a driving force of theatrical innovation.
This chapter reconsiders Beckett’s well-known devotion to the convention of the proscenium arch. It argues that Beckett’s practice disrupts familiar ways of thinking about the proscenium as historically constant in its effects. Beckett, to use the Brechtian term, refunctions the proscenium. The chapter argues that Beckett’s insistence on the proscenium as pictorial frame responds to a historical situation in which that frame had migrated from the theatre to the ubiquitous media of film and television. Beckett’s plays experiment with the changed situation of the theatrical proscenium in the wake of its generalisation as a format for mass-mediated representations. Focusing especially on Endgame, the chapter argues that in Beckett’s work the theatre became a site to scrutinise rather than to reproduce the ideological effects associated with the proscenium and its subjectifying force.