Another visit to Bedlam

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In the current block of podcasts, we are exploring how psychiatry has been portrayed in the mass media, and the ways in which literature, art, film, television and the internet have helped shape popular perceptions of mental illness and the attempts by different generations of mind doctors to treat it.

We’ve already visited Bethlem, or Bethlehem Hospital, in previous podcasts, and in this block we return to consider the famous asylum’s place in the world of literature and media. Representations of Bethlem have a long tradition in popular culture; as early as 1604, Thomas Dekker’s The Honest Whore featured scenes set in Bedlam, as did Northward Ho! (1607).

In a more recent manifestation, Bethlem has appeared in the British science fiction series Doctor Who; the tenth doctor and his companion Martha Jones visit the asylum accompanied by none other than William Shakespeare. Madness featured in many of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably in Hamlet (1601), King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606), though any knowledge the bard may have had of Bedlam itself and its practices may have come from ballads of the time rather than actual experience. In this episode (The Shakespeare Code, 2007), an asylum attendant offers to get the inmates to put on a show by ‘whipping them up a bit.’ Locked behind the bars of a cell, Martha screams for help. The Doctor wryly remarks, ‘that’s not going to work – the whole place is shouting.’

The popular image of Bethlem as a corrupt and cruel freak show is pervasive. Earlier in the podcast series, we devoted two episodes to discussing the asylum, asking whether it was really the freak show people imagine, and examining its legacy. If you haven’t already listened to these podcasts (6.1 and 6.2), you might find them interesting.

I went to London recently to talk to people at the Wellcome Trust about a grant application and to see their exhibition about the famous Bethlehem Hospital. Those who put on the exhibition used my podcasts to provide background to the way people understood and dealt with mental disorders in the past. The display area was quite small, comprising a fascinating mix of historical materials, film, art done by people with mental disorders, and a personal audio player that had interviews with sufferers from and survivors of those conditions. It was a microcosm of the past and present of mental healthcare and treatment. Above all it celebrated the achievement of those who have battled mental ill-health. Throughout the exhibition, there was an emphasis on positive elements like recovery – which is what Bethlem has always really been about, in spite of its popular image as a horrific freak show.

The exhibition, ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’, has finished, but you can still visit the Museum of the Mind at its successor, which is now part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust at Beckenham in Kent. I blogged about my rewarding trip there a few weeks back

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