The theatre of hysteria

I’m currently reading Elaine Showalter’s book Hystories, a cultural history of the concept of ‘hysteria‘, a term which has variously described the supposed effects of a ‘wandering womb’, unexplained neurological symptoms, panic, nervousness or just ‘making a fuss’.

She describes where medicine and media have collided, and highlights how popular interest in the condition has driven a long-standing tradition of fictional interpretations that have developed alongside medical understanding.

Showalter has a feminist angle although is generally even handed with the evidence and is not shy in highlighting the excesses of some past feminist writing on the subject.

One particularly interesting part is where she discusses how theatre interpreted the work of 19th century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot as it was happening.

Charcot is perhaps most famous for his work on hysteria and held regular Tuesday lectures at the Salp√™tri√®re hospital in Paris where he would theatrically demonstrate the symptoms of hysteria in favourite female patients who apparently ‘performed’ with an equal flourish.

As we mentioned previously, one of the reasons Charcot’s work was so widely known is because he used the newly developed technology of photography to create striking and sometimes pseudo-erotic portraits documenting the bodily contortions of his (largely) female patients. The picture on the right is of Augustine, one of his ‘star patients’.

These have been the inspiration for numerous contemporary plays, ballets, exhibitions and novels.

What I didn’t know was that these are not a modern phenomena, shows based on Charcot’s work work were popular since Charcot first began publishing his work and giving lectures (from p100):

As Charcot’s clinic achieved celebrity in the 1890s, images of hysteria cross over to theatre and cabaret. At the Chat Noir and Folies Berg√®re, performers, singers, and mimes who called themselves the “Harengs Saurs √âpileptiques” (The Epileptic Sour Herrings) or “Hydropathes” mimicked the jerky, zigzag movements of the hysterical seizure…

The poses of grande hyst√©rie enacted at the Friday spectacles of the Salp√™tri√®re closely resembled the stylized movements of French classical acting. Indeed, hysterical women at the clinic and fallen women in melodrama were virtually indistinguishable; the theatre critic Elin Diamond comments that both displayed “eye rolling, facial grimaces, gnashing teeth, heavy sighs, fainting, shrieking and choking; ‘hysterical laughter’ was a frequent stage direction as well as a common occurrence in medical asylums”…

Arthur Symons regarded the Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril as the embodiment of the age’s “pathological choreography.” These resemblances were not coincidental: writers, actresses cabaret performers and dancers like Avril attended Charcot’s matinees and then worked the Salp√™tri√®re style into their own performances.

An interesting twist is that Avril was actually treated by Charcot as a young girl after she ran away from an abusive mother and was admitted to the Salp√™tri√®re for ‘insanity’.

Link to details of Showalter’s book Hystories.
Link to first chapter.

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