This week I've decided to offer some input on a rising star in the world of media and madness: the musical "Next to Normal." Although I haven't had the opportunity to watch the show in person, I've heard about it from many sources, read many of the lyrics, and watched several key scenes on YouTube. Admittedly, this does not enable me to give an exemplary dramatic critique of the piece as a whole, but that isn't really my aim here. Rather, I wish to examine how the show succeeds and fails at promoting a healthy understanding of mental health and distress, and I believe I CAN do that from the bits that I have gathered.
The first thing that struck me about this show was its apparent refusal to use the labels of psychiatry: although many telltale behavior patterns are demonstrated, no diagnoses are ever used, and words like "Manic" and "depression" are used sparingly. Psychiatry itself is rather gleefully lampooned, with a rendition of "My favorite things" from "The Sound of Music" being used to list the litany of prescription pills that are thrown at our heroine, among other such jokes. Therapy is given the limelight, and as a general rule I will always take therapy over psychiatry; however, I worry that by presenting it as a clear-cut and in some ways superior alternative to psychiatry, it places therapy on a bit of a pedestal, which is always a problem.
The songs themselves reveal some very deeply felt emotion, and it seems to be handled relatively well; they are very personal, without trying to make too many sweeping generalizations, while still hitting on a few core experiences that often crop up in the consumer (of mental health care) community: the flattened experience of medication and missing the breadth of feeling that came before; the feeling of isolation from not being able to get true understanding from those who are trying to care for you. There is a lot of genuine pathos and I think it goes a long way towards advancing a sense of empathy in the general public for the experience of the "mentally ill." (Here I am distinguishing between those and the "Mad" because they are not always the same).
I see two problems with this approach, though: one, it creates a "double" for the experience of "mental illness," a representation of a lived reality, which invariably presents something less than accurate due to the series of translations it must endure (thought to action, action to vision, vision to thought), while also creating in some viewers an undeserved sense of proximity and understanding as a result. This can cause the representation of the experience to backfire, and instead of increasing actual ability to relate, it can further embed the expectation that the "normal" people have greater understanding and that the "sick" people must submit to their wisdom. I think this sort of thing is difficult to avoid whenever a marginalized group is represented, and the key to overcoming it is an awareness in the production that the problem is there.
And that is where "Next to Normal" really seems to fall short. Although its personal sensitivity is strong, it is just that: personal. It is deeply focused on the inner lives of a small family and two or three other figures whose lives are intertwined with theirs. This is important, do not get me wrong: they craft a message of patience, care and support, where inner demons can be allowed to work themselves out and dealt with to the ultimate betterment of the people in question, and this is absolutely necessary. But, it is only half of the picture: Next To Normal seems critically lacking in awareness of the social aspects of mental health. Although Psychiatry is criticized as an institution, the social schema that Psychiatry supports do not seem terribly represented.
What we get, then, is the message that it is solely up to the people who are suffering and their immediate supporters to "get over" their suffering. We get a lot of good insight into the struggles and triumphs of this process, but we see it in a vacuum: we do not see the social pressures on those who are helping to do less; we do not see the ridicule placed on those trying to make "real life" work while struggling with their suffering; we don't see the day-to-day jargon which dismisses pain and distress so simply, which reifies the "mental illness" model and invalidates so many.
Nor do we see the more direct causes of many forms of "mental illness," the hostilities of our culture: abuse, rape, neglect; all forms of human cruelty, including many so horrible they cannot even be discussed, even here, still go on in the daily lives of millions, maybe even billions at a time, to varying degrees. This callous culture we live in supports these things and in turn supports the destruction of mental health. But, as far as I can see, Next to Normal has no real accountability for this component.
Perhaps it is not Next to Normal's intent to challenge society in so direct a manner; indeed, to do so would probably come off as ball busting and be very poorly received. That kind of diatribe can't be accomplished by anything less than a masterful execution of the Theater of Cruelty, or some other inventive and in ways heretical theatrical creation; Next to Normal is not such a production, but rather part of the "Theater of Psychology." Although it makes use of what might be called "American Magical Realism," it is still essentially realist and has a very "Broadway" feel about it. As such, it is geared to pluck at heartstrings with deeply personal stories, and in this I believe it succeeds.
The question we must ask ourselves, as citizens of the New Mad Nation, is if plucking at the heartstrings of people whose minds are still shut will do us much good.
I suppose, then, my summary in short is that Next to Normal is a good start, though it has a few flaws that I would love to see corrected in future versions or different takes on the concepts, the most grievous being that it over-emphasizes the individual's psychology in dealing with their distress, while undermining the role of social environment. This could possibly be chalked up to its deep focus on the family environment, a smaller and sometimes more vital version of the social environment, however; and in this, they do a very thorough job of examining impact.
Next to Normal is humorous at times, and usually by making fun of the people in power: psychiatry, the "normals," even therapy on a few occasions. I like this. All in all I do hope to be able to pay to see a production at some point, as I believe it does good things for raising awareness of the basic realities of "mental illness" in our culture without reinforcing an overly psychiatric paradigm. Much as I would like to take the world up in a Mad storm, I must concede that such a storm would probably be lost on people who still conceive of mental illness as something that gets you dragged off by men in white coats.
To any of you who have seen this show, if anything about my analysis seems particularly inaccurate, I encourage you to correct me. I would greatly value the input of anyone who has actually witnessed the performance.
Thanks as always, New Mad Nation. We'll see you next week, topic unknown.