Writings a funny business: the impulse can come from real life – something has happened which you use; or sometimes you write something then it occurs in real life – as if you’ve made it happen. The latter is always unsettling.
Last year I wrote a play, A Brief History of Madness, loosely based on Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, in which he looks at the different ways that societies have coped with the mad. From being accepted on the margins of society and having something to say about the mainstream, they have, since the industrial revolution, become ignored (apart from the psycho-analysts) and ‘fixed up’ via medications and therapies, re-engineered if you like. The theme obviously struck a chord, for it is has been our most popular piece.
The first half is set in a fictional Seaview Asylum, one of the large asylums that existed until recently. We thought it would be resonant (ghosts maybe?) to hold our Hokitika performance in the hall which remains on the site – most of the villas are rotting away, other than one which has been converted into a backpackers. Bookings had been tardy, so I prepared a billboard for the main road entrance, set it up upon arrival and waited for the woman with the key to arrive. When she did so, she had the billboard in her car. I’m not having that down there, she told me. Puzzlement. Why not? That word. I don’t approve. What word? Madness. But that’s the title of the play. I don’t like it. But-! I’m not having it. Come with me. We entered the backpackers. Let’s think of another word – I’m sensitive to that word. This was outlandish. The billboard was on a public road, we were hiring the hall, and this woman was trying to censor the title, which had appeared in advertisements and press releases. She looked at me earnestly. I think it’s wrong to call someone mad. But that’s what we’re saying in the play – sort of. Let’s think of another word, then you can write the sign out again. Time was ticking by. We needed to start setting up. Look, my mother died in Porirua mental hospital. I’m sensitive as well. I know. How do you know? I worked there. This was entering the realm of the fantastic. She didn’t even know my name, let alone my mother’s. Now, let’s think of another word. I was getting angry by now, but she still hadn’t handed over the key. I could envisage a situation where she refused to do so. Was she mad? It seemed mad. What does that mean? I breathed deeply. Down the road stood the statue of Te Whiti and Tohu. Some of the ploughman had been brought up here to be incarcerated. Be patient. Look, don’t worry about it. But she remained determined. I’m sure there’s another word, if we just sat down and thought about it. The cast were arriving. I’m very sorry, but I haven’t time for this. I really need the key. We have to get to work. She reluctantly handed it over. I took the billboard and left.
It turned out fine. There was a large, receptive audience. Someone brought a four year old along. Afterward she came up to me. I really liked your play. I liked the way everyone acted silly. Perhaps that was the word we were looking for: A Brief History of Silliness.
When I took the key back, the woman was softer, eyes limpid, wanting to make contact. Did it go alright? Very good, thanks. Something in her had been resolved. She’d rejected madness.
We parted on amicable terms.