Friday, September 13, 2013

A Question of Madness

By Deanie Vallone

“But I don't want to go among mad people,” Alice proclaims as she begins her fantastical journey into the now famous world of Wonderland. The Cheshire Cat, always one sentence ahead of her, coyly replies, “Oh, you can't help that […] we're all mad here.”[1]

Madness has been a trope of literature, especially theatre, since the work of ancient Greeks, who chart the wrath of gods that punished mortals by driving them insane. Madness in its many forms underlies many of Shakespeare's works, from Titus Andronicus' “miserable, mad, mistaking eyes”[2] to Macbeth's “strange infirmity.”[3] Jump ahead to the “madness” of isolated housewives and shell-shocked soldiers, Charlotte Perkins Gillman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the prisoner-wife Bertha in Jane Eyre. Now, at the heart of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's upcoming production of THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE, is once again the question of madness.

THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE is subtitled “A Ghost Story,” and the complicated antagonism of madness and the supernatural bring it closely in parallel with another classic, Shakespeare's Hamlet. The contemporary play is well aware of its heritage, making various direct references to what is considered Shakespeare's, if not the world's, best play. After Alice Conroy, the titular character of THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE, sees the ghost of her dead husband, she makes it her mission to solve the last case he was working on, and to figure out why he was murdered in the middle of the investigation. Alice's family and doctors are, unsurprisingly, concerned that this mystery novel enthusiast has suddenly taken the fictions too far. Her son Mickey argues, “Mom, there is a body of literature out there arguing that Hamlet never actually saw his father's ghost. Not a real ghost. It was a psychologically manifested phantasm.”[4] Alice becomes a modern-day Hamlet, and the question of her sanity permeates the entire narrative.

Unlike Hamlet, this story centers entirely around Alice. A one-woman show, Alice is the protagonist, narrator, and guide, and all exposition and dialogue is related through her storytelling to the audience. This set-up adds an interesting twist to the mystery of Alice herself. How much of what she's telling us can we trust? Are we dealing with an unreliable narrator, the conspiracy theories of a madwoman? The audience must place themselves in Alice's hands as she—and we—tumble down the rabbit hole. Though not a crime mystery, Alice in Wonderland acts as another complimentary narrative to Alice's story. Some references—from Alice's name to the scene of the crime, the movie palace Wonderland—link us directly to Lewis Carroll's novel, but it is the theme of madness that works as a subtler but evocative allusion throughout the play. “Are you awake, Mrs. Conroy?”[5] Alice's speech therapist asks. Alice in Wonderland plays with the uneasy divide between reality and dreaming, and in THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE madness rests on this same divide. What does it mean to be awake? All three texts suggest that madness can itself be a form of waking oneself from the sleep induced by closing one's eyes to the Truth (capital T, as Alice notes). Reality—madness, for that matter—is all about perspective. And Alice is giving us hers.

THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE is a well-wrought mystery. Like Hamlet, Alice slowly stumbles upon more and more evidence that suggests the people around her are not what they seem. At one point her daughter Carrie exclaims, “You want to bring this whole house of cards down on all our heads?”[6] and that is a question Alice must seriously consider. Once down the proverbial rabbit hole, it's hard to get out again. Mickey reminds her as well, “Regardless of whether Hamlet's ghost was real or not, the play ended in tragedy.”[7] But is Hamlet really a tragedy? It may be a controversial question, with everyone crying out, “What are you talking about? Of course it is!” But think about it: Hamlet finds out the Truth and gets revenge on those who were responsible for his father's death. Some innocents, including Hamlet himself, die in the process, but for Hamlet, is his ending tragic, or just necessary? His dying wish to Horatio is “tell my story,”[8] and his story has been told for centuries. The pain, the sacrifice, has not been for naught.

Storytelling is at the core of THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE, not just in the narration-heavy style of the script. The first sentence of the play is “When my husband was gunned down on duty, I lost my voice.”[9] Though Alice's voice is truly the only one we get throughout the play, the story chronicles the literal voicelessness she experiences while trying to solve her husband's murder. Yet, despite whatever comes from her investigation, Alice reminds us, “You know I get my voice back.”[10] That she does, and like Hamlet, her story is told. Perhaps a happy ending after all?

Carroll's Alice did not want “to go among mad people,” but that is what literature does: bring us among the mad. Theatre especially puts the audience into a unique setting, an enclosed environment where we can experience with all of our senses the madness of another. Attending the theatre is a willing descent into Wonderland. But theatre-goers and literature-lovers are a unique breed. We revel in the folie à deux, willingly taking on the madness of another. And why not? We're all mad here anyway.

[1]    Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. 2007 (Ann Arbor), p. 49.
[2]    William Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus. 2000 (New York), p. 93.
[3]    Ibid. Macbeth. 2000 (New York), p. 53.
[4]    Keith Huff. The Detective's Wife. 2011 (New York), p. 16.
[5]    Ibid., p. 25.
[6]    Ibid., p. 34.
[7]    Ibid., p. 16.
[8]    William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 2001 (New York), p. 146.
[9]    Huff, p. 1.
[10]  Ibid., p. 16.

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