Madness reviews


Exploring Madness’s Face

April 06, 1992 | Walter Goodman

Madness by Jonathan Miller is the exploration by Mr. Miller, who is a doctor as well as a director, of a concept that has been much disputed over the centuries and remains unsettled even in this know-it-all era. Is there such an illness as madness, or does society merely impose its own diagnosis on behavior that a majority deems peculiar? If madness is an illness, then is it physical or psychological, or a bit of both? And how can it best be treated?

The series begins with the scene from “Hamlet” between the prince and Polonius, who has lately reported to the king, “Your noble son is mad.” Like most people, Polonius cannot define madness, but he is sure he knows it when he sees it. The literal-minded old fellow interprets every ironic utterance of Hamlet as a sign of lunacy. Is madness in the mind of the beholder?

Mr. Miller brings his several talents to bear as he chats knowledgeably with researchers, psychiatrists and patients, presents dramatic vignettes and lectures in a somewhat spooky setting, apparently the interior of an ancient castle that has gone to pot. The stone walls are adorned only with drop cloths; the main piece of furniture is a long table cluttered with books, which might signal scholarship or just a rummage sale; a television set hangs anomalously from the ceiling and when Mr. Miller is not prowling about, he watches himself on screen. Maybe it is all meant to be a Gothic metaphor for madness.

As evidenced in his earlier PBS series, The Body in Question, Mr. Miller is an easy, eloquent and enlightening lecturer. Showing pictures of several youths with punk haircuts, he makes the point that one has to see odd behavior in context. Yet he notes that the symptoms of what is called madness have remained much the same down the centuries: hearing voices and seeing things. His conversations with patients at mental institutions in England and the United States confirm that voices are still being heard, things still being seen.

He discusses the conflict during the Middle Ages between the religious belief that some people were possessed by supernatural spirits and the secular belief that they were afflicted by humors. Either way, the attempted cures were harsh and probably not very effective. He makes pointed connections between changes in society and changes in views of madness.

At moments Mr. Miller’s directorial improvisations distract from his lecture. If you were wondering why he goes up in a helicopter to shoot the English countryside, it is merely to carry forward his image that the landscape of thought was transformed by the scientific method. He could have spared himself that trip. The significant point is that by the middle of the 18th century doctors had monopolized the treatment of lunacy, without quite knowing what to do about it.

Next week’s installment, “Out of Sight,” deals with the rise of asylums as an expression of greater compassion for those presumed mad — and their decline for similar motives. Then come accounts of the use of electro-shock treatments, lobotomies and Freudian therapy and finally a program on schizophrenia. Dr. Miller concludes by offering his answers to the fundamental questions raised at the outset. Like most of what he says, they are respectful of the mental condition of his audience.


PBS Delves Into the World of ‘Madness’

April 06, 1992 | David Scheiderer

Madness by Jonathan Miller, a five-part series that begins at 10 tonight on KCET Channel 28 and KPBS Channel 15, takes an extended look at the cultural history of mental illness and seems to arrive at a real Catch-22: The more we know about madness, the less we seem willing and able to do about it.

Miller, the physician, actor, theater, opera and television director, comes by his interest in the subject naturally–his father was a psychiatrist. What he has wrought is a compelling and useful series that may be more than even the most avid Miller fan and PBS documentary aficionado could want or digest.

Mental illness is a complex subject that touches the lives of many people: 10% of all adults in Western society will spend some time in an institution, according to Miller.

Tonight’s episode, “To Define True Madness,” looks at the history of mental illness, how it has been represented in art and literature (“Hamlet”) and at some of the myths that still prevail. The series must have had an extensive travel budget, as Miller and a crew range from London to Paris to Philadelphia to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to examine the subject.

In his solemn, let-me-explain-it-to-you-carefully style, Miller points out that it is no easier to say what madness is today than it was in Shakespeare’s time. Is it a disease, or merely frightening or troublesome behavior? Miller looks at demonic possession, or an imbalance of the “humors,” as historical notions of how to explain mental illness. Those ideas fell into disrepute during the Restoration and, with the arrival of Sir Isaac Newton and scientific method, enlightened examination was brought to the question of mental illness.

But the problem did not yield to such new study and, as Miller points out, the large numbers of homeless people on the streets of America today underscore the fact that the care of the mentally ill is a dilemma that is still unresolved.

In subsequent episodes, Madness by Jonathan Miller looks at the rise and fall of insane asylums as centers for treatment, modern attempts to treat mental illness through physical treatment, “the talking cure” pioneered by Sigmund Freud, and schizophrenia and the current state of our knowledge.

Madness by Jonathan Miller was produced and directed by Richard Denton for BBC Television and KCET in Los Angeles.

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