Hysteria in Pictures

Furse, Anna F. D.. 2021. Hysteria in Pictures. In: Johanna Braun, ed. Hysterical Methodologies in the Arts, Rising in Revolt. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 73-104. ISBN 9783030663599 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

Hysterical behaviours in Medieval Europe were associated with religious fervour, asceticism or ecstasy; in the nineteenth century they exploded into the burlesque spectacular of Parisian Grande Hystérie and subsequently passed into bourgeois society; erupted as the shellshock epidemic of WW1; took on a special mien as a range of Eating Disorders in the late twentieth century, growing exponentially in the twenty-first century, fuelled by the effect of social media. Elaine Showalter argues that hysteria still manifests in contemporary society, physical symptoms including those suffered by Gulf War veterans. She calls these “Hystories”(Showalter 1997).

Hysterias’ symptoms are many and varied. The Index to Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer’s ‘Studies on Hysteria’ (first published in 1895) lists seventy-two of these. They range from sense impairments to paralyses, contortions to hallucinations. They include swoons, ticks, coughs, convulsions and fits. Hysteria’s expressive forms reflect class. Environment and education apparently play their part: proletarian manifestations appear more boisterous than their bourgeois counterparts. More extreme cases of the former include the St Vitus dance mania in the Middle Ages (this is now thought to have been caused by rheumatic fever; Waller 2009); the Tarantata of Southern Italy (Daboo 2010); the nineteenth century “Grande Hystérique” at the Salpêtrière Hospital; and the WW1 shellshocked private soldier. In the latter, we find aspects of the choreomania of the “Grande Hystérique”. Neurasthenia, a condition associated with lassitude, weakness, headaches and hallucination, is another form, from which the officer class of WW1 trenches tended to suffer. Class is here manifest as affecting hysteric expression and form, neurasthenia resembling the more sedate and tremulous symptoms of Freud’s bourgeois hysteric patients in nineteenth century Vienna.
The broad gamut of hysterias have preoccupied me for many years of theatre making. I am consistently interested on the effect of mind on body, and of society on mental health. Hysteric illnesses are not congenital madness, healed by psychotropic drugs or pharmacopeia. They are complex psychophysical responses to the unendurable. That is why it is vital to contextualize hysterias within their sociocultural history.

Here, I present some images that might illuminate a narrative, leading to two of my ‘family’ of hysteric texts written and produced for theatre: Augustine (Big Hysteria) (1991) and my more recent Shocks (2018). Both works, by no means coincidentally, used live string instruments in the musical score: a solo violinist in Graeme Miller’s composition for Augustine (Big Hysteria), and a string quartet and soprano for Ken Dempster’s composition for Shocks. The string instrument is a metaphor for the ‘highly strung’ person.
Hysteria in war and peace.

I suggest then that the shellshocked soldier is the not-so-distant cousin of the Salpêtrière hysteric, the neurasthenic officer akin to Freud’s Viennese patients. In my two theatre works included here, characters are each suffering from the burdens of intolerable sexual and military violence, experiencing social conditions where normal complaint is impossible to utter. Ensuing mental breakdown then becomes performative, a range of somatised symptoms erupting in the body.

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Book Section


hysteria, performance, theatre



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Date Deposited:

06 Jan 2022 14:31

Last Modified:

06 Jan 2022 14:34



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