Glenn and I went to see a very good play on February 5th 2010 with some friends - this was 'Every good boy deserves favour' by Tom Stoppard and André Previn at the National Theatre, London. We also bought the script for it afterwards. André Previn usually, of course, conducts music composed by others; so it was wonderful here, to see him composing his own music and putting this all together with Tom Stoppard.
The play is about two men in a mental hospital; one of which is a political dissident (Alexander) and the other that really is mad (Ivanov). Ivanov thinks he has an orchestra. And there was a real orchestra on the stage at the National Theatre, so that was also an unexpected, but nice, surprise. The play was dedicated to Victor Fainberg and Vladimir Bukovsky, who were both former Soviet political dissidents. In the National Theatre programme it says that:
“Bukovsky spent a total of twelve years in Soviet prisons, labour camps and forced-treatment psychiatric hospitals and was one of the first to expose the use of psychiatric imprisonment against political dissidents in the Soviet Union.”
The play had many important things to say about both how badly political dissidents are often treated (and how labelling them ‘mad’ can be so convenient) and the complexity of the concepts of madness and sanity in themselves. There were many really witty and clever lines in the whole play. Here are some samples.
Alexander, for example, as a political dissident, is obviously very sceptical about how and why people end up in mental hospitals, and says that the people that are locked up in mental hospitals are sane, whilst those that walk free are mad. But the Doctor replies to Alexander, saying:
“The idea that all the people locked up in mental hospitals are sane while the people walking about outside are all mad is merely a literacy conceit, put about by people who should be locked up. I assure you there’s not much in it. Taken as a whole, the sane are out there and the sick are in here. For example, you are here because you have delusions that sane people are put in mental hospitals.” (p. 23)
What a great play on words and concepts.
Then, the Doctor says:
“If you’re not prepared to discuss your rationality, we’re going to go round in circles.” (p. 23-4).
But of course, if he is mad then how on earth can he discuss his rationality? I laughed so much at this line.
Then a little later the Doctor says to Alexander that:
“Stupidity is one thing I can’t cure. I have to show that I have treated you. You have to recant and show gratitude for the treatment. We have to act together.” (p.25)
The absurdity of it all is clearly and obviously apparent.
A bit later still the Doctor then says to Alexander:
“Your behaviour is causing alarm. I’m beginning to think you’re off your head. Quite apart from being a paranoid schizophrenic. I have to consider seriously whether an Ordinary Hospital can deal with your symptoms.” (p.28)
Alexander replies, saying:
“I have no symptoms, I have opinions.”
And the Doctor says:
“Your opinions are your symptoms. Your disease is dissent. Your kind of schizophrenia does not presuppose changes of personality noticeable to others. I might compare your case to that of Pyotr Grigorenko, of whom it has been stated by our leading psychiatrists at the Serbsky Institute, that his outwardly well-adjusted behaviour and formally coherent utterances were indicative of a pathological development of the personality. Are you getting the message? I can’t help you.”
‘Your disease is dissent’ – what a brilliant and clever line that is!
Subsequently, the Doctor in talking to Alexander’s son says:
“He’d rather die than admit he’s cured? This is madness, and it’s not allowed!”
Sacha, Alexander’s son replies:
“Then you’ll have to let him go.”
The doctor says:
“I’m not allowed to – it’s a logical impasse. Did you tell him he mustn’t be so rigid?”
At the end of the play, a Colonel arrives. The intention is to ask the 2 in-mates some questions and if they answer them satisfactorily then they will be discharged. But he gets the 2 muddled up. So, he asks Alexander if he has an orchestra and Ivanvov if he thinks that sane people are being locked up in mental hospitals. Of course, they both say ‘no’ to these questions, so the Colonel then discharges them. So, the Colonel is also pretty ‘off his head’ himself, is he not?
The cleverness and the absurdity of it all, and of course, this is a reflection of the craziness of life in general; of this mad capitalist world that we have to live in, that we also have to operate rationally in, in some way or other. It also demonstrates how political dissidents are often treated in this mad world.
Stoppard, Tom and Previn, André (1978) Every good boy deserves favour and professional foul, Faber & Faber: London (Playscript)