Features Published 22 May 2017

Putting the ‘mad artist’ myth to bed

“Would I be less creative if I was less mad? Aniqah Choudhri talks to theatremakers who explore mental illness on stage about why the 'mad artist' myth is so dangerous.
Aniqah Choudhri
Brigitte Aphrodite performs 'My Beautiful Black Dog'.

Brigitte Aphrodite performs ‘My Beautiful Black Dog’.

In contrast to myths of mentally ill people being either prone to violence or just overly sensitive, the “Mad Artist” stereotype is romantic, almost benevolent. Artists with mental disorders have provided a casket of wonders for the arts, from Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis to the poetry of Anne Sexton, but does being mentally ill actually make you more artistic? More importantly, is there any danger in the myth?

When I was first diagnosed with a severe mental disorder I embraced the idea as a sort of silver lining to the illness and the harsh stigma that came with it. At least the madness has been good for something. But in reality, the least creative periods of my life have been when I was the most ill. As I am forced to stop and memorise every street sign, or as I hallucinate flowers moving on the wallpaper, all I can feel is utter boredom or a dreary panic, not any desire to press my pen to paper. I cannot deny that my writing did change dramatically after my breakdown but can I really give my madness credit for this? Or did it, like any life changing experience, just give me plenty to write about?

Brigitte Aphrodite, creator of an autobiographical show about depression called My Beautiful Black Dog, told me that “Personally I don’t think my mental illness aids my creativity. When I’m mentally well I’m much better at writing, better at performing and better at life.”  

She also suggested the creative industry could seem to contain more people with mental illnesses because it is discussed more openly, “There is a misconception that you’re more likely to be mentally ill in the creative industry. Sometimes people say it’s because of the highs and the lows of the job, and the big projects that are sparkly and exciting. But I think a banker or a nurse is just as likely to be mentally ill as a musician.”

A serious consequence of glamorising mental illness and indulging the “crazy artist” myth is that it suggests mental illness is a character trait, not  “a real illness” – a viewpoint I have tripped over time and time again, from the doctors surgery to the workplace. Even grimmer is the assumption that mental illness is an inevitable part of working in the arts.

Isobel Marmion, whose solo storytelling show about living with mental illness It’s My Funeral and I’ll Throw Glitter If I Want To will appear at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, said, “I have been 100 percent guilty of this myself. I have not sought help when I was younger and thought what if I’m only creative because of this illness? I’ve been on medication and off medication and its made no difference. My creativity is not related to my mental illness. I think it glamorises something that’s not that glamorous. It stops people from getting help.”

As the influx of work about mental illness by young theatremakers shows, people are becoming more and more willing to speak out about their mental health. But there’s still stigma attached to speaking out, and fears of being seen as weak or dangerous are so common that it was only after I was diagnosed myself that I realised how many other people were in the same boat.

As Isobel Marmion put it, “A lot of the time people don’t realise how common mental illness is. A lot of people say to me I’ve never met anyone with bipolar before and I think yes you have.”

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of the mental health charity Mind, said “We know that when high profile people speak out about their own experiences it inspires others to do the same. Shared experiences of recovery can prompt people to ask for help with their own problems and can break down the stigma that still surrounds mental health, sparking conversations that may otherwise never have happened.”

As someone who has only gained from seeing performances other mental health sufferers have made I can wholeheartedly agree with this, but are we putting too much weight on those with mental health problems to tell the stories themselves? When you speak out in public about mental illness it can be both liberating and terrifying. You meet other people going through the same thing but you also bear the brunt of stigma that our society still holds against “madness.”

Performance artist Scottee makes confessional work that draws on some of his most painful life experiences, exploring class, masculinity and body image. He’s written on the vulnerability he put himself through when opening up to audiences. “The applause got painful, the accolades became violent and I was unwilling to walk over coals for a short burst of glory. With masses of vulnerability, a rollercoaster for my mental health and a fear of oversharing I want to ask loudly – why do I do it? Why do we do it?”

These questions become all the more important because support for mentally ill people all too often just isn’t there – another consequence of mental illness still not being acknowledged universally as a “real illness”.  Playwright Laura Jane Dean spoke of the numerous waiting lists she has been on for therapy on the NHS, “Waiting for that elusive appointment can be very difficult and often feels much longer than it actually is. Once I got to the top of the list, though, the treatment I received was wonderful, and slowly but surely made a big difference to my life. It breaks my heart that mental health services are continually being cut back under the current government.”

Paul Farmer also said that mental health has historically been underfunded in Britain, “Bed shortages, stretched community teams, rising antidepressant prescriptions and a lack of alternative treatments have all been well-documented in the press and point to something of a crisis in some parts of mental health services. It’s unacceptable that people who are at their most unwell and in desperate need of care find themselves travelling across the country to get help.”

Performances about mental illness might not be able to fix the system, but they do offer a sense of community, and tackle the myths that still surround creativity. I wouldn’t want to disparage this work, but we must debunk the myth that madness is an integral part of artistic talent. Suicide and psychosis are not inevitable paths of genius, but illnesses that might be halted with enough medical and psychological help.

As for the question of whether madness and creativity have any relationship at all, there’s no straightforward answer, but artists’ willingness to be open about mental illness has certainly brought us riches in the theatre, from the tragic to the tongue-in-cheek.

“Would I be less creative if I was less mad?” said Laura Jane Dean, “I have no idea but I would probably have fewer things to talk to an audience about.”