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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Madness at the Theatre

Femi Oyebode

Price: £15.00

Members' discount available

Published: Jul 2012

Format: Paperback

Number of pages: 112

ISBN: 9781908020420

Madness at the Theatre

Madness at the Theatre studies the theatrical representation of madness from the classical Greek period through to the 21st century.

Professor Oyebode charts the portrayal of madness by the world’s great playwrights across the centuries and argues that whereas acts of madness are described but unseen in Greek drama, Shakespeare brought these behaviours to centre stage. In the 19th and early 20th centuries aberrant behaviour was portrayed in domestic settings by Ibsen – theatrical madness became a family drama. Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill drew on their own families for their explorations of madness and addiction, which lent a freshness and authenticity to their characters. Pinter’s masterful use of the ambiguity of language finds strong echoes in the psychiatric clinic. Soyinka approached the subject from a different perspective, emphasising the social context – the personal malady as reflection of a greater malaise in society. Finally, Sarah Kane, whose own mental illness shaped her work, created plays that were the physical embodiment of her inner world.


This book deals with an aspect of drama that speaks to the fears, prejudices and insights of the audience. It makes explicit the rules and models governing the appropriation of madness as a metaphor within theatre.


Readership: It will be essential reading for anyone interested in the language of drama, the depiction of mental illness, and in the wider place of madness as a concept within society.


About the editor:

Femi Oyebode is Professor and Head of Department of Psychiatry, University of Birmingham. He has published widely on the relationship between literature and psychiatry. His research interests include descriptive psychopathology and delusional misidentification syndromes. He is also a poet and literary critic.




  1. Greek tragedy and models of madness
  2. Greco-Roman comedy and folly
  3. Jealousy the green-eyed monster and madness in Shakespeare
  4. Ibsen and the domestication of madness
  5. Tennessee Williams and the theatre of the mind
  6. Soyinka’s theatre of the shadowlands
  7. Sarah Kane: the self in fission


See also:

Mindreadings: Literature and Psychiatry



"I would emphasise that psychiatry has important links with all arts, especially opera and literature. Understanding 'bizarre' behaviour of human beings through the arts is an effective way to integrate psychodynamic understanding."

- Dr Estela Welldon

Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy, The Portman Clinic (Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust), London

(e-Interview from The Psychiatrist 36:3, March 2012.)


Quote from the author:

"Theatre is one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit. It combines storytelling with the concrete expression and enactment of the action. It uses language, music, dance, dress, props, and lighting to create an illusion and to influence the emotional life of the audience. It is singularly the most exacting and thrilling of the arts. Mental life is its source and its nourishment."

- Femi Oyebode


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You may also be interested in the CPD Online module: Gender, madness and society in 20th century Britain
"Individually, the studies are incisive and wield the diagnostic tools of contemporary psychiatry to reveal what is systemic in behaviour that once might have been viewed as particular or anecdotal. Psychiatry brings insights, and a lexicon that was unavailable to playwrights of old, who, for their own purposes, were drawn to human experiences of collapse and dissociation."
The Psychiatric Bulletin