by Ramya Jegatheesan
Blanche crouches. Stares. A salacious smile appears. “What are you looking at?” she teases.
Welcome to The Hystericon. Meet Blanche, “the queen of hysterics”; Geneviève, “the saint”; and Augustine, “the photogenic”. All are patients at the Salpêtrière insane asylum for women.
These are women without voice; without power. They are made to dance, to scream and to convulse like broken marionettes for The Voice (Nicholas Porteous), a disembodied J.M. Charcot, their doctor. Charcot parades their illness for fame, for titillation, and for crowds ever-eager to see a curiosity.
Who are Augustine, Blanche and Geneviève? I still don’t know (or, I do, but only because I read this wonderful article as a primer. Could we get to know Blanche, Geneviève and Augustine as women before we come to know them as patients and performers? Should we not meet Geneviève, the girl who tried to throw herself into her boyfriend’s grave before we meet Geneviève, the girl who is convinced she’s the victim of demonic possession?
The play buried these women’s humanity by overemphasizing their roles as performing lab rats. Their vulnerability and truth does not need to be cloaked in melodrama. It does not need any dressings. It should be genuine and bare. This is the play’s biggest flaw, but it is not its only one. The projection screen, key to your understanding of the story, perches awkwardly in no man’s land where it repeatedly forces you to break your focus and take your gaze away from the action happening on stage. Then the ending falls flat because it comes out of nowhere. We are left guessing too much.
The Hystericon has so much promise: it pushes boundaries; the writing has moments of brilliance; the actors are charismatic. But it lacks a clear dramatic arc, and presumes we know far more than we might. Unless you are well versed in the history of hysteria, following the abrupt shifts in this play will leave you feeling stranded and baffled, but curious.