Moving in the right direction?

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In the UK, 12.5% of men are suffering from at least one of the common mental health disorders. With this in mind, it is important to reflect upon
how male mental health is portrayed in the theatre, and how its presentation has changed. Modern theatre has become very supportive and transparent regarding mental health, becoming a place of reflection, expression and openness. However, it is important to remember how
disengaged theatre once was and consider improvements which can still be made.

One of the first instances of male mental health in theatre is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark, the most popular tragic hero suffers immensely from suicidal thoughts and depression. He wishes his ‘sullied flesh would melt’ and his famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy emulates
viscerally the dichotomous, swinging conflict a person suffering from suicidal thoughts may experience internally. However, Hamlet was written at a time where suicide was considered a sin before God and punished by the law and, though one of the greatest plays ever written, its mental health message is not one of empowerment and hope. Hamlet’s poor mental health is left unattended because Shakespeare fails to invite the audience to support and sympathize with him. He is left battling alone and consequently; his actions cause the fall of Denmark – a macrocosm for internal self-destruction.

It is easy to acknowledge that men’s mental health in theatre was poorly
depicted at the turn of the 17th Century. It becomes harder to digest when you consider that men’s mental health was still treated as taboo in theatre less than 60 years ago. The Southern Gothic tragedy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams really struggles to articulate the suffering that Brick endures. It is not stated explicitly, but we can infer that Brick is a closeted gay man trapped in a marriage he detests, causing him immense anguish
and frustration. These emotions bleed undetected into the fabric of the family. The raging battle of ideals between him and his conservative family members presents mental illness is something to be hidden, to be ashamed of. Despite Williams’ own struggle with his homosexuality, the play presents men’s mental health as inappropriate for theatrical consumption, because at the time it was believed that men should not be emotional or show vulnerability.

Men’s mental health is now beginning to exit the shadows as playwrights endeavour to create a platform which inspires men to feel comfortable enough to share and express their feelings. The musical Dear Evan Hansen explores the devastating impact mental illness can have on men and their immediate communities. Connor’s suicide is treated with sensitivity but shows how a community can pull themselves together afterwards. Men expressing emotion is no taboo in this musical. Evan, who suffers from anxiety, shows his vulnerability when he cries onstage – a massive contrast to Brick. Lyrics such as “step out of the sun if you keep getting burned” offer a sense of hope for anyone suffering; the song ‘You Will Be Found’ displays that no matter how dark the world may seem, it is important to realise that “you are not alone.”

It is important that prominent figures support theatre which humanizes men struggling with mental illness. The play Distance, which closed at the Park Theatre in 2018, was directed by Simon Pittman and examined the mental illness of lead character Steven. The impact that high-profile figures such as Pittman can have upon the understanding of mental illness is paramount. His influence stresses the urgent need for more awareness about the problem.

The portrayal of men’s mental health in theatre has improved massively in recent decades. However, more work can still be done. Men and boys must feel more comfortable about performing. Many theatre-loving young men lack the confidence to join theatre groups, as it is still deemed a feminine sphere. Boys can then feel isolated and lonely, feelings which can make them more susceptible to mental illness. The best antidote to mental illness is community – something which theatre can provide.

Image via Creative Commons

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