Carol Sawyer: Residency

The following text is taken from Front Magazine, vol. VI, no. 3, p. 9, January/February 1995:

To prepare for her role as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Actress Ellen Terry went to an asylum to observe madwomen. But she found the madwomen there were all “too theatrical” to be of any use to her research. Elaine Showalter speculates that these young women had been influenced by the many representations of Ophelia in popular art and stage, and had adopted her romantic iconography in order to communicate their own distress.

Since the beginning of the 19th century at least, women have comprised the majority of those considered mad. Some have called “madness” a constructed idea that is used to control women by pathologizing their pain and anger. What is the relationship between fictionalized representations of madness and “real” madness?

Over and over again the spectre of the madwoman crosses the opera stage, dishevelled, wild-eyed and oblivious to her surroundings. What meanings do these characters create? Do their actions really seem “mad” or are they perfectly understandable? Why do audiences enjoy seeing their aestheticized pain enacted again and again? Why have composers given mad opera heroines some of the most amazing music in the 19th century opera repertoire?

Carol Sawyer will attempt to answer this and other questions during her media residency at the Front, while she creates the audio component of an installation piece about madness, women and opera.

The work Ophelia / Oscilloscope was created as a part of this residency.