Disorder Contained: a Theatrical Examination of Madness, Prison and Solitary Confinement
- The mid-19th century saw the ‘Separate System’ (solitary confinement) introduced in the UK and Ireland, originally intended to enable prisoners to reflect and reform
- Concerns quickly raised about effects on prisoner health: hallucinations, delusions, self-harm
- Regime continued to be implemented in prisons despite evidence of damage to prisoners
- Usage later became associated with punishment rather than reform
- Solitary confinement still in use today despite its devastating impact on mental health – how can nothing have changed in over 150 years?
Researchers from the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland at University College Dublin and the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick have teamed up with theatre group, Talking Birds, to explore the devastating effect of solitary confinement in a new play, Disorder Contained: a theatrical examination of madness, prison and solitary confinement.
The play will be first performed at the Shop Front Theatre, Coventry, running from 29 June to 1 July, before moving on to the Smock Alley Theatre 1662, Dublin from 12 July to 14 July and then to The MAC, Belfast on 15 July. There will also be a performance of the play in London. This is part of a series of plays dedicated to bringing research on the history of mental health and its institutions to a wider audience.
In Disorder Contained Coventry’s Talking Birds combine music, song, compassion, and humour to explore the rationale behind solitary confinement and prisoners’ responses to it. Set in the mid-19th century, the ‘Separate System’, the spiritually-inspired adaptation of solitary confinement intended to enable prisoners to repent their crimes, is being introduced to British and Irish prisons. However, concerns about the detrimental impact of the prison system on the mental health of inmates are mounting, putting pressure on prison staff, prompting governmental enquiries, and coming to feature persistently in the agendas of prison reform organisations.
This interdisciplinary production aims to make the findings of academic research accessible to the public in an entertaining form that also opens up conversations about mental illness and its history. Talking Birds have worked closely with Hilary Marland at the University of Warwick and Catherine Cox at University College Dublin to interpret their research, drawing on contemporaneous documents, such as prisoners’ memoirs, doctors’ case notes, and the reflections of prison staff.
Professor Hilary Marland, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick informs us that:
The Separate System was originally conceived by prison chaplains, doctors and governors as a way for prisoners to reflect upon their crimes and reform. Prisons were built to totally prohibit contact between prisoners, who wore masks when moved around the prison and were placed in individual booths, or ‘coffins’, when attending chapel. Prisoners described how the regime put each man in his ‘private hell’.
Associate Professor Catherine Cox, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine at University College Dublin in Ireland observes:
Evidence that the Separate System caused hallucinations, delusions, and insanity quickly became overwhelming. But rather than being abandoned, the elements of penitence and reform were reduced and the system transformed into a regime of harsh and deliberate punishment, one that has endured until the present day.
Writer and Director Peter Cann explains the challenge of interpreting the research:
This show is the final part in a trilogy of work we’ve made together exploring insanity, its treatment and containment in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over time, we have developed a way of working that takes historical material – which makes for fascinating if rather grim reading – translating it into characters and stories which resonate with today’s issues.
There will be expert panel discussion after some of performances (see full theatre listing for details), providing opportunities for audience members to discuss the making of the piece with researchers and the theatre company, and to engage in debate on issues raised by the performance.
For venues, dates and to purchase tickets for Disorder Contained please see:
Notes for Editors
More about Talking Birds
Talking Birds is a Coventry-based theatre company, renowned for its work connecting people and place. In addition to the Asylum Trilogy, previous collaborations with the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick include Three Doctors, marking the history of Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital, and The Ballad of Elizabeth Barnwell.
More about the play
The performance has been created as a part of ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000’ a five-year project, funded by a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award, and led by Professor Hilary Marland (University of Warwick) and Associate Professor Catherine Cox (University College Dublin) which undertakes research into topics that resonate with current concerns in the prison service, including the very high incidence of mental health problems amongst prisoners, the health of women and maternity services in prison, and responses to addiction and HIV/AIDS.
Theatre Tickets and Dates
Shop Front Theatre
38 City Arcade, Coventry CV1 3HW (opposite Argos)
Thu 29 June, 7.30 pm
+ post show discussion with artistic team
Fri 30 June, 2.30 pm & 7.30 pm
Sat 1 July, 2.30 pm & 7.30 pm
+ expert panel after 7.30 show
Matinees £6 (£3); Evenings £8 (£4)
Box Office: 085 680 1926
Smock Alley Theatre 1662
6-7 Exchange Street, Lower Temple Bar, Dublin 8
Wed 12 July, 8 pm
+post show discussion with artistic team
Thu 13 July 8 pm
+ post show expert panel
Fri 14 July, 3 pm & 8 pm
Matinees €8 (€4); Evenings €10 (€5)
Box office: 01 677 0014
10 Exchange Street, Belfast BT1 2LS
Sat 15 July, 7.30 pm
+ post show expert panel
Box Office: 028 9023 5053
Please note that due to the subject matter, there are themes and scenes in the play that some people may find distressing