A couple of years ago over the course of a season, the Harvey Theater showcased a stellar lineup of madmen. Geoffrey Rush performed the delusional Poprishchin in Diary of a Madman, Declan Donnellan directed Will Keen as a hallucinating Macbeth, and Derek Jacobi portrayed Lear losing his mind. Madness is eminently theatrical—but why?
We asked Adam Phillips to look into it. “Acting Madness,” the lecture he gave at BAM, is collected in his new book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Reviewing it in this week’s New Yorker, Joan Acocella observes: “Phillips pretty much does any damn thing he pleases.” We're pleased that this time he did it here.
In his discussion with the audience, Phillips explored the antithesis between Shakespeare’s sanity and Hamlet’s madness, which he addresses in Going Sane (2007). Would Shakespeare need to be the sanest man ever in order to invent so many mad characters?
By way of concluding, Phillips proposes a remarkable conundrum: “the person acting madness is always having to deal with the question, can a joke be better than its audience?” If you tell a joke and no one laughs, is the audience to blame, or is it not a good joke? If no one thinks it’s funny, can it still be considered a joke?
On Monday, Feb 25, Adam Phillips will be in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at the New York Public Library.