It’s quite a story, Ten days in a madhouse: Nellie Bly (1864-1922) (Lindsey Huebner) was an ambitious journalist who pushed boundaries because she sought to investigate how women were treated in various contexts. What she didn’t want to do was write about topics that female journalists were largely confined to at the time, such as fashion and culture. In 1887 she found herself doing just that, so she quit. Long story short, various potential opportunities were turned down, at least in part because the editors didn’t have female reporters on their staff and weren’t going to start having any at that time.
Then there was the New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer between 1883 and 1911 (the newspaper itself continued until 1931), a pioneering newspaper in many respects. It was one of the first newspapers to publish comic strips, for example, and in 1913 published a crossword puzzle, generally considered the first crossword puzzle published in a newspaper. Bly’s contribution was, indeed, a precursor to undercover reporting. Challenged by New York World to prove herself a worthy correspondent, she set out to investigate the harsh conditions of an insane asylum – as these places were then called – on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. Let’s just say it would have been an even shorter play if she hadn’t been able to complete her investigations.
The production chooses to tell a 19th century story by deploying 21st century techniques. Customers are invited to take a pair of headphones before entering the auditorium (these are disinfected before being made available to the public), and the volume can be adjusted accordingly. It’s unusual – the only other scenario that comes to mind is the ‘silent disco’, where music is played through headphones so that clubbers can dance but not complain about the noise. It works quite well: I found a comfortable volume level for myself – some incidental music plays before the show to allow guests to do so. Because everyone was listening through headphones, it was rare to see audience members talking to each other during the show, and if they did, I didn’t miss a single line of dialogue.
There’s a lot of projected imagery in the show, both still and moving: Huebner, in a sense, has the scene to itself, but strikes up a conversation with the kind of people one might reasonably get along with. expect her to interact – a newspaper editor, plus the staff and fellow inmates (a more accurate term than “patients”) of the asylum. This is achieved through pre-recorded dialogue – in the hands of this production team, it works remarkably seamlessly, as if there were a live group of actors on stage rather than digital pictorial representations. Too bad, then, that some of the inmates were depicted with – wait for it – real balloons, rather than avatars or holograms or whatever was used for asylum staff.
Part of the show is intentionally unbearable. The daily routine of the asylum is repeated several times, with the same dialogue with the same people. Huebner’s Bly eventually lets out some frustration, and while the monotonous nature of what’s (not) happening makes it difficult to sustain interest, it also shows how the asylum system has sought to crush the inmates. If they weren’t crazy when they were sent there, the institution made them lose their minds. So it’s not exactly a walk in the park, especially when Bly herself receives the harshest “treatments” (i.e., punishments) meted out to inmates. Some women have been sent to the asylum for the most frivolous of reasons – the fact that some of them are identified by name gives them the respect that was evidently denied them during their time there.
A real mix, this piece – it’s got a lot going for it, and while it’s very slick and sophisticated in many ways, there’s still room for refinement. The casting is spot on, though – Lindsey Huebner commands the stage with a magnetic elegance that makes it easy to get invested in this difficult story.
Comment by Chris Omaweng
“I said I could, and I would. And I did.”
1887, New York. Journalist Nellie Bly, a pioneer in investigative journalism, fakes insanity and is admitted to an asylum to expose the treatment of her patients. His report shocked the world and brought to light those whom society had chosen to overlook.
Ten Days in a Madhouse is a wake-up call to all of us – reminding us that real power is not measured in how institutions impose authority, but in the compassion they show, especially in times of crisis.
Ten days in a madhouse
by Nellie Bly adapted by Douglas Baker
produced by So it Goes Theater