Hysterical! A Hilarious History Of Hysteria (Online review)

Hysterical! A Hilarious History Of Hysteria (Online review)

Another day, another monologue though this one has the merit of being a bit different. Rather than being the usual character based dramatic confessional, Hysterical! A Hilarious History Of Hysteria takes the form of an online lecture on the subject of a label that has been thrust upon women for two and a half millennia. It has been used to explain away aspects of a variety of medical ailments and up until less than fifty years ago was considered a psychological condition supported by the findings of one Sigmund Freud and his work with his famous case study, Dora. It is also, of course, used as a pejorative term expressing a state of ungovernable passion/temper/emotional excess but only affecting people from one half of the population who have routinely been “ignored, patronised and misdiagnosed” (Nadia Fall)


Performance artist Rebecca Buckle sets the record straight in a digital lecture which is being hosted by the Theatre Royal at Stratford East. Taking a chronological approach, she guides us through history starting with ancient Greek theory – “hystera” being the Greek for womb. Galen’s particularly ridiculous notion of the “wandering womb” seems quite unbelievable today but appears to have held sway for centuries. She also examines the role the Adam and Eve story had in perpetuating the idea that women were creatures of sin and were being punished for their misdeeds. From here the line is traced through medieval practices involving holding women over fires to let smoke do its work through to the witchcraft trials of Jacobean times. Finally, we come to the Victorian era and the work of French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and ultimately to Sigmund Freud.

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Director Mina Barber ensures that the lecture is a lively affair with more than a touch of “Horrible Histories” about it. Buckle adopts costumes (in the manner of historian Lucy Worsley) to indicate era and there is some use made of puppetry to get points across more visually; in one sequence there is a Zoom call with Dr. Freud. Interspersed with the lecture element are some scenes which satirise Buckle’s visits to various doctors in search of a diagnosis to clarify her own health issues. These are somewhat bruising encounters as the unseen but definitely heard medics routinely reject her claims or are misdiagnosed as something else, e.g. depression. These scenes shot in black and white lend a personal note of authority to the lecture itself conveying the sense of someone who has lived through an experience and is therefore qualified to pass opinion on history’s almost total (and perhaps wilful) misunderstanding.

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The piece is labelled “hilarious” which, while it helps the alliterative title, it really isn’t. That’s not to say that there aren’t funny moments – how could anyone listen to a theory about a mobile uterus without smiling at least wryly? But “hilarious”? Probably not. What the presenter has to say is on an important topic and leavening it with some humour helps to draw an audience in, watch any successful TED talk to see how and why that works. It’s an interesting and diverting piece and Buckle states her argument clearly and concisely using a variety of techniques with which to engage and inform. I certainly have a better understanding about the topic and as that’s the principal aim of a good lecture this can be counted as a job well done.

Hysterical! A Hilarious History Of Hysteria is available via the Stratford East website – click here. Captioned, BSL and audio described versions are also available

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