Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hogarthian Gothic: Imagining the Madhouse in Val Lewton's BEDLAM

            Every scholar in eighteenth-century studies is undoubtedly familiar with William Hogarth and The Rake's Progress. The final scene of the series is among the most famous of Hogarth's images, with its arresting depiction of the miserable confines of that most famous of madhouses, Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam. Hogarth's images and Bedlam's history are both favorite topics among eighteenth-century scholars; so prevalent are these aspects of the period that we often call the eighteenth century in England the "age of Hogarth" and knowingly allude to eighteenth-century madness as "the English malady."
Anna Lee stars in Val Lewton's Gothic tale.
            Scholars of the period might not, however, be so familiar with Val Lewton, who produced a series of low-budget films for the horror unit at RKO during the 1940s. Best known for cult classics like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton might seem an odd figure to connect to Hogarth and eighteenth-century scholarship, but in 1946 Lewton produced his final film for RKO, a period piece called Bedlam. In this film, Lewton brings together an impressive array of images and themes that strikingly engage the same aspects of the period that dominate much of the ongoing academic conversation about it, from Bedlam itself, madness and reason, feminine autonomy and authority and the Gothic to social reforms, politics and the works of William Hogarth. These elements come together to create a unique vision of the period, both Hogarthian and Gothic, in which Lewton's imagining of the madhouse allows us to see how well such an unexpected source can articulate the concerns of the period and of the scholars who study it.
            Bedlam is not one of Lewton's best-known films. Directed by frequent Lewton collaborator Mark Robson, who would later direct films like Peyton Place (1957), the original Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Earthquake (1974), the picture has never enjoyed the reputation of the films produced by Lewton with director Jacques Tourneur, who moved from Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie to films like the noir classic, Out of the Past (1947), and Westerns like Canyon Passage (1946) and Wichita (1955).  Even Lewton scholars are not always appreciative of Bedlam; in Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career, Edmund G. Banzak writes that
Like The Body Snatcher, much of Bedlam is rather high-handed, its script often too literate and affected (m'lord this and m'lord that) for its own good. The lively dialogue is eminently quotable, but there is little of the visual flair that once proved a Lewton trademark. Too many of Bedlam's horrific passages, especially once Nell is locked away, are offset by ponderous exposition. (323)
Banzak fails to appreciate the literate nature of Bedlam or to grasp its visual technique, but these are the very qualities that make the film so useful and interesting to the student of eighteenth-century studies, for the visual style of the film depends upon its relationship to the works of William Hogarth, and its literary nature stems from its engagement of period drama, poetry and Gothic fiction.
Hogarth's The Rake's Progress - the final scene
            Bedlam makes its relationship to Hogarth, and especially The Rake's Progress, very plain at the beginning of the film. The opening credits appear over a series of ten Hogarth prints, ominously beginning with The Company of Undertakers and even more ominously ending with The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn. The final scene of The Rake's Progress is actually the sixth piece to appear in this procession. Over it, the credits proclaim that the film was "suggested" by the image that is shown. The other images hint at the events and characters of the film. "The Scene in Bridewell" from The Harlot's Progress and Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn both prefigure the heroine, a young actress and social climber evocatively named Nell Bowen. Scenes from the career of the Industrious 'Prentice suggest the hero, the Quaker brick mason Hannay, while the opening and closing images allude to Apothecary General Master Sims, the villainous keeper of the Bedlamites, played by the incomparable Boris Karloff. Hogarth's prints reappear throughout the film as interstitial pieces between scenes, so that the audience's attention is repeatedly brought back to them as the plot unfolds.
            One can imagine original theater audiences of Bedlam being a bit stymied by this parade of pictures; one does not usually expect a low-budget horror film to begin with a quick lesson on eighteenth-century art, and television runs of the film in later years routinely cut the Hogarth images out. Lewton's use of Hogarth is, however, entirely in keeping with his approach to the RKO films, which frequently turn on literary themes and reveal an unexpectedly sophisticated aesthetic sensibility. Lewton's The Body Snatcher is an adaptation of a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, Mademoiselle Fifi takes its inspiration from the works of Guy de Maupassant, and even I Walked with a Zombie turns out to be a post-colonial revision of Jane Eyre. Thus Hogarth's presence as the driving force behind the film makes perfect sense within the context of Lewton's own ideas about the true nature of his cinematic efforts.
            Furthermore, the singling out of the final scene from The Rake's Progress attests to Lewton's ability to grasp its symbolic value and harness it in his own medium. As Jenny Uglow points out in her biography of Hogarth, The Rake's Progress series holds a special fascination for modern viewers; she writes that, "In the twentieth century, when the lure of materialism, success and fashion are so strong, the Rake's themes of ambition and glamour, ruin and disaster have been constantly reworked in art, literature, music, opera and ballet" (259). Bedlam adds film to Uglow's list and builds upon the Rake's themes in pursuit of its own disturbing and ironic contemplation of Lewton's favorite subject, the human psyche.
            Lewton's use of Hogarth as the film's point of origin encourages the conscious viewer to look more closely and critically at the film itself, much as one views an actual Hogarth print, in which every detail appears for a purpose and furthers the creator's ideological ends. In Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton, J.P. Telotte argues that the presence of these images is meant to lend a distinctly "satiric tone" to the whole film:
 In fact, the movie's tone might be termed Hogarthian, for Bedlam casts a similarly ironic and jaundiced eye on each character and event with which the engravings are juxtaposed. The effect is to suggest a larger, commentative intelligence speaking through the film's images about the façade of reason behind which society and its institutions hide their disconcerting contradictions.  (170-1)
This Hogarthian quality enters the film bodily in the key scene in which the heroine, Nell Bowen, first enters Bedlam as a tourist and is shocked by what she sees, which turns out to be nothing less than a living tableau based on the Bedlam conclusion of The Rake's Progress. It is worth noting here that Sims' speech to Nell at the entrance to the madhouse quotes Dekker and Middleton's 1604 play, The Honest Whore, itself a tale of madness and apparent madness set against the stage of Bedlam, and perhaps a subtle joke at Nell's expense, since Sims, an aspiring poet and man of letters, has previously assumed that Nell is his patron Lord Mortimer's mistress. Upon her entrance into the madhouse, the usually witty Nell is rendered speechless by the sight of the Bedlamites; the Rake himself lies upon the floor, while around him all the details of Hogarth's image make their appearances, from the mad Pope to the graffiti that laments the "Charming Betty Careless." Nell herself stands in for the pretty lady tourists who have come to gawk at the Bedlamites, but, ironically, she completely loses her ability to make jokes and laugh in the face of such suffering.
            Nell's role as the heroine of Bedlam is significant because, while she may begin as one of Hogarth's heartless ladies, she ultimately takes the place of the Rake as an inmate of the asylum. Lewton might have used the Rake character as the protagonist of his film, given that the Hogarth image makes him its central figure, but instead he transfers the narrative to the lady tourist and enmeshes her in a plot that is not only Hogarthian, but distinctly Gothic. Nell Bowen begins Bedlam as the protégé and companion of the wealthy Lord Mortimer, but her visit to Bedlam and her disgust at its keeper inspire her to attempt to make reforms at the asylum, much to the keeper's annoyance. Eventually, Master Sims and Lord Mortimer conspire to have the troublesome Nell committed to Bedlam, where she suffers wrongful imprisonment, threats of violence, near-madness and the company of lunatics. As Max Byrd has pointed out in Visits to Bedlam, the commitment of sane persons, especially women, was a real concern, raised in non-fiction by writers like Alexander Cruden and Daniel Defoe, but in novels it seemed to happen all the time (40-44). Nell shares her fate with quite a few characters from eighteenth-century fiction, including those of  Haywood's The Distress'd Orphan, or Love in a Mad-house, Richardson's Clarissa, Smollett's Sir Launcelot Greaves, Holcroft's Anna St. Ives and Wollstonecraft's Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman. More broadly, Nell's claustrophobic entrapment in a shadow world of patriarchal power on the rampage powerfully echoes the essential traits of Gothic fiction, where the heroines of Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis and Smith suffer similar torments and oppression. In this light, Lewton's exchange of a male Rake for a female actress and social reformer makes perfect sense; Nell is a troublesome woman, one who challenges and denies patriarchal power in the forms of Lord Mortimer and Master Sims, and for this she is punished with poverty, isolation and restriction, even with the loss of her identity as a sane person, and therefore as a person at all.
            Nell's incarceration in the madhouse marks the point at which the film really begins to explore the buried Gothic world and its inhabitants, which leads to an examination of reason and madness and the nature of human identity and humanity. The opening credits of Bedlam remind the viewer that "The people of the Eighteenth Century called their Period 'The Age of Reason.'" In the confines of Bedlam, the film challenges this image of the period and reveals that which an age that prides itself on its reason must contain and deny. The Bedlam that we see in the film is not, of course, a historically accurate depiction of the place, but more an evocative representation of all that Bedlam meant to the eighteenth-century imagination.  As Roy Porter observes, Bedlam served as "an epitome of all that people fantasized about madness itself," and it is this quality of the institution that the film emphasizes (123). Once trapped inside the shadowy confines of the madhouse, Nell's initial terror of her own imprisonment and her fellow inmates threatens to deprive her of her reason, and she becomes almost indistinguishable from the truly mad. Fear of madness clearly leads to madness, but Nell reclaims her sanity through her developing compassion for those around her, not by rejecting and fleeing them but by accepting and comforting them.
            For Hogarth's Rakewell, Bedlam is the final repository for a ruined self, but for Nell it becomes a transformative place, from which she emerges a saner and a better person than she was before. John Bender argues that "Rakewell's surroundings in the... madhouse show him trapped within a defective self whose formation by the society that fostered it, and in some measure shares it, is symbolized by institutional walls and bars" (125). Nell, too, has been a defective product of her society, grasping and compassionless, willing to play a kind of court jester cum courtesan to a man she despises in exchange for wealth and rank. These flaws form her own personal prison, which the Quaker Hannay first encourages her to recognize and resist, but which she does not really escape until she ironically enters the most frightening cage in Bedlam, that of Tom "the Tiger," a Herculean figure chained inside a cage in a corner of the madhouse room. Thus, for Nell the madhouse becomes a truly liminal space according to Bender's discussion of it in the first chapter of Imagining the Penitentiary, where the neophyte Nell undergoes a rite of passage that allows her to be reborn as Hannay's moral equal and proper match.
            Also important to Nell's rite of passage in the madhouse is her encounter with a young madwoman called Dorothea "the Dove," whose presence in the film serves to highlight Nell's own role and to call forth additional aspects of the Gothic and its visions of femininity. Where Nell is transgressively active and imprisoned for over-participation in the patriarchal world, Dorothea is transgressively passive and imprisoned for her catatonic withdrawal from that world. Nell's first visit to Bedlam ends with her initial encounter with Dorothea, and her outrage at being offered "amusement" in the form of "that mad girl with her staring eyes" underscores the importance of the meeting. Sims' unfinished statement, "Some are doves...," after he has identified each type of lunatic and what he does with them, implies his sexual domination of Dorothea, as does his accompanying caress of the unresponsive girl's cheek.
            Nell's outrage is partly a reaction to this implied sexual violence. Once Nell is committed to Bedlam, Sims seeks to transform her into another Dorothea, broken and passive, but Nell's constant action eventually gives her the upper hand, and she escapes from the madhouse with the aid of her fellow inmates. Ironically, Dorothea takes the one action that Nell cannot; she stabs her tormentor, Sims, after Nell has escaped. With her Romantic veil-draped figure and permanently uplifted gaze, Dorothea appears in the film as a kind of Gothic virgin martyr, a living statue of a saint and a perfect unresisting victim for Sims' tyranny. She functions as an image of what might happen to Nell should she succumb to Bedlam's madness, but she also seems like an emanation of Nell's own id, since she commits the violent act that destroys the tyrant Sims, an act that Nell herself wishes for after her escape and only reconsiders as a result of Hannay's righteous moralizing and the realization that the inmates will be punished if they harm their keeper. The inmates, however, realize this as well, and they enclose the still living Sims inside a newly added wall of the asylum so that no one will know what Dorothea has done. Only Hannay and Nell figure out what has happened, at which point Nell becomes as silent as Dorothea, keeping the inmates' secret and sealing Sims' fate. The women's exchange of passive and active roles further links them as a single psychic entity; Dorothea is both foil and double to Nell, a broken reflection of her womanhood and an agent to act out her darkest desires. The film's use of this technique underscores its Gothic sensibility and also allows the film to punish its villain without bloodying its heroine's hands, although Nell's complicity in the murder is certainly an ironic touch on Lewton's part, and one that is entirely in keeping with his constant undermining of the audience's certainty about the events and characters that he presents.
            Lewton's merger of the Hogarthian and the Gothic in Bedlam dovetails beautifully with Terry Castle's argument about the eighteenth century and the invention of the uncanny in The Female Thermometer. Castle argues that the modern vision of the period is far more complicated than the traditional image:
No more the expansive, unruffled, serenely self-confident "Age of Reason" commemorated in nineteenth-century Whig historiography; we now see the period more darkly - as riven by class and social tensions, as brutal and often neurotic in underlying character, and fraught with political, moral, and psychic instabilities. The "new" eighteenth century is not so much an age of reason, but one of paranoia, repression, and incipient madness, for which Jeremy Bentham's malign, all-seeing Panopticon, grimly refurbished by Foucault, might stand as a fitting, nightmarish emblem. (6-7)
This is precisely the image of the eighteenth century that Bedlam provides, and Castle's idea of the uncanny permeates the film as well, as indeed it does all of Lewton's best works. Speaking of the uncanny, Castle argues that
the very psychic and cultural transformations that led to the subsequent glorification of the period as an age of reason or enlightenment - the aggressively rationalist imperatives of the epoch - also produced, like a kind of toxic side effect, a new human experience of strangeness, anxiety, bafflement, and intellectual impasse (8).
Bedlam makes these ideas visible and puts them into motion, even from the beginning of the film with the irony of the opening credit's comment that "The people of the Eighteenth Century called their Period the 'Age of Reason.'" Lewton puts skeptical emphasis on the phrase with quotation marks, and suggests that, while the people might have called it that, it was nothing of the kind. Throughout the film, Lewton and his director, Mark Robson, load their images with the creeping terror of the uncanny, from close-ups of the catatonic Dorothea and Nell's face bifurcated by bars to Hannay's eerie journey through a dark corridor of the asylum with the arms of the mad reaching out for him. Lewton's films, always more atmospheric mood pieces than conventional horror, eschew easy thrills and gore for the more subtle terrors of the mind, thus the uncanny is their natural element. What is surprising is Lewton's ability to grasp and communicate this idea about the eighteenth century in 1946, when the "Age of Reason" image still prevailed with scholars of the period. They probably never saw Bedlam, which was merely a low-budget horror picture with lukewarm reviews, and if they had they might have dismissed its image of the period as antithetical to their own. The rise of the "new" eighteenth century, however, lends the film new relevance to scholarly perspectives, as Bedlam's prescient embodiment of Castle's argument, almost fifty years before Castle makes it, reveals.
            Bedlam's affinity with the ideas in The Female Thermometer is just one example of its potential usefulness as a critical and cultural tool. Bedlam speaks to the concerns of many scholarly works, from classics like Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization (1961) and John Bender's Imagining the Penitentiary (1987) to current texts like Allan Ingram's Cultural Constructions of Madness in Eighteenth-Century Writing (2005). The film's use of historical figures like John Wilkes, its evocation of Whig-Tory political conflicts and its representation of Quakers as agents of social reform all demonstrate the breadth and depth of its vision of the period and merit some attention from those who best understand what they are being shown. It may be that we are exactly the audience that Lewton's Hogarthian Gothic has been waiting for all these years, as we have finally begun to imagine the madhouse as Bedlam itself envisions it.


Works Cited
Banzak, Edmund G. Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career. MacFarland and Company,  1995.
Bedlam. Dir. Mark Robson. Perf. Boris Karloff and Anna Lee. RKO. 1946. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2005.
Bender, John. Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Byrd, Max. Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974.
Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. Madness and Reason: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Random House, 1965.
Porter, Roy. Mind-Forg'd Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Telotte, J.P. Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
Uglow, Jenny. Hogarth, A Life and a World. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.