More than 50 years after the founding of his most famous project, the radical treatment centre Kingsley Hall, RD Laing is attracting as much attention as ever. He is currently the subject of a play in development from writer and director Pamela Carter and the National Theatre of Scotland, and his Kingsley Hall experiences will form the basis for a forthcoming film, Mad to Be Normal, starring David Tennant. Some of the fascination Laing holds can be explained by the wild, quintessentially 1960s nature of some of his methods, some by his highly unconventional theories about mental illness, and some by the details of his personal life.
Born and raised in Glasgow’s Govanhill, RD Laing trained in psychotherapy in London and went on to develop new theories about the origins of mental illness, focusing on schizophrenia in his book The Divided Self. Laing challenged traditional ideas about diagnosis and the use of treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Downplaying the role of genetics and looking at the importance of social context in sparking mental health problems, he was strongly associated with the anti-psychiatry movement. He pioneered various treatments, encouraging patients to ‘embrace’ their impulses to madness and promoting the experimental use of psychedelic drugs.
Partly as a result of the notoriety these treatments understandably attracted, Laing’s work became well known outside the circles of psychiatry. While many of his theories are now subject to fierce critique, he is seen as having left an important and singular legacy, and his publications are still widely read today.
At the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival’s day in residence at the National Theatre of Scotland’s Home Away festival, Pamela Carter discussed the development of her play and RD Laing’s legacy with psychiatrist Dr Peter Byrne and The Herald's Keith Bruce in a session titled RD Laing: Biography and Authenticity. Before the event, Talking Heads reporter Emma Lawson spoke to Pamela about the workshop, the issues involved in developing a play about a real person and her views on how RD Laing’s life and work are perceived today.
Could you tell me a bit about the play and what it covers – are you looking primarily at RD Laing’s personal life, or focusing on his work?
I’ve tried to look at his work and him. So it’s definitely about RD Laing but I’ve tried to use RD Laing as a method of procedure, if that makes sense. Rather than say, ‘this is his life’, I’ve tried to be as RD Laing as I can while talking about his ideas and trying to understand his ideas.
I’ve realised that I shouldn’t be writing a biography – I have no right to talk about the person I’ve created as the real RD Laing and I’m certainly not saying that I’m offering any revelations about his life. […] All the sources that I’ve used are public sources, and the biggest – the greatest – expert on RD Laing is RD Laing.
At the RD Laing: Biography and Authenticity session, is there anything in particular that you want to make attendees consider?
No – I’m interested in simply hearing what people think about RD Laing and his legacy – because some people are still quite angry about him.
Yes – because his work is still quite recent, really.
Yeah, because he died in 1989. But in the 60s and 70s, he was on everybody’s lips. And then he totally dropped out of fashion through the late 70s and into the 80s. And there was a real backlash against him as well, with regard to ideas about anti-psychiatry, and there was a feminist backlash as well, and there was also a general embarrassment about aspects of his behaviour and his alcoholism.
I guess some people use his personal flaws to cast doubt on his work.
Yes, absolutely – it’s that idea of ‘Doctor, heal thyself’. But I think he’s amazing – I think it’s an amazing life and amazing work. I find it quite a shock that he disappeared so quickly – from conversations in Scotland as well – conversations about who should be remembered and who should be celebrated.
I feel like he’s rarely acknowledged as Scottish, possibly because most of his work was done in London. I remember seeing they had one of his books at Tramway during the Turner Prize exhibition, and thinking it was nice to see the link.
There’s a great film by Luke Fowler that was nominated for the Turner Prize one year, about RD Laing. Fowler is a Glasgow-based visual artist, and he made a film that was partly drawn from the RD Laing archives, but also cut together with his own filming around Glasgow. It's called All Divided Selves, and it’s a really beautiful film. When I watched it five years ago, it made me realise that I could write a play about this – that there was a different way into it that wasn’t very representational, that wasn’t traditional narrative or biopic from beginning to end.
Sometimes I wonder if Scotland might be collectively embarrassed about RD Laing. By the time we’d got to the late 60s, early 70s, he’d lost it a bit, and I think that’s what people remember. But the work he was doing in the late 50s and 60s, and how he was speaking about madness and agency and communication and understanding, which applies to all our notions and our identity and ourselves, is pretty fantastic and up there in terms of European philosophy – he’s up there with Foucault. So I’m surprised by how little he’s been celebrated, although that’s maybe changing now.
I was wondering what your thoughts were on the relationship between madness and theatre, and about representing mental health issues onstage?
I wanted to talk about Laing’s work and the journey he went on in terms of talking about madness and identity and self, so I started to work out, how do I have those discussions onstage? The way you might do it would be to have the patient and the doctor, but then how do you show someone being mad, or having the experience of madness? I started to feel very uncomfortable. […] There is this conflict between reflective, real investigation of madness and the demands of entertainment.
For a while I had one actor, who would be a patient in all different manifestations of RD Laing’s theories, but then I wanted them to be able to talk back, and it just didn’t work at all. […] That has now gone entirely, so I’m left with a play which I think will be for six actors, all of whom will be RD Laing. The idea being that everyone is clearly an actor – there’s no aspect of ‘I have to look like RD Laing’. Because also I didn’t want to write a play in which a load of middle-aged white men sit around smoking and pulling their beards while women wander around being a bit mad in the background, because frankly if you read the books, that’s really what it comes across as – so it’s how to avoid that onstage as well.
Yes – looking at Kingsley Hall, it’s interesting how his interaction with his patients seems quite gendered.
And there were no female doctors, were there?
No, it’s nearly always the man-as-doctor, woman-as-patient dynamic.
I do find it very interesting – because Laing calls himself a ‘Scottish male chauvinist pig’ […] but I don’t see him as a misogynist at all – I see him certainly as a man of his time, and of his politics, but he also he mainly treated women.
I think it’s interesting that he starts to look at society and see how society demands of the individual certain behaviours. You can see that particularly in the interviews with his female patients. What he doesn’t then make the leap to, possibly because these are women from certain socio-economic backgrounds – working-class, lower-middle-class, where their minds are very constricted, particularly in the stultifying atmosphere of the 1950s – is that possibly women were going mad because there was a disconnect between what they were allowed to be in the world and what they felt themselves to be. But he never made that leap to feminism – to say, okay, this is a patriarchal structure.
When I was researching this piece, I found it quite hard to sum up his ideas – there’s so much there that it’s difficult to simplify.
I spoke to one expert, a clinical psychologist at Maudsley Hospital who has a side-line in the history of psychiatry, and he said that for whatever idea or interest or theory you have in madness and its treatments, you can find a version of Laing to suit you. So if you are anti-establishment or anti-medicine or pro-medicine or whatever your theory is, you can use Laing and find something to fit.
by Emma Lawson
Home Away, the National Theatre of Scotland's festival of participatory arts, continues until Wednesday 12 October. For details and tickets visit homeaway2016.com.