In this superbly cast and acted production by Rapture Theatre, we see two men’s attempts to come to terms with their wives’ depression. But it soon unfolds that no one is completely immune to mental ill-health, and a refusal to acknowledge or address his own psychological struggles means that the titular 'Last Yankee', Leroy Hamilton, is equally responsible for the deterioration of his mind and his marriage.
Miller's preoccupation with protagonists in search of identity continues in The Last Yankee, set in an ever changing modern age, where expectations to succeed are based on the rules of the American Dream. We see two men with profoundly different values, which represent their own psychological problems when faced with the challenge of supporting their wives through their illnesses. These are men rendered powerless, searching for answers as to why their lives have not followed the path they had sought to pave.
One, Leroy Hamilton – a descendent of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton – is burdened by history and a famous lineage. Ironically, he shuns the American Dream for which his forefather laid the foundations, instead finding fulfillment with infrequent carpentry work and his search for ‘the spiritual’. The latter he describes as a way to ‘forget myself’ – a reference perhaps to the burden of being expected to live up to his ancestor’s achievements.
On the other hand, we have Frick, a self-made man, obsessed by appearances and the cost of everything. A pragmatic man fascinated by the causality of things. Their paths cross in the waiting room of the hospital in which their wives are being treated, as Frick ponders the factors that could have led to his wife’s depression. Neither man has the answer, as Hamilton describes his wife’s illness as ‘emotional’. He becomes angry when Frick focuses on how much he earns, and how his appearance belies his trade as a carpenter.
It is interesting how Miller uses carpentry – a vocation he himself followed – as the antithesis of a ‘successful’ career, or perhaps emblematic of non-conformity in the consumerist age that Miller consistently critiques throughout his work. In Death of A Salesman, Willy Loman refers to someone he perceives as unsuccessful in these terms: ‘Even your grandfather was better than a carpenter’.
Neither man is happy. Frick seems almost embarrassed by his wife’s condition, seeing it as a blot on their ‘perfect’ consumerist’s life that he is so proud of working hard to achieve. Hamilton is a more complex character who subscribes to a ‘money can’t buy happiness’ ethos, whose frustration lies in the fact that he can’t make his wife happy on a deeper level.
Miller does his bit to challenge the stigma of mental illness by presenting the depressive, Leroy’s wife Patricia, as perhaps the wisest character. She identifies her husband’s non-conformist tendencies and suspicion of society as the reasons for his own mental struggles. At one point Patricia says to her husband: ‘You’re 50 times more depressed than I am… because you’re scared of people, and that’s incidentally why you never make any money.’ This refusal to engage with our environment can lead to or exacerbate existing mental ill-health. Miller’s portrayal of a female character as a ‘steady ship’ recurs in The Last Yankee, and perhaps more powerfully here, using a character with a depressive illness as the lone voice advocating individualism.
In Death of A Salesman, Linda Loman, the protagonist’s wife, is a compassionate apologist for her husband’s extreme behavior, she is able to separate Willy’s emotional and psychological turmoil from his intrinsic character; she sees the good of the individual, she understands the importance of humanism. Meanwhile, Willy punishes himself for not living up to the American Dream. He has lost sight of his individual identity in the demands of a consumerist society, in which it is increasingly difficult to stand out. Measures of success never stand still, getting further and further out of reach.
There is never time for self-congratulation, to take stock of ones achievements, or even for self-reflection. As a result, Willy’s identity is buried, and this is the source of his suffering. Linda identifies this, and as he gets more ill, she demands that more ‘attention must be paid to such a person!’ A beaten man, Willy clings vicariously to the aspirations of his sons, hoping a final hope that their successes will reflect positively onto him.
We see that even in the 1990s, when Miller wrote The Last Yankee, he sought to reflect the confused and varied attitudes towards mental health that still existed, and the characters in the play represent the breadth of outlooks that still exist today. Patricia shuns medication and sees spirituality as her cure; Frick believes that the comfort money brings should defeat his wife’s depression; and Leroy understands, but struggles to find, the peace that true individualism would bring him.
The Last Yankee is an allegory of sorts that warns that mental ill-health can occur in spite of our best efforts to stay healthy. It warns that blanket value judgments on how best to treat mental ill-health are not always helpful; in making them we deny the essentialism and individuality of us all, as well as the fact that psychological disorders are as multi-faceted as the individuals afflicted by them. Acknowledging this is the first step to winning the battle.
Written by Tom Grayson
The Last Yankee is touring throughout Scotland until Sat 7 Nov, with 24 dates in total. Visit this page for full listings and to book tickets for all performances.
For nine years, the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival has been consistently passionate in its ambitions to engage artists, connect with communities and celebrate the achievements of people with experience of mental health issues. In doing so, the events of the festival continue to challenge stigma and discrimination, educate audiences and encourage participation in the creation of further artistic endeavours that will empower people within both their localised communities and society at large.
SMHAFF, therefore, is not a general arts festival but one intrinsically linked to – as well as informed and influenced by – social justice issues, in this case those relating to the impact of mental ill-health and the promotion of mental wellbeing.
SMHAFF is far from alone. A quick Google search will reveal a growing number of social justice arts festivals across the world, each campaigning for greater awareness of their chosen causes. Yet, this in itself raises questions concerning the purpose of art. Should artists and, by extension, arts festivals so regularly and avowedly focus on, champion and campaign about social justice issues? Can art not simply be for art’s sake? Are there now too many social justice arts festivals, drowning out one another’s voices in the battle to be heard?
These, in some ways, are questions that SMHAFF has itself already asked. In May 2015, the Festival and the Mental Health Foundation staged a conference at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. The Dust of Everyday Life initiated conversations about the relationship between the arts and social justice issues. The conference produced findings that will help shape future festivals, notably next year when SMHAFF celebrates its tenth anniversary.
The conversation remains ongoing, but this relationship between the arts and social justice can clearly be seen within the programme for this year’s Festival. Artists and community members from all backgrounds have again created a hugely varied programme of events that reflect their lives. Consequently, they share with each other the experiences, both positive and negative, that they have in common, while adopting the arts as a medium by which to present these experiences to people who may previously have had little understanding of, or sympathy for, the issues raised by them.
Social justice arts festivals, then, encompass a wide range of artistic genres employed to raise broader consciousness of the circumstances faced by individuals and sections of society. Moreover, they also aim to act as a catalyst for motivating all participants – whether artists or audiences – to not only build communities but to challenge and change social injustices at a wider level.
The intention of all art is, almost inarguably, to communicate. The artistic expressions represented at SMHAFF take communication a stage further. Whether working in groups or as individuals, artists, writers, musicians and community art groups not only present their own personal experiences of mental health, but positively encourage audiences to participate – to become aware, to understand, and to take a message out into the world where it can continue to educate others – and, potentially, effect change for good. Their work can help to eradicate misperceptions and intolerance within society as a whole.
All art, but perhaps particularly that which is stimulated by concerns for social justice, acts as both a window and a mirror. For the onlooker, art becomes a window into worlds to which they may not previously have had access; it can reveal to them the experiences and challenges endured – or, indeed, the opportunities enjoyed – by others within their community. And art also acts as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected against the world, inspiring consideration of our place within it and often provoking the positive realisation that others share struggles similar to the ones we face. As a result, social justice art tells us a glorious truth – none of us are alone. And if like-minded people band together, drawn to each other by a mutual appreciation or creation of the art that depicts our lives, we can work towards change and the correction of social injustice wherever it is found.
Kathy Leichter, whose film Here One Day won best Long Documentary and the joint Jury Prize at SMHAFF’s 2014 International Film Awards, puts this sentiment succinctly. Speaking about her film, she said that it is: ‘so personal and up-close that it invites others to open up and to share their stories – of all kinds. It gives them permission. This is how we will change the world: through our stories.’
Kathy went on to say: ‘I believe it is so important to get these stories out into the open. I applaud SMHAFF for doing that. It’s commendable and courageous that the festival brings together such diverse voices and aesthetic approaches from all over the world, who are defining mental health … far beyond the labels and the diagnoses, focussing rather on the experiences of the characters in each story.’
And this is why SMHAFF, like many other social justice arts festivals, remains so vitally important. It provides a forum in which people are encouraged to open a window that allows the world to look in and witness their lives – to tell their stories. Furthermore, it enables us all to peer into the mirrors of others’ artwork and discover the extent to which their experiences match our own. And by stimulating such cultural communication between all participants, SMHAFF, like all social justice arts festivals, can hope – in words borrowed from Brandeis University’s Arts and Social Justice programme – to transcend ‘boundaries and nurture the ethical imagination.’
All highly laudable. However, again it begs the question: should artists and arts festivals always ally themselves to social justice issues? Well, no. There is time and space enough for general arts festivals too, and for art that exists simply for art’s sake.
However, when art and social justice issues do combine, when artists and activists come together, festivals like SMHAFF can help transform the lives of countless individuals, and, in doing so, strengthen and better the collective soul of society. And that, putting it mildly, represents an extraordinarily wonderful thing indeed.
Written by Mark Jones
Kathy Leichter's SMHAFF Jury Prize-winning film Here One Day is screening as part of Headspace's Launch Event in Glasgow. It takes place from 4-10pm on Sat 10 Oct at Platform, The Bridge, 1000 Waterhouse Road, Glasgow G34 9JW. To book this free event, call 0141 276 9696 (opt 1).
If there’s any truth to the old theatrical saw ‘bad dress rehearsal, good show’, Rapture Theatre’s final run-through must have terrible. This was an extremely assured, powerful and moving opening night, the first in a marathon 24-date tour throughout Scotland.
Written in 1991, Arthur Miller’s play depicts Leroy Hamilton’s visit to his wife in hospital. Patricia has suffered from depression for decades, caused, perhaps, by her disappointment in her failure to achieve the American Dream. Conversely, Leroy, the ‘Last Yankee’ (a descendent of US Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton), long ago surrendered his ambitions for wealth and now leads the life of a humble carpenter. Although they can’t know it at the outset, this visit will draw the pair towards decisions concerning their future, influenced by John and Karen Frick, a rich couple but every bit as unhappy.
Opening with a haunting rendition of ‘Que Sera, Sera’, the performance got off to an atmospheric start, the stage lit sparsely to reveal a set used as both hospital ward and waiting room. Indeed, Lisa Sangster’s design and David Cunningham’s lighting complemented each another highly effectively throughout the play.
The cast too were excellent. David Tarkenter’s Leroy initially appears happy with his own approach to life, but inwardly struggles to cope with his wife’s illness. Tarkenter’s performance is natural, understated and sympathetic, while Pauline Turner’s Patricia is similarly affecting. Here is a woman whose life has been hijacked by hospitalisation, yet in many ways she remains as strong and empowered as her husband. These characters, however, retain long-standing issues with each other. The interplay between them as they attempt to repair their relationship provides much dramatic tension as the audience wills them towards a resolution that will allow them to move on.
Stewart Porter (Frick) and Jane McCarry’s (Karen) performances are slightly more comedic, yet no less poignant in portraying another couple united by love but divided by their failure to fully communicate. McCarry’s tap-dance routine, coupled with Porter’s reaction, is heartrending.
No character is perfect; rather, all are doing their best amidst trying circumstances. Neither wife is happy. Neither husband truly understands why, both straining to fully accept that depressive mental health issues are not the fault of the sufferer. Each marriage contains resentments and regrets, secretly harboured for years. Yet, ultimately, there is a deep affection between both sets of spouses that refuses to die. The cast successfully illustrate this, feeding off the nuances that develop in the relationship between the Hamiltons and the Fricks as the play progresses. Ostensibly very different, the two families have much in common.
Rightly described as ‘humorous and, ultimately, uplifting’, the play has laughter and emotional buoyancy at the end. However, typically from Miller, the humour is complex, shot through with thoughtfully calculated intent, infused with meaning, shaded by sadness, and is all the richer and more rewarding for it.
Natalie Clark also deserves credit as The Patient, spending the entire performance locked within the silent stasis of her bed. The depiction of being bedridden works well as a metaphor for the experience of depression itself. Director Michael Emans suggested afterwards that The Patient also highlights the movement that occurs for Patricia and Karen during the play. One makes progress, the other regresses. The Patient, though, continues unchanged, her direction undecided.
There are, then, for the female characters, three possibilities: recovery, regression or stasis. Miller clearly wants a happy ending for all, but is realistic enough to realise this isn’t immediately achievable. Recovery from mental health issues takes time, patience and perseverance on the part of all affected. This places responsibility on the two men who love Patricia and Karen even when they can’t understand them. Leroy and John are, like many carers, required to rise to the challenge of caring, while also dealing with their individual concerns. Here it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that Leroy and John’s turmoil reflects the inner conflicts Miller faced himself in handling the mental health issues of his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, and his later response to the birth of a son with Down Syndrome.
The evening concluded – as will all performances in the tour – with a talk hosted by Michael Emans and representatives from See Me, the Scottish organisation dedicated to tackling mental health stigma and discrimination. Volunteer Leanne McKillop gave a profoundly inspiring account of her history of eating disorders, speaking of the stigma she endured, sometimes from within even the under-trained health facilities that were supposed to help her. Leanne’s testimony was honest, informative and ultimately hopeful in that she is living proof that mental health issues can be overcome or, at least, made manageable.
The Last Yankee is the second production in Rapture’s Miller Season, following a successful tour of All My Sons in September. I missed that but, on the strength of this production, wild horses wouldn’t stop me attending a third.
Written by Mark Jones
The Last Yankee is touring throughout Scotland until Sat 7 Nov, next showing at Summerhall in Edinburgh on Fri 2 and Sat 3 Oct. Visit this page for full listings and to book tickets for all performances.
‘I wasn’t fighting with nobody but myself because I didn’t want to die,’ says Josúe, a man who was once paralysed and left for dead in the Mexican desert. Instead, he survived to become the honest voice of Dead When I Got Here, which receives its European premiere as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival.
Presented in partnership with Document International Human Rights Film Festival, the screening takes place at Flourish House, a Clubhouse that welcomes people with mental ill-health and provides a safe environment where members can socialise and work together. It generously opens its doors to this event and could not be more appropriately befitted to show this film.
Dead When I Got Here documents a Mexican asylum run by the patients themselves, focusing on Josúe as he cares for the other patients and recovers from drug addiction. He is deeply involved with the asylum, making sure patients get along well together, talking with them about recovery, and, in essence, helping to run the asylum. The film closely explores his experience of recovery, from the man who once ended up almost dead in the desert to someone with so much empathy that it’s hard not to feel moved by his story.
The film also takes a look at Ciudad Juárez, where the asylum’s patients are from, a city that is mostly abandoned, with shelled out buildings. Juárez is one of the world’s bloodiest cities, where ‘everybody’s killing each other’, and it is here that insanity prevails. Josúe visits the place where he used to get high, sleep, and hide from the police. Now it is rubble littered with needles. He visits an old friend, asking about the other neighbors, but everyone is dead, has been in jail or is ‘around’. ‘If I could return to the past as I am now,’ Josúe says to the friend, ‘imagine’. The contrast of a city with no people to an asylum with 114 residents who are like a family – shaving each other, helping each other dress, hugging each other – is stark.
During filming of Dead When I Got Here, Josúe asks the filmmakers to help him search for his daughters in California who he has not seen in 22 years. Through advertisements online, they were able to find one of them. Josúe anticipates meeting his daughter, knowing that he left her behind during his days of drug addiction. Leading up to the reunion, he says that he will ‘take it like a man’. When Josúe meets her, they look at pictures of her childhood and catch up on lost time. Finally, he asks her for forgiveness.
Dead When I Got Here is a humane documentary that looks at mental illness from the perspective of a man who regains his dignity through empathy for others, forgiveness of his past and ultimately the strength to move forward.
Written by Eleanor Streicker
Dead When I Got Here receives its European Premiere at 7pm on Thursday 15th October at Flourish House in Glasgow. Following the screening, there will be a Q&A discussion with director Mark Aitken.
Clare McBrien, friend of the Festival and former team member, discusses her sometimes complicated relationship with her mind. Illustration by Danni Gowdie.
Almost a year ago, while working for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I promised myself I would commit to paper my confused relationship with my mind. I had witnessed so many explore their mental wellbeing (or lack thereof) and felt compelled to do the same. Unsure of why I have finally done this or who I think will read it, my hope is that you will stay with me to the end. What follows is an inadequate homage to friends and family, old and new, who have unwittingly, yet consistently, peeked through the fog and made me smile.
I was 21 when the first doctor looked sheepishly over his glasses and uttered the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’. I rejected his stupidity immediately. What he didn’t understand was that I was going through a complicated break up with the love of my life (I can be a little melodramatic) and had just got back from a year teaching in Peru which had shattered a worldview and faith I had come to rely on. The fact that I couldn’t sleep yet couldn’t get out of bed was clearly a symptom of circumstance. I demanded sleeping pills and marched out of there determined; women in my family are strong, they are independent and they recover quietly. I would do the same.
It was when the ache returned without warning or reason a little while later that I began to reconsider. When a second, then a third doctor suggested the same thing, I told no one - not my new boyfriend, my family or my friends. I didn’t and to be perfectly honest still don’t want people to know. The version of myself I like is smart, confident and fun; she’s the girl people look to for support, the girl that doesn’t shy away from a challenge, the girl who quit her job to go on adventures to foreign lands. I don’t want my friends to treat me differently, or potential employers to think I’m incapable. I don’t want my family to think I am weak or for future relationships to be thwarted before they have begun.
Worse than the fear of damaged relationships was admitting to myself that the confusion and sudden tightening of the chest weren’t circumstantial. When there is no longer anyone or anything to blame and you are forced instead to admit that there is something askew in the way you process the world, it can get a little dark. And much like when you notice an annoying trait in a good friend, that new discovery quickly becomes impossible to ignore. I became consumed by listening to my misguided ego struggle to silence the incessant jabber of a lost child, and in doing so, I got lost.
After a while I came to realise that for me all of it comes down to one thing. I take up space - and I’m wasting it. I oscillate between frantically searching for a way to earn my 5ft 3 inches and exploring ways of making myself as small and inconsequential as possible. At its most gentle, this fixation manifests itself as a desire to eat healthily; at its worst, as a desperate need to apologise for my presence in public spaces. I become acutely aware of the oxygen I misuse, the space I occupy and the time and energy people are forced to spend on me. Decisions become impossible, the future a terrifying nothingness and the past a tedious catalogue of errors.
Please understand, I am fully aware that to feel this way is in no way ‘logical’ and those of you who know me would be forgiven for thinking me ungrateful. I stand on the shoulders of a hard-working, supportive family and my twenties have been fantastic. I have studied languages I love, worked for terrific organisations and travelled to places most people only dream of seeing. I have experienced love, adventure and joy. My neurosis is not that I don’t have enough, but rather that I have been given so much and I have no idea what to do with it.
Except for when I sing, or when I bust out a guitar riff on my clarinet or when I finally find a combination of words to fill the blank page.
The paralysis subsides when you spend ages working out the perfect three-part harmony with me, or when you teach me to dance, or when you asked me to be in your band, or when you send me songs you think I’ll like, or when you cry with me at a gig, or when you sing Les Mis with me, or when you give me honest feedback on a song or article I wrote. In those moments, I don’t feel sorry - I feel proud to be contributing something positive to people I admire.
I’ve spent most of my life convinced that I wasn’t ‘creative’, that it was reserved for those who received a secret sign in their teenage years. Now I have come to need it, because when I am involved in the process of creating a combination of noises, movements or words, my mind is still. I go back to the beginning and renegotiate my place. I give shape and form to emotions I don’t know how to express any other way. I have fun with my friends.
Maybe another wave of anxiety will hit next month, maybe it will be next year. I hold a secret hope it will not return at all. For now I’m enjoying the fresh air, humbled by the realisation that fantastic humans have repeatedly chosen to share space with me, even when I would have given anything to get away from myself. Thank you for showing me that I too am allowed to be ‘creative’ and encouraging me to give it a go. I wish I could find a combination of words intricate enough to convey all the subtle ways you saved me.