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Raising the Wind: The Crichton Royal Institution’s First Theatrical

3 August 2023

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Whilst poring over the rich variety of cultural ephemera collaged across the pages of Dr Charles Easterbrook’s scrapbook, I stumbled across this beautifully-printed copy of a programme advertising a performance of James Kenney’s humorous farce, Raising the Wind, that took place in January 1843. At first glance, the programme itself did not strike me as particularly unusual. With its rich blue ink, intricately illustrated border and bold typefaces, it looked much like the typical advertising used by nineteenth-century theatre managers to promote their booming sector of the popular entertainment industry. However, a closer look at the document, which had been carefully placed amongst a variety of related newspaper cuttings, quickly revealed that this was, in fact, no ordinary theatre programme, but an advertisement for the second performance of the Crichton Royal Institution’s first in-house theatrical.

A troupe of thespians drawn from the Crichton’s own community of staff and patients (including Arthur Tennyson, brother of the renowned poet) performed Raising the Wind on the 6th January 1843 before an audience of 50 patients, ‘the servants and officers’ of the institution and a chosen handful of individuals who were invited as special guests at this first attempt at a private theatrical.[1] This first performance was considered such a triumph, a true example of the ‘mental healing art’, that it was reported that it was to be performed again on the 13th of January, this time in front of a ‘select audience’ from the local town.[2] Raising the Wind marked the beginning of Crichton’s first theatrical season which included performances of popular farces Monsieur Tonson and The Irish Tutor and which took place upon a small, makeshift stage in the C.R.I’s boardroom. Various plays were performed across the winter months and into the spring of 1843 at which time the theatrical season came to a close and patients were encouraged to participate in more outdoor activities (weather permitting!).

However, the close of the theatrical season of 1843 was by no means the end of what one local newspaper described as a ‘successful experiment’ in this new mode of treatment.[3] As the C.R.I’s first superintendent, W.A.F. Browne, recalled forty years later, the introduction of the dramatic arts to the asylum in 1843 ‘was not a temporary test’ but ‘was persevered in for thirty or forty years, with hundreds of dramas, ranging from mere vehicles of fun and merriment up to “Red Gauntlet” and “The Lady of Lyons”’.[4] In fact, not only had the dramatic arts, Browne noted, continued to flourish at the C.R.I., but it was, and continued to be, ‘sanctioned’ as a mode of treatment in many other asylums across Britain. What began as an ‘attempt’ was ‘no longer an experiment’. By the late nineteenth century, theatricals had become a staple feature of asylum life at the C.R.I and beyond.[5] This programme therefore represents an important episode in the Crichton’s history, and the history of mental health treatment more broadly. Providing us with a window onto the beginnings of its vibrant theatrical past, it serves as a trace of one of the two performances that established the C.R.I as a forerunner in the use of theatre as a healing art within the British asylum system.

Written by Jessica Campbell 

[1] 7 sketches by patient John Gilmour were originally attached to Dr Easterbrook’s scrapbook in an envelope and have now been removed to form part of the Crichton’s collection of 20th Century patient art.

[2] W.A.F. Browne ‘Mad Actors I’, The Journal of Psychological Medicine, Vol. VIII, p.25; Dr Charles Easterbrook, Chronicle of the Crichton Royal, p.35.

[3] Anon, ‘Theatricals in the Crichton Institution’ unidentified newspaper in Dr Easterbrook’s C.R.I Scrapbook, p.8.

[4] Anon. ‘Theatricals in the Crichton Institution’, The Dumfries Herald, Jan 12, 1843 in Dr Easterbrook’s C.R.I Scrapbook, p.8.

[5] Browne ‘Mad Actors I’, p.26.

[6] Browne, ‘The Moral Treatment of the Insane’, p.28.

The exhibition is produced in collaboration with The Open University, and with the support of the National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange. Additional posts are contributed by members of the Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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