Our concert from a musical/historical perspective
The first English actresses to legally take the stage capitalized on early modern society’s fascination with mental illness and catapulted themselves to fame by portraying characters who descended violently into lovesick madness on the Restoration stage. Women were legally permitted to take the public stage in England in 1662, but this gigantic advancement for women’s rights was fraught with immense political and sexual tension. From those who decried the immorality of women performing in public to those who fetishized, courted, and even raped them, nearly everyone had an opinion about the women who were putting themselves on stage. Concurrently, English philosophers and medical experts alike began to think of psychological maladies as medical conditions requiring treatment by doctors rather than as spiritual deficiencies to be handled by religious authorities. At the visual epicenter of London’s cultural fascination with madness was Bethlehem Royal Hospital (Bedlam), which was transformed from a dilapidated hospital into a sprawling mental institution with space for over 200 patients in 1676. The tradition of wealthy individuals paying to observe Bedlam’s residents began in 1610, and by the end of the century, visitors regularly came to Bedlam to be entertained by those society deemed insane. This cultural phenomenon of making a spectacle of the mentally ill converged with spectacular mad scenes that were brought to life by the first English actresses in the Restoration theater. “A Mad, Burning Desire” features mad songs by Henry Purcell, John Eccles, Godfrey Finger and John Blow that captivated London’s theatre-going audiences in the 1690s.