Benjamin Reiss's Theaters of Madness is a text that breathes nineteenth-century American contexts and thrums with the possibilities of transhistorical and interdisciplinary scholarship. By the first paragraph, Reiss firmly states one of his claims: to consider a history of asylums is to simultaneously consider the intersections of other nineteenth-century reform movements, repressive institutional powers and laws, and the ways in which marginalized identities were acted upon and reacted to sites of oppression. Reiss's stake in the nineteenth century is that a history of asylums is a history of prisons, plantations, slavery, women's rights, literacy, minstrelsy, passing, and disability. As such, readers of Theaters of Madness will find that Reiss has skillfully tamed many separate threads into a tapestry of stories of, about, and within the asylum.

Reiss's introduction begins with a synthesis of many examples he elaborates on within each of the book's chapters; the introduction moves between a comprehensive history of asylums and a grounded nineteenth-century survey to more specific examples of the ideological motivations behind asylums and subsequent reforms. Reiss also establishes helpful touchstones, like recognizable literary authors, to demonstrate the efficacy of asylums in cultural production. As part of this discussion, Reiss highlights one thematic element informing his work (and inspiring the book's title): how insanity is put on stage and performativity factors into a patient's ability to navigate asylum captivity. The introduction closes with a helpful outline of the book's chapters and offers justifications for each. In his own words, Reiss calls his chapters "snapshots of cultural life" and explains that he is interested in how the asylum "aggressive[ly] reshap[ed]… patients' cultural lives," and how patients "navigate[d] their perilous institutional existence" through their rhetorical understanding and application of "cultural knowledge" (17). As a reader, I appreciated the transparency of Reiss's introduction from the onset; while this text was an enjoyable reading experience cover-to-cover, its strength also lies in how each chapter could be taken separately as articles, both for research and teaching.

Chapter One, "Brothers and Sisters of Asylumia: Literary Life in the New York State Lunatic Asylum" addresses literacy, authority, voice, mediation, and a kind of biocertification (Ellen Samuels, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race, 2014). Using the story of the New York State Lunatic Asylum's patient-produced publication, The Opal, as a hook throughout the chapter, Reiss discusses ways in which patients "mouth[ed] the institutional line" in their writings, while simultaneously critiquing the system or specific practices (26). Similar to the ways in which literacy and the arts are still used to "humanize" and reform prisoners, Reiss discusses the history of writing and the arts as therapeutic tools (31), but only in as far as these arts were of the acceptable social norms. Later in the epilogue, Reiss makes this connection to artistry as a tool of reform to techniques still used in modern psychiatric hospitals where "artisans" instead of clinicians are hired (192). In the nineteenth-century asylum, there was a concern of patients being overexposed to certain cultural artifacts, which were blamed as a cause of insanity rather than a cure (31). This "madness" given voice in print also had to walk another line: asylums did not want to publish fully "mad" pieces or else their efforts at moral and mental reform would be perceived as ineffective. However, they also did not want to give anyone doubts of the existence of madness within their walls, or they could risk losing funding or social support. Patients had to be both mad and not mad. They had to prove their sanity to overcome the stigma upon release and be able to return to "polite" society. To be able to be released at all would need a careful negotiation of terms of improvement and proper moral reform. But, patients also often wrote anonymously in The Opal, for these same reasons; to disclose one's own incarceration by name in an asylum publication would be civil death (39). Writing was a privilege which could be taken away, especially if superintendents thought the act of writing was agitating a patient's illness or if the patient refused to shape their thoughts into acceptable forms (33, 44). Writing was also potentially a site of rebellion against such censorship, mediation, and surveillance, but as Reiss demonstrates, writers did not have a voice but "a simulacrum of a voice" (49). This careful negotiation of social and medical reforms, of stigma, and of demonstrating sanity even extended to writing once outside the asylum walls, where the sensational genre of asylum exposés led to further discrediting and silencing of "mad" voices.

Reiss connects the previous chapter's discussions about appropriate cultural training and artifacts in written form to a blackface minstrel troupe in the New York Lunatic Asylum. Chapter Two, "Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylum" discusses how minstrelsy became one of the approved arts for patients to train their moral compasses, and in New York, this troupe performed "several times a year for patients, doctors and visitors" (18). The patients performing and witnessing these minstrel shows expressed in some ways that "Blackness and madness were two social categories that justified both the social marginalization and custodial care of supposedly subrational populations" (53). In Chapter Five, Reiss pushes these connections between madness and Blackness even further, by fully demonstrating ways in which madness and Blackness often were described similarly. In the minstrel show, Black folks' "supposed nonproductivity, lack of decorum, and inadequate control of bodily functions (including sexual ones) were the negative example against which the patients were supposed to measure themselves" (53-54). Madness and Blackness (as is also aptly titled and addressed in Therí Alice Pickens's Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, 2019), are both attributed to barbarism, sexual proclivity and deviance, and immorality. Madness embodies Blackness in that it was said that the humors and black bile would overflow to the point of coloring the skin (151), and this overflowing of madness was physically enacted by the literal blackface donned by patients performing minstrel shows. This chapter also addresses intersections between brutality enacted against Blackness and madness, such as patients forced to undergo eugenic sterilizations in an effort "to prevent the mentally defective from passing on their taint to future generations" (76). This same violent racist and ableist mindset and practice is not a memory from the past, only adapting new words and ideologies to make it palpable to later generations.

I expected a chapter devoted to Shakespeare to be similarly framed as the previous chapter in terms of moral reform enacted through theatrical art. But, to my surprise, Chapter Three, "Bardolatry in Bedlam: Shakespeare and Early Psychiatry" addresses how the Bard was deemed Biblical in his off-limits homage, and there are limited sources which describe asylum performances of Shakespeare's works. Reiss demonstrates how Shakespeare was used as a diagnostic tool and as a moral and cultural authority (80). Shakespeare was off-limits to the patients in that his words and plays needed to be protected as middle-class capital (85, 97); asylum physicians viewed "the Bard as a precursor to themselves… and they appropriate[d] his legacy in an attempt to legitimate their new profession" (18-19). The ways in which patients engaged with Shakespeare, Reiss highlights, were as moments of subtle rebellion: "in appealing to Shakespeare" some patients employed "a tactic familiar to the oppressed, even the enslaved, in talking back to oppressors" (101). One might draw connections between using the language of oppression against oppressors such as the reclamation of "crip," as well as the ways in which disabled folks develop communities devoted to sharing resources, diagnoses, and tricks to negotiate medical systems.

Chapter Four, "Emerson's Close Encounters with Madness" addresses how famous authors' lives intersected with the asylum. Reiss provides a profile of Emerson's encounters with asylums through his interactions with Transcendentalist scholar, James Very, as well as Emerson's own family members who were incarcerated. As Reiss explains, the asylum was not just the place for husbands to shut away troublesome wives, but it was also a political advantage to eliminate ideological nemeses (104). Reiss writes that, while at first it may seem contradictory to Transcendentalist thought to be in support of the asylum system, politics and individual convenience do not always align (123). Even when it was a fellow Transcendentalist, James Very, and Emerson's own brothers incarcerated in the asylum, Emerson's disdain of charity overtook his individual sympathies, as was the case with other contemporary authors. Herman Melville's concerns with faking disability and madness speak to our own contemporary context in the continued rhetoric used against disabled individuals as taking advantage of governmental assistance as well as the proliferation of replacement institutions, like prisons and long-term homes, in the Modern Asylum (39, 131).

Chapter Five, "What's the Point of a Revolution? Edgar Allan Poe and the Origins of the Asylum" is an in-depth analysis of Poe's "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether." Reiss's analysis in this chapter is a conversational model for working from established scholarly interpretations to developing new analytical interventions. First, Reiss addresses previous scholars' interpretations of French revolutionaries being a metaphor for the rebellion of asylum patients against their masters, and of this rebellion as representative of anti-abolitionist nightmares of a Jeffersonian-predicted race war (150). Then, Reiss addresses interpretations regarding class anxieties; in private asylums, mostly attending to those of elite backgrounds, superintendents and staff had "to know their place and remain tactful, discreet, and subservient, even while holding the keys to the patients' barred rooms" (154). Poe's text demonstrates "class solidarity over institutional order," and the power dynamics of private asylums (156). Emerging from these established conversations, Reiss argues that Poe transcribes himself into the text; the madman-once-superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, is Poe's own genius: "the irrational world was lodged inside him, ready to come 'fighting, stamping, scratching, and howling' at the window" (167).

Chapter Six, "Out of the Attic: Gender, Captivity, and Asylum Exposés" addresses a common misconception about asylums: it is assumed that incarcerated women greatly outnumbered men, but populations were actually more evenly distributed (175). One of Reiss's main interventions in this chapter is to highlight differences in treatment of men and women in the asylum: differences between sedation and violent restraints, diagnoses of cause for insanity, and likelihood of being discharged (178). Overall, Reiss's contributions in this chapter include drawing out connections between the women's rights movement and asylum reform, highlighting ways in which gender lines made some women feel more emboldened to speak of their experiences (while most men remained silent about their patient experiences), and the different ways in which violence was enacted upon patients based on their gender, ranging from rapes committed by superintendents and deliberate acts of murder, to violent cure-focused medical experimentation and moral modification through torture. The chapter is especially poignant in its treatment of Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard's exposé, and how her story can be analyzed within this nineteenth-century moment and compared across different asylum life writings and captivity narratives (169, 171).

Epilogue, "Echoes'' demonstrates how the remnants of the nineteenth-century asylum culture persist in contemporary contexts. Reiss's one plea is with regards to homelessness and underfunded halfway houses, not as justification for the reestablishment of asylums, but instead as a hope for movement beyond standardized mental health care to an understanding of the diversity of human suffering (194, 197). While brief, Reiss's epilogue speaks to many contemporary conversations which benefit from a historical look at nineteenth-century asylum reform, including the "specter of madness" which is objectified and made popular through contemporary media, as well as social and economic concerns made manifest in private psychiatric hospitals (21, 194). Despite the epilogue's brevity, Reiss highlights issues concerning healthcare, "ad-hoc polic[ies] toward the mentally ill," and posits his own speculative imaginary: "it is almost fantastical to imagine that the person in rags whom we may see today conducting conversations with imaginary entities in public spaces might, in a different era, have been attending tea parties, lecture series… theatrical performances… conducted inside the pillared grandeur of publicly funded asylums" (194, 197). One might critique Reiss's hopeful conclusion, which points to a reform of psychiatrics through reinstitutionalization, or the ways in which homelessness, disability, and mental health are quickly addressed without further nuance. However, where contemporary conversations might be outside the scope of Reiss's text, these lingering echoes of Theaters of Madness allow for further scholarly intervention and teaching moments, where nineteenth-century histories can bear upon our conversations in the present.

Reiss's closing nostalgic remarks of society's ability to think "broadly and creatively" in terms of imagining a community network of mental healthcare is a point I wished to see more fully developed (197). While "utopia" and "utopian thought" is mentioned throughout the text to describe the social movements of the nineteenth century informing asylum structures and reform, and some intentional communities are mentioned, like Brook Farm, the deep legacy of these movements are not fully evoked. As someone who works at the intersections of the nineteenth century, utopian studies, and disability studies, the surface discussion of utopia gave me pause; however, this observation is less of locating a limitation in Reiss's work and more an invitation for future scholars to extend upon his treatment of these fields. Additionally, while Reiss's text is aimed primarily towards nineteenth-century literary and history scholars, his reference to disability studies scholarship is selective, including citations from Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Rachel Adams, Lennard Davis, Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell. What benefits the text, and the ways in which Reiss invites interdisciplinary conversations, is the open spaces left where individuals could further apply DS concepts and theories, including crip time (or Lisa Baraitser's incarceration time in Enduring Time, 2017), temporary ablebodiness, Jasbir Puar's treatment of debility in The Right to Maim (2017) in framing asylum patients as available for injury and forced sterilization, as well as Sami Schalk and Jina Kim's feminist-of-color disability studies framework in "Integrating Race, Transforming Feminist Disability Studies" (2020).

Works Cited

  • Baraitser, Lisa. Enduring Time. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
  • Pickens, Therí Alice. Black Madness :: Mad Blackness. Duke University Press, 2019.
  • Puar, Jasbir. The Right to Maim. Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Samuels, Ellen. Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race. New York University Press, 2014.
  • Schalk, Sami and Jina Kim. "Integrating Race, Transforming Feminist Disability Studies," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 46, no. 1, 2020, pp. 31-55. The University of Chicago Press Journals.
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2021 Kelsey Paige Mason

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)