By Robert Burton Adapted and directed by James Yarker Presented by Stan’s Cafe at the Ovalhouse on 26 November 2013
Stan’s Cafe’s playful and witty show is a guided tour through one of the most extraordinary works of English literature.
The Anatomy of Melancholy has been described as “the greatest book ever written”. Nearly 400 years old, it is a vast (1,500 page) attempt to identify the causes, symptoms and cures for all kinds of melancholy. Written by vicar and librarian Robert Burton it contains all the wisdom of its age – arcane, outlandish and hilarious. Yet, amidst all the wild stories and suppositions, much of its advice remains as urgent and profound now as it did then.
It’s 1638, and in his study the vicar is rehearsing a stage adaptation of his best-selling self-help manual. It’s proving difficult – the book is 1,500 pages long, full of cutting edge science, maids vomiting pebbles, priests defecating in ditches, lovers unrequited, friends who can’t be parted, plus enormous expansive long lists of every, food, herb, location, activity or occupation that can bring on or cure melancholy in any one of its many forms. Where should he start? How can he possibly finish?
The time has come for Stan’s Cafe to bring the world’s most extraordinary self-help manual to the stage.
The presence of ten flipcharts (of varying sizes, and each with many charts to flip) is ominously didactic: the theatre seems more like a schoolroom, and we the audience there to receive instruction. Weirdly, the result is strangely wonderful, thanks mainly to the versatility and expressiveness of the four actors (who are also all credited as devisers along with the director).
It’s 1638, and in his study a vicar (Robert Burton played by Gerard Bell) is rehearsing a stage adaptation of his best-selling book, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1,500 pages crammed into under three hours). Despite this superfluity of material, he claims he has little, and wants nothing. He confesses himself a thief, having acquired his smattering of knowledge from many writers and from many ages. Just how fragmented and how divers becomes apparent as the performance progresses. He is joined by three unnamed characters (played by Rochi Rampal, Graeme Rose and Craig Stephens) who help illustrate the book’s wisdom (such as it is).
Melancholy (“melan” plus “choler”) is defined as a disease from the start, and therefore in need of treatment. Gerard “explains” that melancholy is “black and sour, begotten of the more feculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleen” (Burton 2013:19). This doesn’t sound too pleasant, and so we go along with the idea that melancholy is a disease, The 21st-century tendency of big pharma to medicalize conditions such as shyness and grief to sell more drugs is nothing new, it seems. In the section on “Pharmaceutics or Physic” Rampal says (71):
Medicines have their excellent use in melancholy, as well as most other infirmities.
Brassavola, apparently, recommended senna as “a wonderful herb against melancholy” (74). And just in case anyone is thinking of concocting some of these remedies at home without the aid of a doctor (i.e. quack), more than once the audience is warned off (75):
We might here insert many receipts of prescribed potions, and doses of these, but lest we should give occasion thereby to some ignorant audience member to practise on himself, without the consent of a good physician.
The purpose of anatomizing melancholy, and the fact that the book was a bestseller, seems to contradict the suggestion: Which of us asks for help? However, when it comes to “diseases” like melancholy (mental illnesses are perhaps the modern equivalent) that do not have such obvious symptoms, it’s certainly true that many people do not seek help. The reaction of Jonathan Trott’s teammates and the media to his departure from the current Ashes tour of Australia because of a stress-related condition are encouraging signs that attitudes may be changing.
Bell describes the common division of the soul into three principal faculties: vegetal (Rose holds a potted plant), sensitive (Rampal poses as pouncing animal), rational (Stephens strikes a contemplative pose). (We were primed for this Aristotelian approach by last Sunday’s CHES talk.) While Stephens munches on an apple, Bell suggests that reason and appetite jar (21):
Reason is overbourn by passion…
David Hume would agree, and so would economists like Robert Frank (1988) and psychologists like Daniel Kahneman (although these later thinkers would never look to Genesis for explanation). Bell later voices a common understanding (61):
We may overcome passions if we will.
While we still believe this is possible, although easier said than done, we would probably take issue with the worldview expressed by Rampal (24):
Causes are either natural or supernatural are from God and his Angels or by God’s permission from the Devil and his ministers.
(Note how the Devil needs “God’s permission” — how come God “permits” the Devil to do anything? See also Evil God Challenge.) We now have a better understanding of how some people could come to believe in supernatural causes, and that, for example, many “cannot sleep for witches and fascinations” (59). Today, we would appeal to natural causes such as sleep paralysis.
It’s bizarre that Burton’s treatise could be described by any sane person as “the best book ever written” (Nicholas Lezard) when it is so full of cobblers. For example, the great distance from heaven to earth is said to be “170 million 803 miles” (25). This marvellous precision is, of course, made up, just like the age of the universe as calculated by Bishop Ussher, a near contemporary of Burton. It’s a classic symptom of the desire to ape true knowledge without actually having any of the methods needed for determining that knowledge. Indeed, the vicar describes curiosity as like reaching for “forbidden fruit” and so consigns his project to one of list making rather than explanation (40):
To these tortures of fear and sorrow may well be annexed curiosity. An itching humour to know that secret which should not be known, to eat of the forbidden fruit.
Curiosity is one of the primary values of the scientific mind, and disvaluing curiosity is one sign of a religious mindset locked into dogmatic thinking.
For one scene, Rampal plays the young maid, Katherine Gualter, who “purged a live eel, a foot and a half long; but the eel afterwards vanished” (quite convenient). She then vomited a whole list of household objects, handily illustrated by the contents of one of the desk drawers. The conclusion is typical of the age:
They could do no good on her by physic, but left her to the clergy.
Even if we dislike cabbage, we might be sceptical that it “causeth troublesome dreams, and sends up black vapours to the brain” (28). More credible is the assertion that “a cup of wine is good physic.”
As for cooking (28–29):
A cook of old was a base knave but now a great man in request; cookery is become an art, a noble science; cooks are gentlemen.
This is Livy, but it might as well be a commissioning editor of a major television channel. Although most TV chefs are overexposed, Heston Blumenthal might just be an exemplar of a cook engaged in “a noble science”. There is sensible, if simple, advice when it comes to diet: avoid an “insatiable paunch” and yet also avoid the other extreme, a “too strict a diet, being overprecise… just so many ounces at dinner” (29). And moderation was also useful in matters of “carnal copulation” (30):
ROSE: If this natural seed be over-long kept in some parties it turns to poison.
GERARD: Yet intemperate Venus is all out as bad in the other extreme because it infrigidates and dries up the body. It is told of a man that did marry a young wife in a hot summer, “and so dried himself with chamber-work, that he became in short space, from melancholy mad.”
Such anecdotal “evidence” is fascinating, even titillating, but it rarely adds up to knowledge. It’s a relief that the cast don’t take this kind of thing too seriously. Stephens has a couple of seemingly interminable and yet comprehensive lists (35), which he rounds off with the phrase “etc” (perhaps the only time this little phrase will get a laugh in the theatre).
Although a Christian priest, Burton seems to have a Lucretian appreciation of our smallness in the big scheme of things (36):
What’s a city to a kingdom, a kingdom to Europe, Europe to the world, the world itself that must have an end, if compared to the least visible star in the firmament, eighteen times bigger that [sic] it? And then if those stars be infinite, and every star there be a sun, as some will, and, as this sun of ours, hath his planets about him, all inhabited, what proportion bear we to them, and where’s our glory?
In an interview in Philosophy Now (Nov/Dec 2013, p. 21), the infidel (his preferred term) comments on our insignificance:
Homo sapiens has existed for the blink of an eye as a small fraction of the biomass in one small planet on the edge of a galaxy with over 100 billion stars, itself one of some 500 billion other galaxies.
Rampal’s brilliant rant against the trend in 16th-century education brings us full circle (37):
What can we expect when we vie with one another every day in admitting to degrees any and every student who applies for one? …they can be idiots; our university heads as a rule pray only for the greatest possible number of freshmen to squeeze money from.
Treating education in terms of market values rather than valuing it for intrinsic reasons is a concern today. We fear that financial considerations will prevent some from maximizing their potential, a fear made explicit by Rampal (39):
Thus much we may conclude of poor men, that though they have good parts they cannot show or make use of them…
Although Burton’s metaphysics is clearly dualist, there is also an intimate link between the physical and the spiritual” as he recognizes that “distemper of the body will cause a distemperature of the soul” (41):
The body is domicilium animae [the dwelling of the soul], her house, abode, and stay; and as wine savours of the cask wherein it is kept the soul receives tincture from the body.
The First Partition ends with a piece of advice that still holds up (48):
We ought not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures as some are…
The contrasting attitudes to poverty also remain familiar. For Bell, it is one “of the greatest miseries that can befall a man”; for Stephens (64):
Yet, if considered aright, it [poverty] is a great blessing. Christ Himself was poor, his apostles and disciples they were all poor, and yet always rejoicing.
Stephens throws in a biblical reference (actually 2 Corinthians 6:10): “… as poor, yet making many rich…”
Rampal, once again, is the voice of the disadvantaged (65):
No man should commend poverty, but he that is poor.
Despite the didactic style, the fact that the set seems more like a schoolroom than a stage, Burton is no puritan. He does not dismiss theatre as entertainment (62):
RAMPAL: Benedictus Victorius Faventinus, in his Empirics, accounts it an especial remedy against melancholy, “to hear and see singing, dancing, maskers, mummers.”
BELL: The sad, melancholy, person should not be a spectator only, but sometimes an actor himself. To play the fool now and then is not amiss.
One of the cited authors stands out from the crowd, because of the traditional hostility of Christians towards his philosophy. It’s a surprise when Stephens cites Epicurus (67):
It is most grievous yet it may surely be withstood. … And yet, death, which we so much avoid and lament, is but a perpetual sleep.
Bell finishes the central idea of this philosophy:
When we are death is not but when death is then we are not.
Also refreshing, after so much warring against melancholy, is this quote from Seneca (67):
“Sometimes ’tis good to be miserable and for the most part all grief evacuates itself by tears.”
This drama’s unusual intellectual content might be considered an antidote to the plague of pantos currently infesting the schedules, but it’s also an encouragement to indulge in such entertainment (68):
Our countrymen go to plays.
And about his project, Burton said, “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.”
On the big sheet for the Third Partition, some of the alchemical or zodiacal symbols have been replaced by chemical groups, carbon rings with offshoots of oxygen and nitrogen and so on. To illustrate some of the natural remedies, the charts now display beautiful watercolours of plants and flowers, which may add to the feeling that such remedies are far and away the best kind. What is rarely mentioned by proponents of “natural” medicine, however, are the consequences of unsubstantiated beliefs in the medicinal powers of, say, powdered rhino horn. Quack medicine can result in the extinction of species.
Rampal points out the “all-powerful and all-ruling goddess Money” (84). Bell echoes Petruchio (85):
Beauty is the common object of all love but the lineaments of the mind are far fairer than those of the body.
The discussion turns to marriage (94):
Why would a man marry? Saith another Epicurean rout, what’s matrimony but a matter of money?
Section 3 of the Third Partition is on jealousy, commonly regarded as “the dangerous passion” (95):
…of those bitter potions which this love-melancholy affords, this bastard jealousy is the greatest. ’Tis a gall corrupting the honey of our life.
However, according to Buss (2000:9), seeing “jealousy as pathological ignores a profound fact about an important defense designed to combat a real threat.”
One solution to domestic disharmony harks back to the ancient world (96):
Plato, in his Commonwealth, to prevent this mischief belike, would have all things common, wives and children, all as one.
This kind of idealistic thinking is probably better in theory than in practice, as this story about a notorious Austrian commune reveals:
Paul-Julien Robert was born into a commune in 1979 and spent the first 12 years of his life there. “Everything in the outside world was described to us as evil. I knew what a nuclear family was, but it was something distant and seen as destructive.”
Going back to the beginning, the First Partition introduces man as “the most excellent and noble creature” who has fallen (17):
We are bad by nature…
It’s all our fault is one of the half-baked attempts to solve the problem of evil. This attitude, rooted in Christian evangelical ethos, that human beings are basically wicked crops up again and again throughout history. During the Victorian age this idea also found expression in the cult of manly silence, of the stiff upper lip, of restraint, which went back all the way to the Stoics, and to the Fathers of the early Christian church. Augustine seems like a Stoic when he reacts to his emotion of grief at the death of his mother:
I blamed myself for my tender feelings. I fought against the wave of sorrow and for a while it receded, but then it swept upon me again with full force. … It was misery to feel myself so weak a victim of these human emotions.
(A History of the Stiff Upper Lip)
See also The Anatomy of Melancholy.