For the Care and Control of the Insane — Jen Rouse



SYNOPSIS

Hummingbird Girl is a poet going through the process of electroconvulsive therapy. Though the process is standard and she is merely surrounded by doctors and nurses, Hummingbird Girl is plagued by images of hummingbird doctors who are throwbacks to early Victorian alienists. Having experienced disabling anxiety, conflict with her own sexuality, and the death of her second child, she is at the end of her ability to contain her grief. In the midst of treatment, she finds herself surrounded by hallucinatory images of iconic women, engaged in calling upon a saint to come to her aid.

CHARACTERS:

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL: 35+, female
BIRD DOCTOR #1: 25+, male (Main doctor treating Hummingbird Girl.)
BIRD DOCTOR #2: 20+, male (Somewhat sinister sidekick to Bird Doctor #1.)
DOROTHY: 40+, female (Reminiscent of Dorothea Dix. Known as an activist for mental health care in the mid-19th century.)
SARAH: 30+, female (A late 17th-century woman, executed for witchcraft.)
OPHELIA: 20+, female (Much like THE Ophelia.)
BETH: 18+, female (Soft-spoken, rescued from deplorable conditions in a 19th-century jail.)
SAINT DYMPHNA: 35+, female (Saint of the mentally ill.)

At RISE:>
A stained glass window of Saint Dymphna is projected. A voice chanting a prayer to her plays repeatedly: “Hear us, dear Saint Dymphna, patron of those afflicted and so deeply fucking sad. Help us to be inspired by your example and comforted by your merciful help. Amen.” The stage is cluttered with IV poles holding bags of red liquid and hummingbird feeders. Center stage is a heavy, wooden, armed chair—resembling an electric chair. HUMMINGBIRD GIRL is tied to the chair. One light shines above her.

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL
(Raises head from chest. Clenches teeth.)

Just. Let me. Die.

(BIRD DOCTOR #1 and BIRD DOCTOR #2 move in from off stage, slowly, and with a sickening hum.)

BIRD DOCTOR #1
(Flips open a chart.) Let’s see. Here we go. For the Care and Control of the Insane.


BIRD DOCTOR #2
(Behaves like an evil sidekick, fluttering around HUMMINGBIRD GIRL.)

Yes. Yes. Read that one! That’s my favorite!

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL
(Pleads.) Do you see them? There. (She points at BIRD DOCTOR #1.) Green heads and spears for nectar. This is how they want to have made me. Each tiny scale a shimmering feather. Do you see their mouths open with laughter?

BIRD DOCTOR #1
(To BIRD DOCTOR #2.) Look. Poor dear. She wonders why her hands are tied down. She wonders why they are turning to wings. We told her. We told her to take care. Remember?

(BIRD DOCTOR #2 shakes head and sighs.)

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL
(Pulls at her restraints. Panics.) When you are made by birds, they show you millions of slides–plastic bottles sploshing red liquid from metal throats. That burn in your nostrils, the overwhelming waves of sugar. You feel your body rise like a cake. You just want to become that scent. My god, the hunger. And to resist. To resist is, well, this.

(She flops her hands in resignation.)

This is what happens when you don’t want to become. Them.

BIRD DOCTOR #1 and #2
(Chanting together.) Them them them them. Them them them them.

BIRD DOCTOR #1
She doesn’t want to become us?

BIRD DOCTOR #2
(Snickers.) Who wouldn’t want to be us?

(Coming in from all sides of the stage, OPHELIA, SARAH, BETH, and DOROTHY circle HUMMINGBIRD GIRL, reach out hands to her and speak in chorus, comforting, softly.)

Shhhh, shhhh, shhhh.

OPHELIA
(Shaking her head at HUMMINGBIRD GIRL and gently picking up one of her hands.)

But they promised only her head this time.

SARAH
(Nods at Dorothy.) Weren’t you there? Didn’t you wish to protect her?

DOROTHY
I was never a savior. Never a god.

SARAH
Here, Girl. (Moves to take HUMMINGBIRD GIRL’S hand.) Just put out your hand now. You could make them all scatter.

OPEHLIA
(Excitedly.) Yes, You, you can unmake yourself!

BETH
(In a delicate voice.) You can remake yourself.

OPHELIA
You can allow yourself to be made by your own hand. Not theirs.

(OPHELIA flings her arms at the BIRD DOCTORS.)

BIRD DOCTOR #1
(Looks dismissively at Ophelia.) Let’s continue, shall we? The good book says: Every unruly appetite must be checked, every fixed imagination must, if possible, be diverted.

BIRD DOCTOR #2
Oh, let’s divert her! Shall we try the blistering again? The cold bathing? The vomits?

BIRD DOCTOR #1
She does seem less hysterical after the vomits. Hmmm.

(BIRD DOCTOR #1 and #2 move behind HUMMINGBIRD GIRL, as DOROTHY moves closer to her.)

DOROTHY
What I see in you is what I came to know about so many women during my life. Women needing care. Women needing to have faith in their own intelligence. When one pedals belief and hope for a living, the stakes are so high. Do you recognize me, child?

(DOROTHY tugs at HUMMINGBIRD GIRL’s restraints but does not untie them. She cups HUMMINGBIRD GIRL’s chin in her hand. HUMMINGBIRD GIRL tries to shake her hand away.)

I recognize in you the lineage of grief and a calling to change the shape of suffering. Once, long ago, I built the hospitals for safe-keeping. I said no more to prisons and attics. No more to women in chains and filth. But here you are, darling, without sun. Without a hand to hold. And these strange beasts flocking about. We must do better than this.

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL
So you see them?! I can’t seem to leave them behind. They steal my thoughts and replace them with chatter. I just can’t listen anymore to their collapsing shadows.

(HUMMINGBIRD GIRL becomes more agitated. She begins to shiver. Her sentences run together.)

Let me tell you listen let me tell you just once I wanted to say the words please just once let someone be careful with me. I have been careful. I have done all of the things they have asked for. I have never asked. Never asked. Never asked.

DOROTHY
But we are here, now. Isn’t it time to ask?

(DOROTHY snaps fingers at SARAH. SARAH opens her arms as though to the heavens. Moves center stage.)

SARAH
Come, Dear Saint Dymphna. And please ignore Ophelia, as she never believes.

DOROTHY
And you, Sarah, are a witch calling out a Saint, for the love of god. Now get to it. Bring Dymphna to this girl.

SARAH
(Snorts.) Piss off, D. (SARAH smooths down her dress and glares playfully at DOROTHY.) Now, let me compose myself. Saint, we are here. Watching over this girl. Let us hear you. If you say anything now, say that she matters. Come, put out your hand now. Bless this small bird.

(Women exit. Light on HUMMINGBIRD GIRL.)

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL
When they first appeared, I thought they were angels—so slight and feathered. They crossed their wax-colored wings and cradled my head. I can’t be here anymore, I whispered. The sound of my brain unzipping, the jackhammer tremors rolling like neon up my fingers. It’s ok, I’m ready, I told them. Because no one, really, should be here. Not like this.

(Plucks at hands as though they are feathered.)

You know, when you think someone is coming for you, there is a moment of believing you matter. As the word caresses the page or the song interrupts the longing of silence. I sat on that curb and waited. To belong. But this art has always been so very, very private.

(Screams in frustration. Thrashes her arms.)

And no one ever comes. Even these idiot fucking ghosts. Impossible.

BETH
(Places a blanket in HUMMINGBIRD GIRL’s lap.) Do you remember your name, Sweet Girl? You know, you were something before this. Before they tapped your brain like a tree for syrup. Before they tipped you sideways and your sadness poured out. There was a woman once. With you. A care-taker. She held you so close when you cried.

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL
Yes. Once. When my child died, she held my head to her head, and we were warriors together. Maybe it was then. Maybe it was then that I really left. And everything changed. I remember what she said. When she said: I don’t love you. But I love you. She said: You don’t get to disappear. And I said: But I have to disappear. I am dangerous to you. If I touch you, if I touch you, if I touch you. She said: I will not melt or die or recoil if you touch me. All I wanted was a room. And a quiet bed. Her breath wrapped around me. My head at her breast. I just wanted to be still and safe. I just wanted to be unafraid. I needed her to stay.

BETH
Shhhh, I know. I know. Dorothy was like that for me. She took me from a jail, from the choking awful mud. I wasn’t even clothed anymore. She made them release me into her care. But he found me again and held my head down in a trough of water. But, here, at least, I am with her. You’ll see one day. No one is ever really gone.

OPHELIA
(Bursts in as though taking all the air from the room, throws a bouquet of pansies in HUMMINGBIRD GIRL’s lap.)

Here, we will share these in our grief! Because this is madness, isn’t it? What are we doing here? Me, a ghosty called here for you to play with. Why do you people waste my time?! The eternal is such a drag, my dear, such a drag. You don’t want to come with us?! Nope! Crazy is amazing, isn’t it? It sustains you like bread. You feel so full of living, bursting with light, fueled like a comet! Sometimes everything tastes like metal. You don’t even need a spoon. You don’t need! Yes. That’s it, really. You simply don’t need. And no one needs you. Your brain clears from the fog, and there’s a different kind of hunger. The desire to spread yourself into every corner of the room. You come apart. You are energy. You are everywhere. Atomic!

(BIRD DOCTORS to the side of HUMMINGBIRD GIRL begin a horrific kind of commercial in the background.)

BIRD DOCTOR #1
Are you in dismal spirits?

BIRD DOCTOR #2
Have you been considering divorce? Experiencing a case of wandering womb?

BIRD DOCTOR #1
Taken a recent trip to the city, perhaps? Or have you just been thinking again?

BIRD DOCTOR #2
Boy, do we have something for you!

SARAH
Ophelia, quiet now. You are somewhat unhelpful, you realize. Let me tell you what I know, Child. I know what it means to care for others one’s entire life, but when the moment comes, the fateful day when a word of kindness would mean everything, a drink for a thirsty child, what is offered is advice: take care of yourself, be positive, look forward, you are so blessed. It starts to sound like doors slamming: There is nothing for you here.

(Door slams.)
I have nothing to offer you.
(Door slams.)
You will just have to suffer.
(Door slams.)

If you grin and bear it, the world will be kinder to you. If you just believe. I jumped from the horse three times. They called me witch because I would not condemn those around me. I spat in their faces. And when the noose slipped around my neck, I thought, thank god this is over. And it was. Over for me. But not for you. Not for you.

CHORUS OF WOMEN
Are you there are you there are you there? You know now that you just understand pain a little differently. Utopian in the treetops. In the morgue of all you’ve forgotten. I was in the ward for nonviolent women. Until I wasn’t and on fire. Maybe there’s a pool. Or a straight jacket for you. One size fits all. Because all fit this one definition: Institutionalized. When they take your children. When they take your art. When they take you and say just a rest, just a little stay. Here, bite down. Just a small jolt. A tremor in your toe. And this memory loss. We won’t let you be lost.

(SAINT DYMPHNA enters from stage right.)

SAINT DYMPHNA
Birds, now, be damned. Away with you!

CHORUS OF WOMEN
And we are here. And we see you.

SAINT DYMPHNA
And we will not let you go.

HUMMINGBIRD GIRL
(Raises hand as though blinded by the saint.) They stood outside our suffering, like it was a disease they might catch. Eventually, no one saw us. We ripped through layers of skin, tucked away our shame, cloaked our sadness and turned it into art. We made ourselves: Acceptable, Detached, Untouchable, Tortured. We lived the rules of the normal, of the boundaried, even so, there is no hope for us.

I do not believe in you, or God, or them. I am a horrible mistake, and I do not want you near me.

SAINT DYMPHNA
(In a chiding voice.) No hope, Dear Heart, is being beheaded by one’s father at age 14, if you really want to play. And, yet, here I am. Here with you. Even these, what did you call them? Idiot fucking ghosts? Even, they, chose you. In their grief. In their forgiveness. In their acceptance of madness and belief. This is the full range of possibility allowed us. Shall we squander such riches?

(SAINT DYMPHNA reaches down and tugs at the restraints on HUMMINGBIRD GIRL’s wrists.)

Shall we untie these?

(HUMMINGBIRD GIRL shakes her head no.)

I am not here to hurt you or persuade you. I agree that you have suffered enough. But for the next few moments let me offer you refuge. You must be so tired.

(SAINT DYMPHNA finishes untying the restraints and bends down to look directly at HUMMINGBIRD GIRL. Reaches out to her.)

It’s ok. Take my hand.


***


Jen Rouse works as a consulting librarian at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA. Her poems have appeared in Hot Tin Roof, Poetry, Poet Lore, MadHatLit, and elsewhere. For the Care and Control of the Insane was performed in the Underground New Play Festival at Theatre Cedar Rapids and will also be part of a longer work produced this fall by SPT Theatre Co. She was recently named a finalist in the Charlotte Mew Poetry Chapbook contest. Her chapbook, Acid and Tender, is forthcoming from Headmistress Press.