The Psychiatric World of Chester Bailey

by Allie Moss and Shannon Stockwell

Joseph Dougherty’s new play Chester Bailey, starring David Strathairn and Dan Clegg, takes place in a very particular world: a psychiatric hospital on Long Island in the 1940s. Psychiatry back then was very different from what it is now. The play’s Dr. Philip Cotton both reflects and refutes that milieu.

The 1940s was a time of transition for psychiatry as a discipline, because advances in the field transformed it from a stigmatized profession to a respectable one. In the United States, many of the psychotherapists at this period started their careers working with World War II veterans suffering from combat fatigue (now called post-traumatic stress disorder). There were two main branches of psychiatric study and treatment during this time—operational psychiatry and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis (talk therapy).

In the 1940s, operational psychiatry was comprised of experimental procedures that were believed to cure patients of mental illness. These procedures included electroconvulsive therapy (running electricity through the brain so that the body would convulse), fever therapy (injecting the patient with a fever-causing disease like malaria so that the blood and the body’s tissue would heat up enough to kill whatever was causing the mental illness), and lobotomy (surgically removing the “problematic” lobes of the brain). Today many of these therapies are considered archaic and unethical.

David Strathairn (left) and Dan Clegg in Chester Bailey. 
Photo by Kevin Berne. 
Sigmund Freud’s method of psychoanalysis, “the talking cure,” was highly influential for psychiatrists in the 1940s. According to Freud, there are three levels of the mind: the conscious (of which we are aware), the preconscious (which we can call up in memories), and the unconscious (which operates without our awareness). The unconscious, Freud posits, holds all the underlying causes of behavior that are repressed because they are too painful or too difficult to think about. Central to many of Freud’s theories is the belief that the unconscious protects the conscious mind from what it cannot cope with; physical symptoms are manifestations of conflicts that have been repressed by the unconscious. Freudian talk therapy was intended to allow patients to access the unconscious motivations behind their feelings and actions in order to understand and (if desired) change their impulses and behaviors.

“Dr. Cotton is probably more of a therapist than a psychiatrist, and he may be more recognizable as a healer to us than he would be to his contemporaries,” says Dougherty. “There might not be an accurate model for him and his approach to treatment during the time of the play. He may be the first Cottonian.”

If you’re fascinated by the complex psychological themes in this play, please consider joining us for our InterACT event Theater on the Couch. Following a performance of Chester Bailey on Friday, June 3, Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center, will lead a lively discussion with the audience exploring the inner workings of the minds of both Chester Bailey and Dr. Philip Cotton.

“I’m a psychiatrist and trained in psychiatry,” says Dr. Turner. “But I also have a side to me that really enjoys writing and the theater. . . . I like to see how psychological themes weave themselves through theater in particular.”

Chester Bailey runs through June 12 at The Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets.

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