Poe’s story, with its long and fearless title, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather,” was unlucky from the outset with interpretations. In the USA translation, it was called “Stonehearst Asylum” – alluding to the resin and feathers with which the rebellious psychos have coated the medical staff of their hospital. The film, based on his motives, was first named Eliza Graves, then renamed Stonehearst Asylum in the States, and British distributors pompously called it Eliza Graves .
From the story itself, in essence, only “horns and legs” remained – the main idea, the plot that the visiting observer could not immediately understand that there were madmen in front of him who locked their doctors in cages, and the “scientists” took them seriously talk about new methods in psychiatry, which were in fact the ravings of madmen. The genre of the film is difficult to define: it is political satire, and love melodrama, and black comedy, and a psychological detective story with social notes, filmed in the classic Dickensian canons of a Christmas tale.
Doctors and Patients
The viewer realizes pretty soon that the place of the personnel in the hospital was taken by their yesterday’s patients. Another question arises – who is actually healthy here, and who is terminally ill? If we consider mental callousness and cruelty to be a disease – of course, “real” doctors were sick. Do I need to save them? It is unlikely that someone will turn his hand to let the doctors and orderlies out of the basement, who used terrible and inhuman methods of treatment. But how to take the side of patients, among whom are real killer maniacs? Who is the doctor here, and who is the patient, who to empathize with and what to vote for – for revolutionary anarchy or for the repression of the legitimate government?
Newly arrived Dr. Newgate is trying to sort out the absurdity. But both he and the audience are clearly more impressed by the “free” methods of treatment of the impostor-head physician, Dr. Lamb. The methods of the current hospital director, Dr. Salt, are cruel and useless.
A confused and sick mind is treated with great difficulty. To do this, the doctor needs to see an equal person in the ward. Dr. Salt and his subordinates did not see the sick as equals, although most of the patients came from wealthy English surnames. The doctors believed they could practice their methods forever. The revolt of the patients led by the mad doctor Lamb put an end to their rule, but the revolutionary terror began.
Revolution in one insane asylum
Stonehurst Clinic is an unusual place. Here sit those whom the rich and noble relatives hastened to put in the cage. Having seized power, none of the patients even tried to escape. They built a real “commune”, making no attempt to return to their families, and healed quite happily by their own standards – without humiliating and painful procedures. It turned out that the refusal of treatment went to the benefit of these people. They did not stop being mentally ill, but they did not bring any harm either – with the exception of the killer maniac Mickey Finn.
The sick Dr. Lamb was able to manage this “commune” quite sensibly. Not only him – many other patients, rejected by the “healthy” society, were able to remain individuals, despite all the attempts of Chief Physician Salt to turn them into a brainless herd. This is not surprising, considering that there are many people on the list of patients of the “monastery”, from whom relatives simply tried to get rid of. Eliza Graves is really not crazy, as she screams in the first frames of the picture to the medical students at the inhuman “examination”. Dr. Lamb, who killed his badly wounded patients during the war, did so in a state of passion, not insanity.
The problem is that Lamb’s humane methods are just as evil in the end as Salt’s cruel methods. A revolution in a single mental hospital ends in murders. The historical meaning of the film is the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of an era when psychiatry became a way not only of the struggle of individual families with unwanted relatives, but an instrument of political repression. The political meaning is that when the legitimate government is overthrown by crowds of crazy revolutionaries, they still don’t find a way out of the “madhouse”, that is, their problems, but only transfer power into bloody hands.
The meaning of the film’s ending: love is the only medicine
To save his life, the lives of Eliza and other patients, Dr. Newgate has to penetrate into the soul of Dr. Lamb, to comprehend the depth of his mental trauma, to understand the reason for his actions. This is not a miraculous deliverance, but a real method of psychiatry in action. Life in Stonehurst is getting into a rut, and with the use of Dr. Lamb’s “soft” methods: patients do not sit in cages, they do not conduct humiliating experiments on them.
Oddly enough, the mad doctor’s theories stuck. Dr. Newgate and Eliza healed by him left and were happy. But it suddenly turns out that the brave young “doctor” is also a patient, and even without a name, because he suffers from pathological deceit and has stolen someone else’s identity. The young impostor is not even allowed to wear a white coat – unlike Lamb, who was a military doctor.
All his behavior, his love for Eliza, the fight against violence, sympathy for the victims of the “revolution” spoke of complete normality. This means that either from the very beginning he was the same victim of society, like many of Stonehurst’s inhabitants, and deliberately hid his identity, or he was cured of his illness, feeling someone else’s pain and suffering. He healed Eliza, and his love for her healed himself, being stronger than cold water douches and heroin injections.
Realizing this, Lamb, playing chess with Salt, sarcastically declares, “Checkmate.” His methods did work. Both rivals are no longer doctors, both are patients. And the former patient became a doctor and happily waltzes with his wife. “Abode” has become peaceful, there are no more damned here. The madmen and the doctors changed places again – this time for good.
Determining the boundaries of normalcy is very difficult, and whoever takes responsibility for doing this must understand the logic of a sick mind. Doesn’t that make him a little crazy too?