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Mental Illness on Stage

In Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, we watch a group of students preparing for their mock exams. We follow them for a little over a month, watching their interwoven relationships come to an end and ultimately end with one of the students, William Carlisle, shooting and killing three of his classmates.

Before I continue, I want it to be know that while my reaction is based off of my experience watching Boston University’s production, what I want to discuss is about the script itself.

Throughout the play, William becomes more and more unhinged, and by the time he’s decided to bring a gun to school and shoot his classmates, he’s hearing things and forgetting what he’s said moments before. While we never know for certain what exactly is going on with him, it’s made pretty obvious that he is not mentally well.

But it’s not specific. I’m not an expert on this by any means, so I won’t try to diagnose William. I’m not sure Simon Stephens has, either. As Ben Brantley states in his review, “if you were hoping for a clear-cut explanation of what you have just witnessed, you’ll be disappointed. Mr. Stephens has no intentions of letting his audience off easy. And he leaves you not with answers but with a fraught eternity of questions.”

This is true. While the performances of this show were remarkable, I kept questioning William’s arc, who seemed to me by the end of the play a general wash of “bad signs” that people did not address until he finally snapped. Despite the fact that he was hearing things, a classic “crazy person” trait, I still was giving the writing the benefit of the doubt. But the final scene, a sort of epilogue in which William is taking a psych evaluation, confirmed for me that we were meant to see William not just as a boy going through a major crisis and feeling like he had no other option, but a boy who was mentally unstable and therefore could outdo everyone’s violent actions.

Mental illness is a scapegoat for a lot of terrible things that people do. It is used as a way to brush off criminals and secure an easy motive, but it does so at the expense of actually understanding. It is used as a way to distance “normal” people from our villains.

I’m just not sure of the use of this trope in this script. Even if an “explanation” is not the purpose of this play, there seemed to be a loosely logical journey for William that could have existed outside of his mental state being called into question. His anger, the pressure put on him, his repulsion with the people around him, his crisis about his identity and worth with his friends and family, to name a few.

I don’t think Stephens is trying to excuse William’s behavior with this narrative, and I’m not either. But I think it’s a tired narrative, and in this script it ultimately took the power away from the other fascinating, disturbing, and intricate stories happening between these characters.

Mentally ill individuals experience a lot of violence, more than they are characterized to give. We are taught to fear mental illness, and are certainly discouraged from understanding the people affected by it. I think a play that tries to take that on must do so with the utmost care and attention. And I think it’s time we start making art for and (for the love of God) with neuroatypical people.

I want to congratulate the cast and crew of Punk Rock for a great performance and for inspiring this discussion for me.


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