Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Theatre and Performance


David Savran

Committee Members

Jean Graham-Jones

Elizabeth L. Wollman

Subject Categories

American Popular Culture | American Studies | Disability Studies | Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Medicine and Health Sciences | Mental Disorders | Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre History


Brodway, musical theatre, madness, mental distress, psychiatry, psychoanalysis


This dissertation investigates the ways in which Broadway musicals have participated in the construction, popularization, and contestation of psychologized subjectivities by dramatizing madness or mental distress. I argue that US stage musical has historically exploited the symbolic capital of certain conceptual and therapeutic approaches to madness, in particular, psychoanalytic ones, to shore up its claims to the status of serious art theatre. To study these processes, I posit the medium as a prominent cultural location for competing conceptual and aesthetic models of madness circulating in medical-scientific, psychiatric, psychoanalytic, sociological, journalistic, and aesthetic discourses and practices. Tracing the engagement of creative teams with diverse ideas about the nature of mental distress from the late 1930s through the 2000s, I historicize the stage musical’s interaction with ongoing changes in the epistemological and cultural profile of madness across multiple fields of enunciation, particularly artistic and medical. My project contributes to theatre and performance studies and the existing body of interdisciplinary scholarship loosely defined as “madness studies” or “mad studies,” as well as the adjacent field of disability studies. I cover a topic so far largely neglected in academic writing by tracing and documenting the Broadway musical’s ongoing exchanges with the cultural, conceptual, and material history of mental distress in the USA.

In Chapter 1, I consider the 1940s and the 1950s as the “golden age” of popularity for psychoanalysis and the Broadway musical. I show that by amplifying and spatializing the inner lives of characters through discursive and formal features of the dynamic unconscious, “golden age” creative teams respond and contribute to the ascendance of psychoanalytic forms of selfhood in US culture and, in doing so, help elevate the art form in critical estimation. In Chapter 2, I consider the Broadway musical’s engagement with newly urgent cultural paradigms of madness as produced and constructed by society from the late 1950 through the 1970s. Integral to this chapter are the intersecting contexts of socially oriented psychiatry and activism within the specialty; the national reforms of the mental health system, including deinstitutionalization; the heyday of antipsychiatry; and the burgeoning (ex-)patient movements. Chapter 3 considers creative teams’ attempts to chart somatic pathways to characters’ states, conditions, and behaviors, as biological paradigms of mental illness regain their commanding power within psychiatry during the last quarter of the twentieth century. I show that despite the ascendance of brain-centric models of madness in clinical and cultural discourses in the early twenty-first century, the psychoanalytic imagination about the human mind continues to function as a critically consecrated marker of intellectual sophistication and a primary access point for envisioning and dramatizing subjectivity and mental difference in a great number of musicals produced on Broadway.

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