The loud and clear voice of a 19th century mental health advocate in “Not Above a Whisper”
In 1841, while teaching a Sunday school class at the East Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts, Dorothy Lynde Dix observed that not only the mentally ill were incarcerated with the criminals, but they were mistreated.
She then traveled for two years through Massachusetts, documenting the horrific treatment of the mentally ill indigent in institutions and private homes where people were paid by the state to care for them.
In January 1843, she submitted her report to the Massachusetts Legislature.
“Not above a whisper” – a drama built around the day when Dix’s argument was presented to the state legislature – will be presented by the East Lynne Theater Company in a staged reading to be posted on YouTube in line from 8 p.m. on Tuesday, August 18 to 8 p.m. on Friday, August 21.
ELTC Artistic Director Gayle Stahlhuth received a commission from Smithsonian Institution to write the play à deux sur Dix, which premiered at National portrait gallery in Washington, DC in April 1983, performed by Stahlhuth and her husband, Lee O’Connor. Over the next four years, they shot “Not Above a Whisper” in mental health organizations across the country to help raise funds and raise awareness.
Stahlhuth and O’Connor will reprise the roles they first performed 37 years ago for the stage reading from the Cape May-based theater. The visit is free but donations are requested.
As this month marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification, on August 26, 1920, of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, “Not Above a Whisper” takes place 77 years before this momentous act and clearly demonstrates just how important it has been difficult for women to make their voices heard in government.
The setting for the game, in fact, has DIx pending outside the houses of the Massachusetts Legislature, since women were not permitted to appear before the governing body in person. His argument was delivered by physician, abolitionist and advocate for the blind Samuel Gridley Howe.
The title of the play comes from a comment Dix allegedly heard from someone denigrating his findings, saying, “And a woman made these terrible discoveries?” It really shouldn’t be discussed over a whisper.
Dix didn’t get everything she asked for in her appeal, but a bill was passed to expand the Worcester Insane Asylum, thanks to her efforts. She eventually traveled to every state to gather evidence about the horrific conditions of the mentally ill, and in every state she had to find a man to speak for her in state legislatures.
The Dix campaign has enabled 15 states and Canada to pass bills for better treatment and the creation of hospitals for the mentally ill. In all, she was responsible for building 32 such institutions in the United States alone. She died in 1887.
Stahlhuth’s plays and musicals have been produced in New York City and across the country. She specializes in biographical dramas. It was his production of “Lou: The Remarkable Miss Alcott” in 1982 that led to the Smithsonian’s commission for “Not Above a Whisper”. She also received commissions to write a musical on Walt Whitman for the Pennsylvania Stage Company, a solo piece on Paul Robeson for TheaterWorks USA and a solo piece, which she toured, on Edna Ferber, for Illinois and the Missouri Humanities Councils.