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"Borderline"—a Musical Comedy?

How the arts perceive BPD and mental illness.

Just before Broadway lights dimmed this year, a new musical comedy was being workshopped, with hopes to bring it to the New York stage. Borderline is about a woman with borderline personality disorder who sings a question, “Am I insane or dramatic or in between... trapped on the borderline?” Her doctor sings that she is “scared to be herself… in the land of lost and found.” Oh, and her father has a song. The woman laments about her family, her treatment of medicines, and therapy. And it’s a comedy.

Can you sing about BPD? And can it be funny? In the past, popular musicals generally avoided mental illness.

There is no PTSD among the sailors in South Pacific. Merely whistling a happy tune can stave off fear and anxiety if you’re The King and I. A woman can be manipulated by a man to reconstruct her entire personality to become My Fair Lady, with no detriment to her being. Some Guys and Dolls gamble and drink, but none rock the boat of their mental well-being. The Producers guiltlessly sing and laugh at Hitler’s springtime. The Company of friends is content, even though they could drive a person crazy. In life’s Follies, Carlotta endures through good times and bad times but can brag she’s still here, while Buddy comically mocks his God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues. Even the puppets who live on Avenue Q can blithely accept they’re all a little bit racist.

Mental illness has often been portrayed on the stage, but rarely diagnosed. Borderline symptoms, such as mood volatility, impulsivity, identity confusion, addiction, rage, fractured relationships, and transient psychosis, have been frequently represented in classical dramatic characters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Euripides’ Medea, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Williams’ Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire), O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone (Long Day’s Journey into Night), Miller’s Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman), Albee’s Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Kushner’s Roy Cohn (Angels in America) reflect some of these symptoms without identifying a disorder.

More recently, mental illness is being confronted in the arts more directly. We can even call it by its name. The musical Next to Normal concerns the main character’s bipolar disorder. Dear Evan Hansen musically addresses depression and suicide. On TV, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend celebrates, with music and comedy, the life of a woman with BPD.

One way to address stigma is to bring it into the open. For years, BPD was an odious and disguised diagnosis, offensive to patients, and hopeless for doctors. We now know it is very treatable and that most patients improve significantly. Talking about it, even singing about it, brings BPD out of the shaming shadows and acknowledges it as an understandable human condition. Accepting humor in these very human traits permits compassionate distance in our perception. We needn’t fear nor avoid psychiatric disorders.

October 1-7 is “BPD Awareness Week” in Australia. The World Health Organization has declared October 10 as “World Mental Health Day.” After we survive the current dark times, theaters will reopen. Perhaps then Borderline will ascend to the stage. Under Broadway lights, it will be another opportunity to illuminate the darkness around mental illness.

More from Jerold J. Kreisman M.D.
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More from Jerold J. Kreisman M.D.
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