A GOOD MAD SCENE makes the gut flutter, fixes the gaze—we can’t turn away from it. The afflicted one becomes oblivious, and that sad oblivion distances us, protecting everyone. Lunacy becomes an invisible "fourth wall," that allows us to take in our voyeuristic fill, as we do in the darkened theater. It allows us access to veiled and dangerous regions—regions of emotion and behavior, strange and yet piercingly familiar. Access which we indulge unapologetically, never quite feeling that our fixed stare desecrates a private suffering. We witness it, whether it’s shock-talk TV, a stranger’s public meltdown, or a lunatic scena set to sky-high coloratura (the fast, florid, sometimes improvisational singing executed by skilled singers of every vocal range). We are riveted by madness. Despite all we know, by instinct or experience, about its terrible human toll, one fact persists: Madness makes great theater.
The Romantics of the nineteenth century understood this. In the bel canto style of Italian opera, the mad scene (along with scenes of murder and suicide) was common currency. . .