Alyson Pou

2004 Hearst Fellow
Performance artist
New York, NY

www.alysonpou.com

Research at AAS

A Slight Headache (2009)

I was awarded a research fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. for summer 2004 and I did research in the following areas: Victorian Theatre, history and practice, especially the conventions of Melodrama. 19th Century attitudes toward fitness and health.Sideshows, Freak shows, Spectacles, Cabinet Museums, Circuses, Medicine shows. Parlor entertainments, fortune telling, spirit readings, magic and card tricks. Clothing, women’s hair-styles, furniture, etiquette, social rules/conventions, and songs. Medical and Scientific practices of the period.

This area of research was of particular interest to me because modern scientific practice was beginning to take hold producing a rush of cross-fertilization between medicine and science. Some things developed into what we now consider orthodox practice, others did not. For example, Phrenology, the diagnosis of personality based on the shape and lumps of the head, eventually degenerated to the status of “parlor entertainment” but it was taken quite seriously during the 1800s and the seeds of modern neuroscience and psychology can be found in its theory. Miracle cures, medicine shows, demonstrations of such things as laughing gas and electricity took place while medical and scientific advancements such as Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of infection and Joseph Lister’s development of antiseptic surgery changed the face of medical practice. This was the perfect context for my story.

 

Medicine Science and Melodrama:
The Fantastical World of Mother and Daughter

A Slight Headache is set in the 1870’s because that was a time of great transition and change in Medicine, Science, Technology and Entertainment. The installation and performance aim to transport audiences back to a time when “the wonders of nature, the works of man” were displayed for profit with amazing theatricality.

The neighborhood of the South Street Seaport Museum is a provocative location for this production because it was populated with many Anatomy Museums and Dime Museums during the 19th century. P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, located at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street from 1841 to 1865, is the most famous among them.

During the second half of the 19th century medical practice as we know it today was just being developed. Miracle cures, medicine shows, scientific demonstrations, and exhibitions of such things as laughing gas, x-rays and electricity were all taken seriously. Consider, for example, phrenology, the diagnosis of personality based on the shape and lumps of the head. This practice was ultimately inaccurate and eventually degenerated to the status of parlor entertainment. However, its theory and practice was also the beginning of modern neuroscience and psychology.

The style of performance used in A Slight Headache is expository and references conventions of public presentation, lecture, and Victorian Theatre, especially Melodrama. By the end of the 19th century, melodrama was defined as a specific genre of salon entertainment with rhythmically spoken words, often poetry. Melodrama was not sung but enacted with some dramatic structure or plot, and was synchronized to an accompaniment of music, usually piano. It was a genre most popular with the working class and was intended to embody in each expression and gesture the purest forms of emotions like love, fear, anger. Indeed, it’s greatest practitioners could bring audiences to tears with the intensity and purity of their expression.

 

A Slight Headache Synopsis

A young woman miraculously gives birth to a tiny girl from her forehead, from that moment they are inextricably joined by their hair. Over the years, the daughter grows and the hair grows, but it cannot be cut. In order to insure their survival the Mother must exploit this freakish condition. They now reside in the back rooms of a Dime Museum that displays their collection of curiosities and other “artifacts” from their lives. Upon entering the exhibition the audience encounters large side show banners and is greeted by a barker who invites them to tour the exhibition, complete with such oddities as the world’s only bearded piranha. In the back of the museum is a small stage with velvet curtains, footlights, and sideshow banners where the Mother and Daughter perform their daily show. In this entertainment, the Mother recounts the extraordinary birth, inviting viewers to try and cut their hair, the daughter tells fortunes. But tonight the daughter refuses to perform. She reveals secrets about herself and the hair that drive the women to a final, perhaps fatal, confrontation witnessed by the audience.

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