Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the The University of Warwick's online course, Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds Mark, Polar Bears is one of our key texts for this week. So can you tell me a little bit about how you came to write it? I’ll tell you roughly what it is first, shall I? Yeah. So it’s about the relationship between John and Kay. Kay who suffers from bipolar disorder. That seems very straightforward except as soon as you get to Scene two, you realise there’s something very odd about the play. In Scene one, we have John talking to Kay’s brother, finally admitting that he has murdered Kay, Sandy’s sister because he simply can’t take anymore of the stress in the relationship.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 seconds She hasn’t an in fact flown to Norway, she’s dead in the cellar wrapped up in the large bag that the carpet was delivered in a few months ago. It’s sort of half funny, half horrible. But then we in the Scene two, we get to Norway. And she’s in Norway. And you instantly know that something’s not right. And that theme continues throughout the whole play. None of the scenes quite fit together. None of the scenes could all be true. So you know that there’s some contradiction. That’s what I liked about it. I just kept thinking, is this moment inside Kay’s head or who’s perspective is this is from?

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds And so that was a deliberately conscious effort on your part to not mislead the audience. But why did you do that? Two plays were sort of very present in my mind when I sat down to write this. One was Blue/Green by Joe Penhall, which was about the vex question of the disproportionate number of young black men who are diagnosed as schizophrenic. Is it because they’re under different social pressures, from any other group? Or is it because in a racist way they tend to be more likey to be diagnosed as schizophrenic? Three characters in the play. We watched it in the round. We never got really inside anyone’s head. It was a talking play. But the subject was interesting.

Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds But it was very objective and quite cool. Another play that really influenced me was called The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson. It’s about a young woman who suffers from Bipolar Syndrome. The first half of this play is kind of carnivalesque. It’s full of all these figures that she has imagined. It’s a bipolar high, dramatised as a theatrical extravaganza with a small man on a tricycle with a polar bear coming out of a hole in the stage. The second half is her in a hospital bed. It’s an extraordinary piece of theatre because almost nothing happened. One time you deliberately, deliberately bored at great length in the theatre.

Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds And that sort of started to get inside the experience of what she might be going through. And I wanted to take it a step further. I wanted– I wanted several things. I wanted the audience themselves to feel confused and ill at ease and most importantly, not to know what’s real. And you can’t know what’s real when you get to the end of this. There’s even a question of whether Kay the main character was murdered or not. If you disbelieve certain scenes and follow a few other scenes right through and take that story line, then she’s alive and she’s in Norway. In fact the actress Celia Imrie, who played Kay’s mother in the production at the Donmar Warehouse.

Skip to 3 minutes and 23 seconds She was going home on the bus and she found herself talking to an elderly lady and gentleman, who were having an argument about whether the character Kay was still alive or not. [LAUGHING] I really like the character of the mother, Margaret. I think one of the things that your play does brilliantly is dramatise or depicts what it’s like for the loved ones, the people outside of this. And Margaret’s saying to John, the main character, you can’t know how bad this is. You can at the moment. But just you wait, mate, as it were, and see how it feels. And that it’s slowly shown to be true. But he loves her. He feels his love will be enough.

Skip to 4 minutes and 1 second And it made me think about, well, all sorts, Ted and Sylvia, Marilyn and Arthur Miller. It made me think about what it feels like for the people who love the person who’s suffering. And you were brilliant at depicting that. Character John says something very early on, which I think is really pertinent, when Margaret, Kay’s mother, is saying you really don’t understand it. And he’s saying, we’ve been together. We’ve discussed this. And she’s saying, no, you really don’t understand it ‘til you’ve lived through it. And he says I’m quite a boring person. My moods don’t swing from side-to-side. And in normal society that has no value.

Skip to 4 minutes and 35 seconds But when I’m with someone who’s moods are all over the place, I’m the person at the end of the kite string. ‘The kite string.’ I love that image when he said ‘I’m pulling–’ That was such a brilliant metaphor – I’m stable and I’m ‘pulling the kite string.’ And he feels it and he means it but he can’t know what it’s like at that point in the play. And it’s interesting. John seemed, to me, to be one using the label. This is a disease.

Skip to 4 minutes and 58 seconds It’s a disorder, sort of using those sort of medical terms, whereas it seemed to me that the brother and the mother were saying, yeah, it’s all very well you coming in quite late in the day, being sympathetic and wanting to help. We’ve actually lived with it. And I really liked that he seemed to be so– but then once he’s in it. And then he starts doubting Kay. So there’s a moment when– I found fascinating the moment– when he thinks she’s a good artist and then discovers actually she’s not. Because the mother then comes in and says– and I was really shocked by that moment. Because I really– up to that point, I really believed that she was.

Skip to 5 minutes and 36 seconds I still find it shocking when I read it actually, to be honest. But we also have to say that scene is slightly contradicted by other scenes. Well, exactly. You go through and think, was that real? Can she really paint? Can she not draw? I wanted you to, in some small way, occupy her head space. So, maybe– When her mood swings backwards and fowards in certain moods, she thinks she’s a gifted artist. And then sometimes, as she says, she can’t do anything. She’s rubbish. There’s no way of getting this stuff down on paper. In a novel, something slightly different happens I think. It’s quite hard to be completely ambiguous in a novel.

Skip to 6 minutes and 11 seconds Partly because what comes later tends to overwrite what comes before. The end of a novel has a great deal of weight. And something that’s happened 200 pages ago, it’s already slightly foggy in our memory. There’s something about being on stage. If you write a scene well and it’s convincing, it’s real. And if the next scene’s equally real but it contradicts the other one, they kind of grind against each other like cogs. And I really wanted the discomfort of that grinding. And you like the freedom of the genre of the form of the play in order to do that. Yeah. But what you said before makes me think of something else. You said John finally realises something.

Skip to 6 minutes and 51 seconds Maybe some of these scenes are not Kay’s fantasies. Once people realise that the play internally contradicts itself, the default position is to say, well, here’s a person who has this mental illness. They have Bipolar Syndrome. They’re subject to psychosis sometimes. They believe that things happen that don’t. So the play is real life with a few of her fantasies scattered here and there. And then if you think about it more, you think, well, maybe they’re John’s fantasies. Maybe they’re things that he really hopes for. And in fact, you can read the play not as her mental illness and final breakdown but as his breakdown. He’s a university lecturer in philosophy.

Skip to 7 minutes and 36 seconds And he gives a lecture at the end, which starts off as a fairly straightforward philosophy lecture. But he starts to break down in the middle of this lecture in a slightly sort of embarrassing way. And that might be what causes the disciplinary problems we’re sort of vaguely aware of in the first scene because they’re in the background. And if you then go back in the play, you think maybe he’s the one who fell apart. Maybe he murdered her. Maybe he couldn’t cope with this fantasy of being the person who saved her, that he wasn’t able to do that.

Skip to 8 minutes and 11 seconds I think the other thing I wanted to say in the play was that when we see someone who’s lost a grip on reality because of some form of mental illness, we tend to think that the rest of us know how the world works and they’ve kind of drifted off to one side and lost touch with us. I think I wanted to say that we all have stories about the way the world works. You know this if you’re in a family, if you have siblings, when you sit down and discuss the parts, no one agrees, do they? Some people think thing happens, which didn’t. Everyone agrees about the interpretation of things. We all have different hopes for the future.

Skip to 8 minutes and 46 seconds And we will have different interpretations of the past.

Skip to 8 minutes and 52 seconds In a way that’s not greatly different to someone for whom mental illness has slightly changed the way they see the world. Why is someone’s feeling the world is utterly bleak and without meaning? Why is that of less value than the rest of us who have something nearer the average? And I wanted to put those two stories next to each other and make people ask questions. Why do we assume that the stories told by people who have some severe mental illness? Why do they matter less? Why have we ignored that? When someone’s on a real high and they say it as Kay does say it, one section in the middle of the play, how extraordinary the world is.

Skip to 9 minutes and 29 seconds It’s like the doors of perception have been opened. And I can see how extraordinary it is. And everyone’s dulled to this nearly all the time. And I’ve been vouchsafe, a kind of revelation. What gives us the right to say, you’re ill though? That revelation doesn’t count. It’s of less values than the stories we tell each other about the world. Every time I say ‘Bipolar Syndrome,’ I feel I need to sort of qualify it somehow. Externally from the sort of point of view of the rest of us, it makes me uneasy because it’s a label.

Skip to 10 minutes and 5 seconds When we hear that someone is bipolar or schizophrenic or is on the spectrum, a little bit of us says, oh, I know. I read something about that in a weekend magazine. And kind of dialogue shuts down. I remember years ago, shortly after I’d finished writing Curious Incident, a good friend of mine, who is a professor of computing, who helped me with a lot of the maths problems in the book. He said, do you know what, I’d love to bring back a society to celebrate eccentricity. He said, it used to be used all the time. And someone would say, my uncle’s really eccentric. Which of course is an invitation for you to say, tell me. Eccentricity is very positive thing.

Skip to 10 minutes and 46 seconds It celebrates people’s difference and oddity. And it’s completely the opposite to a label like Bipolar. It opens up debate instead of tramping it down. How did you research? Did you speak to psychotherapists or people who’d suffered? How’d you get inside the head of Kay? I’m infamous for doing no research whatsoever. I have to be careful saying this because I can get into trouble. But it’s been true since I wrote Curious Incident, if I research something, I never, ever use it. Which is why increasingly I don’t talk to other people because I feel I’m wasting their time. The fact that I’ve gone to talk to them about something dooms this thing to end on the cutting room floor.

Skip to 11 minutes and 27 seconds And I think the reason is this, if you know lots about something, it’s already real to you. If you don’t know much about it, you have to build it from the bottom up for the reader. So you’re on the same journeys as the reader. Obviously if you’re writing a book set in 18th century Japan or set in Anglo-Saxon England, you have to do the research because you don’t instantly know that the physical stuff and the language and so forth. But if you’re writing a book set now in a cultural background you know quite well, your only job is to convince people. We talk about Christopher in Curious Incident as having Asperger’s. Well, I try not to but other people do.

Skip to 12 minutes and 14 seconds And we talk about Kay suffering from Bipolar Syndrome. But those categories came later. People say, how did you write someone who fits in that category? And I say, I don’t. I write someone and you put the category on top and then ask how I did it. This reminded me of another very odd fact about this play. This is going to make me seem extremely stupid. The title Polar Bears, I did not realise that Bipolar Syndrome and Polar Bears had the same word in them. I used to paint quite a lot of abstract paintings. And when I finished a painting, I never knew what to call it. And I always stole the title of some music that I was listening to.

Skip to 12 minutes and 55 seconds And when I was writing this play, there’s an album called Nowhere, by the band Ride, which was kind of on, as it were, on constant rotation on the turntable behind me. And they have a track called ‘Polar Bear,’ which I love. And I thought I’ll use that same painting technique. I’ll pluck a track title out of the air. But you talk about polar bears because of how– I know. I know. I know. In the play that she talks about going north and the polar bears. And clearly my unconscious is a little more intelligent than the top of my mind, which is quite dim sometimes. It was a really odd experience for someone to say, why did you call it that?

Skip to 13 minutes and 31 seconds Only then did I realise there was a connection, which goes back to my thinking that I didn’t think of her as a category. I had to make her a person. I had to be able to sit in her mind and make it feel, not comfortable, make it feel right. See, I think reading plays like yours are really helpful because I don’t have any experience of depression. But I’m interested in it, obviously. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing the course. But I think it’s plays like yours that help me see what it might feel like. And because it’s so hard if you don’t. It’s very difficult having empathy if you don’t know.

Skip to 14 minutes and 8 seconds And I think that’s the purpose of great literature, actually, that it can help us feel that we might get closer. We’ll never fully know but at least it might bring us one step to being closer. Would you– Well, certainly also with people who have cyclical mood disorders, who are very down and very up. I think a lot of what literature does is give us a sort of safe access to the up part. I mean, do you mind if I read a little passage? I’d love you to read a passage. When Kay’s lost at night and John goes to find her. And he finds her sitting on top of a hill looking at the world.

Skip to 14 minutes and 46 seconds And she’s clearly suffering from an extreme bipolar high. And he’s very worried about her. So here’s Kay sitting on top of the hill. ‘But, there are so many worlds, aren’t there, one laid over the other, Palimpsest, Pentimento, all these bluebells like this great wave of blue just swept in, wind like a great cold hand stroking the tops of the trees. There are villages underground where people lived before the birth of Jesus. Axeheads and bridles and bones. The air hums with signals, TV stations, mobile phone calls. If we had a radio, we could listen to voices talking in a hundred languages.

Skip to 15 minutes and 26 seconds Smell, go on, smell, cut grass and loam and rotten wood, neutrinos pouring through the earth as if the planet were made of smoke. The Great Bear, the little bear, Triangulum, Perseus, Columba. The children dreaming in their beds, swords and sand castles, hammerhead sharks, and drunken uncles with dirty minds.’ In the context of the play, that is Kay being quite ill. She’s clearly losing her mind in a real way not just a metaphorical way. And John is justifiably scared about what she might do. On the other hand, that’s a subscription what art does, isn’t it? Art says there are many worlds, aren’t there, one laid over the other. It’s all about Palimpsest and Pentimento, this laid over that laid over that.

Skip to 16 minutes and 17 seconds And we could look out here. And we each look and see so many different things. And I think one of the functions of art is to kind of polish your windscreen as well as it can. So you can just see more, see further, see more brightly. And you’re right, within that sandbox of art, we can experience secondhand what it feels to be depressed. But we can also feel secondhand what it means to be on that kind of high as well. It’s a kind of safe way of sharing that vision of the world.

Discussing 'Polar Bears' and Bipolar Disorder with Mark Haddon

In this video, Mark Haddon talks about his play Polar Bears, and about the inspiration behind it.

Mark’s play is an intriguing and, at times, confusing one, because some of its scenes contradict others, telling alternative versions of the story that cannot all be true. By the end of the play, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what isn’t. During our conversation, Mark explains his reasons for telling these contradictory stories, and talks about how he wanted his audience to occupy the headspace of the character Kay, who suffers very extreme changes in mood.

Mark talks about our troubling readiness to dismiss the visions and ideas of people diagnosed with mental health conditions. We all tell different stories about the world, and Mark emphasises that we shouldn’t value some of these stories less than others simply because they belong to people who have been labelled with a particular condition.

Although his play is called Polar Bears, Mark admits, in our conversation, that he hadn’t realised the verbal connection between ‘Polar Bears’ and ‘Bipolar Disorder’ until somebody pointed it out to him. Polar Bears has been interpreted as a play about bipolar, but here Mark discusses his unwillingness to categorise people or reduce them to labels. He approached Kay as a character and as a person, rather than as a collection of associated symptoms, and he wants to encourage his audiences and readers to do the same.

  • Note: Mark mentions the play by Joe Penhall, ‘Blue/Orange’, but incorrectly refers to it as ‘Blue/Green’. Mark sends his apologies for this error.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: