Showing 11 - 16 of 16 annotations contributed by Glass, Guy

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This is a collection of essays by (mostly British) artists, performers, and academics on the intersection between medicine and theater.  It appears in a series entitled “Performance and Science: Interdisciplinary Dialogues” put out by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.  The introduction makes it clear there are many points of convergence beyond the scope of this volume, such as how medicine is depicted in plays and therapeutic uses of theater (e.g. drama therapy).  The focus here, then, is on “the ways in which the body is understood, displayed and represented in performance” (p. 11).  And the “medical body” of the title refers to one that is ’acted upon’ by illness or disability and/or by the diagnostic and therapeutic activities of the medical profession” (Ibid).  

The book is divided into three sections: “Performing the Medical,” “Performing Patients,” and “Performing Body Parts.”  The first section includes an essay by Roger Kneebone, a surgeon, who explores the parallels between his field and theatrical performance.  Kneebone has devised simulations that enable laypersons to get a sense of what it is like to participate in surgery.  In his view, this encourages cross-fertilization of ideas.  For example, his collaboration with a jazz pianist has demonstrated to him that musical improvisation, in its spontaneity, is somewhat like emergency surgery.  And his work with a choreographer led to the development of a dance piece depicting the movements of a surgical team during a procedure.   
 

In the second section we read about Brian Lobel, a theater artist who has used his experience with testicular cancer to create a solo performance piece entitled “BALL.”  This not only allowed Lobel to “regain a sense of mastery over the illness experience” (p. 88), but has also earned him a niche within the theater community.  Lobel now works with other cancer sufferers helping them develop their own narratives in a project called “Fun with Cancer Patients.”  

The final section of the book includes a description of “Under Glass,” a forty-minute performance piece consisting of eight specimen jars each containing a solo performer, said to be “at once museum exhibit, gallery and medical laboratory” (p. 141), which also provides the book's front cover image. "Under Glass" was devised by Clod Ensemble, whose Performing Medicine project is known for its teaching programs in numerous London medical schools.  Meant to provoke discourse about the public display of specimens, it brings to mind the Victorian “freak show” as well as the more recent controversial touring Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated cadavers and body parts.

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Dr. Mütter's Marvels

O'Keefe, Cristin

Last Updated: Jan-25-2016
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Those who are familiar with the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, best known for its anatomical oddities, may have wondered about the institution’s namesake.  The author of this book, a poet and native of Philadelphia, endeavors to place Thomas Dent Mütter within the context of 19th-century American medicine.  

We learn here that notwithstanding being “medicated” with wine, surgical patients emitted such agonized screams that observers were known to vomit and pass out in their seats. We learn that Philadelphia was a cesspool of infectious disease for which there was no effective treatment.  We learn too of the rivalry (including behavior that would be considered unprofessional today) between the well-established school of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Mütter’s alma mater) and upstart Jefferson (whose faculty Mütter would join).  

In an era before the germ theory of disease became widely accepted, there was of course no concept of sterile technique.  To suggest that a surgeon should wash his hands was to imply he was not a gentleman because “all gentlemen were clean” (page 104).  Resistance to anesthesia was based not so much on concerns about potential danger but on the notion, when it came to obstetrics, that pain was a punishment for the sins of Eve.  Doctors could be downright sadistic to their patients, to the point of beating them like livestock.  That there was no concept of surgical aftercare meant that patients would be sent home immediately following an amputation. Victims of grotesque tumors and disfiguring accidents were considered “monsters” who lived lives of unimaginable misery.  

Enter Mütter, whose importation of plastic surgery from Paris to America brought hope to thousands of incurables.  He had an intuitive sense of the role of cleanliness in reducing morbidity and mortality.  He was a passionate advocate for anesthesia when it was seen as little more than a fad.  He abandoned traditional teaching methods that held a professor should be distant and unapproachable, and became beloved by generations of Jefferson students.  
 

In short, Mütter emerges as not just a likeable guy, but the forerunner of a whole new concept of what a good doctor should be, a sort of cross between P.T. Barnum and Mother Teresa.    

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4:48 Psychosis

Kane, Sarah

Last Updated: Dec-15-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

4:48 Psychosis was the last work of controversial British playwright Sarah Kane.  In 1999, soon after her twenty-eighth birthday, having completed the play, she took her own life.  

Naturally, these tragic circumstances can never be far from the reader’s mind. But to dismiss 4:48 Psychosis as a suicide note is to negate Kane’s achievement.  The play was, in fact, meticulously researched and carefully written. Kane’s first play, Blasted, had considerable shock value, and throughout her short career she pushed the boundaries of what might be considered stageworthy. 4:48 Psychosis is both the final product of a life marked by recurrent episodes of depression (the play gets its name from the time she found herself waking up every day during the last episode) and the final chapter in her writing’s progression towards disintegration. It represents her deteriorating mental state, but is also a conscious stylistic decision. 
 

The text of 4:48 Psychosis is unrecognizable as a conventional play.  The author has left neither stage directions nor an indication of the number or gender of performers. Words and numbers appear to be arranged ornamentally on the page. However, meaning that is not apparent emerges from the chaos, as in the way that sense may be made from a psychotic mind.  The numbers are not random, but “serial 7’s” from the mental status exam.  Quotations from the Book of Revelations appear side by side with excerpts from a medical chart, and extracts from self-help books are interspersed with dialogue between a patient and her psychiatrist.  The latter provides an illustration of the patient’s attempt to reconcile her anger with her neediness: “I cannot believe that I can feel this for you and you feel nothing” (p. 214). We learn too of her struggle with self-mutilation and her suicidal impulses, and follow her moods from dark humor to despair to hopefulness.  Indeed, the last line of the play, “Please open the curtains” (p. 245) appears to leave open the possibility that she will pull through.  That option was unfortunately not the one the author chose for herself. 

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Next To Normal

Kitt, Tom; Yorkey, Brian

Last Updated: Nov-18-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

Next to Normal is a musical, composed in a rock idiom.  

Meet the Goodmans, (father Dan, mother Diana, daughter Natalie) who on the surface resemble a “perfect loving family” like any one of millions.  However, from the outset we see that they are, in fact, a hair’s breadth from collapse:  Diana’s long-term struggle with bipolar disorder leaves her suffering uncontrollable mood swings.  Her illness fuels the chronic tension in her relationships with husband and daughter.  In addition, we learn that a son (Gabe), whom we initially believe to be an active family member, actually died years ago and his appearances represent Diana’s hallucination. 

As the show begins, Diana is undergoing a hypomanic episode that is resistant to treatment by her psychopharmacologist.  Discouraged by side effects and egged on by her phantom son, Diana flushes her pills down the toilet.  As she deteriorates, she visits a new psychiatrist who agrees at first to treat her without medication.  As she begins in psychotherapy, for the first time, to accept the loss of her son, she descends to a new clinical low.  At the close of the first act, after making a suicide attempt, she is hospitalized and agrees to be treated with ECT.   
 

By Act II, the ECT has effected great clinical improvement, with stabilization of Diana’s mood and no further hallucinations.  All this, however, has come at the expense of her memory.  As it returns, she becomes aware that what she most needs to remember, and process, are her feelings about losing a child.  In fact, we learn that she was kept from expressing them at the time because of concerns she might decompensate.  She struggles to make sense of all of this while remaining stable.  When she confronts Dan about Gabe, it is he who appears unable to discuss their loss.  She suddenly becomes aware that Dan has been enabling her in an unhealthy way.  She reconciles with her daughter, but realizes that in order to move forward she needs to get out of her dysfunctional marriage.  However, the door is left open on this relationship, for at the recommendation of her psychiatrist Dan enters psychotherapy.
 

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The Theater of War

Doerries, Bryan

Last Updated: Oct-30-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This is a book about the author's passionate love affair with ancient Greek plays, how he goes beyond merely making them relevant to our time by finding therapeutic benefit in them, and how he finds ways to adapt them for a variety of populations and uses.  

Doerries begins by telling us about two formative relationships, representing opposite extremes, that have influenced his worldview.  In the first case, we learn how his father, a diabetic, effectively commits suicide over a period of decades by gorging himself on sweets. He rationalizes his behavior to his son by suggesting that, no matter what he does, his life is destined to end in disaster anyway like "those Greek plays." (p. 17) In contrast, we hear of the author's relationship with a young woman, doomed by cystic fibrosis, who manages to make every moment of her all-too-brief life matter. She goes on to provide an object lesson in how to die with grace and dignity.  These experiences afford Doerries an insight into mortality beyond his years. He also gains insight into his own destiny, eschewing an academic career for a path of his own making.  He follows his intuition which tells him "If I could present readings...maybe something healing could happen." (p. 66) He then begins to devise his own translations from the original Greek which he directs in dramatic readings, and he seeks out the audiences that will benefit from them.

One of the plays that captures his imagination, Sophocles's "Ajax," tells of a warrior who loses his friend to war, becomes despondent, and takes his own life. Doerries discovers that this storyline is familiar territory to sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.   Consequently, when he presents it at military bases it produces an abreactive effect. Indeed, the pent-up emotion he elicits has no other outlet, and he and his performers become folk heroes.  Of course, there are detractors as well.

In the remainder of the book, Doerries finds additional applications for his method, from prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to hospice providers to victims of natural disasters.


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The Normal Heart

Kramer, Larry

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

New York, 1981.  As the play opens, Ned Weeks sits outside a doctor’s office with a friend who has developed worrisome symptoms of a mysterious “plague” that strikes homosexuals.  The doctor, Emma Brookner, complains that she cannot make headway in getting the gay community to take the threat seriously.  This encounter inspires Ned, a writer, to dedicate himself to becoming the spokesman for the growing ranks of disenfranchised patients. He attempts to convert others to his cause, including his heterosexual brother, a closeted bank executive, and a reporter for the New York Times (whom he begins to date).  When it becomes clear that the City is not interested in assisting, he co-founds a grassroots activist organization.  As the epidemic veers out of control, the man he loves falls ill as well.  Over time, Ned’s abrasive, confrontational approach, as well as his focus on abstinence, makes him many enemies within the gay community.  Ultimately, he is forced out of his own organization.  At the same time, there are hints that, as a result of his work, the disease is beginning to be taken seriously.  At the end of the play, Ned’s lover Felix becomes the latest gay man to succumb to the epidemic. 

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