In the Theatre (A true incident)

Abse, Dannie

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Woodcock, John
  • Date of entry: Jan-10-2006
  • Last revised: Aug-29-2006


An epigraph preceding this 28-line poem, apparently from notes by the physician-writer’s physician-father, sets the action of the poem in Wales in 1938. In the operating room, the surgeon attempts to locate the brain tumor of a patient who was under only local anesthesia because of his blood pressure. In those days in that place, finding the tumor was a "somewhat hit and miss" procedure that seems to have involved looking for it with one’s fingers.

A grotesque image, but all goes well until the patient, in a "gramophone" or "ventriloquist" voice not his own, cries out, "Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone!" The doctor withdraws from the brain, but the patient then dies, after which the mood in the operating room is shocked and speechless, as "silence matched the silence under snow."


This dramatic poem leaves us with the macabre and provocative idea that a brain surgeon may unwittingly encounter and destroy a patient’s soul--an idea obviously in conflict with the field of surgery’s physiological view of things. The related idea of medical transgression is often found in the stories and essays of the surgeon Richard Selzer, annotated in this database.


This poem may also be found in Literature and Medicine’s "Homage to Dannie Abse"(Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, vol. 3, 1985).

Primary Source

Collected Poems


Univ. of Pittsburgh Press

Place Published