The Play’s the Thing: Putting History of Science on Stage

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Reflections on 2b Theatre’s “The Story of Mr. Wright” and post-performance discussion with Dr. Anne Harrington Tuesday Oct. 23rd, 2012.
By Emily Tector.

It’s one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job as the Project Coordinator for the national Situating Science project for clustering the humanist and social sciences of science and technology to work on initiatives that partner with groups outside of academia. There’s often a unique form of energy around these types of collaborations. It’s an added bonus to work with an open innovative theatre group to bring the humanities and social studies of science and technology on stage.

The Halifax based and internationally renowned folks at 2b Theatre have been working on writing and workshopping their most recent product, “The Story of Mr. Wright” for about 2 years. They partnered with Globe Theatre in Saskatchewan and gained support from Eastern Front Theatre to bring the project to life. The idea for the play was inspired by a podcast or two with Dr. Anne Harrington, professor in History of Science at Harvard University. In a CBC radio Ideas interview about her work and particularly about the book, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, she mentioned the curious case of Mr. Wright. Mr. Wright’s prognosis was grim: He was bedridden with late stage cancer, tumours the size of oranges and had less than a month to live. Once he learned of a new cancer-fighting medicine on clinical trial and the doctor gave in to his begging, he became a miracle case. Once he read reports that the new drug was ineffective, he got worse. What happens next is a bit of a play within a play (within another play?). Doctors decide to stage a performance of sorts within the hospital venue to test the placebo effect.

As is common and even expected in contemporary theatre, the fourth wall is quickly demolished. Evaporated with the first actor-audience eye contact and acknowledgement. Or the wall is never built. Or, quite possibly, it’s there but with the well crafted illusion of being not-there. Maybe I’m overlooking another option. My point is, the play isn’t about your traditional straight narrative. It’s full of ideas. Ideas can quickly get lost in the details. They’re hard to grasp. They’re shapeless. Disembodied. They’re more than the sum of their parts. They’re in or are the spaces in between. Yet, we try to capture them. Illustrate them. Give them shape. In examples, analogy, metaphor, simile. In body language. In performance. In word play and play on words.

Co-writer and artistic co-director of 2b Theatre Christian Barry tells the audience during the post-performance discussion that he finds the theme of ambiguity in the play compelling. The play can easily be a story of ambiguity. Ambiguity about all sorts of things: source material, professional motivations, mind/body relationships, patient agency, beliefs and perspectives, the medical theatre and specifically, the theatre of conducting a successful placebo...

The dramatized version of events of the Mr. Wright case is interspersed with frank confessional anecdotes from the actors themselves. These are stories about their own health experiences. About the impact of prayer, chronic pain, trust, power of suggestion, will-power and determination, and the overall power or lack of thought and emotion on the body. For the most part, each actor wrote his or her own story. Rather than detract from the Mr. Wright narrative, the incorporation of personal storytelling adds to the play’s motif. As I caught one actor putting it, he wrote his story for the character of himself.

These are stories about stories. Yep, pretty meta. But theatre is one of the best venues for meta. And meta is engraved into 2b Theatre’s mandate. It aims to examine and question the nature of story and of storytelling and examine the medium of theatre, the human condition and “what it means to be.” Or be. (I’m not trying to be clever with that line...I simply feel rather obligated to write that since everyone is thinking it.)

During the post-performance discussion, Anne informs us that in the early part of the 20th century  doctors didn’t necessarily disclose whether their patients had cancer. She argues that this ignorance allowed patients to be played with in clinical trials. There’s that “play” word. The medical staff must pretend. Must be “in” on the ruse of convincing a patient that he is on the latest cancer-fighting medication in a new clinical trial. It’s a social contract of deception. The play doesn’t ham this part up or draw it out too much. I venture to think that maybe this is because the details, and in this case the performance of deception, aren’t meant to be the focus exactly.The actors highlight this lack of factual detail every now and then, referring to how the lack of some primary source material for the play leaves events open to interpretation. So we pay attention to the effects. And there’s room to play. Mr. Wright’s role is played 3 different actors (I thought at first the role was played by 2 different actors, male and female, but was later corrected by the actors themselves). The point? At first I thought maybe this was an illusion to how someone who’s sick often seems like someone completely different. Anne asked the actors about the role playing decision at the reception. Having several people play the role drives home the point that Mr. Wright could be anyone. All of us. The every man. And that the placebo effect hits home for everyone, in some way, shape or form, as well. A point highlighted with the interwoven personal stories.  

Would or could a ‘Mr. Wright’ exist today? Anne doesn’t think so. She argues that today’s rules of informed consent and medical ethics are prohibitive of such 1950s quirks and practices. The medical practice has changed, sure, but I’m not so sure that prevents someone from playing with a patient or more specifically, a patient’s placebo effect. A standard of medical ethics be damned. Just because there are rules doesn’t mean that people follow them. This is at the heart of individual ethics (vs institutional). Act 1, Scene 1 (or whatever it is): Doctor goes against protocol to slip demanding patient a potentially curative drug. This is a single case, after all, and if we’re to judge things on a case-by-case basis maybe we shouldn’t be so bold to claim that a Mr. Wright wouldn’t exist today. Right? (

It’s no news that culture plays (ahem) a role in health and medicine. Whether you refer to a historically-set “culture” or a geographical one or some other one. Medical anthropologist Margaret Lock, for instance, is perhaps most well known for prying open the field of medical anthropology and exploring not only the nature of the differences between, for instance, Japanese and Western medical approaches, but also the differences in definitions and even physical symptoms themselves. The point that human bodies are shaped by culture was raised in the discussion at the University of King’s College earlier in the day, “Culture in the Brain and under the Skin.” I paraphrase Anne in saying that even the brain, a part of the body after all, seems to be highly porous to cultural cues. Now, that’s heady word play.  

My conversation with Barry afterwards gave me more insight into the ins and outs of production. There are pressures on theatre companies to quantify their impact and success, but you can’t quantify the way that art enriches (improves?) our daily lives. Looking over the chatty crowd at the reception afterwards, I nodded along as he explained how you can’t measure the smart, engaged and lively conversations at the bar or over the food table
after a performance between people (“humans” in his words, perhaps an illusion to the human condition). Also, these aren’t just conversations between people who usually talk to each other. These are sometimes conversations between actors, academics, and audience members. So the end product, impact, or deliverable, is, in large part, found in the engaged discussions and conversations. In the sharing of ideas. In new ideas. In the networking and partnering. In post-event discussions. This is familiar to the Situating Science project. There’s a richness in this form of impact that’s, well, immeasurable.

This event wouldn’t have been possible without Dr. Harrington’s participation and the good will and hard work of all 3 opening night partners: Situating Science, Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs and 2b Theatre in addition to the sponsors and supporters like the Globe Theatre, Eastern Front Theatre as well as the History of Science and Technology Program at the University of King’s College and the Evolution Studies Group.