Remarks by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein
GLOBAL HEALTH & THE ARTS 2013: Obesity & Its Public Health Consequences
January 24-25, 2013
Good morning and a warm welcome to Long Wharf Theatre. Before I begin, I would like to thank, on both a personal and professional note, Long Wharf Trustee David Scheer whose vision created these Global Health conferences and whose enthusiasm for both the arts and sciences has created this groundbreaking event. It is important to remark here that these kinds of conversations between science and the arts are sadly rare and although there may be many scientists in the room ecumenical enough in their passions to continue going to art museums, read great books and attend classical theatre, I can assure you that we theatre artists have not kept up with our biochemistry and that you might be horrified how little we know or understand of the ball field in which most of you in this room not only play but hit home runs.
A word about Long Wharf Theatre, for those of you who do not know us. Long Wharf lives as part of a fine tradition of resident theatres, an amalgam of non-profit theatre institutions throughout the country. Like the Guthrie in Minneapolis, The Arena in Washington, and dozens of others in cities across the country, Long Wharf exists to serve its community and develop work for the field. As Artistic Director of Long Wharf, I curate a season of classical plays and new work, as well as direct a few every year.
As the economic model for producing theatre has evolved, non-profit theatres such as Long Wharf have become the generative engine and the life force behind the American Theatre. 23 of the last 25 Pulitzer Prizes for Drama have come from theatres such as ours. We ourselves are the recipients of three of those Pulitzers, as well as numerous Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and other awards. America's greatest theatre actors have performed on the stage from which I speak. A small sampling includes: Al Pacino, Jason Robards, Kathleen Turner who performed on this stage a few months ago, Sam Waterston, Jane Alexander, Nathan Lane, the list is a who's who in American drama. Presently, you are sitting in our larger theatre; later after dinner you will be seeing our current offering, the world premiere of JANUARY JOINER, a play that deals head on with body image and the horror of obesity in our other, smaller space.
It has been said that every society has its own way of torturing women, whether by binding their feet or sticking them into whalebone corsets, what contemporary America has come up with is designer jeans.
You all know the routine; the statistics just prove what we intuitively know: the scales are tipped against the overweight. The studies are conclusive: overweight children are less popular with both classmates and teachers than thin children; teachers give them lower grades and have lower expectations of them (which has been shown to diminish performance). Overweight applicants have less of a chance of getting jobs and when they do, receive lower salaries. They are more often found guilty in court and when found guilty receive more severe sentences, they marry later in life and have a recorded higher incidence of mental disorder.
Most of us carry deep-seated prejudices against the overweight; we look at a fat person and assume that he or she lacks discipline, self control and are fundamentally weaker, even lesser humans. For most of us, the obese embody two of the seven deadly sins, sloth and gluttony. Two of my personal favorites. It is difficult to conceal it if we are overweight. The rest of us are more easily able to hide our flaws, our weaknesses, and our deadly sins. Overweight people carry a burden that is profound and difficult to escape.
It is also tempting to blame our obsession with our particular cultural image of the ideal body on the onslaught of media imagery and, of course, it would be foolish to dismiss its significant influence but the truth is, as always, more complex.
According to Nancy Ectoff, a British professor and psychologist who has researched beauty ideas historically and cross-culturally, ideals and in fact obsession with body shape and size have been around as long as modern humans have. They are grounded not only in cultural values but also in environmental realities and economic orders. Not surprisingly, in general, fat bodies are appreciated where food is harder to come by and thin ones admired in places where food is abundant. Since food abundance has been rare historically, it should surprise no one that about 80% of human societies on record have a preference for plumper women.
Anthropologist Rebecca Popenoe reports from her four years in western Niger that the women from this region want nothing more than to be fat. The Nigerien women she studied, mostly from villages, would occasionally weigh themselves, just like women (or men) in the West might do when they find themselves near a scale. Unlike women in the West however, who at an early age learn to remove shoes and as much clothing as possible before stepping on the scale, these women put clothes on, picking up shawls, sweaters, coats, etc. before stepping on the scale. They wanted the scales to show that they weighed more. She learned that the unwieldy bodies of these women were achieved through forced consumption of food in childhood, so that in adulthood women could achieve and, I kid you not, (quote) “those beautiful stretch marks on their arms and legs.” Thin women are considered “like men” just as rounder men are considered effeminate. Women are taught to abet their gender difference intended by God by making their bodies as different from men as possible, by getting fat.
Our own history is equally fascinating, if a tad more familiar. In colonial times, the harsh environment and lack of comfort required that all family members contribute to survival. Large families were preferred, so that children could help work the land and help keep the home. Communities valued fertile, physically strong and hearty women. In the 19th century with the rise of an upper class, ideals shifted and women with tiny waists and full behinds accented by a bustle came to be valued. It was considered desirable for an upper class man to be able to span a woman’s waist with his hands. Women of significant financial means would go as far as has having ribs removed to further decrease waist size. The fine art of fainting was taught in finishing schools. Despite the pain and health risks, corsets became the height of fashion.
Some have said that the invention of the corset was the main impetus for the feminist movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Women began rejecting complicated dresses in favor of pants, cut their hair short, and bound their breasts. It became fashionable to be angular, thin, and boyish. The flappers.
The Second World War brought change once again. With the male population fighting overseas, women went to work again so that industry could thrive. In spare time, some formed sports teams and society valued strong, physically able women. But the war ended, men came home, Don Draper moved to the suburbs and he wanted his wife Betty to be feminine again. The curvaceous Marilyn Monroe became the female ideal.
What’s a girl to do?
I don’t know, but I do know that most of us, maybe all of us, even the most beautiful among us, live with a sense of inadequacy as it relates to our body image.
What’s a boy to do? While it would be difficult to argue that the issue is as culturally punishing for males as it is for females, we would be telling only part of the story if we ignored men. I can tell you that I have struggled with my weight for my entire life and the nickname Edelfat, coined in the schoolyard of Franklin Elementary in 1962, stays with me half a century later. Harvard psychiatrist Harrison Pope named male obsession with body image “the Adonis Complex.” Male body dysmorphia is on the increase. The global market for beauty and diet products for men has exploded; the global take in 2009 was $19.7 billion USD and it’s expected to grow to almost $85 billion within five years, including $750 million in male cosmetic surgery and $300 million on liposuction just for men. So much focus, so much money, such significant resources on how we feel about our bodies and how we look to others. The statistics for women are even more staggering.
The theatre arts, I have to admit, have not taken this issue on in significant proportion. In preparation for our previous Global Health topics: AIDS, cancer, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, there was far more material to chose from. Perhaps we are afraid to face the painful human truths in regards to obesity and body type. Our cruelty in this is somehow more permissible than others. Fat bashing, according to Robyn Silverman, in all its forms, like exclusion, shaming, jokes, gossip, is one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice. I know that actors are vain and make a living in part on their appearance, and I can tell you that it is difficult to cast a play with obesity as a requirement. Think of the well-known actors whom you would characterize as seriously overweight and you know what I mean. Only a handful. And even Seth Rogen lost weight, so there’s one less.
Today you will see scenes from a few plays that struggle with these complex issues. Doing what we do best in the theatre, which is to tell the human story of suffering and survival from the trenches. Of challenges met and challenges lost. Of victories and defeats. Just like all of our lives. Later this evening you will see our new production, JANUARY JOINER, a world premiere by the talented Laura Jacqmin. Spoiler alert: there are horror elements to the play, but perhaps that will be for the good. A recent study by the University of Westminster in London found that watching horror movies actually burns as many calories as a brisk 30-minute walk. The scarier the movie, the bigger the burn. THE SHINING was found to melt 184 calories in 142 minutes. Stay for the show and lose weight.
I hope that you have a fruitful day.
GLOBAL HEALTH & THE ARTS 2012: Understanding and Tackling Mental Illness
May 17-18, 2012
Good morning to all of you and a warm welcome on behalf of all of us at Long Wharf Theatre. This is the fourth in what has become an annual conference on GLOBAL HEALTH & THE ARTS in which we gather in one room artists and scientists to talk about and think about the relationship between our two disciplines. In the previous three conferences, we addressed serious global health issues and investigated their relationships to the arts. Today we do the same. In addition to presenting a provocative new film and hearing words from renowned orchestra conductor William Boughton, you will be seeing, interspersed throughout the day, scenes from some of the more interesting plays that deal with mental illness from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, including a beautiful and moving song from the groundbreaking musical NEXT TO NORMAL. A personal and professional shout out to entrepreneur, philanthropist, and friend to the arts and the sciences David Scheer, whose indefatigable efforts have resulted in these unique and extraordinary conferences.
“Is getting well ever an art/or art a way to get well?” So asked late great Robert Lowell in one of his late great poems.
It’s a good question. Lowell himself, a scion of American letters and probably the most celebrated poet of his day, suffered mightily from a severe manic-depressive disorder. Despite tremendous early success and a Pulitzer for his book LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, he found his true voice as a poet with his breakthrough 1950s book LIFE STUDIES, in which he chose as his subject himself -- and inadvertently inspired several handfuls of poets who came to be known as the “the confessional poets.” As if poetry had ever been anything other than confession. Lowell confessed in his poem “Skunk Hour,” “My mind’s not right,” and indeed it wasn’t. In this, he was also referencing another celebrated madman, King Lear, who proclaimed on the heath, “I shall go mad.”
Lowell was also a master of prose. Here he is on one of his manic episodes. “Seven years ago, I had an attack of pathological enthusiasm. That night before I was locked up, I ran about the streets of Bloomington, Indiana crying out against devils and homosexuals. I believed I could stop cars and paralyze their forces by merely standing in the middle of the highway with my arms outstretched …. To have known the glory, violence and banality of such an experience is corrupting.”
Lowell had nearly two dozen manic episodes in his lifetime and nearly as many hospitalizations. Finally a brand new drug, lithium carbonate, was released into the market that gave so many hope for relief from this torturous roller coaster ride. Lowell remarked to Bob Giroux, his brilliant and sympathetic publisher, “It’s terrible, Bob, to think that all I’ve suffered and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.” Was Lowell's assessment correct? However sardonic his comment, is the source of such disorder biochemical in nature? A thinker no less than Socrates also weighs in: “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings.... The men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of all arts, the art of discerning the future and called it the manic art... So according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense.... Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.” It reminds one of British psychiatrist R. D. Laing, so popular with my generation in the 1960s. The relationship between madness and genius has been on the cultural front burner throughout the ages.
In her 1987 Iowa study, Dr. Nancy Andreasen quantified what we already knew: a sample of creative writers had a significantly higher level of bipolar or other diagnosable conditions than a control group with similar intelligence levels. And later, Kay Jamison, among others, has documented with terrifying comprehensiveness the number of creative artists stricken with various mental disorders. The statistics are staggering and the argument persuasive. When you look over the list of celebrated and great writers, composers, etc., it’s more who is on it than who is not. If you are not on the list, it’s like you have not been invited to the party:
Just a taste—
Poets: John Berryman, Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound (boy was he crazy), Edgar Allan Poe.
Writers: Hans Christian Anderson, Balzac, James Boswell, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, William Styron, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, William James, Eugene O’Neill, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, Emile Zola.
Composers and Musicians: Berlioz, Bruckner, Edward Elgar, Handel, Charles Ives, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Schumann (whom you will hear a lot more about later), Charles Mingus, Cole Porter, Bud Powell, Noel Coward, Bill Evans . . .
Can I stop now?
But what is this undeniable relationship between artistic creation and mental disorder? One of the joys of these annual global health conferences is that I become a tourist in the world of science and medicine. It is for me, a truly foreign country. In preparation for this conference and this talk, I encountered research that shows that observations and beliefs produced during mildly-depressed states are actually closer to “reality” than are normal mood states, underscoring T. S. Eliot’s view that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Some words of witness from some of our greatest artists and thinkers: This from Herman Melville in his underappreciated novel PIERRE, “In these flashing revelations of grief’s wonderful fire, we see all things as they are, and though when the electric element is gone, the shadows once more descend, and the false outlines of objects again return; yet not with their former power to deceive.”
Distinguished literary biographer Leon Eel wrote: “I take it as a postulate, even an axiom, that by the time the creating personality has acquired his adult being, a great fund of melancholy has been accumulated. It clamors for release. We can hear it in all acuteness in Schubert and Schumann, in the cosmic cadences of Beethoven; it comes at us from almost every page of poetry.”
Or Graham Greene: “Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”
Or poet Antonin Artaud in characteristic hyperbole: “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell.”
No wonder so much great art is so filled with sadness. As someone who sells tickets for a living, this presents some serious challenges. So much of the canon of great dramatic literature is tragic at its core but after a hard day’s work many people do not come to the theatre to witness more tragedy in their life. Popular culture has always served up bathos, cheap laughs, and sentimental endings. Barry Manilow, Neil Simon, John Grisham. Nothing wrong with them if they are to your taste but we mustn’t confuse their achievements and contributions with those of Billie Holiday, Eugene O’Neill, and William Faulkner. Ah, but what price the latter three paid for their creations.
This from the great French composer Hector Berlioz, who also had a prodigious literary career: “Sometimes I can scarcely endure this mental or physical pain especially on fine summer days when I’m in an open space like the Tuileries Garden alone. Oh then I could well believe there is a violent expansive force within me. I see that wide horizon and sun and I suffer so much, so much that if I did not take a grip of myself I should shout and roll on the ground. I have found only one way of completely satisfying this immense appetite for emotion and that is music. Without it I am certain I could not go on living.”
Like Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a mythological warrior bit by a serpent on his way to the Trojan War, whose wound grew so noxious in its smell that he was ostracized and left abandoned on the island of Lemmas. But Philoctetes was in possession of the Heracles’ bow, the critical weapon necessary to deliver victory for the Greeks and because of his cruel treatment refuses to surrender his bow. Eventually, after many entreaties, he does and the Greeks go on to win the war. One of the towering literary critics of the twentieth century, Edmund Wilson, modernizes the myth in “The Wound and The Bow,” tying the wound to psychic trauma and the bow to the healing power of insight, and so the creative personality is the one who uses art as a way of finding insight and transcending trauma. The artist chooses the road of insight, healing through personal expression, over that of pathology.
“Is getting well ever an art/or art a way to get well.”
While I would suspect that the majority of psychiatrists and other medical doctors in this room would not deny the value of some interactive psychotherapy as part of treatment for mental illness, it is probably true that the bulk of the work that the majority of you do is in psychopharmacology. Stories of people with diagnoses that would call for psychopharmacologic intervention certainly pepper our dramatic literature (and we will see some compelling scenes before the day is out demonstrating that), nonetheless, we in the storytelling business do not spend much on the biochemical causes of things. Our work is to look at the situational, social, and sometimes political and economic foundations of the problems we face. When is the disorder situational and when is it brain chemistry?
In other words, Hamlet may have been a brilliant young royal manic depressive that a cocktail of lithium, anti-depressants, and anti-psychotics could have tamed, but who can blame a young college grad on summer break from Wittenberg University who comes home to find his father dead in mysterious circumstances, and his mother shacking up with his uncle? Enough to make anyone crazy. Was Hamlet mad or was his moody volatility, his talking to himself, his contemplation of suicide, and his conversations and fantasies of his dead father normal and understandable responses to the extraordinary situation this adolescent found himself in? Or, concomitantly, what father would not go mad if, when reaching retirement age and attempting to generously divide his estate, he is turned out by his ungrateful children and discovers heinous plots against him wherever he turns. What treatment for Lear would you recommend, doctor?
This is what we in the theatre do for a living. We wrestle with the stories of how we live. And it is our belief and our abiding faith that in ritualized theatrical representations of our lives in a community setting that we are nurtured, receive succor and are sometimes healed.
Art just may be a way to get well.
GLOBAL HEALTH & THE ARTS 2011: Understanding and Tackling Cancer in the 21st Century
April 1, 2011
Good morning and a warm welcome to Long Wharf Theatre. Before I begin, I would like to thank, on both a personal and professional note, Long Wharf Trustee David Scheer whose vision created these Global Health conferences and whose enthusiasm and for both the arts and sciences has created this groundbreaking event out of clay.
A word about Long Wharf Theatre for those of you who do not know us. Long Wharf lives as part of a fine tradition of resident theatres, an amalgam of the non-profit institutions throughout the country. Like the Guthrie in Minneapolis, The Arena in Washington, and dozens of others in cities across the country, Long Wharf exists to serve its community and develop work for the field. As Artistic Director of Long Wharf I curate a season of classical plays and new work as well as direct a few every year.
As the economic model for producing theatre has evolved, non- profit theatres such as Long Wharf have become the generative engine and the life force behind the American Theatre. 23 of the last 25 Pulitzer Prizes for Drama have come from theatres such as ours. We ourselves are the recipients of three of those Pulitzers, as well as numerous Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and other awards. America's greatest theatre actors have performed on the stage from which I speak. A small sampling includes: Al Pacino, Jason Robards, Kathleen Turner, Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston, Jane Alexander, Nathan Lane, the list is a who's who in American drama. Long Wharf has brought more plays to NY than any theatre in the country... Presently, you are sitting in our larger theatre, later after dinner you will be seeing our seeing our current offering, the world premiere of Agnes Under the Big Top in our other, smaller space.
In the past 5 or six years there has been an extraordinarily large number of what we call natural disasters. Earthquakes in Jakarta, China, Haiti, Chile, Pakistan, devastating storms including Hurricane Katrina and of course recently the horrendous earthquake in Japan, and its resultant nuclear disaster .Is it just our imaginations or have there been an inordinate number of these disasters in the past few years. Doesn't it feel like they are coming at us at an accelerating pace? Is there one among us today that has not wondered about their frequency? Is there something happening that we don’t understand? We all looked at the astonishing photos from the disaster in Japan a few weeks ago and we all knew that on the one hand this destruction was caused once again by the movement of earth's sub strata Yet did you not also ask the more philosophical cum religious question "why?" Just one more geological movement? Climate change? The beginning of disasters as predicted many years ago in the Mayan calendar? Or Punishment for letting gays in the military? Or none of the above?
Why? The search for the cause and cure for suffering is the stuff of medical science as it is the quest of the world's religions. The presentation of this struggle for community witness is the stuff of drama. So many of you in this room are heroes who spend your professional life searching for the causes of cancer, and its requisite treatment. Looking at the website of the National Cancer Institute I learned what I already knew -- smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise, unprotected exposure to the sun, unprotected sex, and of course most importantly family history can either cause or contribute to a person contracting cancer. Question a clinician and you will hear a somewhat more complex story. Not contradictory just more complicated. Any primary care physician will tell you they have patients who smoke and drink and live to 95 as well as slim and fit marathon runners who drop dead at 42. Why?
Why is also a question we ask in the rehearsal room? Why? What causes a particular character in a play to behave in a certain way or say a particular line? When Willy Loman arrives home late at night in DEATH OF A SALESMAN'S opening scene, he calls up to his wife Linda, "It's OK, I came back." Why is he saying this line, actor and director look for the answer in rehearsal. Is he reassuring her because she might be frightened about the sound of the back door opening at night? Have they had a fight and he stormed out? Or has Willy been suicidal and he is telling her that he is indeed alive and not a suicide. Whatever the subtext, his intention is to reassure his wife Linda, to decrease her anxiety. Of course the more central investigation of this drama is to see what is causing the demise of this very American family, what is the cause of their suffering?
The question of causality in the history of drama is a fascinating one. Before the modern era playwrights often presented their characters as distillations. Shakespeare, our greatest dramatist, investigates one by one a wide menu of human frailties and their devastating consequences in his great tragedies. In Macbeth, Shakespeare does not spend a whole lot of stage time showing why our titular warrior is so consumed with ambition. Rather he creates a compelling, horrifying, yet recognizable drama about the consequences of unbridled ambition. Shakespeare knew we would immediately recognize as all too familiar Macbeth's thirst for power so he chose not to spend time looking at why. The why was beside the point. Just the how and the what.
Most adult humans know sexual jealousy, and so immediately recognize Othello's uncontrollable rage at the belief of his wife's betrayal. Again, Shakespeare takes the universal weakness, the common flaw, and makes his drama out of that. This will hold true for all his heroes, Lear, Brutus, Richard II, Prince Hal, and on. As rich and complex as the tapestry of his great plays may be, Shakespeare's tragic heroes are for the most part irreducible essences. Hamlet is the exception to this tidy thesis but why quibble.
Not so in modern drama where we spend quite a bit more time looking for more complex and psychological causes for our fate. It would be a neat analysis to say that it all begins with Freud, but not entirely true. Freud said that all his important insights were anticipated by several decades in the works of Dostoyevsky. And it is in the late nineteenth century dramas of Ibsen and particularly Anton Chekov in which human beings round themselves out in a more contemporary and therefore complicated presentation of causality. With the ushering in of the modern era we begin to find neater explanations for the causes of human behavior in drama and all literature. Welcome to the world of isms, and theoretical systems that offer a way to understand behavior. Marx, Freud, My mother didn't breast feed me or my mother did breast feed me or capitalism is an exploitative system. All theory all the time.
And so when Willy comes home and says "It's Ok I came back," he enters his home that has been poisoned by an economic and social system in which the wrong values are extolled. If Willy Loman is a tragic hero, his flaw was that he invested too blindly in Americanism and when he reaches a certain age, he learned that it is not paying him the dividend that he had been told and believed it would. Of course there are a myriad of secondary psychological disturbances which cause the Loman family its grief, but it is clear that Miller is hunting for a bigger macrocosmic socio- political animal for his causal prey; Miller once said that the structure of all drama is watching how the chickens come home to roost. This playwright looks deep into the DNA of the nation for the answer to the question, “why?” In Galatians, St. Paul said that "however ye shall sow, so shall ye reap." Another Paul, just as famous, said or to be more precise, sang, "and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make” But do we reap what we sow and were the Beatles right?
The religions of the world have offered as part of their foundation explanations for human suffering. In their most orthodox manifestation, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Jew agree. Your deeds are the cause of your misfortune. Whether the consequences emerge over time as in the Eastern concept of karma or the more immediate retribution of the Deutoronmical codes, there is a direct almost Newtonian action/reaction equation. To be fair, these are the more literal and as I said orthodox interpretations. Theologians and religionists of all faiths today generally understand a more nuanced and mysterious view of the order of things. Trying to understand why one person is spared another not, can take you into rough terrain.
I recently read the following first person narrative from a cancer survivor: I quote: "Something shocking happened in my family just a couple of years ago. Doctors discovered that my grandmother had liver cancer and estimated that she had less than a year to live. Forgoing radiation and chemotherapy, she begins to tell friends and family of her diagnosis. Immediately most of the people who dearly love this precious woman began to pray on her behalf. While her own prayers were simply for courage, other people including myself were praying for her to return to good health. Within a few months her doctors were astonished to discover that her cancer was stabilizing and several months after that were at a loss to explain why they could find no trace of cancer in her body. When the doctors told her they had no explanation for what had happened, she assured them it was because prayer works.”
We have all heard these stories. I was sick, my doctor told me I had months to live, I prayed and I got better. Or I was told I was going to die, I went on a yoga retreat, started drinking carrot juice, eating pomegranates and kale and I got better. Or I was told I had six months and fought and fought back -- I was determined to beat it and I did Whatever one's religious views on alternative approaches to healing, I'm sure that we can all agree that prayer and yoga and pomegranates cant hurt. And many of us in this room, including me, have prayed ardently for the recovery of a loved on. It has been shown that meditation has health benefits and for all we know all of the above may be partially curative but what conclusion do we draw when we pray with all our heart and still don't get better? When we do everything right and still are not healed: That we didn't pray hard enough? That we didn't fight hard enough? That our will is weaker than those who get better? That God doesn't love us as much as she loves another. We may conclude that there is something wrong with us or our efforts. There is danger in making a patient responsible for his or her cure of a disease like cancer. If they don't get better whose fault is it?
There does not seem to be hard data linking patient prayer with recovery. We all know that meditation and prayer can do wonders for our sense of well being, sense of calm and focus. But there was a study published in 2006 in the American Heart Journal, regarding patients who were prayed for by others. Perhaps you all know this study. I found it extraordinary. It seems that, I quote "patients who know they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications than those that don't,” In another of the study's findings, a significantly higher number of the patients who knew that they were being prayed for — 59 percent — suffered complications, compared with 51 percent of those who were uncertain. The authors of the study wondered if being aware of the strangers' prayers also may have caused some of the patients a kind of performance anxiety.
And these moving words from a pediatric oncologist: "Most of the time in the pediatric world, we approach things with a lot of optimism and hope. But it may also convey that it is really the child's responsibility to fight hard enough to beat their cancer. They should not have the feeling that it is their job and if they are good enough and do everything right, they are going to survive their cancer. I do not want to want to convey that they have more control over their illness than they really do."
When I was growing up, the two words that could only be spoken in a whisper were divorce and cancer. Both shondas, both shames. As if getting sick reflected on our character is we thought it did with divorce.
Susan Sontag in her brilliant essay ILLNESS AS METAPHOR digs deep into our cultural assumptions about both TB and cancer. According to current mythology, Sontag contends that cancer is seen as the "wages of repression,” as if one eats oneself alive with cancer when one does not life of robust and unbridled emotion. We believe there is the kind of person who gets cancer. Certainly public perception has changed somewhat since the publication of Sontag's 1978 shot across the bow, but her point stands. Listen to the story of Ms Gee in WH Auden's 1930s poem:
Let me tell you a little story
About Miss Edith Gee
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
At number 83
She'd a slight squint in her left eye
Her lips they were thin and small,
She had narrow sloping shoulders
And she had no bust at all
The days and nights went by her
Like waves round a Cornish wreck
She bicycled down to the doctor
With her clothes buttoned up to her neck
She bicycled down to the doctor
And rang the surgery bell
O doctor I've a pain inside me
And I don't feel very well
Doctor Thomas looked her over
And then he looked some more
Walked over to his wash basin
Said why didn't you come before
Doctor Thomas sat over his dinner
Though his wife was waiting to ring
Rolling his bread into pellets
Said "cancer's a funny thing."
Nobody knows what the cause is
Though some pretend they do
It’s like some hidden assassin
Waiting to strike at you
Childless women get it
And men when they retire
It’s as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire.
The Roman poet Virgil wrote: happy is he who knows the causes of things. Our rational minds love to know and name the causes of things. But sometimes the answers to these questions are harder to find. Sometimes we don't ever learn the "why", but like those fighting to stop Macbeth's murderous rampage, all we can do is try to stop the disease. The sciences are built on the belief that the causes of most things are ultimately knowable. Science is rational, objective, and verifiable. The arts are intuitive, subjective, and deeply personal. It is not irrational to dislike the work of Stephen Sondheim or Mark Rothko. But it would be difficult to find a sane and sentient being that does not appreciate the value of penicillin or believe in gravity.
This conference is built on the faith that science and the arts have something to say each other. We swim in different waters, and often pray to a different God, but we all believe that if we do our work well, we can improve the quality of people's lives. We in the theatre believe that. We hold close the abiding faith in the power of stories to increase empathy, stimulate thought, provoke spiritual growth, and thereby decrease suffering. We believe that our common humanity is deepened and that we are nurtured and healed by coming together as a community to experience stories on a stage in a darkened theatre. The arts in general and the theatre in specific are the science of savoring life.
Throughout the day, as palette cleansers and as counterpoint to the science, we will present a few short scenes from distinguished plays that feature characters dealing with cancer. And then later after dinner we will come together in our smaller theatre to witness an exciting new play that will make flesh that we have spoken about all day.
I hope that you have a fruitful and inspiring day. We are thrilled and honored that you are here. And don’t forget to save room for dessert.