Public Health and Private Pain: A Night of Medical History and Drama

Introduction to the evening from Silke Ackermann, Sally Shuttleworth and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr


Earlier this year, we organised an event with the Oxford Museum of the History of Science and Pegasus Theatre: ‘Public Health and Private Pain: A Night of Medical History and Drama’. We built the event on the following rationale:

In the 18th Century convicts’ bodies, commandeered by the state, were the raw material for anatomical dissections which were often open to the public. Over the next two centuries many other medical bodies were brought into the public sphere. Doctors and surgeons were placed on stages as the surgical theatre was joined by theatrical explorations of the role of medical professionals and the limits of their interventions, such as George Bernard Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma (1906). By 1906 it was possible to look into a microscope and stare at the syphilis bacterium. An organism responsible for centuries of private shame and madness could be seen for the first time, photographed and displayed in public. At the same time that medicine was going public, so was health. The public health movement of the 19th century was another space were bodies were brought out into the open. The move to universal vaccination in particular saw fierce battles over the public treatment of private bodies. The broken bodies and minds of troops returning from the First World War also straddle a divide between private pain and the public psychiatric care that was, or was not, provided for trauma.

In short: if you want to know about medicine, pain and health in public and private spheres then theatre is an ideal place to look. We enlisted the help of the Pegasus Theatre group, because of their track record of working with young people to produce excellent theatre. The Oxford Museum of the History of Science was a perfect choice of venue, not only would the exhibitions add to the night, but the building itself, with a long and rich history which saw it acting at one point as a dissection theatre, lent to the atmosphere.

The evening was split into several parts. At the beginning and the end of the night we brought everyone together in the museum’s vaulted basement for a series of staged extracts from plays. In between times, we split the audience up into three groups – coloured stickers all round – so they could move about the museum for three smaller performances among the exhibits.

The first basement scene was taken from Shelagh Stephenson, An Experiment with an Air-pump (1998). The play is a fascinating exploration of medical ethics, genetics and much else besides. Roget (of Thesaurus fame) makes an appearance playing table tennis. The play’s wikipedia article is pretty good and you can also read a review from noted theatre critic, the New Scientist, here. The play is introduced by the OMHS’s Stephen Johnston.

Second on the bill, while we were still all in the basement together, was an extract from George Bernard Shaw’s, The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906). This scene was introduced by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr teasing out some of the implications of the play’s exploration of medical ethics.  

At this point we split into three groups for a smaller more intimate performance on each of the museum’s levels, in among the display cases. First up was a scene from Henrik Ibsen’s, Ghosts (1881). It’s pretty harrowing stuff, capturing the moment when Oswald tells his mum that he has syphilis. This scene was introduced by Jennifer Wallis.

Back down in the basement but this time in a side room, Peter Fifield, set the stage for a reading of two poems from the First World War Poetry Digital Archive at Oxford. The first was Survivors by Siegfried Sassoon (1917) and the second was Wilfred Owen’s Mental Cases (1918). The two poems deal with shell shock. One again, this is in places tough listening.

Lightening up the mood, the third of our short break-out pieces was an anti-vaccination song, dripping in Victorian sarcasm.  Sally Frampton introduced the rollicking song of ‘great discovery’: Anon, ‘Vaccination’, The National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Reporter (1877), p.20, by reminding us how wide-spread and heterogeneous the anti-vax movement of the 19th century had been.

We reconvened in the basement for a final performance, selected from Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange (2000), the scene touches on race, mental health and medical authority in ways that sometimes make for uncomfortable viewing. This scene was introduced by Anja Drautzburg.

Lastly, we brought the evening to a close with drinks and a question & answer session with the Pegasus actors.

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