The nearest we get to live theatre right now is Clap for Our Carers, the countrywide applause for the ceaseless, selfless work of NHS staff. While not solving the staffing or funding crises, this shared act of appreciation for medics remains incontrovertibly a ‘Good Thing’.
That phrase, complete with over-emphatic initial capital letters, comes from 1066 and All That, the gloriously so-wrong-it’s-right history of England. Equally old-fashioned and British is the cry “Ooh, Matron!”, which peaked in 1972 in Carry On Matron, with Hattie Jacques presiding over the Finisham Maternity Hospital, with wards named Bun and Oven.
Alongside the plot of a gang of thieves planning to make a fortune by stealing the hospital’s contraceptive pills, we’re expected to swallow the notion that less-than-virile Charles Hawtrey has the hots for Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams does too. That was the last of the four medical comedies of the 31 Carry On films – the others were Carry On Nurse in 1959, Carry on Doctor eight years later and Carry On Again Doctor in 1969.
‘Given the thousands of hours of TV drama on life-support, why are there so few doctor dramas on stage?’
Medical dramas were good on screen, a habit picked up from the seven Doctor films, adaptations of books by surgeon/anaesthetist Richard Gordon, beginning with heart-throb Dirk Bogarde in Doctor in the House in 1954 and ending with Doctor in Trouble with Leslie Phillips 16 years later.
In 1969, ITV picked up the baton with its own Doctor in the House, with writers who later became famous via Monty Python, Graham Chapman and John Cleese, plus Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden (who qualified as a doctor but never practised) and Bill Oddie.
Then there are medicated soaps. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen at least one episode of Emergency – Ward 10, Dr Kildare, General Hospital, St Elsewhere, M*A*S*H, Angels, ER, Peak Practice, Surgical Spirit, Grey’s Anatomy, Diagnosis Murder, Doctors, Green Wing or even Dr Quinn Medicine Woman? And that’s before we reach the BBC’s mythical kingdom of Holby, home to Holby City (since 1999) and Casualty which, at 34 years, is the world’s longest-running emergency medical drama.
Given all those thousands of hours of drama on life-support, how come there are so few doctor dramas on stage? Molière got in early, chiefly in 1666 with Le Médecin Malgré Lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself) and his final play Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac) in 1673. George Bernard Shaw’s 1906 play The Doctor’s Dilemma is revived fairly regularly, which, since it’s about money and medical ethics amid a lack of resources, is hardly a surprise. Compare that with Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer-winning Wit, a pro-patient play that stacked the deck against the medical profession.
In 1969, Peter Nichols’ huge The National Health, Or Nurse Norton’s Affair (cast of 30) played the National Theatre and was subsequently filmed. That used a medical ward as a metaphor for the country and had, as the Guardian’s Philip Hope-Wallace wrote, “a pungency Chekhov would have envied at times and it caught me between wind and water, half in tears and half slain with laughter”. In a similar vein, I regret missing Andy de la Tour’s NHS funding farce Safe in Our Hands at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1989 because I literally cried laughing when reading it.
The one medical area that gets a regular dramatic look-in is psychiatry. Peter Shaffer put the profession under the microscope with Equus, followed by Nicholas Wright’s Mrs Klein and Tom Kempinski’s two-hander, Duet for One, revived in 2009 at the Almeida starring Henry Goodman and Juliet Stevenson.
Were Theatreland not closed, Stevenson would now be rehearsing for an exception that proves the rule: the transfer of Robert Icke’s startlingly intelligent The Doctor, his identity-politics rewrite of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play about medical ethics and anti-Semitism. Schnitzler, of course, knew whereof he spoke since, like Schiller and Chekhov before him, he was a practising doctor.
The rarity of such plays is one reason Nina Raine wrote Tiger Country, her 2011 study of surgeons under pressure, revived at Hampstead Theatre in 2014. For Raine, the subject matter is ripe with potential: “The stakes are so high, they’re dealing with life and death.”
The downside for her is the fact that medicine has been colonised by TV soap writing, a world that audiences start expecting as soon as necessary technical jargon kicks in. But Raine argues that people who go into medicine are, by definition, unusually empathetic: “And that’s a quality of actors. Like doctors, they look at people and think about how they would be feeling.”
With the world’s population suddenly united by non-stop consideration of medical care, maybe more playwrights will seize the opportunity to write not dramas about the crisis, but about dramatically overlooked medics.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict