Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
Augy Hayter (1940 -2004) was an actor, translator, poet and playwright who lived on the fringes of the avant-garde. His father, Stanley William Hayter, was a famous artist who lived in Paris and knew such painters as Picasso and Miró. In 2002 Augy Hayter published five one act plays; by then he had given up “voiced-based activities” after an operation on his throat, presumably for cancer, for he died two years later.
In two of the plays, not connected in any other way, a children suffers from a cerebral haemorrhage, which not surprisingly has a profound effect on the father of each, though each child survives without sequelae. Since such haemorrhages are not very common, one might surmise an autobiographical element. One of the fathers describes the experience:
I never had a religious education, I didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. And then I said, Oh God, and the words came, Oh God, if you need a brain, take mine.
Electro-convulsive therapy plays a large part in two of the other plays, and again I surmised a personal connection. In the first play, Fit to Be Tied, a patient who has escaped from an asylum returns to his former office, where he was the boss, and advertises for an employee. A young man applies for the job, but in the middle of his interview a doctor (described as having “the arrogance of insecurity”) and a nurse arrive to haul him back to the asylum.
The male nurse returns to the office to reassure the applicant who asks “Is it true he is being given shock treatment?” The nurse replies that it is and it isn’t; he goes through the motions of having it, but the apparatus has been deliberately disabled so that no electricity goes through his brain. The doctor doesn’t know this, but is nevertheless satisfied with the result. The play seems to have been inspired by the commonly repeated story of the ECT clinic in which the machine had broken down but nobody noticed: to which one can only say they cannot have been very observant.
In the second play, called Sheherazade, a man gets into a train compartment with a young girl and tells her that he is going to rape her, cut her throat and throw her from the carriage before they reach Clapham Junction. However, they start talking, and he relates his experience of ECT, seeing other people have it while waiting for his own:
The eyeballs turn up, the teeth snap together, the eyelids are trembling, the eyes are white and while the body is convulsing they’re holding your arms and legs so you don’t knock over the equipment. You see, the hospital Bursar gets very shitty about that sort of expense. If they kill you on the operating table, no problem, but if they lose an electrode, the doctor won’t be let go of for months.
The dedication of the play is at the end. “The play is dedicated to… the memory of my mother, who received such treatment.”
Hayter translated Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play It’s Only the End of the World, written in 1990 five years before Lagarce died of AIDS, about a man long estranged from his family who returns with a fatal disease, and exposes the family’s secrets and mutual hostilities. In literature, one is never more than a degree or two of separation from medicine.