Thursday, 30 March 2017
I believe that theatre (plays and productions) should become aware of a new way of communication that you find in banks in the way they handle customer services. I would like to call this new kind of communication corporate politeness. It is a sophisticated way of unmistakably establishing the bank’s power and superiority that seems to be taught to employees across the sector, because you can observe it and experience it across different companies of the same sector.
In a local branch of a major bank, the interior design of the public hall has been changed relatively recently to reduce the customer services positions and add to the range of machines. In the hall, one or two employees approach customers who have joined the queue for the customer services desk and ask them why they have come into the bank today. The tone is slightly reproachful, many people react with some alarm at being approached and stutter in their response. Some are told off that they should really be using the machines for whatever they have come in, and several machines are free, and the customer services person can help them if they need help using the machine. If a machine can be used, customers do not have the choice of using the machine or a person. And the bank clerk’s tone of voice makes that very clear to them, in addition to making them feel inferior if they do need the help offered. Those customers whose business cannot be handled by the machines are told to stay in the queue to the customer service desks, and asked to please move forward a few steps from where they were before. Again the tone to stay, and to move, is reproachful, and soon the person next in line is asked to move close behind you, so that you feel their breath on your neck. The hall is vast, the hall is empty, there is no need for such crowding, but anything to make the customer politely uncomfortable seems to be used by the clerks.
In a different bank, I have submitted a letter authorising me to withdraw money from a savings account, a form to the same effect after the authorising letter was not considered sufficient for the bank to rule out attempted fraud, and my passport. The cashier looks at all three, scrutinizes me in relation to my passport photo, several times, very thoroughly, and then asks me to tell him my name, my date of birth and my address. My name and date of birth is on all three documents he has just scrutinized, and my mailing address on two. His tone has the corporate politeness characteristic of being reproachful. When I hesitate and gesture towards the three documents, he repeats the same request word for word, more slowly, more loudly, more reproachfully. Another cashier in the background motions to the area obscured from view and can be heard saying that the customer (meaning me) seems to become agitated and aggressive. I neither seem nor am either, so this is a further component of corporate politeness: when the cashier has to repeat his request, it means to her/his colleagues that the customer is being difficult.
I have not yet noticed this tone of corporate politeness in the theatre—it will be a challenge for actors to capture the sophisticated nuances it encompasses.
Tuesday, 28 March 2017
In my earlier post on Opera-seats and productions, I discussed the importance of storytelling—and elaborated that any opera production will tell some kind of story: what counts is whether the story makes sense. The set design contributes much to the story. The scenography by Patrick Kinmonth for Robert Carsen’s 2014 production of Die Walküre at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, taken over from their production in Cologne, Germany, is an example of aspects that do not work fully.
When the curtain rises on the first Act of Die Walküre, we expect to see the inside of Hunding’s place. What we do see is a set in grey which consists of a range of crates, wooden or metal and other boxes loosely arranged like a square around a real burning log fire. The various boxes and crates will be used in the course of the Act to serve as seats for various characters. To the right of this arrangement is what looks like and turns out in the end to be, a tree trunk lying on the ground. It is not in the soil, and that means dead, with a piece of cloth placed over one end of it which is where Sieglinde will be revealing Wotan’s sword in due course.
When the curtain rises the scene is not empty as expected but a number of characters, men in various kinds of combat gear, clearly soldiers, come on and add to the fortification of this area by piling up further crates on top of the ones that exist already. In the background one soldier climbs up on one of the rostra at the back. When all the other soldiers have left the scene, this soldier comes forward and is revealed as Siegmund who now starts the opera with his first line indicating that he is exhausted, that no matter where he is, this is where he has to take a rest. When Sieglinde joins him shortly afterwards in the room, assuming that it is her husband who has come back home, she is revealed to be wearing the same kind of combat gear of grey khaki trousers, shirt and jacket.
|Act 1 Scene 1, Walküre Barcelona|
Their interaction when they see each other first, until after the point when Hunding returns, is well guided by the director, independent of the setting and of the costumes. The way they look at each other, the way they are drawn to each other right from the beginning, the way each one fights this attraction for different reasons, Siegmund because he is used to bringing bad luck to people and doesn’t want to bring bad luck to this woman whom he feels attracted to, and Sieglinde because she was married against her will to a horrible man, Hunding, who has treated her very badly as will be revealed later. She is torn between loyalty to the institution of marriage if not to that particular husband and her feelings for a man who is not her husband.
All these nuances are brought out very carefully and consistently and also in line with the music that accompanies the words of the libretto. When Hunding does arrive he does not arrive on his own but with a number of his soldiers whose leader he clearly is. They come armed with guns and point them at the assumed intruder, but after Hunding has assessed the situation, realising that Siegmund is without a weapon he makes them drop their weapons and sends them away within a short period of time. It becomes very clear straight away that he is a nasty piece of work, from the way he deals with his soldiers, the way he deals with Siegmund and the way he deals with his wife.
The entire rest of the scene takes place in this arrangement of crates and boxes in which Siegmund tries to find suitable weapons: he is told by Hunding that Hunding was one of those who tried to follow and kill Siegmund and that while he is safe for the night, because of the hospitality that he had offered, but the next day, Hunding will fight Siegmund, so Siegmund needs a weapon. He looks through the boxes and creates, finds a crate full of weapons but Hunding comes back and locks it. The relationship between Hunding and Sieglinde also becomes clearer in the course of their interaction. Hunding grows suspicious and when he requests Sieglinde to prepare for the night and to join him in bed he hits her full blast into the face so that she collapses with a loud cry. There is an interesting reaction from Siegmund: he rises instinctively, storms towards the couple but stops himself at the last moment because Hunding has a weapon and he doesn’t.
The light for this scene comes throughout and predominately from the right hand side of stage, and gets brighter when Spring is announced through cold, clear moon light. When Sieglinde shows Siegmund the sword that Wotan had placed in the tree trunk, she lifts the coat from it but already that movement moves the sword out of the trunk a little bit. This is a let-down of the props design here. When Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree trunk—which allegedly many strong men have tried and not been able to—it is just too easy for him to do this and the sword is also ridiculously short and flimsy: unnecessarily disappointing.
In the interaction between characters there are nice nuances, for example, Siegmund quite naturally adds a log to the log fire when the fire goes down. When Hunding comes home he is about to do the same probably following common practice and is surprised when he finds a log has been added to the fire already and just puts the additional log that he wanted to put on the fire next to the fire with a bit of a grumpy gesture.
|Act II, Walküre, Barcelona|
The first part of the second act is supposed to be set, according to the libretto, in a wild mountain scape. In this production it is set in a huge living room that fills the entire vast stage. At first it is filled with soldiers who then leave with only two or three armed guards at each end. In the middle is a huge table but not of conventional normal table size but as a kind of table that is meant for an arrangement around or in between armchairs and sofas and indeed there are sofas, huge large long white, possibly leather but arranged in such a way that only the arm rests face the audience. On the table is a large heavy plate made of silvery material full of apples, maybe eight or nine of them. Behind this there is a fire place on one side and some other pieces of furniture here and there. But because the depth of the stage is so vast, the singers cannot make use of the depth because of the acoustics of the stage which would swallow their voices if sang too far back. So only when they are not singing can they use the areas of the stage that are further back; for their singing they would be near the arm rests of the sofas that are closest to the audience and that end of the table. The blocking of this scene is characterised predominately by its predictability. It is predictable that the depth of the stage is there but will not be used much or would be used in such a way that one of the characters is towards the front singing and another is character is doing something at the back of the stage but there is no logic in that arrangement. It is then also predictable that Wotan in his several long monologues (where he provides Brünnhilde with the background to everything that is happening now in historical terms), he will be standing towards the front of the stage and is probably going to shift between these three, one sofa left, the table in the middle and the sofa on the right and that is exactly what happens. It is similarly predictable that because there are characters who are very highly agitated and angry it is only a question of when one of them, and most likely Wotan, will pick up the tray of apples and throw the apples all over the place. That does happen. Unfortunately, the weight of the tray and the apples together is such that it does not look spontaneous at all when he picks up this heavy plate and throws the apples: nobody would be doing that even if they are very angry and upset. It is a good idea but it doesn’t work.
|Act II, Scene 3, Walküre Barcelona|
In this production, the scene shifts in so far as the curtain falls during the exchange between Wotan and Brünnhilde, not the front curtain but the curtain slightly further back so that the stage hands can change the set behind that curtain while Wotan and Brünnhilde carry on their scene in front of that curtain. When the curtain opens we see a wintry landscape, snow that has been falling already for most of the scene of Act 1 in the background is now covering the whole stage but not loose, rather a solid layer of material that looks like snow from the outside. On the right hand side of the stage we can see an old jeep, derelict, broken down, not fit for purpose anymore, but it provides an interesting prop or piece of design because it allows Siegmund to place Sieglinde in it to rest and to move in around it in his exchange with Brünnhilde when she comes initially to tell him that he is to die but later on takes his side and promises to fight for him in his struggle with Hunding against Wotan’s wishes.
The interaction between Siegmund and Sieglinde in this part of the scene is conventional and predictable through the possibilities offered by the jeep.
Siegmund can climb up, climb down, Sieglinde can do the same so there is
some variety in what they can do. There
is more imaginative blocking in the interaction between Brünnhilde and Siegmund
in so far that the performers manage to express especially Siegmund’s attitude and
position , such as Siegmund’s certainty, security and determination when he
tells Brünnhilde that he will not be following her to Valhalla because Sieglinde
is not joining him there.
|Act 2, Walküre, Barcelona|
At the end of the second act is the fight scene between Hunding and Siegmund with Hunding armed with his gun, Siegmund with a sword when Wotan smashes the sword, Hunding first knocks Siegmund out with his gun and when Siegmund has fallen he stabs him with gun’s bayonet.
The third act takes place on the same kind of snowy ground but through the lighting effect it is now dark, dirty and is covered with the dead bodies of soldiers. The Valkyries appear and one after the other most of the soldiers are raised back to after- life by the Valkyries and led off stage either to the right or to the left depending on which party they have been fighting for, because they have to be separated at first until their human life, their human emotions have settled down so that they would not be fighting each other anymore. They are being led as brave soldiers to live in Valhalla in their after-lives as heroes. Some of these dead soldiers remain lying on the ground for the rest of the scene.
The rest of the interaction between Wotan and Brünnhilde takes place in this environment and they need to try and find spaces where they don’t step on these dead soldiers so that makes it a bit awkward and there is a lot of stumbling around as a result and that doesn’t help. Brünnhilde has been wearing a fire-red dress for most of the time, now she seems to be feeling cold suddenly in that scene and takes up the coat of one of the dead soldiers to warm herself with it.
|Final scene, Walküre, Barcelona|
To represent to the ring of fire that Wotan creates around Brünnhilde at the end of the opera, he places a lighter with lit fire in front of her and the back droplifts up and behind that a line of fire, clearly gas fire from some device on the ground, emits a line of flame which is not too high so it is a very down-to-earth, low-key kind of effect.
Friday, 24 March 2017
Regular check-ups at the dentist are part of the lives of people at least in Western countries. Dentists are thus members of a profession that is well known to many. Compared with other, similarly well-known professions, however, dentists feature only rarely as characters in plays. In this (longer) blog entry, I want to provide a survey of these plays. A dentist’s view completes the entry.
While some plays with scientists as characters deal to a considerable extent with the science they are involved in, at times, as in Carl Djerassi’s plays, meticulously ensuring accuracy of the science in all its aspects while at the same time allowing scientists to come across as human beings with all their human frailties, in the case of dentist characters, the emphasis tends to be different. There are some plays where a character, usually male, is identified as a dentist in passing—the profession is not of much interest to the play, beyond the fact that some university education will have been necessary, and for the character to be placed in a specific social and financial bracket. Mike Leigh’s 2006 play 2000 years is a good example of this.
play is set in 2004 and 2005 in the home of Danny, his wife Rachel, his son
Josh, his daughter Tammy, family friend Jonathan, Rachel’s father Dave, Tammy’s
boyfriend Tzachi and Rachel’s sister Michelle.
Leigh calls it his Jewish play.
It is about the life of a Jewish family in contemporary Britain and
their ideas and attitudes towards their Jewishness and the events in Israel. Danny
is a dentist and there is not much in the play about this work. He says to his son
|Mike Leigh: Two Thousand Years|
We give you money, you buy books, you stay up half the night, you get up whenever you like, you are free to come and go, you have never had a job. Josh, you left University seven years ago with a first class honours degree in mathematics. The world was your oyster. We tried to bring you up decently and respectably and now this mishigas. Your mother runs around clearing up after you while I spend all day fiddling in people’s mouths. (2006, 22)
The quote confirms the comfortable financial situation enabled by Danny’s profession, and the implication that he does not much like what he has to do to earn his money: “fiddling in people’s mouths” implies and conveys disgust—probably with the implication that this cannot be an ideal attitude to daily work. In the middle of a later conversation Danny says
So Thursday morning this little kid comes in and he craps himself in the chair he is so scared. His mother was mortified, poor Estelle had to come in and help me clear up the mess. Nothing wrong with his teeth, put me back ten minutes” (2006, 30)
His wife, Rachel, comments: “Put you back ten minutes, put him back for life, he will probably never go to the dentist again poor kid” (2006, 30). Time comes into the final reference in the play to Danny’s profession, when he says to his father-in-law: “Dave, my whole life is about keeping appointments” (2006, 77). In the musical The Gig, the dentist character, Arthur, one of a group of men aged thirty-five to fifty-five that form an amateur jazz band, is also concerned about appointments: in relation to the two-week tour they are embarking on, all the men of the jazz band comment on the things that they have had to give up. Arthur says: “Marty, I cancelled two weeks of appointments for this” (1992, 35).
Thus in Mike Leigh’s serious play we have a dentist who does not like his job, with one general impression that he finds it disgusting, and one specific, and extreme of a disgusting incident. This dentist, furthermore, seems more concerned with the implications on the smooth running of his schedule than the well-being of the patients. Arthur in The Gig comments that “it’s a disgusting job” (1992, 96). “When you get right down to it, it’s a disgusting job putting your fingers in other people’s mouths but Wednesday nights are not about the daily grind like when they grind their teeth into my flesh or spray my face or mess with my equipment, Wednesday nights are there to help forget my scars. In only 32 bars, I am one of six shooting stars” (1992, 19).
In light comedy, disgust also features, for comedy
effects: for example, Felix, a “neurotic but likeable” (1978, 5) London dentist
is asked by the estate agent trying to sell him the Spanish holiday home, what
he does for a living.
|Douglas J Cohen, The Gig|
Partridge: Ohh. Interesting.
Felix: Dentistry has been called many things, but rarely “interesting”.
Partridge: That’s the answer. That’s why your nerves are so bad. The job’s tedious.
Felix: Nothing but gums and molars, caps and crowns…and the occasional clove of garlic. You’re right, I’m in bad shape” (1978, 17)
The idea of disgust links with that of the dentist character as (ab-)using his power over patients lying in their chairs as helpless victims. The dentist in the musical The Little Shop of Horrors is probably the most well-known example. Teeth, a play for television by Tom Stoppard, first broadcast in 1967, is set in the dental surgery of dentist Harry Dunn, described as small, mid-30s, very clean and pink, with light framed spectacles, and a tight even white smile. Stoppard describes the play in the preface as a “Roald Dahl type story as I hoped. I take this opportunity to dedicate it to my much more recent and much nicer dentist” (1993, vii). The Roald Dahl reference suggests that this is black comedy and indeed what turns out to be the case is that Harry has a relationship with Mary, his receptionist, while the receptionist’s husband, George, has a relationship with the dentist’s wife. Although the dentist has his own relationship with George’s wife, he does not like George to have a relationship with his wife and so when George comes for a routine check-up of a set of perfect teeth, Harry subjects him to humiliation and prods around in his mouth with his instruments, drilling where it is not necessary and in the end pulling at least one tooth. Quite a lot of the dentist’s work in the patient’s mouth is filmed in detail; in this respect, the direction reads that
Harry should make use of all his tools and nozzles, squirting air and water, swivelling, drilling etc. The point is that Harry is playing with George. The dental procedures do not have to be authentic or accurate. The director and actors can assume that there is nothing much wrong with George’s teeth and there is a logical rationalisation for using the machine indiscriminately for effect. (1993, 32)
|Ron Clarke and Sam Bobrick, Murder at the Howard Johnson's|
From the black comedy of Little Shop of Horrors and Teeth, we move to light comedy, which is where most dentists in drama are found. Murder at the Howard Johnson’s by Ron Clarke and Sam Bobrick is a good example.The three acts of this play are set in a Howard Johnson’s hotel (one of the hotel chains in America) on three different occasions, a week before Christmas in Room 514, on the 4th July in Room 907, and on New Year’s Eve in Room 1015. The play has three characters, Arlene Miller, her husband, Paul Miller and their dentist, Mitchell Lovell. In the first scene the dentist and Arlene plot to kill Paul but fail. In the second scene Arlene and Paul plot to kill the dentist but fail. In the third scene, the dentist and Paul plot to kill Arlene but fail. The comedy is based on several clichés about dentists: first of all, the character of Mitchell is introduced with reference to the assumption that dentists are attractive to women because of their profession (presumably implying financial prowess): thus, Mitchell says to Arlene, rather pompously and therefore funny: “I can’t stand the thought of anybody but me touching you. I am a dentist Arlene, you know I can have any woman I want, but all I want is you” (1979, 7). The dentist’s cruelty, exaggerated in Little Shop of Horrors and Teeth, received slightly lighter treatment in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s: Mitchell reveals to Arlene: “I have never told you this before but remember when I put in that bridge for him and he went home in terrific pain, I purposely did that to him. I put in the wrong size bridge, I wanted to hurt him.” The potential weight of this confession is reduced and the confession turned into a joke through Arlene’s response: “I love you Mitchell”, followed by their passionate embrace (1979, 8). Mitchell wears a very colourful shirt, emphasising his macho image, and is appalled and hurt when Paul refers to him as middle class: “Who the hell are you calling middle class? I am a professional dentist with diplomas all over the wall” (1979, 17). A further reference, with comic impact, to the dentist’s assumed status of power comes in Scene Two: Arlene has lured Mitchell into the Howard Johnson’s hotel by leaving a suicide note and when Mitchell arrives he says: “Arlene, I am glad I got here in time. I drove through red lights, I drove through stop signs. I drove through railroad crossing, thank God I am a doctor, I am allowed to drive like a maniac.” (1979, 33).
A dentist’s high income, at the expense of the overpaying patients, provides a further source of laughter in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. Mitchell and Arlene have lured Arlene’s husband, Paul, a used-car dealer, to the Howard Johnson’s to an alleged meeting with a crook willing to sell him stolen cars for re-sale. When Paul realises that the person he expected to find in the apartment at the Howard Johnson’s is not the man he thought he would meet, but the dentist, he comments “You, you are our dentist, you don’t make enough money overcharging us? You have to operate a stolen car ring too?” (1979, 12). As in the previous example from this play, the comedy continues right away with the following lines: Arlene is getting impatient—after all, she and the dentist have to get on with murdering her husband, Paul, so she asks Paul to give her his coat, and prompts Mitchell to inform Paul of their plans: “Dr Lovell has something to tell you. Go ahead honey”. Paul in turn responds with “Honey? Who calls a dentist honey?” (1979, 12). The play then comes back to the financial dimension when, prior to attempting to kill Paul according to their plan, Mitchell suggests a divorce: “A nice clean split, we let the lawyers handle everything; we stay friends and from hereon in all your dental work is 50% off” (1979, 12). When Paul refuses the generous offer, he is still somewhat upset about finding out his wife has been betraying him—again with a comical dimension, because of the apparent reason he is upset when he says: “In love with a man who butchered my mouth, it still hurts from the lousy bridge you put in”. Mitchell retorts: “So don’t pay me”. Paul: “I didn’t” (1979, 12).
dimension of a dentist’s work is also obvious in On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson, on which the film of the same
title with Henry Fonda is based. The play is set in the home of Ethel and
Norman Thayer, an elderly couple. Norman has got major heart problems and Ethel
is worried about his health. Their
daughter, Chelsea, comes to visit, bringing with her her new boyfriend, Bill
Ray. When Bill’s son Billie Ray is introduced, Norman mistakes him playfully
for the dentist saying “you seem awfully young to be a dentist”. Billie responds “I am a midget”. Norman “Oh
Really?”. Chelsea (Norman and Ethel’s
daughter) laughs and clarifies: “This is Billie Ray Junior” (1979, 65). Norman
later asks Bill how much he charges for a filling. Bill: “$40 generally”.
Norman “$40, good god, my brother charged $5 for a filling right up to 1973
when he raised it to $7. That’s when I
stopped going to him”. The small talk continues with
|Ernest Thompson, On Golden Pond|
Bill: Your brother is a dentist?
Norman: Yes he was when he was living.
Bill: Isn’t that amazing?
Norman: I don’t know, I think every family has one. (1979, 42)
Later in the scene, Ethel and Norman talk about Chelsea and her new boyfriend. The conversation comes back to the financial implications of Bill’s work:
Ethel: Chelsea says he’s very funny.
Norman: He is, he’s a scream.
Ethel: She really likes him, I can tell that, says he is very smart.
Norman: And rich, did she tell you that? $40 a filling!
Norman: That’s enough to keep you off sweets isn’t it?
Ethel: Well, he’d be a quite a catch won’t he. (1979, 48)
At a later point, Norman asks Chelsea whether she can get them a discount on dental work (1979, 63).
Canadian Gothic by Joanna M Glass is a play about a Saskatchewan dentist and his mildly rebellious wife. The wife dies, and the daughter remembers, with reference to money:
Fortunately there is gold in dentistry. My father wouldn’t have live-in help under foot in the evenings so we hired a woman to do the washing and we hired a woman to do the cooking. In accordance with his nature we took care of these things first then we mourned”. (1977, 12)
Conveniently for the comical plot of Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, Paul is suffering acutely from pain caused by the bridge and shouts out in pain, serving as the trigger for the following exchange:
Mitchell: What’s wrong?
Paul: It’s that lousy bridge you put in.
Mitchell: goes to the bag and gets some dental instruments Here let me have a look.
Paul: No, no it’s alright.
Mitchell: Open wide. looks into Paul’s mouth Have you been using your water pick?
Paul: Who’s got time?
Mitchell: You are lucky you are going to die Paul. You need $1200 worth of work there.
Paul: I wouldn’t go to you if you were the last dentist on earth.
Mitchell: For you, I am the last dentist on earth. (1979, 19)
When Paul threatens to kill Mitchell, in Scene Two, Mitchell tries to bribe himself out of the situation: “I tell you what, free office visits for a whole year” (1979, 36)
In addition to a dentist’s macho image and his money, comedies make use of the dentist’s tools. Mitchell in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s and Dr Julian Winston in The Cactus Flower wear a white dentist jacket, and Mitchell uses a hypodermic needle. Reference to the dentist’s chair is used to comic effect in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s as well. In Scene Two, Paul and Arlene plan the murder of the dentist because she found him in a compromising situation in his surgery with the dental nurse. Arlene wanted to surprise Mitchell in his office and opened the door.
Arlene: And there they were in the chair.
Paul: In the chair?
Arlene: He and his dental assistant.
Paul: With Judy? I thought she just cleaned teeth. Scum, scum of the earth.
Arlene: She sure is.
Paul: I am talking about him. (1979, 31)
When Mitchell arrives and Paul and Arlene talk to him about this incident, Mitchell comically relates that after Arlene left the surgery, he jumped up from the chair. He hit the wrong button and the chair folded in half, leaving the dental nurse seriously injured (1979, 33).
In The Cactus Flower, well-intentioned, “good” dentist Dr Winston is tempted say this to Igor, his rival for the favours of his girlfriend, Tony: “I would like to have you in my chair for just five minutes” (1966, 44). Dentist characters harm patients not only intentionally, as in Little Shop of Horrors, Teeth, or Murder at the Howard Johnson’s in the contexts of black comedy and light comedy, but their practice goes wrong unintentionally when they are run down with their nerves: by the end of the play Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, Mitchell complains about his practice falling to pieces:
the other day I was taking an impression of one of my few remaining patients and I cemented her gums together” (…) Last week I did a root canal on an old man who wears false teeth and you know what I did yesterday? I dropped a gold filling down a woman’s throat. That is a $140 down the toilet. (1979, 48)
Dr Winston in The Cactus Flower feels that his love life influences and affects his ability as a dentist badly. He says “my problems with Tony are beginning to affect my work. You know what happened in there just now? I hurt Mrs Durrant, she felt pain, it’s the first time I have ever hurt a patient” (1966, 52).
In John Kirkpatrick’s one-act farce Kiss me Quick – I Am Double Parked, dentist Alex reminisces with his dental nurse, Lily Carter:
Alex: Think of all the tender moments we have shared. Remember last year—my first extraction, that old Mrs Havilland, that lovely impacted wisdom tooth—why, the roots must have gone down to her knees. (His voice has taken on an odd nostalgic quality)
Lily : (Also reliving it all) Yes, yes.
Alex: I was so excited I couldn’t wait for the novocaine to take effect—
Lilly: That first pull of yours—
Alex: She kicked me in the stomach—broke a bottle of Lavoris over your head and left. She never came back, I wonder why? Yes, yes, we have been through a lot, Miss Carter. (…) (1968, 7)
Lily later describes Alex’s working habits to another character: “He has a record player (…) to sooth his patients. You know, Beethoven for drilling—Tschaikovski for extractions”. (1968, 16)
In The Cactus Flower, in the surgery the voice of the assistant, Stephanie, and the soft music create an effect that is supposed to be very soothing for the patients (1966, 12). Dr Winston reveals the true purpose of the background music, which “has become a very important aspect of modern dental therapy. It is very soothing to the dentist”. A patient, Harvey comments: “At your prices you can afford Heifez in person” (1966, 15)
When dentist characters are conscientious, good dentists, this is shown by the kind of advice they give patients directly, and well-intended suggestions they make to friends. In The Cactus Flower, for example, a patient, Mrs Durrant, comes to see Dr Winston after a filling has come out because she has eaten a caramel. She complains: “A caramel, one lousy caramel and the whole damn filling came out”. The dental nurse, Stephanie, admonishes her “Mrs Durrant, it was only a temporary filling and you were warned to be careful, caramels…” (1966, xx). The nurse’s words mirror those of Dr Winston himself a little later (1966, 17).
A dentist character’s profession can bleed into their daily lives outside the surgery. Dentist Felix in But She Won’t Lie Down met his wife Belinda when she came to his surgery to have her teeth capped. Felix remembers: “I remember she had a pair of the sexiest incisors I’d ever seen … so I asked her out to the local chophouse. I didn’t know then she was going to devour me” (1978, 84). When the men of the jazz band in The Gig have arrived at the venue for the big event, the Paradise Manor, before going to bed, Arthur comically comments on the fluoride level in the water, “I am speaking to Mr Mitgan tomorrow [the owner], there is not enough fluoride in this water”. (1992, 55). Various members of the band try to strike up relationships with female company that they find around and Arthur is one of them. He is interested in the waitress Lucy and as a very funny icebreaker on their first date he says “maybe sometime I could tell you secrets of dentistry, never before revealed” to which Lucy responds in a non-committal way “Maybe”. (1992, 65).
On their second date the talk is again about dentistry.
Lucy: I have an uncle who is a dentist,
Arthur: I hope you like him,
Lucy: He is a very wise man,
Arthur: As a matter of fact you can learn a lot about human nature from the way people behave in a dentist’s chair,
Lucy: For instance?
Arthur: Take pain. There is a certain type who feels guilty if they are not suffering so they refuse anaesthesia no matter what.
Lucy: Not I
Arthur: Then there’s the ones with no tolerance who need novocaine to sit in the waiting room.
Lucy: That’s me.
Arthur: No it is isn’t.
Lucy: How do you know?
Arthur: Like I said—you learn to read people. And I size you up as eminently sensible.
Lucy You are right. I said the other to be funny.
(Lucy smiles, Arthur smiles in return and they break into song)
Arthur: (uncomfortable that his feelings slipped out)
Your teeth are beautiful.
they are so perfectly in place
they complement your face,
They are in there as tight as drums,
thanks to those healthy gums
they are also beautiful.
I am embarrassing you
Lucy: A little
Arthur: I am just giving you my professional opinion
Smiles from you
can cheer me when I am glum
Yes after you, they broke the mould,
your fillings aren’t just gold,
they are platinum.
It really comes across
how much you like to floss,
your smile is beautiful
oh beautiful so beautiful,
Lucy (in soliloquy)
I didn’t want to like him
In The Gig Arthur addresses an unseen patient, “I am not superman Robbie, I don’t have the necessary x-ray vision to see straight through your clenched mouth and into your gums, but I am a super crusader for aural hygiene and together we could be become a dynamic duo, but first you have got to let me look in that terrific mouth of yours”. Following a few sung lines accompanied by music, he continues: “Ok Robbie how about we play astronaut. I will start the countdown and when I say blast off you open your mouth wide as a space ship. Are you ready?” (1992, 19).
The well-meaning dentist is also being exploited for treating some patients without payment. This characteristic is used to comical effect when, in The Cactus Flower, patient Harvey asks whether the dentist, Dr Winston, could do something for the overlap of his girlfriend’s teeth, preferably without having to pay. He hardly ever pays for his own treatment either. Dr Winston replies: “Oh send her around and I will see what I can do but don’t you know any girls with straight teeth?” (1966,19).
One-off humour at the expense of a dentist comes in the form of dentist Felix in But She Won’t Lie Down arranging a fake marital fight with his late wife’s sister, Joanna, impersonating his wife.
Joanna: (…) She might begin by describing you as more of an absess [sic] than a dentist.
Felix: Umm … you’ll think of something better by then.
Joanna: An orthodontic drip. An antiseptic old auntie. (1978, 49)
A patient who is funnily afraid of dentists is Senor Sanchez in The Cactus Flower: “I’ve been through 6 bloody revolutions, I’ve played a whole game of polo with a broken leg, I have sat in my seat at the United Nations and without flinching, I have listened to 10 full length Cuban speeches but dentists……” (he shakes his head)”. (1966, 29).
To round off this survey of the presentation of dentists in English language drama, below is a comment on that material from German Dentist and Orthodontist Dr Carolin Hadamovsky:
|Dr Carolin Hadamovsky|
I think that the plays depict well many aspects of how dentists are perceived in daily life. I am of course saddened that some dentists are represented as intentionally torturing people—we too have to take the Hippocratic oath on receiving our licence to practice dentistry! You can’t feel disgusted with teeth—who would be able to endure a lifetime in such a job? That’s why I am happy that in The Gig, Arthur is able to say many positive things about us dentists. Indeed, we need a lot of empathy, knowledge of human nature and respect for the patient to be able to carry out a successful treatment. In addition, we have to be absolute aesthetes (who can be happy about every beautiful set of teeth!), a good salesperson, and without good business skills you will go bankrupt even despite good ability as a dentist. The plays seem not to deal with those last two qualities of dentists, possibly a sign that the authors do not know that much about the finer details of the profession after all. (2014)
Burrows, Abe. 1996. Cactus Flower. A comedy in two acts by based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. London: Samuel French.
Clarke, Ron and Sam Bobrick. 1979. Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. New York and London: Samuel French.
Cohen, Douglas J. 1992. The Gig: A musical by based on the motion picture, The Gig, by Frank D Gilroy. London & New York: Samuel French.
Glass, Joanna M. 1977. Canadian Gothic. New York: Dramatists Play Service.
Hadamovsky, Carolin. 2014. Personal communication, email, 22 April.
Kirkpatrick, John. 1968. Kiss me Quick – I’m Double Parked. London: Samuel French.
Leigh, Mike. 2006. 2000 Years. London: Faber & Faber.
Stoppard, Tom. 1967. Teeth. London: Faber & Faber.
Thompson, Ernest. 1979. On Golden Pond. New York: Dramatists Play Service.
Yeldham, Peter. 1978. But She Won’t Lie Down. New York: Samuel French.