Empathy and Affect in Medical and Theatrical Practice: Sophocles, Beckett, Edson

Empathy and Affect in Medical and Theatrical Practice will be a two-day event on the 14th to the 15th of October at the University of Warwick. The event will bring together theatre practitioners, clinicians, and scholars in humanities and medical ethics with other members of the public to consider the embodiment of illness (both physical and mental) in theatre. Asking, as its starting point the following questions:

  • How does theatre elicit empathetic engagement; what different perspectives can it provide on a character or a ‘condition’; and how might this bear on encounters in medical practice?
  • How does the entire theatrical language of a play – the bodies, stage, use of space and gesture, lighting, sound, and so on – contribute to the exploration of the pathologies represented and the relationships that surround them?
  • What does theatre, including masked theatre, tell us about strategies for communication, particularly when the capacity for self-expression is impaired?
  • What might the processes of embodiment entailed in theatrical performance offer to our understanding of somatization, physical manifestations of mental distress, and the relationship between mental and physical illness?
  • How might the ethics of the consulting room be illuminated by the encounters in and complex emotional texture of these works?

Three plays from very different contexts—Sophocles’ Electra, Samuel Beckett’s Not I, and Margaret Edson’s Wit—will provide the source material to stimulate interdisciplinary discussion of these questions. These plays, and our discussions, consider complex and unexplained illness, trauma and distress, conditions that themselves affect and impair communication, life-threatening conditions and end of life care, pain and grief. We will ask what role the pre-linguistic, the bodily, and the affective have in the experiences and relationships that attend such conditions. What ethical and emotional challenges do doctors, nurses, patients, carers and families face in the particular social exchanges that medicine entails?

Those who attend will be encouraged to be active participants in discussions, stimulated by short position papers, round table discussions, and performances of excerpts from all three plays. The event is free but places will be limited. To express interest in attending please email Ania Crowther (s.m.crowther@warwick.ac.uk).