Richard Smith: A 45 minute play on death

richard_smith_2014Caryl Churchill’s 45 minute play on death at the National Theatre begins with people at a drinks party after a funeral. Nobody is much upset. “The waters close over very quickly after a death,” my friend Vitek said to me last week. People talk across each other. There is no real communication. We learn little about the dead man except that he was “an old goat” and had several wives. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to mourn.

During this first scene each of the characters at some point declares when and how they will die. One old woman will die tomorrow, run over by a motorbike she didn’t see while watching out for cars. The audience laughs. Another woman dies of cancer 62 years after the party. One dies in 12 years after five years with Alzheimer’s. Churchill is making the point that at a funeral we all think of our own deaths, when they will happen, and what will cause them. This may be the main value of funerals, a momento mori in a world that has too few of them.

In the next scene we can see only “the old goat,” stripped to the waist and in some sort of tunnel. He’s dead and to his surprise he’s arrived at the “pearly gates”: “real pearls,” he says. Will he be sent to hell? Might he be reincarnated, as an insect perhaps? Might he be sent to live his life again, perhaps with a chance to live it better? Would we want that, we all wonder. Where are all the rest of the dead? Where are the stone age people who preceded those of us who have lived in recorded years for millennia? “Oh, there they are,” he says, again eliciting a laugh.

This section plays on the idea that while most of us “post-religious people,” and certainly me, are 99% sure that there is no afterlife we can’t be 100% sure. We empathise with “the old goat,” imagining how foolish we will feel standing before “the pearly gates,” a cliché come true.

There are no words in the final, longest scene. “The old goat” is in a nursing home. It comprises a bed and a chair. A care assistant carefully and slowly dresses him then helps him walk with his Zimmer frame the few feet to the chair. She then undresses him, dresses him again, and helps him back again to the bed, where she begins to undress him. “This might go on forever. We might have to just get up and go,” says my wife.

It’s an odd thing to sit among several hundred people in a theatre watching an old man being dressed and undressed. There were some titters, but mostly it was silent. Most of the audience will know somebody “living” like this. I think of my mother. We all think too that this could soon be us. Isn’t this more fearful than being forgotten, dead, or even judged?

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.