The Brain on Love, by Niki Blumberg

The Brain on Love; Corresponding Themes in George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma and Kathryn Walat’s Creation

by Niki Blumberg

It’s not so uncommon that a piece of classical theatre and a world-premiere will cross thematic paths.  Happens all the time.  We are human after all and as the future rolls past, there are basic bits that stick around.  Fear of death, for example, or that yearning desire for love, or the need to understand how the world really works – these pop up all over the theatrical landscape, however there are two productions, currently running in Pasadena, one written by George Bernard Shaw (which premiered in 1906) the other by Kathryn Walat (a world-premiere) that follow a very similar heartbeat.

Shaw wrote The Doctor’s Dilemma at the turn of the 20th century, at a time when he believed Britain’s Medical Service “had reached a state of lethal absurdity.”1 The play is a deliberate commentary of the silly, yet deadly nature of the medical profession, prior to the creation of the National Health Service, when doctors felt as though they had the ultimate power in deciding who lives and who dies.  This places dentists in a much better light, don’t you think?

I’m not as familiar with Creation as far as its history, however Creation focuses on a part of the body that doctors, in Shaw’s time, were only beginning to understand – the brain. Presently, we know much more about the powers of the brain.  How it survives, heals itself.  How it can protect us.  How is can change who we are.

In Creation, the inciting incident occurs when Ian, a newly tenured professor with a book on the way, is struck by lightning, dies briefly, and is brought back to life by his wife, Sarah.  Soon after, Ian begins to experience a large shift in his personality.  He becomes obsessed with music and its composition, he is rarely seen without a Tootsie Pop in his mouth, and he has a lot of impulse buys, one of which is a cello.  This erratic behavior, this change in character, is blamed on the brain, pure and simple. And although Ian will never see his brain, he knows it’s the source of this radical change.

In The Doctor’s Dilemma, however, one of the brilliantly-named doctors, Cutler Walpole, is an overzealous surgeon who specializes in cutting out the Nuciform Sac.  The Nuciform Sac is something you can see, once its cut out of you, of course. Walpole explains that a dysfunction in the Nuciform Sac causes blood poisoning, a condition that Walpole believes, is the source of most ailments.  Feeling tired? Blood Poisoning. Achy knees? Blood poisoning. Pants too tight? Blood poisoning. Just snip the Nuciform Sac and, in 95% of cases, you’ll pop right back to health.  I agree with Shaw, this sounds absurd. And honestly, I don’t even know where the Nuciform Sac is, what it does, or if it’s even real. In 100 more years, will we look at common-place practices like the flu shot as absurd remedies, like Walpole’s Nuciform Sac extraction?  Who knows, I’ll be dead by then.  Unless, of course, that immortality tonic comes along.

Another instance in which the brain doesn’t come into the diagnostic picture, occurs in Act 1 of The Doctor’s Dilemma.  Sir Colenso Ridgeon, the central character who has recently discovered a miracle cure for Tuberculosis, asks for a private consultation from his colleague, Sir Patrick Cullen.  Colenso complains that he doesn’t feel quite right, however he can’t localize the pain and, occasionally, he hears scraps of tunes come into his head.  It all screams of a mid-life crisis, however Sir Colenso is in the dark about the brain and its uncanny way of making something out of nothing.

The brain.  We like to attribute a lot of things to the brain: anxiety, depression, those pesky mid-life crises.  But love?  Love is real, right?  Love isn’t simply a creation of the brain?  Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Shortly after Sir Colenso complains of his ambiguous illness, he meets Jennifer Dubedat, a young and beautiful wife who is seeking a cure for her husband’s tuberculosis.   This begins a dangerous dance between Sir Colenso, Jennifer, and Louis, her husband, in which life is on the line, but love gets in the way, clouding Colenso’s morality.  Sir Colenso has the power to save Louis, but Louis is married to the woman Colenso loves.  What’s he going to do? Sorry, I’ve resigned myself to avoid all spoilers.

In Creation, there is another intimate relationship cooking between three characters: Ian, Sarah, and Amal (Ian’s neurologist and Sarah’s co-worker).  Amal is in love with Sarah, Sarah is married to Ian, Amal can see into Ian’s brain.  Literally.   Amal has the power to treat Ian, but Ian, as much as he has changed, is still married to the woman Amal loves. Another sticky situation with a doctor at the helm.  Another lack of spoilers.

See how love can get in the way of science?  Even if science has made giant leaps over the past 100 years, that doesn’t stop love putting its foot down and mucking up the otherwise clear thoughts of an intelligent doctor.

Medicine & Power, Morality & Intimacy, Art & Immortality – There are many deep discussions to be mined from the parallel worlds of The Doctor’s Dilemma and Creation, of which I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. I encourage you to visit A Noise Within & Boston Court to soak up these two plays and explore the strings that tie them together.  The Doctor’s Dilemma by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Dámaso Rodriguez runs at A Noise Within through November 25 ( for tickets).  Creation, by Kathryn Walat, directed by Michael Michetti, runs at Boston Court through November 11 ( for tickets).


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