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Judi Dench's portrayal in A Kind of Alaska


Pinter, the creative process and refusing a play
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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In 1981, I got a letter from Pinter in which he said that he had read Awakenings when it came out in '73. He had immediately thought, this is stuff for stage, but he couldn't think how to deal with it and he put it out of his mind, and it had stayed out of his mind for seven years. But then the previous summer, in the summer of 1980, he said he had a dream, didn't know what it was, but he awoke with the first words and the first scene of the play in his mind, ‘Something is happening’. And the play then wrote itself in three days. So this was a wonderful description of what I regard as almost a paradigm of the creative process, that first there is wrestling with a problem consciously and not getting anywhere. And then you let it go and you forget it. And then it has been incubated outside at levels inaccessible to you, so you don't know anything is happening, and when it's ready, it erupts into consciousness. What FWH Myers calls ‘subliminal uprush’. These are the three stages Poincaré speaks about with mathematical invention, and I think these were the three stages which Pinter has talked about, and he included the play, which I... I read with great delight.

The more so, as seven years earlier I had been sent a play also inspired by that particular case history from a playwright in Philadelphia who said that he had just read Awakenings and he was so excited, he said he was obsessed by what was going on and... and he'd written this play, and it was... and it was going to be shown in Philadelphia and would I like to come to the opening? And I wrote back and said, slow down a bit, you know, this has not been discussed. I said, in fact, there is already... a dramatic option has been taken on Awakenings, and I think I... I think you need my permission. And... but if I... if I like it we'll find a way of doing things. He sent me the play and I cringed as I read it. I cringed because it was so close to Awakenings. I cringed because it was a... a parroting and a paraphrasing and an aping and a mimicry of Awakenings, and I wrote back, I used some excuse, I said, I'm very sorry but, in fact, the patient herself and her large family are alive, you know, and this will definitely be seen, and I... and I don't think you can go ahead. But I felt that this playwright, you know, had immediately regurgitated Awakenings, and he had not let it go down into the depths, and this... this struck me as, you know, the Pinter play brought home the difference between real creation and... and this sort of mimicry.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Awakenings, Henri Poincaré, Frederic William Henry Myers, Harold Pinter

Duration: 3 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012