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A 60-page plagiarism of Migraine


Is it possible for actors to play people with neurological disorders?
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I went to see a play called Wings. The playwright had based his original play partly on the fact that his father had had a stroke and had been rendered aphasic, had lost the power of language. In the play, there is a female aviator who was played by Cicely Courtneidge, and I went along with a cousin of mine, an actress cousin, and at one point, Carmel, my cousin, said to me, 'How do you find the play? Isn't it wonderful?' And I said, 'No, it's terrible'. And she said, 'What do you mean?' And I said, 'It sounds nothing like aphasia'. And Carmel said, 'Can't you forget you're a neurologist and just give yourself to the atmosphere, the feeling of the play?' And I said, 'No, I can't'. Then afterwards, we went behind stage – Carmel would always take me behind stage – and met Cecily Courtneidge who was very gracious, and... and I... keeping my fingers crossed, I congratulated her on her performance, and said, 'I guess you must have seen a lot of people with aphasia?' And she said, 'No, never seen anyone with aphasia'. And I wanted to say, ’It shows’, but of course I didn't.

So... so I don't quite know how much direct experience counts and whether it counts positively or negatively. I think it was positive for Tom Conti, maybe negative for Judi Dench, and the absence of experience I think was... was, for me as a neurologist, but clearly not for Carmel, was a glaring... but this raises the question of... you can act Ophelia and King Lear, you can act any Shakespearian character, all of these are part of the human repertoire, but can you act aphasia? Can you act Parkinsonism? I was very concerned about this when the filming of Awakenings came up. I don't think something like Parkinsonism can be imagined or can only be imagined from outside.

A propos of that, Ed, the Parkinsonian patient whom De Niro spent so much time with, on one occasion I was walking with Ed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Ed suddenly started shaking and bowing over, and becoming acutely Parkinsonian. He had just time with a tremulous hand to pull out a syringe of apomorphine, used for such emergencies, and to plunge it into his thigh, through his trousers, into his thigh, and then about 30 seconds later he straightened up and smiled, and said, 'I've forgotten how to be Parkinsonian'. And then he added, he said, 'In 30 or 40 minutes, when the apomorphine wears off, I shall remember how to be Parkinsonian, and in that moment, be it'. And somehow being it, remembering it, and acting it, they're all one. They're all one.

This is a reason why, with my Leg book, when I describe the strange alienation which occurred, which I think is not imaginable, I suggest to the reader that the book should be read under spinal anaesthesia, because if you have a spinal anaesthetic, not one of these silly epidurals, you know, a real, massive one, effectively this transects the spinal cord, functionally, and what lies below... it's not merely that it's numb and paralysed, it is not you, you feel that you subjectively terminate around the level of the umbilicus, and that below that is a pair of hips and legs which could have been brought in from the local anatomy museum. It's dead, it's not yours, it's nothing to do with you even though it seems bizarrely continuous with you. If you've had that experience, well, then... then this is similar to my leg one, and I can confirm this for myself because when I had the second leg injury I asked for it to be done under spinal. So, maybe there should be theatre audiences who... who all... who all paralysed for the Tom Conti, they would need to be quadriplegic. You can't... one cannot imagine any neurological thing, although I've spent my life attempting to do so and to describe. And... I feel I've got as near as anybody, and at the same that that is infinitely far.

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: Wings, Awakenings, A Leg to Stand On, Tom Conti, Cicely Courtneidge, Judi Dench

Duration: 5 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012