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‘Beckett on the Wards’: medical humanities pedagogy and ‘compassionate care’
  1. Jonathan Heron1,
  2. Elizabeth Barry2,
  3. Francesca Duncan3,
  4. Elaine Hawkins4,
  5. Zoe Playdon4
  1. 1Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL), University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
  2. 2Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
  3. 3Independent Researcher/Theatre Practitioner, UK
  4. 4University of London and formerly of Health Education Kent, Surrey and Sussex, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Jonathan Heron, Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL), Senate House, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK; J.P.Heron{at}

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To be ‘compassionate’ is to share the passion—etymologically, to suffer together. For some clinicians, there is an understandable tension between this compassion (to feel pity) and the imperative of diagnosis (to know thoroughly). This tension became an explicit concern of the 2013 ‘Beckett on the Wards’ medical humanities project (commissioned by Health Education Kent, Surrey and Sussex, hereafter HEKSS), and the 2012 ‘Beckett and Brain Science’ interdisciplinary research project (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, hereafter AHRC). This educational case study exemplifies the medical humanities in a number of ways, but primarily through the direct collaboration between theatre practitioners and consultant psychiatrists. It will proceed in three parts: (1) the academic context, (2) the clinical context and (3) the pedagogic practice, before a final reflection on the use of Samuel Beckett's theatre within clinical settings. This work has now been expanded as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Modernism, Medicine and the Embodied Mind’ research project at the Universities of Bristol, Exeter and Warwick.

The academic context

Elizabeth Barry, Ulrika Maude and Laura Salisbury, scholars of Beckett and medicine, collaborated with performance practitioner Jonathan Heron and consultant psychiatrist Matthew Broome to investigate Beckett's interests in the sciences of the brain, the influence of these interests on his work and the value of his writing to those studying and treating disorders of the brain and nervous system today. Heron's transdisciplinary workshops, involving scholars and practitioners in the arts and sciences, gave shape to the intuition of many clinicians that literature and theatre offer a means to understand challenging mental conditions. Through this work, Beckett's depiction of disordered experience offered a stimulating challenge to the categories and narratives used in medicine. These …

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  • Contributors JH led the original practice/research and prepared the manuscript for publication, with contributions from EB, FD, EH and ZP.

  • Funding This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors (as it came after the funded projects ‘Beckett and Brain Science’ (AHRC, 2012) and ‘Beckett on the Wards’ (HEKSS, 2013); ie, the research that lead to the educational case study took place without additional funding in 2014–2015).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.