Morality plays for the modern age

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
Medical advances make things possible, but are they ethical? Douglas Blane reports on dramas that stir debate.

The ability of scientists and doctors to alter our bodies and manipulate our genes has begun to make the boundaries between what is ethically right and wrong very blurred. A couple of years ago the London-based company Y Touring commissioned several dramas aimed at young audiences and intended "to generate informed debate about how research in the life sciences may affect more than our health in years to come". Plays about gene therapy, cloning and mental illness were well received in schools and theatres around the country.

In a recent development, seven British schools are being supported by Y Touring to write and perform a new set of plays, with the intention of adding the best of them to their repertoire of the "Theatre of Debate".

At Kyle Academy in Ayr the preliminary stages - improvisation, writing and rehearsals - are over and the school company is ready for the first performance of The Smoker. In the audience is a Standard grade biology class, Steven Luckie, Y Touring's project manager, and an eminent physician from King's College, London.

The curtain rises on a harrowing tale of a man no longer young who lost an arm fighting for his country and now desperately needs a lung transplant. Our hero is buying a packet of cigarettes.

"Are you sure you want these?" the newsagent asks.

"Just give me the damn fags and take the bloody money," Ben Hedges replies, coughing uncontrollably.

The drama develops through several surprisingly humorous scenes until finally, during a televised chat-show in which Ben and his family debate with a consultant the merits of giving lung transplants to smokers, our hero brings the play to an abrupt end by prematurely dying.

"I think I need a fag," concludes the show's host as the curtain falls.

The drama is a co-operative venture at Kyle Academy between Caroline Howie of the English department and Susan Burr, principal teacer of biology. "The cast is a mixed-ability class with a wide range of backgrounds," says Ms Howie, "but the play has really pulled them together. I first noticed it when Y Touring took us to London for a few days to work with theatre people, scientists and doctors. They were all looking out for each other."

Ms Burr was convinced of the benefits of drama in teaching the social side of science after seeing Y Touring perform a play about genetics. "Biology isn't just about your body's plumbing," she says, "and life isn't a matter of little compartments, it's interdisciplinary.

"People often hold opinions based on wrong information about the consequences of scientific and medical advances, and these plays should make them better informed and get them thinking."

The plays are aimed at 14-year-olds upwards and, with the debate that follows each performance, should help Standard grade pupils to acquire positive attitudes, such as being open minded, and be aware that they can take decisions which affect the well-being of themselves and others.

"I prefer to say 'develop informed attitudes'," says Ms Burr.

The Theatre of Debate has been well received by Professor Stewart Cameron, former director of the kidney transplant unit at Guy's Hospital. London. "These plays raise a host of questions," he says. "Should doctors choose who gets life-saving treatment and who doesn't? Should people be allowed to sell healthy parts of their bodies? It's illegal in this country, but in the developing world it's happening all the time. Are ethics the same everywhere or is it a matter of how we run our societies?" Steven Luckie is also impressed. "Your play is very strong," he tells the cast.

"As I go around the schools, the young people all tell me the same thing: they don't want to be lectured to about morals. They want to think for themselves. Teachers, doctors and scientists don't have all the answers; nobody does."

For more on the Theatre of Debate contact Y Touring, tel 020 7272 5755


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