The year was 1947. David Tasma was just 40 years old. A Polish migrant who had fled his homeland weeks before the Nazis invaded, he’d spent the war years living on the margins of London life, eventually finding employment in a Kosher restaurant in the West End. When peace came he hoped for better things. Then came his diagnosis of inoperable bowel cancer. As his illness advanced his biographical pain increased. He was estranged from his family, fearing most of them had perished in the death camps. He had lost connection with the Jewish faith of his forefathers. He felt he had achieved nothing in life. He longed for love and for reconciliation. Then into his world came a newly qualified social worker, Cicely Saunders. She first met David in the outpatients department of St Thomas’s Hospital and later found time to visit him when he was admitted to the Archway Hospital. Over a few months, an intense and elusive relationship developed between them in which Cicely sought to help David find closure before he died. Their encounter had a remarkable legacy. It inspired her to learn more about the care of dying people and eventually to conceptualise a new model of hospice care that would develop into a global social movement. Remarkably, David’s fear that his life would leave nothing behind was to prove groundless.
This, in a nutshell, is the theme of a play I’ve been writing. It will receive its first performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month. The story behind the play goes back some time and has several aspects. Its realisation is a huge tribute to the spirit and energy of collaboration.
I first met Cicely Saunders in 1995 and knew her for exactly the last decade of her long life. Like many others I was drawn to this charismatic woman who had been a nurse, a social worker and a doctor. By founding St Christopher’s, the world’s first modern hospice, she had created a new and compelling approach to care at the end of life. It was a beacon of inspiration to countless others. As an academic, I wanted to understand her story, to ensure that it was properly recorded and to assist in the preservation of her remarkable papers, diaries, books and letters. By the time of her death in July 2005, we had got to know each other well and I was in turn, well advanced with my goal.
I had been uniquely privileged to have access to Cicely Saunders’ personal archives. She had given her time freely to take part in two dozen interviews that ranged over all her major milestones as well as the nooks and crannies in the backroads of her life. I’d had unfettered access to her correspondence. By 2005 I’d edited a book of her selected letters and preparations were complete on an collection of her publications, During the final years, my interviews with her had intensified, going deeper. For now a third volume had been agreed. Cicely had entrusted me with the task of writing a post-humous biography.
That book was some time in the making and eventually appeared in June 2018, marking the centenary of her birth. The trilogy, along with a clutch of related academic papers, was in many ways the high water mark of my involvement with the life and legacy of Cicely Saunders. The work received positive recognition from her admirers and was cited by academic commentators. Over the years it found an audience at literary festivals and at special occasions and anniversaries in the hospice calendar.
But despite all this, I still felt there was something else that could be done. Something that would reach out to a wider public and tell Cicely’s story in a new way. So in early 2021 and after much pondering, I made a decision. I would try to write a play capturing the genius, the vulnerability, the contradictions and the sheer determination of the woman who almost singlehandedly invented not only the hospice movement, but also the modern field of palliative care which sprang from it.
I knew an enormous amount about Cicely, but I knew nothing about play writing. I called my old friend, palliative care pioneer and theatre enthusiast, Jo Hockley. As a nurse, she had worked with Cicely in the 1980s. Jo had also successfully produced the play Shadowlands at the Edinburgh Fringe. She immediately understood what I was thinking, and in the Spring of 2021 our shared endeavour got underway.
I began writing synopses, and drafts of scenes. We talked about play production and its practicalities. Soon others joined in the process and supported us along the way. We progressed from readings over Zoom, to workshops with local school drama students and amateur theatre groups. As others read and commented on my script, I was helped to refine the story and to uncover ways in which to dramatise it.
Key to everything was the advice and enthusiasm of staff and students in drama at Queen Margaret University (QMU) Edinburgh. A day there with them exploring the script in January of this year was transformative and set the whole venture on an exhilarating path. The script had resonated with a knowledgeable and insightful group. Jo and I began to feel that it might indeed make its way to performance, or ‘from page to stage’ in theatre parlance. By April three final-year students came forward with a proposal to co-direct the play. They enlisted actors from QMU and Edinburgh Napier University and drew in production people from the student body. By June rehearsal plans were being made and from the start of July the sessions began in earnest. Everything was in place and a venue had been booked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for five shows in August.
The whole thing has been exhilarating and life-affirming for me. Emerging from lockdown and transitioning into ‘retirement’ I’ve found myself working outside my comfort zone, meeting new people, learning about drama, theatre making and play writing. The enthusiasm of the actors, directors and production team is an inspiration. Their hours of effort, attention to detail, team spirit and motivation are herculean. When I attended a rehearsal 10 days before the first performance, I was astonished and delighted to see how they had interpreted my script, introducing movement and increasing its drama. Watching the scenes unfold, more than once I felt the tears welling up.
The palliative care community has also responded with great commitment. We have received personal and institutional gifts of sponsorship to cover our production costs and to allow the play to be filmed. A taster from Scene 1 has been performed at a palliative care conference. We know that lots of palliateurs and friends of Cicely will be coming to the performance in Edinburgh. Some hospice organisations are already in conversation with me about how they may use their own productions of the play for wider public engagement and fund-raising. So I am hoping the script will travel and have a life of its own well beyond the ‘premiere’.
Curiously, the Edinburgh Fringe is celebrating a major landmark this year: its 75th anniversary. In the summer of 1947 as it began, the festival coincided exactly with the moment when Cicely Saunders first met David Tasma. Seventy five years on, the encounter between Cicely and David remains a story for our time. So I am delighted, (and trepidatious) that it is now about to be shared through the medium of theatre. I hope to see you there.
Tickets for the play are going fast (16th to 20th August at 4.30pm each day). You can book them here: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/cicely-and-david
With thanks from me and our producer Jo Hockley to:
The cast – Serena Park, Michael Johnston, Tegan Smith, Jaimie Busuttil, Arlene Mckay
Directors – Caitlin Truscott, Meghan Wallace, Caladh Walker
Design and Tech – Alex Shanks, Danny Menzies
Music – Kath Bruce
Our sponsors – Dr Fiona Graham, Gilbert Archer, James and Antoinette Galbraith, Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, St Columba’s Hospice, Marie Curie, Irish Hospice Foundation, St Christopher’s Hospice, Highland Hospice, Cicely Saunders International, Marie Curie, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.
All ticket proceeds will go to Hospices of Hope – Ukraine Appeal