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Friday, 24 March 2017

Dentists in Drama

Regular check-ups at the dentist are part of the lives of people at least in Western countries. Dentists are thus members of a profession that is well known to many. Compared with other, similarly well-known professions, however, dentists feature only rarely as characters in plays. In this (longer) blog entry, I want to provide a survey of these plays. A dentist’s view completes the entry. 

While some plays with scientists as characters deal to a considerable extent with the science they are involved in, at times, as in Carl Djerassi’s plays, meticulously ensuring accuracy of the science in all its aspects while at the same time allowing scientists to come across as human beings with all their human frailties, in the case of dentist characters, the emphasis tends to be different. There are some plays where a character, usually male, is identified as a dentist in passing—the profession is not of much interest to the play, beyond the fact that some university education will have been necessary, and for the character to be placed in a specific social and financial bracket. Mike Leigh’s 2006 play 2000 years is a good example of this.
Mike Leigh: Two Thousand Years
The play is set in 2004 and 2005 in the home of Danny, his wife Rachel, his son Josh, his daughter Tammy, family friend Jonathan, Rachel’s father Dave, Tammy’s boyfriend Tzachi and Rachel’s sister Michelle.  Leigh calls it his Jewish play.  It is about the life of a Jewish family in contemporary Britain and their ideas and attitudes towards their Jewishness and the events in Israel. Danny is a dentist and there is not much in the play about this work.  He says to his son

We give you money, you buy books, you stay up half the night, you get up whenever you like, you are free to come and go, you have never had a job.  Josh, you left University seven years ago with a first class honours degree in mathematics.  The world was your oyster.  We tried to bring you up decently and respectably and now this mishigas.  Your mother runs around clearing up after you while I spend all day fiddling in people’s mouths. (2006, 22)

The quote confirms the comfortable financial situation enabled by Danny’s profession, and the implication that he does not much like what he has to do to earn his money: “fiddling in people’s mouths” implies and conveys disgust—probably with the implication that this cannot be an ideal attitude to daily work. In the middle of a later conversation Danny says

So Thursday morning this little kid comes in and he craps himself in the chair he is so scared.  His mother was mortified, poor Estelle had to come in and help me clear up the mess.  Nothing wrong with his teeth, put me back ten minutes” (2006, 30)

His wife, Rachel, comments: “Put you back ten minutes, put him back for life, he will probably never go to the dentist again poor kid” (2006, 30). Time comes into the final reference in the play to Danny’s profession, when he says to his father-in-law: “Dave, my whole life is about keeping appointments” (2006, 77). In the musical The Gig, the dentist character, Arthur, one of a group of men aged thirty-five to fifty-five that form an amateur jazz band, is also concerned about appointments: in relation to the two-week tour they are embarking on, all the men of the jazz band comment on the things that they have had to give up. Arthur says: “Marty, I cancelled two weeks of appointments for this” (1992, 35).

Thus in Mike Leigh’s serious play we have a dentist who does not like his job, with one general impression that he finds it disgusting, and one specific, and extreme of a disgusting incident. This dentist, furthermore, seems more concerned with the implications on the smooth running of his schedule than the well-being of the patients. Arthur in The Gig comments that “it’s a disgusting job” (1992, 96). “When you get right down to it, it’s a disgusting job putting your fingers in other people’s mouths but Wednesday nights are not about the daily grind like when they grind their teeth into my flesh or spray my face or mess with my equipment, Wednesday nights are there to help forget my scars.  In only 32 bars, I am one of six shooting stars” (1992, 19).
Douglas J Cohen, The Gig
In light comedy, disgust also features, for comedy effects: for example, Felix, a “neurotic but likeable” (1978, 5) London dentist is asked by the estate agent trying to sell him the Spanish holiday home, what he does for a living.

Felix: Teeth
Partridge: Ohh. Interesting.
Felix: Dentistry has been called many things, but rarely “interesting”.
Partridge: That’s the answer. That’s why your nerves are so bad. The job’s tedious.
Felix: Nothing but gums and molars, caps and crowns…and the occasional clove of garlic. You’re right, I’m in bad shape” (1978, 17)

The idea of disgust links with that of the dentist character as (ab-)using his power over patients lying in their chairs as helpless victims. The dentist in the musical The Little Shop of Horrors is probably the most well-known example. Teeth, a play for television by Tom Stoppard, first broadcast in 1967, is set in the dental surgery of dentist Harry Dunn, described as small, mid-30s, very clean and pink, with light framed spectacles, and a tight even white smile.  Stoppard describes the play in the preface as a “Roald Dahl type story as I hoped.  I take this opportunity to dedicate it to my much more recent and much nicer dentist” (1993, vii). The Roald Dahl reference suggests that this is black comedy and indeed what turns out to be the case is that Harry has a relationship with Mary, his receptionist, while the receptionist’s husband, George, has a relationship with the dentist’s wife. Although the dentist has his own relationship with George’s wife, he does not like George to have a relationship with his wife and so when George comes for a routine check-up of a set of perfect teeth, Harry subjects him to humiliation and prods around in his mouth with his instruments, drilling where it is not necessary and in the end pulling at least one tooth.  Quite a lot of the dentist’s work in the patient’s mouth is filmed in detail; in this respect, the direction reads that

Harry should make use of all his tools and nozzles, squirting air and water, swivelling, drilling etc.  The point is that Harry is playing with George.  The dental procedures do not have to be authentic or accurate.  The director and actors can assume that there is nothing much wrong with George’s teeth and there is a logical rationalisation for using the machine indiscriminately for effect. (1993, 32)
Ron Clarke and Sam Bobrick, Murder at the Howard Johnson's

From the black comedy of Little Shop of Horrors and Teeth, we move to light comedy, which is where most dentists in drama are found. Murder at the Howard Johnson’s by Ron Clarke and Sam Bobrick is a good example.The three acts of this play are set in a Howard Johnson’s hotel (one of the hotel chains in America) on three different occasions, a week before Christmas in Room 514, on the 4th July in Room 907, and on New Year’s Eve in Room 1015. The play has three characters, Arlene Miller, her husband, Paul Miller and their dentist, Mitchell Lovell.  In the first scene the dentist and Arlene plot to kill Paul but fail.  In the second scene Arlene and Paul plot to kill the dentist but fail.  In the third scene, the dentist and Paul plot to kill Arlene but fail. The comedy is based on several clichés about dentists: first of all, the character of Mitchell is introduced with reference to the assumption that dentists are attractive to women because of their profession (presumably implying financial prowess): thus, Mitchell says to Arlene, rather pompously and therefore funny: “I can’t stand the thought of anybody but me touching you.  I am a dentist Arlene, you know I can have any woman I want, but all I want is you” (1979, 7). The dentist’s cruelty, exaggerated in Little Shop of Horrors and Teeth, received slightly lighter treatment in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s: Mitchell reveals to Arlene: “I have never told you this before but remember when I put in that bridge for him and he went home in terrific pain, I purposely did that to him.  I put in the wrong size bridge, I wanted to hurt him.” The potential weight of this confession is reduced and the confession turned into a joke through Arlene’s response: “I love you Mitchell”, followed by their passionate embrace (1979, 8). Mitchell wears a very colourful shirt, emphasising his macho image, and is appalled and hurt when Paul refers to him as middle class: “Who the hell are you calling middle class?  I am a professional dentist with diplomas all over the wall” (1979, 17).  A further reference, with comic impact, to the dentist’s assumed status of power comes in Scene Two: Arlene has lured Mitchell into the Howard Johnson’s hotel by leaving a suicide note and when Mitchell arrives he says: “Arlene, I am glad I got here in time.  I drove through red lights, I drove through stop signs.  I drove through railroad crossing, thank God I am a doctor, I am allowed to drive like a maniac.”  (1979, 33). 

A dentist’s high income, at the expense of the overpaying patients, provides a further source of laughter in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. Mitchell and Arlene have lured Arlene’s husband, Paul, a used-car dealer, to the Howard Johnson’s to an alleged meeting with a crook willing to sell him stolen cars for re-sale. When Paul realises that the person he expected to find in the apartment at the Howard Johnson’s is not the man he thought he would meet, but the dentist, he comments “You, you are our dentist, you don’t make enough money overcharging us?  You have to operate a stolen car ring too?” (1979, 12). As in the previous example from this play, the comedy continues right away with the following lines: Arlene is getting impatient—after all, she and the dentist have to get on with murdering her husband, Paul, so she asks Paul to give her his coat, and prompts Mitchell to inform Paul of their plans: “Dr Lovell has something to tell you. Go ahead honey”. Paul in turn responds with “Honey?  Who calls a dentist honey?” (1979, 12). The play then comes back to the financial dimension when, prior to attempting to kill Paul according to their plan, Mitchell suggests a divorce: “A nice clean split, we let the lawyers handle everything; we stay friends and from hereon in all your dental work is 50% off” (1979, 12). When Paul refuses the generous offer, he is still somewhat upset about finding out his wife has been betraying him—again with a comical dimension, because of the apparent reason he is upset when he says: “In love with a man who butchered my mouth, it still hurts from the lousy bridge you put in”. Mitchell retorts: “So don’t pay me”. Paul: “I didn’t” (1979, 12).
Ernest Thompson, On Golden Pond
The financial dimension of a dentist’s work is also obvious in On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson, on which the film of the same title with Henry Fonda is based. The play is set in the home of Ethel and Norman Thayer, an elderly couple. Norman has got major heart problems and Ethel is worried about his health.  Their daughter, Chelsea, comes to visit, bringing with her her new boyfriend, Bill Ray. When Bill’s son Billie Ray is introduced, Norman mistakes him playfully for the dentist saying “you seem awfully young to be a dentist”.  Billie responds “I am a midget”. Norman “Oh Really?”.  Chelsea (Norman and Ethel’s daughter) laughs and clarifies: “This is Billie Ray Junior” (1979, 65). Norman later asks Bill how much he charges for a filling. Bill: “$40 generally”. Norman “$40, good god, my brother charged $5 for a filling right up to 1973 when he raised it to $7.  That’s when I stopped going to him”. The small talk continues with

Bill: Your brother is a dentist?
Norman: Yes he was when he was living.
Bill: Isn’t that amazing?
Norman: I don’t know, I think every family has one.  (1979, 42)

Later in the scene, Ethel and Norman talk about Chelsea and her new boyfriend. The conversation comes back to the financial implications of Bill’s work:

Ethel: Chelsea says he’s very funny.
Norman: He is, he’s a scream.
Ethel: She really likes him, I can tell that, says he is very smart.
Norman: And rich, did she tell you that?  $40 a filling!
Ethel: $40?
Norman: That’s enough to keep you off sweets isn’t it?
Ethel: Well, he’d be a quite a catch won’t he.    (1979, 48)

At a later point, Norman asks Chelsea whether she can get them a discount on dental work (1979, 63).

Canadian Gothic by Joanna M Glass is a play about a Saskatchewan dentist and his mildly rebellious wife. The wife dies, and the daughter remembers, with reference to money:

Fortunately there is gold in dentistry.  My father wouldn’t have live-in help under foot in the evenings so we hired a woman to do the washing and we hired a woman to do the cooking.  In accordance with his nature we took care of these things first then we mourned”. (1977, 12)

Conveniently for the comical plot of Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, Paul is suffering acutely from pain caused by the bridge and shouts out in pain, serving as the trigger for the following exchange:

Mitchell: What’s wrong?
Paul: It’s that lousy bridge you put in.
Mitchell:  goes to the bag and gets some dental instruments Here let me have a look.
Paul: No, no it’s alright.
Mitchell: Open wide. looks into Paul’s mouth Have you been using your water pick? 
Paul: Who’s got time?
Mitchell: You are lucky you are going to die Paul.  You need $1200 worth of work there.
Paul: I wouldn’t go to you if you were the last dentist on earth.
Mitchell: For you, I am the last dentist on earth.  (1979, 19)

When Paul threatens to kill Mitchell, in Scene Two, Mitchell tries to bribe himself out of the situation: “I tell you what, free office visits for a whole year” (1979, 36)

In addition to a dentist’s macho image and his money, comedies make use of the dentist’s tools. Mitchell in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s and Dr Julian Winston in The Cactus Flower wear a white dentist jacket, and Mitchell uses a hypodermic needle. Reference to the dentist’s chair is used to comic effect in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s as well. In Scene Two, Paul and Arlene plan the murder of the dentist because she found him in a compromising situation in his surgery with the dental nurse. Arlene wanted to surprise Mitchell in his office and opened the door.

Paul: Yes.
Arlene: And there they were in the chair.
Paul: In the chair?
Arlene: He and his dental assistant.
Paul: With Judy?  I thought she just cleaned teeth.  Scum, scum of the earth.
Arlene: She sure is.
Paul: I am talking about him.  (1979, 31)

When Mitchell arrives and Paul and Arlene talk to him about this incident, Mitchell comically relates that after Arlene left the surgery, he jumped up from the chair. He hit the wrong button and the chair folded in half, leaving the dental nurse seriously injured (1979, 33).

In The Cactus Flower, well-intentioned, “good” dentist Dr Winston is tempted say this to Igor, his rival for the favours of his girlfriend, Tony: “I would like to have you in my chair for just five minutes” (1966, 44). Dentist characters harm patients not only intentionally, as in Little Shop of Horrors, Teeth, or Murder at the Howard Johnson’s in the contexts of black comedy and light comedy, but their practice goes wrong unintentionally when they are run down with their nerves: by the end of the play Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, Mitchell complains about his practice falling to pieces:

the other day I was taking an impression of one of my few remaining patients and I cemented her gums together” (…) Last week I did a root canal on an old man who wears false teeth and you know what I did yesterday?  I dropped a gold filling down a woman’s throat.  That is a $140 down the toilet. (1979, 48)

Dr Winston in The Cactus Flower feels that his love life influences and affects his ability as a dentist badly.  He says “my problems with Tony are beginning to affect my work.  You know what happened in there just now?  I hurt Mrs Durrant, she felt pain, it’s the first time I have ever hurt a patient” (1966, 52). 
In John Kirkpatrick’s one-act farce Kiss me Quick – I Am Double Parked, dentist Alex reminisces with his dental nurse, Lily Carter:

Alex: Think of all the tender moments we have shared.  Remember last year—my first extraction, that old Mrs Havilland, that lovely impacted wisdom tooth—why, the roots must have gone down to her knees. (His voice has taken on an odd nostalgic quality)
Lily : (Also reliving it all) Yes, yes.
Alex: I was so excited I couldn’t wait for the novocaine to take effect—
Lilly: That first pull of yours—
Alex: She kicked me in the stomach—broke a bottle of Lavoris over your head and left.  She never came back, I wonder why?  Yes, yes, we have been through a lot, Miss Carter.  (…) (1968, 7)

Lily later describes Alex’s working habits to another character: “He has a record player (…) to sooth his patients.  You know, Beethoven for drilling—Tschaikovski for extractions”.  (1968, 16)

In The Cactus Flower, in the surgery the voice of the assistant, Stephanie, and the soft music create an effect that is supposed to be very soothing for the patients (1966, 12). Dr Winston reveals the true purpose of the background music, which “has become a very important aspect of modern dental therapy.  It is very soothing to the dentist”. A patient, Harvey comments: “At your prices you can afford Heifez  in person” (1966, 15)

When dentist characters are conscientious, good dentists, this is shown by the kind of advice they give patients directly, and well-intended suggestions they make to friends. In The Cactus Flower, for example, a patient, Mrs Durrant, comes to see Dr Winston after a filling has come out because she has eaten a caramel. She complains: “A caramel, one lousy caramel and the whole damn filling came out”.  The dental nurse, Stephanie, admonishes her “Mrs Durrant, it was only a temporary filling and you were warned to be careful, caramels…”  (1966, xx). The nurse’s words mirror those of Dr Winston himself a little later (1966, 17).

A dentist character’s profession can bleed into their daily lives outside the surgery. Dentist Felix in But She Won’t Lie Down met his wife Belinda when she came to his surgery to have her teeth capped. Felix remembers: “I remember she had a pair of the sexiest incisors I’d ever seen … so I asked her out to the local chophouse. I didn’t know then she was going to devour me” (1978, 84). When the men of the jazz band in The Gig have arrived at the venue for the big event, the Paradise Manor, before going to bed, Arthur comically comments on the fluoride level in the water, “I am speaking to Mr Mitgan tomorrow [the owner], there is not enough fluoride in this water”. (1992, 55). Various members of the band try to strike up relationships with female company that they find around and Arthur is one of them.  He is interested in the waitress Lucy and as a very funny icebreaker on their first date he says “maybe sometime I could tell you secrets of dentistry, never before revealed” to which Lucy responds in a non-committal way “Maybe”.  (1992, 65).

On their second date the talk is again about dentistry. 

Lucy: I have an uncle who is a dentist,
Arthur: I hope you like him,
Lucy: He is a very wise man,
Arthur: As a matter of fact you can learn a lot about human nature from the way people behave in a dentist’s chair,
Lucy: For instance?
Arthur: Take pain.  There is a certain type who feels guilty if they are not suffering so they refuse anaesthesia no matter what.
Lucy: Not I
Arthur: Then there’s the ones with no tolerance who need novocaine to sit in the waiting room.
Lucy: That’s me.
Arthur: No it is isn’t.
Lucy: How do you know?
Arthur: Like I said—you learn to read people. And I size you up as eminently sensible.
Lucy You are right.  I said the other to be funny. 
(Lucy smiles, Arthur smiles in return and they break into song) 
Arthur: Beautiful
Lucy: Sorry?
Arthur: (uncomfortable that his feelings slipped out)
Your teeth are beautiful.
they are so perfectly in place
they complement your face,
so beautiful. 

They are in there as tight as drums,
thanks to those healthy gums
they are also beautiful. 
Yes beautiful,
so beauti…. 
I am embarrassing you

Lucy: A little

Arthur: I am just giving you my professional opinion
Smiles from you
can cheer me when I am glum 
Yes after you, they broke the mould,
your fillings aren’t just gold,
they are platinum. 
It really comes across
how much you like to floss,
your smile is beautiful
oh beautiful so beautiful,


Lucy (in soliloquy)
I didn’t want to like him
 (1992, 70-72)

In The Gig Arthur addresses an unseen patient, “I am not superman Robbie, I don’t have the necessary x-ray vision to see straight through your clenched mouth and into your gums, but I am a super crusader for aural hygiene and together we could be become a dynamic duo, but first you have got to let me look in that terrific mouth of yours”. Following a few sung lines accompanied by music, he continues: “Ok Robbie how about we play astronaut.  I will start the countdown and when I say blast off you open your mouth wide as a space ship.  Are you ready?” (1992, 19).

The well-meaning dentist is also being exploited for treating some patients without payment. This characteristic is used to comical effect when, in The Cactus Flower, patient Harvey asks whether the dentist, Dr Winston, could do something for the overlap of his girlfriend’s teeth, preferably without having to pay.  He hardly ever pays for his own treatment either.  Dr Winston replies: “Oh send her around and I will see what I can do but don’t you know any girls with straight teeth?” (1966,19).

One-off humour at the expense of a dentist comes in the form of dentist Felix in But She Won’t Lie Down arranging a fake marital fight with his late wife’s sister, Joanna, impersonating his wife.

Joanna: (…) She might begin by describing you as more of an absess [sic] than a dentist.
Felix: Umm … you’ll think of something better by then.
Joanna: An orthodontic drip. An antiseptic old auntie. (1978, 49)

A patient who is funnily afraid of dentists is Senor Sanchez in The Cactus Flower: “I’ve been through 6 bloody revolutions, I’ve played a whole game of polo with a broken leg, I have sat in my seat at the United Nations and without flinching, I have listened to 10 full length Cuban speeches but dentists……” (he shakes his head)”. (1966, 29).

To round off this survey of the presentation of dentists in English language drama, below is a comment on that material from German Dentist and Orthodontist Dr Carolin Hadamovsky:

Dr Carolin Hadamovsky
I think that the plays you refer to cover quite a lot with regard to the profession of the dentist. The dentist is, on the whole, not an intellectual. At least I don’t know a single one. In order to do the job well, you need above all much manual skill, combined with strong spatial sense. That’s why I would call it an academic craft. In earlier years (in the 1960s and 1970s), this was the domain of men—perhaps because that’s how men are constituted genetically, they are just able to do this kind of work. And those who are particularly good at it—they are the “masculine” men—machos. Only when politics in Germany introduced the regulatory regime of a centralised university admission system and a grade average requirement to study dentistry, more and more women decided to study dentistry, simply because they achieved better marks. When I studied, (1978 onwards), the ratio of women was 20%, today it is 80%. The professional bodies are already concerned about the provision of dentistry twenty years from now. Many female dentists are employed, while only very few found their own surgeries. Why should they? Fees have not risen since the 1980s, and even a small surgery costs no less than €300,000, and the immense administration work that comes with owning one’s own surgery eats well into the weekend hours. Many female colleagues are not prepared to take that risk and prefer being employed on a fixed salary and fixed hours in a large surgery. This also allows them to give priority to family planning. Perhaps this development will change the image of the dentist in future, in the media and in the theatre, in a positive way—because women are not usually seen as brutal and obsessed by money and power. But their male colleagues do no longer drive Porsche, but Sharan, and they don’t own villas any more, either.

I think that the plays depict well many aspects of how dentists are perceived in daily life. I am of course saddened that some dentists are represented as intentionally torturing people—we too have to take the Hippocratic oath on receiving our licence to practice dentistry! You can’t feel disgusted with teeth—who would be able to endure a lifetime in such a job? That’s why I am happy that in The Gig, Arthur is able to say many positive things about us dentists. Indeed, we need a lot of empathy, knowledge of human nature and respect for the patient to be able to carry out a successful treatment. In addition, we have to be absolute aesthetes (who can be happy about every beautiful set of teeth!), a good salesperson, and without good business skills you will go bankrupt even despite good ability as a dentist. The plays seem not to deal with those last two qualities of dentists, possibly a sign that the authors do not know that much about the finer details of the profession after all. (2014)

Works Cited
Burrows, Abe. 1996. Cactus Flower.  A comedy in two acts by based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. London: Samuel French.

Clarke, Ron and Sam Bobrick. 1979. Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. New York and London: Samuel French.

Cohen, Douglas J. 1992. The Gig: A musical by based on the motion picture, The Gig, by Frank D Gilroy.  London & New York: Samuel French.

Glass, Joanna M. 1977. Canadian Gothic. New York: Dramatists Play Service.

Hadamovsky, Carolin. 2014. Personal communication, email, 22 April.

Kirkpatrick, John.  1968. Kiss me Quick – I’m Double Parked.  London: Samuel French.

Leigh, Mike. 2006. 2000 Years.  London: Faber & Faber.

Stoppard, Tom. 1967. Teeth. London: Faber & Faber. 

Thompson, Ernest. 1979. On Golden Pond. New York: Dramatists Play Service.

Yeldham, Peter. 1978. But She Won’t Lie Down. New York: Samuel French.

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