Matters of Life and Death: uses of historical knowledge of medicine in the theatre play All Too Human (Demasiado Humano)

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


In this presentation I will discuss the writing process of my play All Too Human (Demasiado Humano), which incorporates historical knowledge of three important medical discoveries: the rabies vaccine, psychoanalysis, and the first immortalized human cell line (HeLa cells).
Medicine has provided much inspiration to writers within the Western theatrical tradition, but the representation of physicians, patients, and medical practices has significantly changed in the last decades. Distancing themselves from heroic narratives of progress and inventiveness common in the first half of the twentieth century, contemporary writers for the stage have instead focused on problematic aspects of the relationship between physicians and their patients, notably addressing the ethical dilemmas associated with the application of medical treatments of known or predictable consequences.
I wanted to construct a play that shifted the focus to the ethical conflicts linked to the process of medical discovery, and that problematised the traditional patient-physician relationship by emphasising the conditions that put physicians in a vulnerable position. While vulnerability is conspicuous in patients it also affects researchers, who are dependent on the existence of patients, funding, and results, often facing uncertainty in their careers until an acceptable treatment is produced. Of course, this shared vulnerability does not eliminate the power dynamics that almost always puts patients in a disadvantageous position, but I thought it provided an interesting and unusual way of looking at a medical discovery. Such discoveries could therefore be told as stories of vulnerability that united physicians and patients.
Having vulnerability at the core of the play also led me to pay more attention to the situation of the patients, who are at the centre of each part of my play. They find themselves in a moment of extreme vulnerability because they have all fallen into a life-threatening health situation they did not want nor anticipated. By delving in these extreme cases and placing them together, I try to go beyond the differences that separate them in order to construct a reflexion on what it means to be human. I will illustrate the dramatic potential of my approach with excerpts from the play.
A version of the text has been published in 2021 in a volume on the fifth edition of the New Dramaturgies Festival (Festival END – Encontros de Novas Dramaturgias).
Period10 Nov 2023
Event title2nd International Conference Theatre About Science
Event typeConference
Conference number2nd
LocationCoimbra, PortugalShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • History of medicine
  • Theater and Science
  • performing arts