The Drama of Hospice and Plays about Death and Dying


Being given a hospice prognosis is dramatic. Period.

The word itself evokes both a hospital stay and the peace most hope will accompany death.

But don’t let the suffix–H-O-S-P– mislead you.  Hospice patients are (almost always) beyond  the repair of a hospital.

In my own experience, the suffix more accurately alludes to the hospitable treatment that the terminally ill and their families receive from the medical and support staff who care for patients in their own homes and at Hospice facilities.

In actuality, the word ‘hospice,’ which has its origin in the Latin word ‘hospitium,’ meaning guesthouse, refers to a concept of compassionate care for the dying (with particular attention to pain management) that was developed in the 1960’s by a British physician in London.  The first hospice in the US was established in 1974.  For more information click here.

Today I will be undergoing training to become a Hospice volunteer.  Apparently, I am like many other people who have had a loved one use Hospice for end-of-life care in that I now want to help others who are going through what I have already endured with my sister in October 2008.  (Here is “Death’s Dramatic Prelude,” a piece I wrote about Ginger’s last 24 hours.)  I fully admit that the basis of this desire–need, even–is as self-motivated as it is genuinely altruistic, a way of helping others work through their grief as I continue, a year and a half later, to work through my own.

When I went for my interview a few weeks ago, the last form I had to complete asked me to choose the word(s) that best describe how I feel about death and dying: happy, peaceful, anxious, fearful, and a few others I can’t recall. The word I chose was ‘heavy.’  The woman conducting the interview told me she had never gotten that response before.  To me, the word encompassed how dramatic death is and how complicated my feelings about it are.

Plays about Death and Dying

In my quick, preliminary search, I found this, which appears to be a collection of plays written for the purpose of art therapy–Time to Go: Three Plays on Death and Dying with Commentary on End-of-Life Issues (1995)which contains the following plays:  Journey into that Good Night by Berry L. Barta; Stars at the Break of Day by Marjorie Ellen Spence; and Time to Go by CE McClelland.

Trying to put together a list of plays about death and dying has gotten me thinking about ‘genre’ categories today, specifically the distinction between ‘dramas’ and ‘tragedies.’  Would you say that some plays (films also) are one or the other and that some are both?  Margaret Edson’s Wit, for example, drama, tragedy, both?

For some reason right now, I can think of plenty of plays in which characters die, but beyond King Lear and the graveyard scene inHamlet, I can’t think of many offhand that take on death in a way that might bring some solace to a dying person and his or her family.  I love W.B. Yeats’  play Purgatory, but it’s not uplifting at all.

Dear Reader, can you suggest other plays that take on issues of death and dying (and that perhaps end with a sense of lightness (or enlightenment), rather than bleakness)?

5 Responses to “The Drama of Hospice and Plays about Death and Dying”
  1. This may not fit exactly into the guidelines of your query, but I find “The Destiny of Me” by Larry Kramer to be one of the most insightful looks at the fear and rage connected with the deaths of the early AIDS pandemic. I’m sure that others will point out “Wit” by Margaret Edson or “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” by Brian Clark, but “Destiny” does a great job of capturing the emotional journey that so many people find themselves in when faced with the prognoses of death. You may also want to take a look at “Stars at the Break of Day” by Marjorie Spence

  2. OOPS! – I meant a closer look at “Stars at the Break of Day” it is the best written work in that trilogy. (My opinion of course – which means absolutely nothing!)

  3. nstodard says:

    Thanks for the suggestions, Adalberto!

    This is a reminder to myself to check out Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy” … If you’re out there and you’ve seen it…tell us about it…

  4. Maria Beach says:

    I’d second Let Me Down Easy–public television recently aired a taped version and it is good.

    I have a student who may be writing her thesis on this topic. One play that I would recommend is Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. And ‘Night Mother by Marsha Norman can be considered positive, even though it is a suicide play, because the protagonist chooses her own fate.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] which Lucy Snowe recounts Miss Marchmont’s final burst of life before death. In another post, my fantastic readers helped me compile a list of plays about death and dying.  In February I started working as a freelance writer and editor for several South Florida […]

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