New York, NY —
In the late fifties and early sixties, the drug Thalidomide caused birth defects in many parts of the world. Americans at the time were aware of the tragedy but the impact of thalidomide was not an issue which inspired artists. Until now. An off Broadway play called “The Flid Show”, is the personal drama of one victim set against the history of the drug. WNYC’s Judith Kampfner reports
Foyer ambi Kampfner: Many people in the theater audience had never heard of Thalidomide
Woman: It’s thamido..thlido.. …
Kampfner Thalidomide is indeed hard to say. The play’s title the Flid Show comes from a lazy abbreviation. It was the cruel nickname Mat Fraser heard in the schoolyard.
Fraser It was either “Flid” or “Spastic”
Kampfner Fraser is a six foot tall British TV actor and musician .Despite his classic good looks, it’s his short arms and thumbless hands that get stared at. Now aged 42, he has found a way of coming to terms with having foreshortened arms. His argument is – if you want to gawp - come and pay money to do it and he channels his anger as a drummer and rapper.
Fraser rap I’m OK if I can laugh at my own disability.. well hardy ha ha , my arms are so short.. forgive me if I don’t die laughing at this thought.
Kampfner Fraser is now comfortable with addressing his deformity in his art. But when he received a script about thalidomide from an American playwright he was suspicious. Was this shameless appropriation? Would it be caricature and what an audacious title!…Even though thalidomiders have reclaimed the word “flid”, he says, that didn’t give an outsider the right.
Fraser Some guy I’ve never met who doesn’t appear to be disabled is calling a show The Flid Show? Who the hell do you think you are?
Kampfner Fraser’s suspicions were allayed. He liked the angry lead character Duncan the Flid..
Fraser It’s an ideal role….
Kampfner American playwright Richard Willett knew nothing of Mat Fraser’s existence when he wrote The Flid Show. But he felt able to write the piece because he battled with severe scoliosis.
Willett It’s nothing like what thalidomiders go through but it’s an experience with doctors and medicine and especially when I was younger I thought of myself as being deformed.
Kampfner Richard Willett is the same generation as Mat Fraser. From 1959 – 1962 the drug was prescribed for morning sickness and insomnia routinely in Europe Canada Japan and Australia..Willett became obsessed and haunted by images of ten thousand deformed children who were his age.
Willett Growing up I would read articles about it and I would sometimes regret reading them but I would be just drawn to the subject with that irresistible quality of something that’s disturbing but also you can’t get out of your mind.
Kampfner All that reading paid off. He’s written a sweeping drama – how the drug was developed by an ex Nazi scientist , how pharmaceutical bosses allowed it to be sold even after the effects were uncovered, how it was never marketed in the US and how it was finally banned worldwide in 1962.
Willett The history is done as vaudeville - the subject needs comedy
Kampfner Though the stage is populated with real historical figures, the central character is fictional. The play tells the story of Duncan, a nightclub performer whose mother took one thalidomide pill and later committed suicide. Duncan is a bitter and angry. He’s a struggling cabaret singer in a seedy club. One night he’s visited by a kindly ghost who comes out of the wardrobe in his dressing room. She is Frances Kelsey who was responsible for banning Thalidomide in America. For playwright Willett, she was the only hero of the thalidomide tragedy.
Willet She was suspicious of it. She was a new employee of the FDA and it was the first thing she had been given to approve. She and her husband had worked with Quinine in Africa, which had caused birth defects so they were aware of the danger of drugs.
Kampfner Like a Dickensian spirit, Kelsey takes hold of one of Duncan’s flipper arms (that’s what he angrily calls them) and.they revisit the history of the drug. The other kind woman is Duncan’s life is his sister who sets him up with a doctor friend.
(scene) Duncan: Why do you have to bring girls round anyway? Bren: That was not a girl, that was my friend. Dunc: They don’t’ get me, no –one ever gets me. Bren: Oh poor you. Dunc: They don’t. She’s a doctor and even she doesn’t know what to do with me. It’s not like I’m disabled or have a disease. I’m deformed. No-one ever knows how to respond to that. Bren You decide that going in
Kampfner: The doctor, Rachel, becomes Duncan’s girlfriend.
They go dancing. Duncan only likes music written before 1962 - when for him, the world was still innocent. Karen Ott a professional script editor, who helps writers with new plays, went along to the show.
Ott Whey they come together, there’s an awkwardness about how they come to fit together. He has to push and pull a little bit and there’s this jittery moment and she’s not sure what she needs to do but then she wraps her arms around his waist and they have after that a seamless connection like any other couple
Kampfner The glitter ball is subsumed as the house lights go up - intermission.
Woman Just now when they had a dance in the last scene, I had tears in my eyes, I was crying. After a while, I didn’t see it any more, I just saw him as an actor.
Kampfner The dance scene was preparation for a love scene. Long legged Mat Fraser walks onto the stage nude, there’s a bold tattoo on his thigh.
Fraser It’s utterly authentic and real, it’s post coital, it’s the first time you see this character actually his real self without all the brick walls on him – That’s one of the things we are not allowed to be traditionally – is sexual.
Ott The need for the character to reveal all of his nakedness is where the journey is going. I completely bought into his being a fully equipped male.
Kampfner When “The Flid Show” was first produced with Duncan played by an able bodied actor, the sex scene could not be done naked because the actor had his hands tied behind his back. There is no pretense about the deformity with Mat Fraser says Karen Ott.
Ott We are looking at a man who is very close to his character so it breaks down the boundaries between the actor and the role
Kampfner When Mat Fraser is not acting, he is an activist. And he is speaking out now because the drug has resurfaced. It’s being used as a treatment for leprosy, AIDS blindness and cancers.
Fraser In the old days, it was like hey, this is the sleeping pill to end all sleeping pills.. now they are literally going hey.. this could be a cure for some cancers.. how much money is involved in that – somebody somewhere will forget that they shouldn’t be taking it whey they’re pregnant.
Kampfner Unlike Mat, the fictional Duncan decides that the drug can take on a new life. Before only after he has a fight with Rachel when he discovers she is treating a transplant patient with Thalidomid as it’s now called. As the show closes, she takes a pill out of a bottle and places it on her desk. Duncan eyeballs it.. He thinks of his mother swallowing the innocuous little speck – And he forgives her and the drug companies he has demonized for so long.