Patrick Malahide in “The Invention of Dr. Cake”

Poet John Keats Source: Wikipedia

In 2007, Patrick Malahide appeared on Channel 4 radio as Dr. Tabor in the 2007 Afternoon Play “The Invention of Dr. Cake” adapted by Jonathan Holloway from Andrew Motion’s 2003 novel. Richard McCabe portrays Dr. Cake (if indeed that is his real name…he might actually be a certain Romantic poet) and Claire Higgins is Dr. Cake’s housekeeper, the enigmatic Mrs. Reilly.  Since this is a radio play illustrations are ably provided by Wikipedia and a few guest stars. 🙂

Dr. Tabor Visits Woodham

Narrated from Dr. Tabor’s perspective, it tells the story of how in the 1840s he travels to the village of Woodham in Essex to meet with Dr. Cake, a physician with considerable success in the treatment of consumption. Dr. Tabor notices how cozy the villagers’ cottages are, their windows open allowing the free flow of air. He finds little of the miserable miasma normally found in small working class villages rife with consumption. This is the work of Dr. Cake who has worked with area farmers to ensure healthy living conditions for the locals.

Very dramatically.

Dr. Tabor is poetically inclined.

When he reaches his destination, Dr. Tabor finds that Dr. Cake himself is afflicted with the deadly disease and is reaching the end of his life. However, Dr. Cake is lively in his conversation, and the two men strike up an immediate bond. This is largely due to their shared love of the arts, particularly poetry. Dr. Tabor, we learn, is a huge fan of the Lake District poets, especially John Keats, who died (hmmm?) in 1821 of consumption. Dr. Cake has read and compliments Tabor’s own early efforts in poetry which Tabor humbly dismisses as the romantic fancies of a young man.

Sowing conflict and mooching (note right hand).

Bring on the claret.

Dr. Cake understands Tabor’s meaning there. “Such works as we create are not entirely within our power, they depend on mysterious agencies which linger or depart as they think fit and not as we demand.” Hmmmm again. Dr. Tabor wonders if Cake is speaking from some sort of experience there.  Could be.

So, they have a lot in common. They share a love for the romantic arts and wish to alleviate the suffering of others. Cake is buoyed by their kinship and requests a bottle of claret from his housekeeper Mrs. Reilly. It is obvious from the start that Mrs. Reilly is very protective of Dr. Cake and as a result is wary of Dr. Tabor who she fears is exciting the dying consumptive.

Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty

Drs. Cake and Tabor take a turn around the garden where we learn that Mrs. Reilly is a Catholic from Ireland. She went to England to escape persecution as some in her family were “agitators”. Her own husband died from consumption. She is also greatly distressed by the ongoing famine there. Cake talks of a visit he paid to Ireland as a young man, another hint of his possible past life.

Cake continues telling the story of his youth. He was raised in a modest home and his parents died when he was young. He began medical studies, but illness compelled him to take a break and visit the Continent. He shares this with Tabor all while maintaining an almost spiritual regard to the concepts of truth and beauty, joy and suffering.

Ode on a Grecian Urn. Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Tabor quotes “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty, that is all ye need to know,” prompting a slight admonishment from Dr. Cake who suggests Tabor may be overfond of Keats. Yeah, well that was partly Cake’s fault for going on about Italy. Cake seems unable to stop himself from dropping Keatsian hints while at the same time being terrified of Tabor’s ability to pick up on these hints and associate them to Keats’ life.

Cake gets over-excited and Tabor carries him into the house, surprised at how light the dying man is. Mrs. Reilly implores him to send for Cake’s physician Dr. Garrett. Tabor, ashamed of his role in Cake’s sudden decline, does so, and then goes back home to London.

The Second Visit

You can burn those socks too.

While in London, Tabor starts connecting the events of Cake’s life with that of a young Keats. While there, he receives a letter from Mrs. Reilly, surprisingly well written, imploring him to return to Woodham. Before knocking at Cake’s door, he finds himself drawn to the french windows of Dr. Cake’s study. There he sees Dr. Cake laying on his chaise as Mrs. Reilly burns manuscripts according to his beckoning.

When he finally knocks at the door Mrs. Reilly politely sends him away explaining that Dr. Cake is very unwell. But, she asks him to return in the morning after breakfast. Mrs. Reilly confides to Dr. Tabor that Cake was once a great and vigorous man saying that things were not always as they are now.

Twinges of doubt

Losing the muse?

The next morning Tabor finds Cake in a cheerful mood. The conversation again shifts from the medical as they discuss the importance of living conditions to the more esoteric as Cake laments social injustice exacerbated by man’s inherent cruelty. Tabor recklessly connects that misanthropic attitude to Cake’s loss of the “muse”. Oh dear.

Cake is decidedly embittered over the change in his life’s journey, but Tabor takes a more optimistic approach asking whether it is better to be exceptional or useful. “It may be that we are destined to live different lives in a single span.” Hmmmm…but how different, hey?

Dual Lives

Cake keeps piling on the hints, saying it might be better to die than to allow others to see the loss of one’s talents. They discuss Shelley, Burns and John Clair. Tabor goes the direct route, “You have not mentioned…Keats.”

They are joined again by Mrs. Reilly and the three of them talk about Keats. They discuss some of the recent works detailing Keats’ life and achievements.  Cake laments that “posterity is your only true judge.” Tabor wonders “What if a man was actually able to view his achievements from the vantage of posterity? Supposing he had lived to see what at first had been judged failure, as caviar for the few, become favored by the many.”

Out for a stroll at Dingley Dell

Out for a garden stroll.

Cake says it would be worse for a man who lives to witness his success but cannot claim it has his own. You know, like one who decided to switch identities. 😉 Cake hopes it might at least be better if such a new life were a useful one, better to end an artistic life before it becomes a failure. Once again, he gets agitated and Dr. Tabor has to step out into the garden to give Cake time to recover.

Mrs. Reilly calls him in after Cake has rested and they continue their discussion of Keats. Cake thinks Keats would have become a physician after his talents inevitably dried up. He admits, however, that the urge to write poetry would be irresistible, but that one would not freely share those efforts with the greater world preferring to burn them up.

Joseph Severn Source: Wikipedia

Cake can’t help but share his feelings with Tabor, but adds that none of it can be said out loud “because that might make it real.” Tabor wonders why, if Keats would change careers, would he change his name and go to ground in a strange place. (Like Woodham, right?) Tabor asks how such a deception could be maintained. Cake says Keats’ friend Joseph Severn would likely know and keep the secret but that Keats’ family would have to be kept in the dark and laments the dreadfulness of doing so.

Tabor wonders why Keats couldn’t just confess to the deception attributing it to an “internal fury”. Cake: “Because in pretending his death he would have cut himself off from the person he loved most in all creation. Imagine him watching her grieve then recover and perhaps marry another and be happy and travel through the world.” Cake and Mrs. Reilly both begin sobbing. “Too dreadful…too dreadful.”  Heavy! Dr. Tabor knows of no such woman, but agrees it would be unimaginable.

It is now time for Dr. Cake to shuffle off this mortal coil. He begs Mrs. Reilly not to be sad and asks that Dr. Tabor be kind to her. Dr. Cake is now definitely dying, but Mrs. Reilly reassures Dr. Tabor that he has been important to the doctor and not to feel guilty for Cake’s life was spent before they ever even met. Tabor tries to get her to admit the truth, but she wants him to fetch Dr. Garrett, “Don’t press me.”

And Now the Burden Is Mine

Contemplating his own mortality

Contemplating mortality

By the next day Dr. Cake is dead. Tabor attends his funeral where he sees Mrs. Reilly “changed”…standing beautifully with a new fire inside her. Tabor is asked to write an obituary, but he must not reveal Cake’s true identity but rather stress the importance of his life as a physician championing against suffering.

Five years later, and one week before her death, Tabor receives from Mrs. Reilly a parcel of documents proving Cake’s identity. The contents are his to do with as he sees fit. In the letter, Mrs. Reilly refers to Dr. Tabor as “William” and herself as “Eileen” suggesting a great trust and affection. But, Dr. Tabor now realizes he is in a most monumental situation. “And now the burden…is mine.”


Claire Higgins and Patrick Malahide

This is an excellent production that questions the importance of posterity verses genuine usefulness.  Mr. Malahide is both warm yet challenging in his confrontations with Dr. Cake.  The rapport they share is a dangerous one, but they both seem unable and unwilling to stop its flow.  When we reach the logical conclusion, that Dr. Cake was indeed John Keats, Mr. Malahide makes it clear that Dr. Tabor is now indeed the one carrying a heavy  burden.

Richard McCabe and Claire Higgins are also excellent and believable in their roles.  Mr. McCabe’s portrayal of the tuberculosis ridden doctor displays the weakness caused by disease without compromising the inner fire of the poet.  And Ms. Higgins is perfect as the highly protective, but also passionate and kind Mrs. Reilly.  At first I thought she was going to be a prickly stereotype, but her complex character was far from that.

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