Dramaturg Guy Lancaster: Researching St. Vincent's

(Dramaturg Guy Lancaster, Rattlestick Board Member Zachary Quinto, Speaker Corey Johnson, and Artistic Director Daniella Topol. Photo cred: William Alatriste, NYC Council Photographer)

(Dramaturg Guy Lancaster, Rattlestick Board Member Zachary Quinto, Speaker Corey Johnson, and Artistic Director Daniella Topol. Photo cred: William Alatriste, NYC Council Photographer)

Researching The St Vincent’s Project – Guy Lancaster, Dramaturg

When you are listening to people talk about St Vincent’s Hospital the experience can sometimes feel like the ancient Indian Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. In that story each blind man describes a piece of the elephant but is unable to grasp the totality of what an Elephant is. We wanted to see if we could offer a larger history for people in relation to the hospital. Because the scale and complexity of that history seemed to be uniquely representative of the forces which have shaped not only the Village but the city as a whole and even, in certain respects, the world.

For months we had researched possible topics for a theater piece that would address the concerns of the neighborhood in which Rattlestick theater is embedded. Nothing we touched upon rivaled St Vincent’s. We always came back obsessively to its fate. There were precedents. The showdown between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses or the fight over Westway. Downtown has been shaped by epic battles. But St Vincent’s was something fresh and raw. It dominates people’s imaginations as they try to describe their feelings about the Village. It’s as though something has been amputated, leaving Village residents with the troubling sensation of a phantom limb.

Fragments of the St Vincent’s tale are well known and frequently cited. Survivors of the Titanic had been brought here. Ambulances rushed to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Babe Ruth had beamed from his St Vincent’s hospital bed. Dylan Thomas had given up the ghost here.  Edna St Vincent Millay was named after the place. The hospital was an essential hub for survivors of 9/11 and a place where the city spontaneously confronted its communal grief and disorientation. And, preeminently, St Vincent’s became the epicenter of AIDS research and treatment on the East Coast.  

These details circulate in people’s references to St Vincent’s, like bits and pieces of folklore. The dramatic challenge we faced was to investigate how this legendary and much-loved institution began and how it died. How a facility that had provided medical care for generations of New Yorkers - many of them working class Irish who once packed the tenements of the West Side -  could be turned into luxury condos. And how the first Catholic hospital in Manhattan, founded in 1849, would also be the last when its doors were shuttered on April 30, 2010.

A central figure became Elizabeth Seton. She had been born in to a world of Episcopalian privilege in Manhattan. She ended her life as a Catholic nun, “Mother Seton”, founder of the Sisters of Charity. We were struck by how the order she founded was a central model for the four hundred other religious orders which sprang up in its wake, transforming communities – particularly large cities – across America. She had lit a fuse. These women had pioneered what would become the welfare state as they built hospitals, orphanages and schools. In a world where restrictions on women’s agency could be severe they were remaking the social landscape in critical ways. They were activists, directly confronting the most pressing social problems of the day.

They were also the shock troops in situations, such as the Civil War, where many others were not able to provide the care required. This was the case for the four Sisters who founded St Vincent’s hospital at its first location on East 13th St in 1849. The city was then undergoing one of the periodic waves of cholera which swept through New York in the 19th century and the Sisters were among the few who were prepared to confront the threat. They joined forces with people like Dr Valentine Mott, a member of the city’s elite, a Quaker and a renowned surgeon. The dialectic between science and religion runs through the play.

We began to put the 19th and 20th century experiences of epidemics together. Cholera and HIV/AIDS would bookend the story. Past and present would be in dialogue as we explored the implications of how nuns, nurses, doctors, patients and artists had faced the terror of an epidemic, the ravages of a plague.

In her blog Cusi Cram describes the range of materials that we needed to delve in to in order to map a story that moves from a woman who once danced with George Washington to a world in which people take a prophylactic drug to protect themselves from HIV.

The unbearable drama of HIV/AIDS is at the center of the period in which St Vincent’s became the second dedicated AIDS ward in the nation, after San Francisco. The play details that world and its stakes. It also speaks to the paradoxes of its legacy: cultural flowering and devastating losses – loss of life and loss of all the work that would have been done by the people who didn’t survive. The kind of rupture limned by Ira Sachs in his haunting film, Last Address, and richly documented in the recent “AIDS at Home” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

The sea change represented by the advent of anti-retroviral drugs in 1995 is a watershed moment in the play, posing the dilemmas of survival after so much loss and trauma. It also triggered a crisis for the financial model of the hospital as HIV/AIDS had brought revenue to the hospital and an effective treatment meant that many beds were now empty.

A witch’s brew of different factors characterized the denouement of St Vincent’s. A New York  magazine article characterized St Vincent’s as “the Lehman Brothers” of hospitals. St Vincent’s has that kind of symbolic or allegorical weight.  

The play charts the impact of the unpredictable and volatile elements that contributed to the hospital’s demise. The explosion of real estate speculation; gentrification (the West Village as a new magnet for the hyper wealthy);  management consultants who descended in waves on the hospital; the ongoing national struggle over healthcare and the role of insurance companies; hospital closure across the city; the Catholic church, in crisis fiscally, closing churches and hospitals – partly to pay settlements for cases of sexual abuse; the dysfunction in relations between NY City and NY State; seismic economic shifts like the end of Manhattan’s role as a port and the waning influence of maritime unions; epochal shifts in ethnic demography, like the migration of the Irish from the West side to the suburbs; enormous debt, in the region of billion dollar; and, of course, the 2008 financial crisis which took Lehman Brothers down.

We immersed ourselves in these cross-currents and tried to show how the Triangle between 7th Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and West 12th has been a vortex where a myriad of forces collided as the hospital faced its own Titanic moment.

We are left with the AIDS Memorial (which opened on World AIDS day in 2016), in the new park that occupies that triangular space now, as a reminder of the enormous crisis which HIV/AIDS still represents. With over 35 million dead and north of 37 million worldwide living with HIV. At the beginning of that immense drama there was a hospital called St Vincent’s. Part of the mandate of this play is to begin using the park space (in the outdoor section of the piece) in a way that helps us remember the connection between a Manhattan hospital that faced multiple epidemics in its 161-year history and the global scale of the AIDS pandemic.  There we face questions about how we mourn, how we remember and how we choose to go forward.



Kevin Hourigan