A new play sensitively probes one of society's biggest fault lines
Eureka Day, a play written by Jonathan Spector and transferred from the US, opens at the Old Vic today. It tackles our vaccine moment with surprising sensitivity and painful humour, leaving audiences, as all good ‘issue’ plays should, perhaps less sure of their accepted beliefs.
The title refers to the name of a progressive private school in California that is so aggressively inclusive that staff are encouraged to use gender neutral pronouns for all children. It borders on a parody, with polyamorous affairs and teachers agonising over the lengthy choice of options for racial self-identification. But this is all brought to a halt by an outbreak of mumps, and the subsequent revelation that many parents have not vaccinated their children.
This discovery threatens to crack the delicately structured community in half. During a savagely funny scene, a school Zoom call from quarantine descends into warfare in the chat log. Some parents who want to keep their children ‘pure’ are worried about Big Pharma and the possibility of autism. But they are witheringly dismissed as ‘patient one’ and their children as ‘Typhoid Mary’ by another father. It prompts sarcastic, satisfying laughs as online smackdowns so often do.
And yet we learn afterwards that many of those ‘anti-vaxx’ parents helped build the school. They show up to cook and clean and serve. They are charitable, even if their earnest nature is ridiculed by other parents. The reasons for refusing to give their children the vaccines vary: some parents are concerned about Big Pharma profiteering off its own product, while another reveals that she lost a child to SIDS shortly after their first vaccination. When this woman – readers who wish to avoid spoilers should now skip ahead to the next paragraph – is eventually pushed out of the school because of a new mandatory vaccine policy, it feels somehow both faintly sinister and deeply sad.
It also feels unavoidable. This is because, despite the sensitive and broadly empathetic portrayal of the parents who won’t vaccinate, the horrendous consequences of mass vaccine rejection can’t be dodged. Indeed, an inoculated child who has caught mumps from an unvaccinated student is in an induced coma off-stage for much of the second half.
Although this play was written before the Covid-19 pandemic, the parallels are inescapable. While it is a different disease from mumps, the reaction to those who were unvaccinated in the play and in real life are similar. Many (but not all) have demonised and attacked ‘anti-vaxxers’, but it is always important to understand each other’s reasoning, to get beyond caricature.
That’s why I spoke to Paul Kingsnorth on my podcast, The Sacred, about his concerns with the way the Covid vaccine has been rolled out. At the end, I reflected the anxiety that giving air time to thoughtful and credible commentators like Paul who are publicly questioning the machinery around the Covid vaccine might be irresponsible in public health terms. But his fears deserve a fair hearing; contempt and disdain are addictive drugs which are tearing through our social bonds — and empathy through art and conversation are antidotes. Not because we should ultimately agree to disagree, but because it’s the only hope we have for finding a way through.