1.8.2 ‘Props’ to support a performance
Heller leaves no doubt about the horror and panic produced by a situation where action was urgently called for, yet there was no framework within which to construct action. He found himself desperately casting around for things to do, falling back on his trusty stethoscope as a way to ‘play doctor’, but finding it inadequate for the circumstances. He was clearly relieved when the drip equipment arrived, giving him a structured role. And even in this desperate situation he was concerned to be seen to put on a good performance. He cared what the hospital doctors thought.
This account shows how helpless we can feel without the ‘social meanings’ which we normally project on to the world around us. It also shows how hard we work to put meaning back together when it has collapsed. Normality is not allowed to be out of service for long.
Some of the clearest demonstrations of the central role of ‘shared meaning’ in making daily life possible occur when for some reason that meaning collapses.
If meaning does collapse, we can no longer act purposefully we know neither who we are supposed to be within the situation, nor what we should do.
Heller casts light, in passing, on the ‘play acting’ which goes on within the normal work of being a doctor. Goffman says that we add credibility to the roles we play by dressing the part and using ‘props’ (as they are called in the theatre). The doctor's stethoscope is a good example. Unambiguously associated with medical examination, it gives authenticity to a doctor's performance. Heller says he uses his stethoscope so that he can pretend to be ‘thoughtful and thorough’, when actually he is racking his brains about what to do next. Doctors are meant to appear knowledgeable and decisive. So, instead of sitting scratching his head, Heller goes through a few examination routines.