Theatre Review

Inadequate scientific perspectives

An Experiment with an Air Pump

by Shelagh Stephenson. Hampstead Theatre.

Three plays about science in as many months. Is there something in the wind or is this mere serendipity? All three plays have a historical focus: Copenhagen (Socialist Standard, September) is about the making of the first atom bomb; After Darwin (October) looks at the immediate and later consequences of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution; and now in An Experiment with an Air Pump, Shelagh Stephenson offers two stories, inviting us to compare the motivations of scientists at the end of the eighteenth century with those of other scientists 200 years later.

Like Tom Stoppard in Arcadia, Stephenson keeps both her stories in play throughout the evening. She is good in persuading us that even as late as the end of the 18th century science was still largely a gentleman’s activity, that the primary motives of those involved were still concerned with discovery for its own sake, and that the enterprise was managed in a neutral manner. But she also chillingly points to the dangers of scientific experiments which, whilst neutral in their apparent search for truth, were morally indifferent to the rights of those who became the subjects of experiment. The same attitudes which allowed scientists in Nazi Germany to experiment with victims imprisoned in concentration camps, were clearly evident in Great Britain two hundred years ago.

Unfortunately, however, whilst the 18th century tale is persuasive and revealing—and managed with a sure dramatic touch—its 20th century counterpart is a slight little thing which avoid any substantial discussion of contemporary science. The story, such as it is, concerns the fate of a research scientist. Should she continue to work as a university don or accept funding from a private company? Whilst the earlier tale offers some interesting insights into the relationships between science and society, the later story seems intent on avoiding such issues in favour of what might be called “human interest”. The choice facing the scientist is thus a particular choice. It is not referenced to similar choices which other scientists might face, nor yet is it placed in any meaningful context. Indeed, the very particularity of the scientist’s dilemma means that it cannot stand as a token for wider concerns.

Why, I found myself wondering at the end of the performance, had Shelagh Stephenson offered us such a sad little tale? Why, having established such a broad set of critical perspectives for her first tale, should she choose such an inadequate contemporary counterpoise? And then it occurred to me that it is possible to get some purchase on events in the 18th century, without necessarily having access to those further additional insights which would allow similar, present-day events to be scrutinised. Thus she is sufficiently far from the end of the 18th century to be able to see what was afoot with some clarity. But she is also too close to the present, and seemingly without all the analytical tools necessary to understand what is going on.

I recall being critical of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin for much the same reason: a failure to comprehend what is at stake in modern science. As a one-time graduate in chemistry I can confirm that the education (sic) of scientists usually conspicuously avoids any reference to the nature of scientific activity, its history and philosophy. Such knowledge as I have about science and technology (rather than the restricted field of vision that is chemistry), has been gained from the study of sociology, philosophy and history, rather than as part of undergraduate studies in science. Just about the last thing that contemporary society wants is that scientists are able to reflect on the nature and consequences of their activity. If they were able to do this they might become concerned about the consequences of their day-to-day behaviour. But commerce and industry want compliant workers and now knowing, reflective practitioners. And dramatists—certainly dramatists who might want to write about contemporary science—tend to have an arts rather than a science background, and as such are unlikely to be familiar with both science and its sociology.

So we will probably have to wait a very long time before some writer is able to incorporate a critique of contemporary science in a drama about the practice of science. It’s not only audiences who are the victims of over-specialisation and dumbing down. Writers, directors and performers also suffer in the cause of capitalism.


Leave a Reply