An Experiment with an Air Pump: Science on stage

By Eric Kelsey

Fenwick is an enlightened 18th-century scientist. Isobel is his Scottish maid. Ellen is a geneticist and Phil is her handyman. The parallels are common although two centuries separate each pair in Shelagh Stephenson’s 1998 award-winning play, “An Experiment with an Air Pump,” premiering on the Macalester College Main Sage tonight at 7:30 p.m.

Directed by visiting professor Cheryl Moore Brinkley, the play challenges Macalester Theater students in time, character and language. Seniors Nick Bonges, Rachel Cole, Stephanie Gertken and David Jacobs open their last semester on the stage playing dual roles each. The play juxtaposes the 1799 parlor-cum-lab of the Fenwick family to its 1999 incarnation. The union of space serves to ask quite literally the scientific, philosophical and political questions of the eras while putting pressure on the division of time.
Each era presents itself as one on the cusp, no…threshold of unparalleled scientific advancement as Fenwick, played by Jacobs, zealously proclaims in the opening scene. Fenwick’s indecision of whether he is on the “cusp” or “threshold” of scientific history ties the central knot of the play as quantitative science attempts to reconcile the eternal problems of qualitative reality. He finds his foil in Isobel, played by Anne Zander ’07, his Scottish maid. Her commonsense understanding of the world defies the rigid and rational classifications of Fenwick’s utopist Weltanschauung.

The play’s contemporary setting pits Cole as Ellen, the stem cell researcher, against her unemployed historian husband Tom (Jacobs) and Phil, their handyman (Bonges). The insecurity of the service-based industry of late-20th century forces Tom and Ellen to move out of the house they suddenly can’t afford. To make matters worse, Phil informs the couple that the house will be turned into a cultural amusement park. Suddenly, Tom interrupts Phil and Ellen to say that he has found a skeleton in the basement. The play’s detective plot moves forward from this point skipping back and forth from 1799 to 1999, as the search for a name and/or body of the bones.

The search for the skeleton’s identity along with the search for scientific truths and mastery underpin the questions of gender, ethics and religion that dominate the play’s action. Whether it is Ellen declaring at the play’s outset that she wants to be God, or Fenwick’s pronouncements that modern science will replace politics, Enlightenment ideals act as a panacea that pulls humanity closer to its rational destiny.

Yet the impression that “Air Pump” leaves on the audience is only semi-conspicuous. The power relationships of Fenwick and Isobel—and more sinister Armstrong and Isobel—along with Ellen and Phil, underscore the trademark British class-consciousness that travels seamlessly from nascent to late capitalism. The bourgeois professionalism of science supplemented with Victorian repression illustrates the ways in which science and capitalism produce the systems of knowledge and how far-reaching into the past these systems of knowledge reach.

As for the play being a “classroom” experience for the cast, “Air Pump” tests acting under the pressures of diction and periodization. Additionally, those unseen Macalester students, like house manager Jenna Johnson ’08, face the usual rigors of producing a play as well as outfitting the theater for multimedia and tending to period costumes.
“Air Pump” takes its name from the 1768 Joseph Wright of Derby painting titled, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.” Not to be confused with the type of pumps that inflate tires, the 18th-century air pump allowed scientists to experiment and test the physical properties of air and animals’ dependence on air for survival.