Gustavus Theatre Anniversary Season Opens Thursday with Stephenson’s An Experiment With An Air Pump Posted on October 30th, 2006 by

An Experiment With An Air Pump, Shelagh Stevenson’s work written as the world prepared to enter the 21st century, opens the 75th anniversary season of theatre at Gustavus, November 9 – 12, in Anderson Theatre. Directed by Rob Gardner, An Experiment With An Air Pump confronts essential, moral and ethical questions in the development of understanding of the human race in situations which, although similar, are separated by 200 years. Performances in Anderson Theatre begin at 8:00 p.m., November 9 – 11 and at 2:00 p.m. on November 12. Tickets are available by calling the Gustavus Ticket Center at 507-933-7590.

Stephenson’s play is set in 1799 and 1999 and moves between those two periods in the same house in England. The players are scientists, their families and their friends, all of whom are confronted by the critical issues of their day which threaten/promise to change the future. The issues concern those changes and the scientific advances which accompany them, whether they be for the greater good or for evil.

At the end of the 18th century in England, the Era of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution propel the country from a relatively pastoral society toward a society changed by advances in machines, power, human understanding and science. Any advance is viewed with skepticism and concern by opponents and with wonder and awe by the proponents; proponents who can not understand why restrictions should be placed on their research or their experiments. Studies in anatomy which require human cadavers are questioned and limited by laws. Changes in the nature of society are referenced in the smoke stacks which rise in the skyline. One member recites a sonnet: the “smoke that billows forth, what fires are these?…..These furnaces forge dreams as well as wealth…and steam bends nature to our will.”

In 1999, the questions and concerns are the same. The Human Genome Project moves forward and research on “pre-embryo” tissue (stem cells) advances with hopes for cures in diseases from Alzheimer’s to asthma to schizophrenia. However, the same skepticism and alarm is voiced by acquaintances and family of the researchers and the same debates on the ethics and the relative value of the research ensue. One researcher states that he is a scientist in order to change the world while the other wishes to “understand” it.

In both periods, identical and essential ethical questions are raised whether they concern the study of human anatomy (18th century) or advances in stem cell research (20th). Do the benefits outweigh the risks? And are moral and ethical objections valued or ignored in the continuing quest for understanding and progress?

Director Rob Gardner first brought Shelagh Stevenson’s An Experiment With An Air Pump to Gustavus as part of the Curriculum II Senior Seminar. The reading sparked a vigorous discussion and moved the play onto Gardner’s wish list of works to bring to Anderson Theatre. It is his hope that the audience will come away from the play with “minds stimulated by the juxtaposition of past and present; thinking how we are both the beneficiaries and the sufferers of (the scientific and social changes in our) history. The audience should realize that there is both darkness and hope in the future of the world” asking if there are moral and ethical boundaries which we can not cross as a society?

Tickets for Shelagh Stevenson’s An Experiment With An Air Pump at Anderson Theatre are on sale at the Gustavus Ticket Center (507) 933-7590. Tickets remaining on the day of the performance will be on sale at the Anderson Theatre box office one hour prior to showtime.


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