Lansing Community College will explore the nature of human knowledge through the art of the whodunit this week with its staging of “An Experiment with an Air Pump,” the last of this year’s “Stages of the Law” series sponsored by Cooley Law School.
Director Mary Job chose the play for its themes of science and knowledge. Written by Shelagh Stephenson and inspired by the 1768 Joseph Wright painting “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” the play is set in two times in one house in England: New Year’s Eve 1799, when a murder takes places, and 200 years later, Dec. 31 1999, when the body is discovered and an investigation begins.
In both time periods, a set of scientists is grappling with an issue of morality versus scientific knowledge. In 1799, the issue is human dissection. Job explains that in the 1700s it was illegal in Great Britain to perform dissections except on prisoners who died while interned, which didn’t provide that many bodies. As a result, she said a thriving subculture of grave robbing developed to provide medical schools with more bodies.
“It sounds very ghoulish, but that was the major way people were able to learn about diseases and how they developed,” Job said. In 1999 ,the issue is genome mapping and stem cell research, a much-publicized topic this election season, when Michigan voters had the opportunity to expand stem cell research with a “yes” vote on Proposal 2 this week.
Job said the contrast and even overlap between the two times allows the audience to see echoes of the past in the present and vice versa. “I liked the idea of the two time periods and this whole idea of, ‘How do we acquire knowledge? How do we value knowledge? What are the consequences of knowledge?’” Job said. In 1799, Job said scientists were a lot more optimistic about their work, expecting it to usher in a “brave new world,” whereas today people are more ambivalent about science’s gifts.
“The idea of progress [in the 1700s] was tied to technology and scientific knowledge, the better we understood the world, the better it would be,” she said. “We, of course, in 1999 or 2008 say, ‘Well, maybe.’
We are little more cautious and, sometimes, a lot more skeptical, which is probably not surprising after two world wars.” As for the play’s topicality, Job said she wasn’t aware stem cell research would be on the ballot when she chose the play, but she was already interested in the subject, because her father died of Parkinson’s disease. Job said the playwright raises more questions on the subject than answers, such as “What do you do on a social level if you map a human genome and you find people are predisposed for depression? How will insurance companies react to that,” or, “If by stem cell research we can prevent diseases, isn’t that a good thing?” Job said the point is that sometimes how you feel about an issue depends on where you sit. “I certainly sit on one side of this debate, but I’m not unaware of the moral or ethical concerns people have regarding stem cell research, nor am I unsympathetic.”
The main question then becomes, “Where do we draw the line?” Despite all of the high-minded ideas, Job insists the play is first and foremost entertaining. “It’s got a lot of highfalutin themes, but it’s really a very witty and moving and sometimes just outright funny murder mystery,” Job said.
‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’
Theatre Department Nov. 7-15 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday
Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Captiol Ave., Lansing $10/$5 (517) 372-0945