Al Coppola, The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Al Coppola, The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016), x + 265 pp. £56.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780190269715

‘All the philosophies that men have learned or devised are, in our opinion, so many plays produced and performed which have created false and fictitious worlds’. This quotation from Lord Bacon’s Novum Organum opens The Theater of Experiment, Al Coppola’s fascinating investigation into the complex, at times contradictory ways into which natural philosophy was theatrically represented in the long eighteenth century. After the Restoration, English experimental philosophers enthusiastically followed the Baconian programme to renew the natural sciences through an inductive method that eschewed all prejudices, among which was counted that of the Idola theatri, the inclination of the human mind to accept plausibly neat accounts of natural phenomena. And yet, since its institutionalization in 1660 and consequent gain in public exposition, natural philosophy staged experiments to convey its discoveries to the general public. At stake was not simply the engagement of a non-specialist audience but the necessity of a widespread social validation - what Coppola calls the ‘securing of mass assent through the deployment of convenient fictions and affective displays’. (3)

To explore this intriguing tension, Coppola consistently argues throughout The Theater of Experiment that natural philosophy did not develop in a vacuum of thought where only scientific ideas matter. Building on constructivist accounts of science – most prominently Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), Bruno Latour’s Nous n'avons jamais été modernes (1991) and Larry Stewart’s The Rise of Public Science (1992) – Coppola identifies the question of vision as a meta-field of enquiry against which developments in natural philosophy can be fruitfully mapped out. That is, natural philosophy, not differently from politics or literature, partook of and contributed to the diffusion of a widespread epistemological regime that re-oriented the problem of knowledge-making as one of visuality. Coppola frames the concept of a ‘culture of spectacle’ (5 et passim) as the public display of matters of fact (scientific or otherwise) that are to be trusted for their immediate visual content. Consequently, what was increasingly required on the part of the eighteenth-century spectator was trust in the possibility of immediately apprehending that which is shown – as Coppola puts it, ‘a heretofore unimagined confidence in seeing and believing’. (31)

Natural philosophy played a central role in the establishment of spectacular matters of fact, for it made formerly unperceivable wonders of nature visible to an audience of non-specialists. But this change didn’t happen overnight, and the acceptance of spectacular experiments as legitimate items of knowledge moved from initial scepticism, especially with regards to their usefulness for society, to their being socially sanctioned from the 1720s onwards. Coppola’s valuable insight is that theatrical productions can be used to chart these changes. Of course, post-Restoration theatre partakes of the same epistemology of visuality, but a play offers the added possibility to make its workings manifest in front of its spectators, thus giving a detached view of the very process of observation that it enacts. This is a concept well introduced at the beginning of The Theater of Experiment, where the Duke of Buckingham’s The Rehearsal (1671-75) is interpreted as a ludicrous registration of the hopes, as well as the fears, of an ‘unprecedented faith in the self-evidence of certain forms of truth’. (23; ‘Prologue’)

As the ‘dynamics of seeing and believing on stage and in the laboratory underwent significant changes and realignments’, moving on from the ‘virtuoso natural philosophy of the Restoration’ to ‘an ostensibly enlightened and systematic science in the wake of Newton’ (31), theatrical representations reflected these transformations. The wonders of nature that made Robert Boyle transported with admiration and delight (41) were initially watched with suspicion and turned into a subject of satire in the famous portrayal of Royal Society practitioners made by Thomas Shadwell in The Virtuoso (1676) (Chapter One). One decade later, the public possibilities of natural philosophy started to be more clearly perceived. Aphra Behn’s Emperor of the Moon (1687) enacts the reformation of the erratic gaze of the virtuoso, in the context of a political debate that, in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis, had itself become increasingly involved in visual representations (Chapter Two). With the emergence of a ‘radically new conception of human nature and cognition’ (89), the very public persona of the natural philosopher was transformed and, in this moment of transition, the stage again provides a helpful gauge. The Scriblerians’ Three Hours after Marriage (1717) satirically portrays FRS John Woodward as an obsessed virtuoso, but at this point in time the figure of the natural philosopher had become more publicly respected, and Susanna Centlivre’s gentle portrait of the virtuoso Periwinkle in A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) is evidence of this development (Chapter Three). What had changed was the advent of the Newtonian philosophy and its diffusion through what Stewart famously called public science. Indeed, one of the great merits of Coppola’s book is to have problematized eighteenth-century natural philosophy by addressing the cultural impact of Newton’s ideas, which are analysed with reference to the popular Faustus pantomimes (Chapter Four). As Newtonian philosophy became associated with rationality, science turned into an increasingly engendered enterprise, one in which gentlewomen – traditionally excluded from natural philosophy – would become prototypical spectators because of the ‘heightened sensory capacities’ that made them more inclined to ‘see’ rather than ‘understand’. (151; Chapter Five) The epilogue chosen by Coppola is, significantly, a brief discussion of the problematics of interpretation in Fielding’s plays Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737). At a time when natural philosophy was increasingly credited with the power of objectively representing the universality of the laws of nature, Fielding exposes the rhetorical assumptions underlying the act of seeing with what Coppola fittingly calls ‘sly games of interpretation and obfuscation’ (183).

The forte of The Theater of Experiment is that it considers eighteenth-century culture as a dynamic whole. Coppola’s intuition that each cultural production was epistemologically traversed by the culture of spectacle makes it necessary to refer to a great many fields in order to shed light on the spectacular representation of matter of fact. This is why one would wish for a book longer than its 186 pages, especially in chapters as dense in information as the third one, which breaks down the complex interactions of a number of cultural developments – the ‘decline of humoralism’; the shift to soft sentimentalism in the English stage; the 'rise of Newtonian public science’ as both a ‘an educational initiative and a commercial enterprise’; the emergence of the culture of politeness described by Lawrence Klein; and ‘a radical re-evaluation of the nature and impact of spectacle on the Lockean nervous brain’ (90). Similarly, many of the political overtones that characterize the first three chapters tend to disappear in the final two, the reader being left to wonder if the Newtonian philosophy, after its initial diffusion in the public sphere thanks to the Boyle lecturers studied by Margaret C Jacob (perhaps the only notable absence in the text’s rich bibliography), became so commonly accepted that its use for specific political agendas could not be possible anymore. This type of questions are the main reason why The Theater of Experiment is such a valuable addition not solely for the scholarship of eighteenth-century natural philosophy but for the cultural history of the age at large. With his protean focus on visuality, Coppola is able to unearth a number of questions that, tying together scientific and literary production under the aegis of epistemology, are central for the study of the eighteenth-century culture.

Alessio Mattana, University of Leeds