Martin Willis (ed.) Staging Science: Scientific Performance on Street, Stage and Screen

Martin Willis (ed.) Staging Science: Scientific Performance on Street, Stage and Screen (London: Palgrave 2016) xi+140 pp. £29.99 EPUB & PDF, £37.99 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-49993-6

The relationship between science and performance is an issue which scholars across many disciplines have found compelling. In the field of geography, Charles Withers and David Livingstone have examined the spaces in which public performances of science take place. Historians of science such as Bernard Lightman, Iwan Rhys Morus and Simon Schaffer, have highlighted the fact that an audience’s acceptance of the validity of a particular scientific method often depends on the success with which a scientist performs the role of an authority figure. Common to all of these perspectives is the idea that, in any scientific interaction, scientists adopt a role depending on who their audience is. At the same time, the meaning derived from such a performance will, to an extent, be dependent on that audience’s interpretation of what is acted out before them.

Both science and theatre require rehearsal, as well as props. It is notable, then, how few critical works exist which deal specifically with the theatrical nature of science, or which read science through the lens of performance studies. Staging Science is a short collection of essays which, as its editor Martin Willis notes, exemplify the best in ‘science humanities’ scholarship, which involves the application of the ‘multivalent knowledges’ of the humanities to readings of the sciences (3). Willis highlights in his introduction the key role played by Bernard Lightman in the study of scientific performance, and it is fitting that Lightman himself offers the afterword to this volume. In his summing up, Lightman draws examples from John Tyndall, surely the most theatrical performer of all Victorian men of science.

Iwan Rhys Morus’s contribution to the collection focuses on the spectacle of Charles Gassiot’s ‘cascade’ performances during the 1850s. Gassiot took a Ruhmkorff (induction) coil and attached one terminal to an electrode placed inside a foil-lined wine glass. The other terminal he attached to a plate underneath. When the apparatus was placed inside a vacuum, a beautiful blue overflowing effect was produced. Morus makes the case that the spectacular aspect of the demonstration was not an ‘epiphenomenon, tangential to the process of experiment’ (17). Rather, ‘it was what the experiment was for’.

Martin Willis offers a fresh perspective on science in the Victorian city by viewing it through a tourist’s eyes. Willis brings a literary scholar’s perspective to existing work by geographers to demonstrate how, when textually mediated via travel guides, science formed a narrative of industrial and military strength. Visitors to Victorian London, using their Baedeker or Bradshaw’s, became explorers in the city, making 'new' discoveries. London and its science enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, Willis argues, whereby grand architectural spaces conferred status on the science conducted within, and the increasing importance of science to modern life meant that London itself stood for progress.

Chapeaugraphy – the art of comedy with hats – is the theatrical touchstone of Tiffany Watt Smith’s chapter on James Sully’s studies on laughter at the fin de siècle. Sully recognised that a scientific approach to studying the mind required, as Smith puts it, a ‘messier, more layered mode of investigation than the strict parameters of psychophysical laboratory could allow’ (77). Writing of a moment at which theatre quite literally entered the scientific space, Smith strikes an excellent balance between the humour of her subject matter, and the complex scientific thought behind Sully’s experiments.

Jean-Baptiste Gouyon considers the emergence of the MOD ('making of documentary') in late twentieth and early twenty-first century nature documentaries. Two documentaries on bird migration are compared: Winged Migration (2001), and The Flight of the Snow Geese (1972), both of which used imprinting techniques developed by Konrad Lorenz to train birds, enabling the films’ creators to achieve the desired footage. Gouyon notes that the different ways in which the 'staging' of the action was presented, represents two distinct approaches to the legitimization of content. The makers of The Flight of the Snow Geese incorporated footage of their imprinting method into the film itself to demonstrate their ‘ability to travel safely across [the wild/tame] boundary without misrepresenting nature’, thereby demonstrating ‘their reliability as knowledge producers’ (94). In contrast, Winged Migration was an ostensibly realist film, accompanied by a separate MOD. Such a separation meant that an entire MOD could be devoted to the mechanics of production; in this privileged, behind-the-scenes film, technical proficiency could be equated with authoritative knowledge.

In the final chapter, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr considers science as a theme in contemporary drama, examining such works as Brecht’s Galileo and Luca Ronconi’s Biblioetica. Shepherd-Barr highlights the ways in which the representation of science on stage enables us to explore the ethics of such issues as organ donation, cloning, and euthanasia. Most importantly, the writer offers a definition of interdisciplinarity: the bringing together of two or more fields of enquiry to produce new meaning, a meaning that is distinct from that derived by the original fields. Theatre, therefore, is highly suited to interdisciplinary study; it produces a ‘transformation [...] not only because of the multiple elements at work in any theatrical event but also, crucially, the audience’s participation in the construction of meaning’ (119).

The Palgrave Pivot series of which Staging Science is a part, consists of books which are eFirst, usually 25,000-50,000 words in length, and have an incredibly fast turnaround from manuscript to book of, on average, ten weeks. It is partly because of this format that Staging Science is able to offer up-to-date work for those who are already active in the field of science and performance. But the collection is also an excellent resource for those who are new to the topic. The fact that all of the contributors are experts in their fields, and that the chapters are accompanied by comprehensive bibliographies, also makes the volume an ideal entry into interdisciplinary science studies.

Sarah Hanks, University of Oxford