Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Age of Wonder

Richard Holmes' book The Age of Wonder examines the fascinating links between science and art during the Romantic era. Did you know that the chemist Humphrey Davy wrote poetry? Or that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge participated in Davy's experiments?) While Holmes is primarily interested in links between science and poetry, he also points out some links between science and drama.

The book begins with an account of Joseph Banks' trip around the world with Captain Cook. Banks first landed in Tahiti in 1769. Though officially he was a botanist, Banks' encounter with the Tahitians caused him to reflect on the "natural" state of human beings. After returning from the voyage, Banks gradually rose to become president of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.

In addition to jump-starting his scientific career,  Banks' adventures in Tahiti also became fodder for stage. Omai, the Tahitian interpreter Banks used, lent his name to a pantomime at Drury Lane in 1785, called Omai, or a Trip Round the World. Landscape painter Phillipe de Loutherbourg designed the elaborate sets and costumes. Holmes adds dryly that a certain Madame Charlotte Hayes produced a decidedly more low-brow "Tahitian Review" in which "a dozen beautiful Nymphs... performed the celebrated rites of Venus, as practiced at Tahiti." Madame Hayes was a notorious brothel-keeper, so the show was probably more an advertisement for other services than an entertainment in itself.

Holmes also deals extensively with the history of early ballooning. Bothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier helped launch the balloon craze by sending up a hot air balloon at Versailles on September 11, 1783. In November, the Montgolfiers launched their first manned balloon, which rose to a height of 900 feet. Days later, Dr. Alexandre Charles made the first ascent in a hydrogen balloon. Some 400,000 people are estimated to have watched as the ballon lifted off from the Tuileries Gardens, with Joseph Montgolfier handling the release chord.

By the next year, the balloon craze had reached Britain, where the Italian aeronaut Vincent Lunardi charged admission to crowds wanting to watch launches. In 1785, he sent the actress Letitia Anne Sage up in a balloon, billing her as the "First Aerial female." (That honor actually belonged to Elisabeth Thible, who had flown in a balloon in France the previous year.) By the time of Sage's ascent, however, another actress (and budding playwright) named Elizabeth Inchbald had managed to get her first play produced. And what was it about? Ballooning, of course! Inchbald's play A Mogul Tale, or the Descent of the Balloon opened on July 6, 1784 at the Haymarket Theatre and continued to be a part of the theatre's repertoire for years to come.

In Inchbald's play, a group of ladies in the seraglio of the Great Mogul of India watch as a trio of English balloonists (including a cobbler's wife named Fanny) descend into their midst. The aeronauts have no idea where they are. (At first, one of them suspects Greenland.) When they learn the truth, they are terrified of the Mogul, but he turns out to be good-humored about the whole affair. Unlike the Europeans who are obsessed with the skies, the Mogul loves "to contemplate the greatest work of heaven, the mind of man." After testing the visitors and giving them a good scare, he pardons them and sends them home.

Perhaps the best known piece of Romantic literature in dialogue with science is Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. As I've written about previously, Frankenstein's first stage adaptation was done by Richard Brinsley Peakes in 1823. Holmes notes that the play, Presumption, or The Fate of Frankenstein, made a star out of T.P. Cooke, who played the monster. The original program left a blank for the part of "The Creature," but audiences knew who he was, and Shelley herself praised his performance. After seeing the play, Shelley wrote in a letter:

Mr. Cooke played the "blank's" part extremely well--his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard--all he does was well imagined and executed... it appears to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience... in the early performances all the ladies fainted and hubub ensued!

Holmes remarks on the irony that Shelley's incredibly articulate monster was reduced to grunts and moans in the play, but that tradition later carried over into other adaptations and became the monster we all remember. The image of Frankenstein's monster continues to symbolize a hostility toward science, but as Holmes observes, such hostility was not necessarily felt by all artists of the Romantic era.