An Experiment with an Air Pump

An Experiment with an Air Pump,” by Shelagh Stephenson, is an intriguing play that takes place in two different time periods: 1799 and 1999.

Play Title: An Experiment with an Air Pump   

Author (s): Shelagh Stephenson

Publisher: Methuen Drama and Dramatists Play Service Inc.  (2000)          

Publication Date: 1998

Genre: Drama

Primary Discipline: Biology

Secondary Discipline: Genetics

Scientist (s): Peter Mark Roget is the only character based on a real person the creator of Roget’s Thesaurus.

Source Texts: Inspired by the painting of Joseph Wright of Derby “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump.”

Character Breakdown: 3 Men, 4 Women

1799- Joseph Fenwick, Susannah Fenwick, Daughters: Harriet, Marcia, Peter Mark Roget, Thomas Armstrong, Isobel.

1999- Ellen, Tom, Phil, Kate.

Character Pairings:  Fenwick/Tom, Susannah/Ellen, Harriet/Kate, Armstrong/Phil

Setting: A house in Newcastle Upon-Tyne      

Time Period: 1799 & 1999

Synopsis of Play: What price would you pay for knowledge? When does notoriety become infamy? How can or should the ethical boundaries expand or contract in cutting edge scientific inquiry? How does gender and class influence the perception of and pursuit of knowledge? What extended burdens or opportunities do women possess in professional fields? An undergraduate cast of actors from an array of majors explored these questions in this 1999 work by UK playwright, Shelagh Stephenson (Downton Abbey). One grand house is occupied by two families both teetering on the edge of century change: New Year’s Eve 1799 and New Year’s Eve 1999. The 200-years apart storylines overlap as a set of unusual bones is uncovered and action is propelled forward in each time frame by a character’s quest for scientific achievement. Stephenson was inspired in part by the 1768 painting, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’, and the production team used Wright’s work, other tableau vivant images of the 18th century and the notion of a “cabinet of curiosities,” as inspirations for the scenic, lighting, and movement design.

First Performance Date: February 12th, 1998

First Producer: Royal Exchange Theater, Manchester.

Performance History: An Experiement with an Air Pump was first performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, England.  It was directed by Matthew Lloyd; the set design was by Julian McGowan; and the lighting design was by Peter Mumford.

An Experiment with an Air Pump received its United States premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club (Lynne Meadow, Artistic Director; Barry Grove, Executive Producer) in New York City on October 5, 1999.  It was directed by Doug Hughes; the set design was by John Lee Beatty; the lighting design was by Brian MacDevitt; the original music and sound design were by David Van Tieghem; the costume design was by Catherine Zuber; and the production stage manager was Charles Means.


Entered by: Denise Gillman/Brooke Sanders

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