New Play: 'Three women after the soul of William James'
I have just come back from the British Science Festival in Surrey, where I staged my second play, Three Women after the Soul of William James. Here is the script surrey_play.pdf. The running time of the play is 45 minutes. (I did an audio recording of the play and the 45 minutes of discussion that followed. I hope to upload it at some point but at the moment the file is too large.) Here are some nifty pictures of the actors in character. Many thanks to Rachel and Esther Armstrong and Zoe Walshe for their brilliant performances as the three female leads!
The festival is sponsored each year by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year, while sociology and social policy section president, I staged Lincoln and Darwin – Live for One Night Only!, in which the two famous figures – both born on 12 February 1809 – return to one of today’s talk shows to reflect on what has happened to science and politics since they died. The play was subsequently performed at the Oxford Science Centre and made into a podcast by some actors in Sydney, Australia. It was also written up in the Times Higher.
The premise of this year's play is that William James, who would later become the great early 20th century US psychologist and pragmatist philosopher, appears for tea in London as a young recent medical school graduate travelling Europe to find himself. He has been invited by Harriet Martineau, an old liberal firebrand, and they are subsequently joined by Clemence Royer, Darwin’s French translator, and Helena Blavatsky, the Russian psychic and theosophist. The year is 1870.
Bearing in mind that the play takes place about a half-century before women enjoy full political rights in most developed countries, the three female leads represent an array of scientific, political and personal positions that, in their day, marked them as operating on the radical fringe of European society. Of particular note is the way they turn potential female liabilities into epistemic and political strengths: e.g. the positive role of ‘receptiveness’ as mode of discovery in both medicine and metaphysics, the conversion of biological reproduction into a branch of political economy under the rubric of ‘eugenics’.
I am still working on the ideas underlying the play, some of which will feature in a book I am writing on the history of epistemology for Acumen.
Finally, those interested in following up the themes here might look at the following books:
- Charles C. Gross, Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience (MIT Press, 1998). See especially chapter 3 on the spiritualist (Swedenborgian) legacy to brain science.
- Jennifer Michael Hecht, The End of the Soul (Columbia University Press, 2005). On Clemence Royer and her quest for an atheist science based on Darwinist principles.
- Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (Flamingo, 2001). On the intellectual context of William James’ development
- David Wootton, Bad Medicine (Oxford University Press, 2006). On the role of belief in healing.