The birth of science as theatre slept

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

Adriano Shaplin’s play for the Royal Shakespeare Company opens in 1658, towards the end of Oliver Cromwell’s precarious reign over England. ‘Freeborn John’ Lilburne is in chains, but refuses to shut up, and accuses Cromwell of being as much of a tyrant as the long-since decapitated king. The country’s actors are not happy either, because the theatres have been closed for years in Puritan-dominated England. Actors must scrape a living where they can, and it is through two such re-skilled thespians that we are drawn into the real drama of the piece.

Black (James Garnon) is a bag carrier for the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, while Rotten (Angus Wright) is saved from undignified penury by the scientist Robert Boyle. We soon learn that while theatre is in limbo, science is in the ascendant, and the focus of much creativity. While for Hobbes (a loftily pugnacious Stephen Boxer) knowledge is a cerebral affair, something pursued in his own great mind and others like it, a group of young men under the patronage of Boyle believe knowledge is more visceral, and best grasped through experimentation and public performance. Science is the new theatre.

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes dramatises the historically-documented animus between Hobbes and the founders of the Royal Society, and the invented prism of theatre is an intriguing one. For one thing, the sundry biologists, geometricans and ‘mechanics’ who met to conduct experiments together were no more in line with the radical Puritan spirit of the moment than the actors – which is why they were not formally convened as a Society till the Restoration, which comes in the second half of the play. Robert Boyle (played here by a woman, Amanda Hadingue, to compound the joke) is repeatedly mistaken for a bishop: he and his associates are High Anglicans, who had to be circumspect about their beliefs under Cromwell.

While Hobbes was in fact often accused of atheism, the pioneers of modern science were anything but. Indeed, in Shaplin’s account, far from seeing science as a threat to religion, the founders of the Royal Society saw it as a means of revealing, and demonstrating, God’s glory. In an interview on Theatre Voice, Shaplin goes as far as to suggest they were the forebears of the ‘intelligent design’ movement. (This might seem ironic given the Royal Society’s recent swift dispatching of their education director Michael Reiss for merely suggesting science teachers should engage with intelligent design in the classroom, rather than just dismissing it as rubbish. But perhaps the condescending certainty of the New Atheism is in the spirit of the founders as depicted by Shaplin after all.)

The tragedy of the play’s title is perhaps the fact that Hobbes’ objections to the crude empiricism professed by some early scientists were dismissed in his own time, but later vindicated to some extent. Put bluntly, Hobbes was sceptical about the possibility of gaining knowledge through experimentation, but putting aside that philosophical debate, what’s really interesting about the theatrical prism is that Shaplin implicitly invites us to ask how the performance of experiments compares with theatrical performance. Does ‘experimental theatre’ have anything in common with scientific experimentation? Not much, I suspect, but The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes highlights an interesting question about the nature of theatre.

We often talk casually about experiments succeeding or failing, but of course unless something goes wrong in the execution of an experiment, ‘failure’ – a result different from the one anticipated – is not really failure, but rather an interesting result to be pondered and accounted for. That is certainly the case in science as the pursuit of knowledge, though not in what we might call ‘science as theatre’ – the performance of spectacular experiments whose results are already known to the performer if not the audience. To what extent does this describe theatre itself – are we simply manipulated into experiencing particular feelings at the whim of the playwright and company?

In a 2005 interview with Culture Wars, Shaplin explicitly rejected the idea that theatre should be about taking the audience on an emotional journey. Nor is his work straightforwardly polemical, like Hobbes’ own imaginary ‘dialogue’ with Boyle, which is performed within the play as a guerilla manoeuvre in the battle of ideas. Instead, Shaplin likes to ‘play topsy turvy’ with his audience’s expectations. The very casting of the vain and reactionary Hobbes as a kind of hero – a ‘charismatic antagonist’ as Shaplin has it – is unsettling, and we are offered no lead as to how to respond.

Rather than trying to prove a point, then, The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes is an exploration of ideas and attitudes, demanding of the audience not emotional vulnerability so much as intellectual engagement. It is not a case of getting the message so much as observing and pondering. This is not to say that all interpretations are equally valid, but that the work is not all done for us.

This open-ended character of the work – the absence of a superego – is mirrored in Shaplin’s writing process. The bulk of Shaplin’s writing till now has been for his own four-piece ensemble, the Riot Group, who collaborate closely on each piece of work. But this RSC commission does not represent a shift of emphasis towards the author’s text. In the Theatre Voice interview linked above, Shaplin explains that for him, like Shakespeare himself historically, being a playwright is like being a tailor, making the work to fit the people who’ll be performing it – rather than a fashion designer, I suppose, dreaming up something entirely his own and expecting size zero actors to fit into it.

The result is not always comfortable, however, as the need to provide a decent part for every member of the company means things get very busy, especially in the second half, as the early history of the Royal Society is played out at some pace on Soutra Gilmour’s multi-levelled set. But the core characters hold things together over the course of the play, and Jack Laskey is particularly good in depicting Robert Hooke’s transformation from a likeably enthusiastic young mechanic to an influential Curator of Experiments to a washed-out has-been.

Between Shaplin’s script, the company and the audience, the play itself is an experiment of sorts, and a genuine one in the sense that it invites contemplation rather than demonstrating a pre-existing thesis. At their best, and in their own particular ways, theatre and science are both about the pursuit of truth, and sometimes explorations of the meaning of truth itself. The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes does not takes sides in a three and a half centuries old philosophical dispute, but rather challenges us to examine the intellectual culture of our own time. There are some jokes too.

First published on Culture Wars.