Ramy Gadalla
Professor Alok Yadav
ENGH 305-002

Worshipers of the Past yet Callers for Humaneness

Shelagh Stephenson’s Experiment with an Air Pump expresses the tension between humaneness and vulgarity. In 1799, individuals whose partners have given their life over to work struggle with these partners, like Susannah who struggles with Fenwick, to be approached with more affection. In 1999, the financial gain is held at high standards. Individuals, who sail against the winds, calling for compassionate attitudes to be held above profit or ambition, struggle with their partners, like Tom who struggles with Susannah, to have these practices established. Tom cares about the welfare of the sick and poor and the perpetuation of diversity above the profit resulting from his wife Ellen and the research companies’ fetal gene-mapping research. Both Susannah in 1799 and Tom in 1999 are advocating for humaneness. On the other hand, poor individuals, like Isobel in 1799 and Phil in 1999 are oppressed all along the line—Isobel by Armstrong and Phil by whole corporations. By presenting examples of vulgarity and showing how their practitioners increase in number and in zeal, contrary to humaneness whose advocates become helpless and lose their resilience over the two eras, Stephenson’s Experiment with an Air Pump shows the deterioration in humaneness. This paper will first show, through a theatric formal feature, how characters between the two eras are transposed and how this is meant to show that advocates of vulgarity are increasing in number; second, it will analyze the deterioration in humaneness with regards to the evil traits that are perpetuating [proliferating?] in the society across the two eras verses the humane traits that are dissipating; thirdly, it will show how poor individuals are continuously being demeaned; finally it will disprove a counterargument saying that humane individuals in 1999 who have a higher financial status than Tom would not give up like him; it will do that by showing that Tom does not give up because of his diminishing financial status but rather because of his dissipating stamina in front of the increased vulgarity of the time.

First, the advocates of vulgarity are increasing in number; a non-structural, formal feature of the play-text shows that greed shifts from being centered around certain individuals in 1799 to being the central focus of whole corporations by 1999: In act two, scene three, during 1799, Susannah sits, arguing with Fenwick that he has become cold-hearted, ignoring her and “giv[ing all his] life over to [work]” (Stephenson 99). Then, after it changes scenes to 1999 and “lights [turn] up…, Tom [appears] sitting… in what was previously Susannah’s place” and feels oppressed like her (107). Out of his humility, philanthropy, and respect for the past to learn from it, he argues with Ellen that she should have compassion with the dead girl’s corps found in the kitchen (62-66); he also expresses his desire to remain in the ancient house and not depart from it for moving to Ellen’s new job (61-66; 87-89). He, then, turns to Kate and criticizes her lack of compassion (108-11); Kate, who represents a research company, is calling Ellen for a research that will lead to discrimination against sick and poor and termination of many pregnancies. Companies may discriminate against sick people by opting for completely healthy candidates while ostracizing those having genes for certain diseases. Termination of pregnancies will narrow the room on diversity and, potentially, on philanthropic ends, like caring for the sick, to be pursued. Furthermore, the research will only be available for the rich while the poor are ostracized (61-66). Tom values the past, has humility, and is philanthropic and compassionate, because he is satisfied with the old house (not want to depart from it), cares for the dead girl’s corps, and objects to the fetal gene-mapping research. While Susannah feels oppressed because she lacks affection, Tom feels the same because his humane beliefs are not being practiced. In 1799 Fenwick is greedy towards Susannah and in 1999 the companies are greedy towards the poor and sick. So, greediness is common to both eras, whether it be exercised against a specific gender (in 1799) or class (by 1999). There is deterioration in humaneness because instead of mere individuals being greedy in 1799, like Fenwick, whole corporations take up that label by 1999.

Thus far, the deterioration in humaneness was discussed through a formal feature, showing that whole corporations shift towards greediness. Now, let’s also discuss that deterioration through thematic features, showing how the morals of those corporations’ leaders decline by self-centeredness, hypocrisy, and arrogance, while compassionate individuals are giving up their beliefs. In 1799, Fenwick acts in self-centeredness and hypocrisy; he appears caring for the mob, but his underlying aim, as he tells to Susannah, is to win them over to prevent the “burn[ing of] the house down” (19). He also acts in arrogance when he vituperates against some of the lecturers proposed for New Centuries’ Eve although he did not read their papers; he refuses to listen to Roget and Armstrong who advise him to bring these lecturers over (12-18). However, the situation changes for Fenwick after Susannah confronts him, and he, feeling sorry, starts showing her more affection (93-101). Fenwick’s negative traits are also present in Armstrong, his assistant, but Armstrong’s situation never changes: Armstrong shows hypocrisy and self-centeredness when appearing to care for Isobel while, in reality, he merely wants to dissect her twisted back (60-61). Moreover, he shows arrogance when he refuses to listen to Roget who advises him to stop deceiving Isobel. The negative traits are more aggravated, however, in Armstrong than in Fenwick since Armstrong does not listen to the sound of humaneness and never ceases to deceive Isobel (102-06). In the other era, 200 years later, Kate has the same negative traits with high intensity as Armstrong. She is self-centered and hypocritical because she appears caring for schizophrenic patients, but she just wants to take the place of a compassionate to win the public’s appeal and achieve her ambitions; she has never met any schizophrenic patient before (46-49). In addition, Kate is arrogant when she refuses to listen to either Phil or Tom when they mention the negative consequences of the research (46-49; 108-11). Employers, mortgage lenders, and insurance as well as Private Health companies are well in line with Kate’s research to raise their profit; they are willing to discriminate against sick people in many forms, for example, raising the insurance coverage, which poses more difficulty on the sick for obtaining health insurance. By contributing to their plans, Kate is taking part in their heinous act, and she is also a representative of their vulgar inclinations. Humaneness is deteriorating because the companies’ leaders by 1999 are, like Armstrong and Fenwick (before he changes) in 1799; they are self-centered, discriminating against the sick and poor; they are also hypocritical, taking the place of a compassionate; moreover, they are arrogant, refusing to listen to the sound of humaneness and change themselves. Furthermore, the single sound of humaneness in 1999 who is Tom does not succeed in persuading Ellen as Susannah did with Fenwick in 1799. Rather, he undermines his own beliefs and falls in melancholy, leaving no vestiges for humaneness in 1999; Kate is the one to persuade Ellen (116-17).

Having traced vulgarities’ growth in intensity and the vulgar people’s unwillingness to change compared to humanness’ depression in resilience, let’s locate the position of the poor and sick. In the last scene in 1799, the Fenwick’s gather around Isobel’s body and “their positions… [resemble that of] the [first scene’s experiment on the bird in the air pump], but [here] Isobel, in her coffin, [replaces] the bird…” Through the act of repeating character’s positions, Stephenson contrasts the bird that undergoes the experiment and survives in the first scene to Isobel who hangs herself by the last scene. Isobel was not able to regain her sense of liberty like the bird or Susannah. Poor people, being likened to a dead bird by the end of 1799, are becoming increasingly vulnerable with time. Also, in 1999, another formal feature locates the position of poor and sick individuals when Phil leaves the stage, looking at his watch, and goes to deliver his daughter to the hospital (111-12). The act of “look[ing] at his watch” fast-forwards us in time to illustrate that “futuristic[ally]” sick, impoverished people, like Phil’s jam-allergic daughter and his asthmatic son, might not be equally considered for employment, mortgage lending or insurance and Private Health plans as unaffected individuals (90); the conversation between Phil, Tom, and Ellen involving speculation about the future, also, draws us to that conclusion (112). Therefore, poor individuals are continuously threatened by the worse to come. Each era has its standards of social stratification. Female, impoverished individuals in 1799, like Isobel, and sick, poor individuals in 1999, like Phil and his family, do not fit the high standards of social stratification in their respective times and are consequently struggling to maintain their wellbeing—Isobel does not voice her oppression and Phil is struggling to pay the medical bills and overcome the discrimination hailed against him and his family. Armstrong in 1799 and the companies’ leaders in 1999 are too fraught with negative traits, so they abuse Isobel and tread on Phil and his family, respectively. Throughout, humaneness’s advocates are mourning their dissipating self-esteem and eventually surrendering to melancholy.

A counterargument may be that not all individuals calling for humaneness in 1999 are like Tom. Maybe Tom just surrenders because he feels financially dependent on Ellen for support and other men who may not be dependent on their wives will be opposing vulgarity? However, the sense of showing Tom, the only symbol of humaneness in 1999, relinquishing his beliefs is to, arguably, exemplify that all the humane individuals in 1999 have become likewise. In 1999’s last scene, he shows that he surrenders his beliefs with regards to learn from the past: “It [the house] is worn out… Fuck it… You can’t keep adapting this bit and converting that bit” (116). Likewise, He loses faith in the significance of compassion towards the dead girl’s corps and the sick and poor who are treaded by the fetal gene-mapping research (116-17). By showing Tom, the only symbol of humaneness giving up his beliefs as such, the play-text arguably shows that all the humane individuals in 1999 are like him. They are turned down by criticisms from those who dub them as “worship[pers of] the past” (116).

Experiment with an Air Pump compares three types of personalities between both eras: the vulgar, the underserved, and those who are capable of defending humaneness. Although gender roles change between both eras because women are no longer the central figures tolerating self-centeredness, hypocrisy and arrogance, these negative traits remain, and they are magnified. In 1999, companies’ leaders take up the negative traits and exercise them extensively, affecting more people and more stratums—the impoverished, the sick, and fetuses. The underserved, on the other hand, are treaded, as Phil by companies, and abused, like Isobel by Armstrong. Finally, those who are capable of defending humaneness, like Susannah and Tom, unfortunately, have deteriorating defense mechanisms; unlike Susannah who remains steadfast towards Fenwick until he changes his heart towards her, Tom loses faith; his resilience dissipates when encountering Kate’s criticisms. It is the role of those who call for humaneness to advocate for it incessantly—setting their minds and hearts to support those who do not fit social stratification’s high standards, even if they themselves get outcast!

Works Cited

An Experiment with an Air Pump. By Shelagh Stephenson. Dir. Mary Lechter. George Mason U. School of Theater. Harris Theater, Fairfax. 26 Mar. 2015. Performance.

Stephenson, Shelagh. An Experiment with an Air Pump. New York: Bloomsbury, N.d. Goggle Play file.

The interpretation opens up interesting themes and issues, but it is conducted in a somewhat crude and stiff manner, lacking the suppleness necessary to make the arguments genuinely convincing.