Travis Chi Wing Lau // After graduating in May, I had the unexpected opportunity to contribute to an ongoing digital humanities initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Headed by my former dissertation advisor, Michael Gamer, and Digital Humanities Specialist, Scott Enderle, the Penn Playbills Project makes use of the understudied archive of over 6,000 playbills housed in The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts. The project aims to create a searchable database of tagged data about 18th– and 19th-century playbills ranging from ticket prices to advertisements for special attractions or performances. Building upon the foundational The London Stage, 1660-1800, which meticulously documented calendars of plays, entertainments, afterpieces, alongside cast lists, box receipts, and reviews, the Penn Playbills Project extends beyond London to provincial theaters. Over the course of about a month and a half, I was tasked to make individual entries for the playbills from the Theatre-Royal Plymouth during the period of 1796-1834.
Fully aware of the monotony of data entry, Michael encouraged our team to pursue our individual interests, to ask the questions we wanted to ask of the data we had a hand in producing and organizing. In the process of charting trends in productions, I came across a few repeated evening performances of Elizabeth Inchbald’s Animal Magnetism, a farce which premiered at Covent Garden on April 29, 1788. Many of the Plymouth productions were first hits at the major theatres in London (Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Haymarket), which suggested that Animal Magnetism was popular enough to circulate beyond London. Inchbald’s determination and talent garnered her immense success through the late eighteenth century, and her plays like A Mogul Tale and Everyone Has His Fault drew attention for their topicality and incisive cultural critique. Animal Magnetism was no exception.
Inchbald’s farce responded directly to eighteenth-century controversies surrounding medical charlatanism or quackery, especially in the way male physicians exploited their unsuspecting female patients. By 1788, the medical practice of “animal magnetism,” a predecessor to what we now consider hypnotism, had spread throughout London and other major European cities after its introduction by Franz Anton Mesmer and his followers. Mesmer believed he had developed a panacea involving magnets, which could influence a vital fluid circulating among living beings. In Mesmer’s salon at the Place Vendôme, he had up to thirty patients gathered around a tub with iron rods extending from it. Patients were then asked to hold onto these iron rods, which Mesmer claimed would reorient the fluid within a subject to restore it to proper equilibrium. The tub served to consolidate magnetic energy that could then be focused to produce “crises” or extreme physical or affective responses that would ultimately lead to cure of any ailments. The Royal Commission, led by Benjamin Franklin on behalf of King Louis XVI of France, launched a full investigation in 1784 of this “new science.” Likening it to a “theatrical representation” for the way that it influenced patients through suggestion, the commission declared that this was not medicine but merely parlor tricks and spectacle for hungry imaginations. Unsurprisingly, the practice was formally rejected by the Royal Society of Medicine.
Plays like Animal Magnetism underscore the centrality of the theater in the 18th and 19th centuries as a space for current events to be represented, dissected, or even debated (or as Michael once described it, a “Facebook feed” for the period). The entire premise of Animal Magnetism revolves around a doctor rejected by the Royal Academy who wishes to redeem himself by learning animal magnetism. He also desires to manipulate his young ward, Constance, to prevent her from meeting any potential younger suitors. The Marquis d’Lancy, eager to win Constance for himself, exploits the doctor’s eagerness to learn animal magnetism by sending his valet, La Fluer, in the guise of “Doctor Mystery,” who promises to teach him the secrets of the practice. La Fluer gives him a magnetic wand, which the older doctor immediately tries to use to mind control Constance into loving him only to have her and her maid, Lisette, pretend they are under the wand’s influence. The Marquis ultimately comes to the doctor as a potential patient, feigns his death, and swaps places with La Fluer. They later return to blackmail the doctor into consenting to Constance’s marriage to the Marquis. Inchbald stages the entire mesmerism v. anti-mesmerism debate through this familiar comedic love plot.
Animal Magnetism parodies Mesmer’s rhetoric through metatheatrical nods to the audience and clever uses of dramatic irony. The infamous mesmeric trances that characterized animal magnetism seem that much more ridiculous when performed by bodies on stage. Inchbald also smartly draws attention to the very theatricality of medicine itself. Toward the end of the century as medical training became professionalized in teaching hospitals, more orthodox techniques of medicine were taught to groups of physicians in large demonstration halls. Similarly, pseudoscience and “alternative medicine” relied on public spectacles to draw new followers and convince potential patrons. While professional physicians worked to distance themselves from quacks, both groups ultimately relied on (gendered) performance. The work and pedagogy of medicine, Inchbald reminds us, is for better or worse theater.