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ANIMAL MAGNETISM 

by ELIZABETH INCHBALD
MONDAY, JANUARY 23

This event will premiere on Monday, January 23, 2023. A recording will be available until Sunday, January 29 at 11:59 PM ET.

COMING SOON

Directed by JOSÉ ZAYAS

Featuring Amir Arison, Brad Oscar, Cara Ricketts, Alexandra Silber and more to be announced

This reading is sponsored, in part, by R/18 COLLECTIVE

The Doctor - a quack - keeps his beautiful young ward, Constance, under lock and key, and is determined to force her into marrying him. But Constance is determined to get free and the Marquis, who loves her, offers an escape route. When Le Fleur, the Marquis's servant, arrives at the house under the guise of an expert in mesmerism, the scene is set for the Doctor to get his comeuppance. Inchbald’s farce is a brilliant riff on the art of performance and a hilarious and all too relevant takedown of men’s insistence that they own and control women’s bodies.

THE CAST
ABOUT THE PLAY

Animal Magnetism is Inchbald’s seventh play. Written to be performed as an afterpiece – a shorter play (usually a farce) that would follow longer comedies and tragedies during a night at the theater – it was adapted from Le Médecin Malgré tout le monde by Antoine-Jean-Bourlin Dumaniant. Inchbald’s play remained popular well into the nineteenth century. Indeed, Charles Dickens directed and acted in it with his amateur company many times between 1848 and 1857. He wrote that all could “be made so delightfully rapid, and the situations are wonderfully good” and that he had “seen people laugh at the piece until they have hung over the front of the boxes like ripe fruit.”

 

Most immediately, the play responds to the widely discussed theories and treatments of the German physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer (from whom we derive the words “mesmerism” and “mesmeric”) believed that what he called “animal magnetism” – the use of magnets – could be used to cure patients of a variety of conditions. Based in Paris, his best-known treatment involved having patients immerse their hands in tubs of “magnetized” water. So popular did Mesmer’s techniques become that in 1784 the French king, Louis XVI, ordered two commissions to investigate animal magnetism. Both reported that the practice was dangerous and ought to be prohibited, leaving Mesmer disgraced and unable to work.

 

Mesmerism arrived in Britain in the late 1770s. The best example of its appeal – one of which Inchbald was very likely aware – is James Graham’s “Temple of Health” in London. There, patients could pay £50 a night to use a huge 12-foot by 9-foot bed, which featured a domed canopy held aloft by forty pillars of glass; this “Celestial Bed”, it was claimed, could help couples conceive. Animal magnetism, as Graham’s spectacular con suggests, was very much bound up with ideas of sex, sexuality, and procreation. Inchbald’s farce is acutely aware that such quackery was yet another means by which men could claim knowledge of – and power over – women’s bodies.

 

Animal Magnetism is, in this way, a play all about control. Yes, as Dickens understood, it is a very funny play, one that showcases the skill of Inchbald’s comic stagecraft. But just below the surface, just behind each and every laugh, something deeply disturbing is unfolding before our eyes. The writer John Mortimer once described farce as “tragedy played at a thousand revolutions a minute.” It’s a definition that gets at the relentless pace and energy of Inchbald’s play, but also at the manner in which that pace hides (just) the shadow of pain and suffering. The Doctor, a physician without a license, is responsible for mutilating his servant, Jeffrey, who has lost an eye as a result of one of his master’s experiments. Working-class bodies are objects for rich men to toy with. And so too are women’s bodies. Constance and Lisette are essentially prisoners within the Doctor’s house and it’s clear that the Doctor is willing to use any means necessary to force his ward to marry him. As a drama about consent, a drama about the male refusal to let women possess their own bodies and their own desires, Animal Magnetism is a play that speaks to the 21st century – and to the US after the overturning of Roe v. Wade – in powerful ways. 

 

Yet Inchbald’s farce ultimately shows characters, and women especially, improvising their way out of trouble. Constance’s maid, Lisette, is always one step ahead of those around her. Inchbald’s canny lower-class woman directs the whole performance and teaches her mistress that the way to freedom – at least, whatever freedom was on offer to women in the 1780s – lies in playing the part in such a way as to subvert it at the crucial moment.

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821) was born Elizabeth Simpson in Standingfield, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, to a Roman Catholic family. In April 1772 she left for London (without permission), set on becoming an actress. Two months later, she married actor Joseph Inchbald. So began several years in which she travelled Britain performing with touring troupes. Her husband died in 1779 but she continued to act, in London and Dublin, through to 1789. Her career as a performer saw her work to overcome a stammer

 

Inchbald’s first play, a farce called The Mogul Tale, was staged in 1784; she acted in it herself. Thus began a remarkable career as a playwright – she was the most prolific and popular dramatist of the final 15 years of the century. Her plays include Such Things Are (1787), Every One has His Fault (1793), Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are (1797), Lovers’ Vows – which famously appears in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park – and an unperformed tragedy, The Massacre (1792), a commentary on the violence of the French Revolution.

 

Inchbald also wrote two novels – A Simple Story (1791) and Nature and Art (1796), and produced The British Theatre (1806-9), a 25-volume collection of plays, each with a critical introduction.

DAVID TAYLOR |  University of Oxford