This summer as I was visiting friends and family in the UK, I had the delight of watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Oxford’s famous bookshop Blackwell. The play was very interesting to me because it dealt with themes relating to the scientific practices of the early modern period––themes I had recently come across in my spring semester course on Early Modern Science at ECLA of Bard. Even though I watched the play out of coincidence, it was a way for me to further my thoughts on several things discussed in our class.
The play was a one-man show, in which the actor played all the parts by changing his voice and using different props and costumes. I must say that, given my theatre experience, the choice of the play’s acting method—a single man’s embodiment of different characters—seemed particularly accurate, as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aims to gradually disclose the two personalities and their relationship hidden in a single man, Dr. Jekyll. Thus, in a most emphatic presentation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, the audience was presented not only with the duality of the main character, but also with two emerging issues: the first being the ethical boundaries that any researcher has to explore and the second being the dilemma scientists can face when making new discoveries and having to deal with conventional ideas about morality and ethics.
The play opens with an attorney and Dr. Jekyll exchanging thoughts about a certain person who seems to have committed violent acts of crime in the community. The dialogue moves on, and the audience witnesses horrendous acts of crime being committed by a vicious character called Edward Hyde. Series of strange and surreal incidents take place that gradually disclose odd similarities between Dr. Jekyll and Edward Hyde.
Dr. Jekyll struggles; the audience sees him twisting and turning, hiding and then coming back with a devilish laughter. Tension grows as pale stage lights fade into red lights and the whole stage turns into a platform for a dialogue between evil and good. In a constant back and forth––‘to be or not to be’––monologue, Dr. Jekyll gives in to his own desire to come out confident with his new invention. One of the darkest scenes of the play takes place when Dr. Jekyll introduces his medicine to a group of students. As he speaks his voice grows stronger, leaving everyone in awe of his great achievement: a medicine which allows human beings to let their evil desires rule over the more publicly approved personality. Since the play is a one-man show, the split inside the personality of Dr. Jekyll that surfaces as Mr. Hyde becomes explicit as the actor changes hats and voices to transform from one character to another. It is fascinating to see how the moral conundrum is resolved or, at least, discussed by the two personalities residing in one character.
The play also highlights the way scientific practice, when unsupervised, can lead to horrendous acts of crime. As Dr. Jekyll turns into Edward Hyde, he transforms solely due to a medicine which he invents using chemicals that would probably be prohibited in today’s day and age.
As I sat through the play, I was transported back to my classroom at ECLA of Bard where during our lectures and seminars we discussed various methods devised and practices carried out by early modern scientists. These scientists, as we read, often used their servants or wives as lab assistants and, like Dr. Jekyll, very often experimented with means and measures that would have dangerous and harmful repercussions. As one of our professors labeled them, these “Gentlemen of Science” only gradually learnt their way to the ethics of science. In one of our readings on plant medicine, we discovered how inauthentic and unethical medicinal discoveries in South America remained in use for decades before they fell out of favor or were banned. The practices of proper drug testing and patenting, as scrutinized by the state, were only gradually implemented when the harmful aspect of less-than-thorough scientific research and experimenting came to the front.
Throughout the play, there also remained a tension between reason and belief. Dr. Jekyll constantly struggled with the concepts of morality and customs that society had established. As he developed the potion, he questioned and challenged the reasons for not following un-ethical acts such as stealing and killing. This led me back to our discussions based on morality and the basis of ethical actions––discussions that had bothered many scientists from this era. During our sessions on Spinoza, we debated back and forth as to why human beings should follow a certain code of morality set in society. These debates, written during the same time in which the play was set, informed us of the conundrum which the early modern scientists had to face. They were constantly questioning what should be the right action and behavior in scientific research and whether that research ought to follow the norms of society or should surpass instead the age of old beliefs and cross the old boundaries, so as to discover new dimensions to the human societies and soul.
The play was performed with absolute ingenuity, blending together the aspect of a split personality with that of a one-man-show. I think that the play brought out several issues that are very much present in our daily lives; we all go through dilemmas, hoping and trying to make sense of our innermost desires and their place in societal conventions.