An Experiment with an Air Pump


Shelagh Stephenson

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An Experiment with an Air Pump Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Shelagh Stephenson's An Experiment with an Air Pump. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Shelagh Stephenson

Shelagh Stephenson is an English playwright and actress. She was born in Tynemouth, Northumberland, England in 1955 and studied drama at Manchester University. She has acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has had roles on television series such as Coronation Street, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Big Deal. More recently, she has written for Downton Abbey. In addition to An Experiment With An Air Pump, she has written several plays for BBC Radio, including Darling Peidi, first broadcast in 1993, and Five Kinds of Silence, which was first broadcast in 1996 and won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Original Radio Play as well as the Sony Award for Best Original Drama. Stephenson’s notable stage plays include The Memory of Water, first performed in 1996, and An Experiment With an Air Pump, which was first performed in 1998 by the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, UK and was a joint winner of the 1997 Peggy Ramsay Award. The Memory of Water was made into a film, Before You Go (2002). Her most recent play is The Long Road, which was published in 2008. 
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Historical Context of An Experiment with an Air Pump

An Experiment With An Air Pump grapples with moral issues that arise with scientific advancement. In particular, the 1799 plot examines the practice of body snatching, which refers to the removal of corpses from gravesites; corpses were then sold to medical schools and used in anatomy studies. The practice was common in Britain as well as the United States throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, when doctors interested in gaining a better understanding of human anatomy in the rapidly advancing field of medicine required fresh corpses. Prior to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 (which Kate references in passing in An Experiment With An Air Pump), the only corpses available for medical dissection in Britain were those of executed criminals, and thus the demand for bodies for use in educational dissections far outpaced supply. The Anatomy Act granted doctors and student physicians the right to acquire and dissect donated corpses. Though the Anatomy Act was intended to curtail the illicit trade of stolen corpses, it failed to keep up with the demand for corpses and in fact only led to increased rates of body snatching.   

Other Books Related to An Experiment with an Air Pump

In addition to An Experiment With An Air Pump, Stephenson’s notable stage plays include The Memory of Water, a comedy about three sisters who must come to terms with memories of their haunted paths in the aftermath of their mother’s death. Conflict arises when the three sisters reunite after years apart and find that they remember vastly different accounts of the past. Five Kinds of Silence is about a woman and her two daughters who suffer years of abuse at the hands of family patriarch Billy, who was himself a victim of childhood abuse. Billy himself doesn’t appear in the play, and his family’s story comes to light through police officers’ and psychologists’ interviews with the victims. An Experiment With An Air Pump grapples with themes of moral issues and advancements in science, making it comparable to Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee that tells a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, in which a high school teacher was accused of violating a Tennessee state law that forbids the teaching of human evolution in public schools. The play uses its retelling of the trial to explore the notorious 1954 McCarthy trials. Another relevant work is A Number, a 2002 play by British playwright Caryl Churchill; the play takes place in the near future and tells the story of a father and his three sons, two of whom are clones of the eldest son. The play examines the ethics of human cloning. Sweet, Sweet Motherhood, a play written by Jeremy Kareken in collaboration with biologist Lee M. Silver, is also worth mentioning, as it’s a comedy that grapples loosely with advancements in reproductive science.
Key Facts about An Experiment with an Air Pump
  • Full Title: An Experiment With An Air Pump 
  • When Written: 1998
  • Where Written: UK
  • When Published: First performed in 1998 by the Royal Exchange Theatre
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Drama 
  • Setting: A house in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1799 and 1999
  • Climax: Isobel, after overhearing Armstrong admit that his feelings for her are insincere (and merely an attempt to get her into bed so that he can see her naked, malformed back), hangs herself. 
  • Antagonist: The play casts scientists who are incapable of forming a nuanced understanding of the potential moral issues that scientific advancement poses—most notably Kate and Armstrong—in a less favorable light. In addition, Armstrong’s shameless seduction of Isobel to satisfy his erotic and scientific curiosities (which ultimately leads to Isobel’s suicide) makes him the clearer antagonist.

Extra Credit for An Experiment with an Air Pump

Based on True Events. Though a work of fiction, An Experiment With An Air Pump features one character who is a real historical figure, Peter Mark Roget. Roget is best known for publishing his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1852).

Cracking the Code. At the time of the play’s first performance in 1998, the Human Genome Project, the groundbreaking research project that sought to identify, map, and sequence all genes of the human genome, had been underway for eight years—it began in 1990; the project was considered complete in 2003, though only 85 percent of genes were mapped. The final 15 percent was completed in January 2022.