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Tricks and Talk: The Secret History of Spectacle in Enlightenment Science, an Illustrated lecture with Al Coppola
Morbid Anatomy Muesum
Brooklyn, NY
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Tricks and Talk: The Secret History of Spectacle in Enlightenment Science, an Illustrated lecture with Al Coppola
Date: Monday, November 28th
Time: 7pm
Admission: $5
Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY

This lecture explores the crucial role of spectacle and performance in the establishment of modern science by analyzing how eighteenth-century science was staged in a double sense.  Science and scientists were not merely depicted in theatrical performances.  Those plays also laid bare science as performance, unmasking the ways in which eighteenth-century science was itself a kind of performing art, subject to regimes of stagecraft that reverberated across the laboratory, the lecture hall, the anatomy theater, and the public stage.  This talk offers an engaging introduction to Dr. Coppolas new book, The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2016), by exploring the curious case study of Harlequin Dr. Faustus, the blockbuster multi-media spectacle that transfixed all of England in 1724.  

In the 1720s, London audiences were captivated by two new forms of public spectacle: pantomime afterpieces staring the anarchic trickster Harlequin, and dazzling courses of experiments conducted by Newtonians like Francis Hauksbee and John Desaguliers.  While the pantomimes were perhaps the first example of mass entertainment, the Newtonian lectures offered a primer in Enlightenment natural philosophy while cultivating support for a variety of improvement projects that sought to turn the latest scientific discoveries into economic gain.  This lecture will show that these seemingly diverse performances were actually intricately interrelated, with the Harlequin Doctor Faustus craze of 1723-4 offering a complex mediation of the radically new power/knowledge that was promoted in public lectures dedicated to the glorification of Newtonian natural philosophy.

The Harlequin/Newton spectacles of the 1720s discussed in tonights book launch lecture mark just one phase in a profound entanglement of theater and science in the early modern period.  As Dr. Coppolas monograph demonstrates, not only did the representation of science and scientists in eighteenth-century plays influence contemporary debates over the role that experimental science was to play in modern life, the theater shaped the very form that science itself was to take. By disciplining, and ultimately helping to legitimate, what was then called natural philosophy, the eighteenth-century stage helped to naturalize an epistemology based on self-evident, decontextualized facts that might speak for themselves.  In this, the stage and the lab jointly fostered an Enlightenment culture of spectacle that transformed the conditions necessary for the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Al Coppola is an Associate Professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York. Professor Coppola's first book, The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford 2016), is a critical study of the role of spectacle in the creation and verification of natural facts and the ways in which science was itself performed in both domestic and theatrical spaces. His current book project, Enlightenment Visibilities, explores the Enlightenment legacies that structure 21 st century modernity: strategies and technologies, first innovated in the long eighteenth century, that bring previously unimaginable or imperceptible phenomena into the domain of perception and knowledge.

Professor Coppola is a member of the Columbia Seminar in Eighteenth-Century European Culture, having served as chair from 2010-2016. A co-founder of the Science Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, he also sits on the advisory board of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theater Research.


Morbid Anatomy Muesum (View)
424 A Third Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11215
United States




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