8 December, 2014Issue 26.5AcademiaScienceThe ArtsTheatre

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The Theatricality of Flinching

Anja A. Drautzburg

Tiffany Watt Smith
On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking
from Darwin to Shell Shock

Oxford University Press, 2014
£50.00 (hardback)
272 pages
ISBN: 9780198700937


What begins with an anecdote of a visit to the National Gallery goes on to offer valuable insight into advancements in the study of physiology that led to a shifting perspective on wincing, flinching and similar bodily reactions. Tiffany Watt Smith traces the ways in which the perception and understanding of looking and observing changed in different contexts and how those were interlinked. The time frame spans the years 1872 to 1918, from Darwin’s account of the vestigial body to shell-shocked First World War soldiers. She convincingly shows how “flinches and winces were part and parcel of the era’s restless technological advances and burgeoning mass entertainment culture.” New means of scientific observation and recording led to a new understanding of bodily phenomena but also to a thematisation and problematisation of the presence of a scientific observer.

Watt Smith takes an innovative approach by paying particular attention to the juxtaposition of theatricality and science, and she points out that “theatre did not only emerge at points when scientists made spectacles of themselves and their discoveries, but more surprisingly, theatricality was deep within the scientific experiment and a key part of the emergence of objective looking itself.” Furthermore, she argues that the flinching scientist is the embodiment of emotional spectatorship, which is why she turns to the theatre in her analysis. Especially towards the end of the book, she draws interesting parallels to contemporary performance practices. One question she asks that is still relevant in present day performance studies discourses is of particular importance here, namely, how spectators at the theatre perceive and “negotiate their own theatricality.” Thus, the book will appeal to historians of science as well as to theatre historians, and everyone working in performance studies.

The four chapters of the book represent case studies that rethink the connections between different scientific and theatrical practices of observing from the late Victorian era to the First World War, and each focuses on one specific scientific experiment. Watt Smith contextualises her project with a comprehensive introduction by tracing the etymology of the word “flinching”, as well as concepts such as the gaze and Schaulust, and lays a firm foundation for the following exploration of the interdisciplinary intersections of scientific observation and theatrical spectatorship.

The first chapter, “Darwin’s Flinch”, deals with Darwin’s observation and his own recoiling from the sight of an attacking snake, and how this is reminiscent of audience reactions to “sensation theatre” at the time. Watt Smith refers to the emergence of the new category of the emotions in the early nineteenth century in order to reflect on the changing framework—from moral and religious to physiological and psychological—within which Darwin’s experiments for his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), took place. She juxtaposes her findings with theatre audiences at the time, especially with the idea that spectators were both emotionally involved and reacting to the stage action, and at the same time self-conscious of their role as onlooker.

In Chapter 2, “Monkey F Startled” Watt Smith juxtaposes the neurologist David Ferrier’s animal experiments with audience behaviour towards naturalist theatre upon its emergence in the 1880s. Ferrier performed experiments on monkeys, among them the so-called Monkey F, in order to prove his claim that he was able to locate certain bodily operations within different parts of the brain. What was quickly perceived as one of the most important advancements in the study of neurology shows surprising resemblances to theatrical practices. Watt Smith links the way Ferrier startled his scientific audience during his demonstrations at the International Medical Congress in 1881 with the naturalist theatre of playwrights such as Anton Chekhov in which audiences “were under a growing imperative to disappear from view, to be outside looking in.” She concludes that “a distinctive pattern of embodied and gesturing spectatorship comes into view”, both in the laboratories and theatres at the time.

The third chapter, “Henry Head’s Wince”, examines how another neurologist’s self-experiments in the early 20th century can be compared to the reactions of spectators in avant-garde theatre. Henry Head underwent surgery to sever his left arm’s radial nerve in order to study and understand more about the physiology of sensation. In comparison to Darwin, who was interested in his own performative qualities during certain experiments, Head’s method of introspection was designed to detach himself from the theatricality of the situation. Watt Smith mirrors Head’s interest in sensory experience with the emergence of Decadence and Aestheticism and the focus on sensations, and finds that “[i]f introspection was a distinctive scientific practice in the early twentieth century, it was also a pattern of looking increasingly associated with performers of the new avant-garde theatre,” such as Italian actress Eleanora Duse.

In the fourth and final chapter “A Convalescent Recoils”, Watt Smith explores the film War Neuroses (1917-8), which is now part of the Moving Image and Sound Collections at the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine in London. The film was made by the doctors Arthur Hurst and J.L.M. Symns, and depicts the convalescent Private Meek and others in their recovery from shell shock over a period of two years. Watt Smith traces how British asylums at the time were places where “[e]xcessive jumpiness and unwarranted flinches were common,” and how the theatricality of those physical reactions was used in recovery, as exemplified by the film. She works out how the prescribed “atmosphere of cure” in the asylum contributed to turning the convalescents into both actors and “emotionally volatile and suggestible theatrical audience members.”

Watt Smith’s book is very well-researched and innovative in its approach, and it contains a whole range of insightful illustrations in support of the overall argument. At the same time, On Flinching is eminently readable. What is more, Watt Smith convincingly draws parallels between scientific looking and spectatorship in the shape of her knowledge exchange-type case studies. Finally, it cogently locates the theatricality of science, via a performing scientist, not just in moments of deliberate performance in front of an audience, but also in the confined spaces of laboratories where recoiling and flinching took place in equal measure. Thus, Watt Smith makes an important contribution to the study of the history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century science.

Anja A. Drautzburg is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and is a lover of all things thespian.