Stella Kent’s one act play, The Laughing Gas Cure, debuted at QVMAG in Inveresk on 30 September to great acclaim.
Set in the 1770s, the eccentric lead character Dr Thomas Beddoes is convinced that consumption can be cured by inhaling the breath of cows. Aided by his brilliant young assistant, Humphry Davy, he embarks on a series of experiments to prove that miraculous cures can be effected by inhaling nitrous oxide. But his friend, the foppish Joseph Banks who has recently returned from his voyage with James Cook, is less convinced. When Banks discards his dandified exterior and sets out to befriend the King and organise the establishment of Botany Bay as a penal colony, the friendship rapidly deteriorates.
In the end both men are bitterly disappointed. Beddoes must finally admit his experiments with gas have failed and nitrous oxide, ‘laughing gas’, is useful only to fuel riotous parties. Banks has poached the brilliant Davy from him, and his wife Anna runs off to London to be with Davy. Banks himself, even though he pulls the strings of Empire, is immobilised by gout, enraged that the experiment that is Australia appears to be failing, and realises that the sense of adventure and original discovery he once experienced in Tahiti are forever over.
The play traces the path of Joseph Banks from fop to gigantic president of the Royal Society, and his manoeuvring to set Humphry Davy on the path of eventually becoming President of the Society. In a harmonious marriage of science and the arts, the play examines the notion of science at a time when anecdotal evidence and natural philosophy was giving way to scientific method, the empirical method of knowledge acquisition involving careful observation, experimental testing and measurement of deductions drawn from the hypotheses.
The play is also full of humour and includes the enactment of early laughing gas experiments and tooth-pulling.
Thee play reading was followed by cake to celebrate the Society’s 175th Anniversary.