Go back to article: Threading through history: the vertical transmission of Davy, Faraday and Tyndall’s lecture demonstration practices

Intertheatrical readings and embodied practices in the RI context

So how does this transmission of knowledge relate to Bratton’s conceptualisation of intertheatricality, what she calls a ‘knowingness’ (2003, p 37), built on the individual’s experiential memory of performances and their contexts and influencing all their future interpretations? For Bratton, and others who have expanded her theory (e.g. West, 2013), this process occurs horizontally in that its effects reside within the individual and do not transcend generations. They are not, in addition, responsive to determined intent. Bratton envisages a network of connections stemming from multiple performance experiences that become woven together in the memory of the spectator, subconsciously shaping and influencing their reactions to, and understanding of each new performance experience they have. If one extends this essentially horizontal mode of thinking to incorporate the mechanism of vertical transmission the experiential memory of individual spectatorship (in Bratton’s model) becomes, instead, a transmission of intergenerational embodied knowledge. From this perspective the known physical presence of Faraday at Davy’s performances, and in turn, Tyndall’s documented observations of Faraday’s lectures can be said to have much more consciously and strategically shaped the formation of their own presentation styles.

Such a notion echoes Bloom et al’s (2013) interpretation of intertheatricality. They highlight the ‘lingering’ quality of performance and the possibility of ‘reverberation’ that might even be seen as ‘exploding the confines of synchronic temporality’ (Bloom et al, 2013, p 167). They hint at the possibility of performance that is reiterated in future time frames, surpassing Bratton’s singularity and West’s ‘horizontal’ boundaries. It is in this way that traces of the habits of Davy’s original presentational form and structure can be said to have persisted and been passed on, or ‘disseminated’ (Bloom et al, 2013, p 167), through the memories and, importantly, the embodied experience of subsequent generations of RI practitioners. Faraday’s close scrutiny of Davy’s performance methods in particular is well documented (James, 2002, p 122; Morus, 1998, p 19; James, 1991, pp 55–65; Thomas, 1991, p 18). His four aforementioned letters to his friend Abbott in 1813 in which he describes the ‘most prominent requisite to a lecturer’ (James, 1991, p 60), and sets out his own ideal model, serve as clear evidence of his careful consideration of Davy’s performance and his own subsequent appropriation of certain techniques and rejection of others.[10] Faraday’s 1813 correspondence with Abbott reveals that he also observed several other RI lecturers at the time, and had the ‘opportunity to see at close quarters some of the best lecturers at work’ (James, 2010, p 91). Such a breadth of styles and content must surely have stimulated in Faraday an appreciation and interpretation of the ‘mesh of connections’ (Bratton, 2003, p 37) between them. Nevertheless, it is Faraday’s close affiliation with Davy and high regard for him that make Davy a particularly strong figure of influence for Faraday. Elements of West’s (2013) intertheatrical definition that accommodate a ‘slowly changing’ (2013, p 156) repertoire over time can be seen in Tyndall’s approach. Far showier and more spectacular in his lecturing style than his mentor, Tyndall ‘recognised that, because of his own quite different personality traits, he could never hope to bear Faraday’s unique “mantle” with the same effect’ (de Young, 2011, p 84). This is evidence, then, of an absorption of practices and techniques from master to disciple, but with ‘continually moving, dissolving and re-forming pattern[s]’ (Bratton, 2003, p 38) as the practice shifts and is re-invented from practitioner to practitioner.

Returning to Taylor’s (2003) tension between ‘archive and repertoire’ it can also be seen how first Davy’s, then Faraday’s, and later still Tyndall’s physical actions as lecturer-demonstrator form an ‘embodied repertoire’ that was/is transmitted through the subsequent generations of RI lecturer-demonstrators. Significantly, it is the actual physical presence of each of the scientists that ensures this transmission of the repertoire – ‘people participate in the production and reproduction of knowledge by “being there”’ (Taylor, 2003, p 20). As I have suggested, it is known for certain that they did indeed physically witness each other at work in this way, each of them participating in the production, reproduction and then transmission of the ‘flexible and unfixed’ actions of the embodied knowledge. In turn, ultimately each of them came to embody certain elements of those practices themselves, and the repertoire can be said to have been ‘restored’ (Schechner, 2006) in subtly different ways in their own practice.

The combination of tangible documentation (in this instance for example: Faraday’s letters and later his writings on training for lecturing, independent accounts of lectures given, pictorial images and later still televised lectures at the RI) and embodied practices may be assembled to construct a clear lineage of transmission. Furthermore, this lineage can be projected forwards to the period in the mid-1950s when Science Museum Guide Lecturers were physically present to observe the RI lecture-demonstrations of Professor Lawrence Bragg, the embodied repertoire of the nineteenth-century practices of lecturing living on and inspiring continued replication. This is one of the most important ways in which the lineage of the contemporary SMG Explainer can be traced back to locate one branch of its roots in nineteenth-century RI approaches. The fleeting moments of performance that constitute each lecture-demonstration become inscribed in the memories and experiences of those who witness them, and in the cases of the scientist-lecturers who follow on, the practices are re-imagined and re-presented through their own performances. To re-state Taylor’s idea, ‘Forms handed down from the past are experienced as present’ (Taylor, 2003, p 24). Crucially, Taylor insists that the ‘repertoire requires presence’ (2003, p 20), that in order for transmission to occur the physical presence of participants is a necessity and a process that enables a reiteration of already performed actions is kick-started. Faraday himself shared a similar view that physical presence could effect some form of change or influence. During a lengthy correspondence with Abbott during September 1812, in which he argues with him over the properties and effects of chlorine as demonstrated by Davy in a series of lectures that Faraday observed, he stresses the importance of actually being there in order to believe in and be altered or affected by what is seen:

I have seen Davy himself support it [.] I have seen him exhibit experiments conclusive experiments explanatory of it and I have heard him apply those experiments to the theory & explain and enforce them in (to me) an irresistible manner [.] Conviction Sir struck me and I was forced to believe him and with that belief came admiration [.]

(James, 1991, p 19)

In an early example of the physical transmission of ideas, Faraday’s writings reveal how he proposed the re-staging of what he had seen performed by Davy in order to persuade Abbott of his opinion, so that ‘the performance would give us a clearer idea’ (James, 1991, p 28). For Faraday, the presence of Abbott at such an event was critical to his belief that this would enable him to be influenced by what he had seen.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/006