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Historic revisionism is a reliable trope when it comes to provocative theater. When the icon being slammed to the mat is scientific pioneer Thomas Edison, expect dramatic fireworks.
Why impugn the father of the light bulb and film? What popular history has ignored is that in his zeal to protect his inventions, the Wizard of Menlo Park resorted to dirty tricks, mostly aimed to undermine an equally brilliant rival, Nikola Tesla, inventor of radar and the remote control.
Thanks to the new play “The Dangers of Electric Lighting,” running September 14 through 30 at Shadowland Theater
in Ellenville, science buffs will learn the flipside of the Edison legend.
“The more you research it, the more you find out that underneath the genius there was a flawed character,” said Brendan Burke, the play’s director and Producing Artistic Director of Shadowland. “This is a version of the great inventor that does not get an airing in the elementary school classroom.”
The pitched battle between Edison and Tesla in 1884 centers on the debate over direct current or alternate current electricity. Edison identified and championed the former, launching what Burke calls “a propaganda campaign” to discredit Tesla’s discovery. In fact, Edison engineered a series of public electrocutions of animals, notably a Coney Island Zoo elephant named Topsy, to drive home the putative dangers of alternate current voltage. (The title of the play stems from a treatise published by Edison to further beat back his rival.)
“Particularly in the geek world, the Edison-Tesla thing is pretty big,” Burke said. Initial word about the proposed staging has attracted Tesla buffs from near and far to buy tickets.
“The Dangers of Electric Lighting” was originally staged last autumn by Luna Stage Theatre in West Orange, New Jersey. Luna had commissioned award-winning playwright Ben Clawson to tackle the subject. (Edison’s museum sits a few miles away from Luna.) In an interview posted on YouTube, Clawson said that he accepted, yet camouflaged initial doubts about the offer.
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“But I have the rule that anytime I’m asked to write something,” he said, “my answer is yes, and then I figure out how in the world I’m gonna do it later.” The writer headed for Wikipedia to get a handle on the subject and was intrigued by the Tesla controversy. Ten books on the subject were purchased on Amazon, each mentioning the Tesla imbroglio and offering a different perspective on “this unknown corner of history. So that kind of gave me the opportunity to choose which version of the truth we’d put into this little fable I was making.”
Burke was initially concerned that the play would sink under the weight of academia. Instead, Clawson emphasizes the human drama of scientific titans squaring off in a conflict that would eventually transform civilization.
The play depicts imagined conversations between the inventors that are grounded in fact. Clawson injects humor into the proceedings, as well as a mystical element: Edison talks over his problems with the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, whose experiments with kites and keys laid the groundwork for Edison’s own research into harnessing electricity. We learn more about the charismatic Tesla. A compelling figure, if an increasingly eccentric one, Tesla discussed space travel decades before it became feasible and lived most of his adult life in a New York hotel room, surrounded by pet pigeons.
“The Dangers of Electric Lighting” is not meant as outright character assassination, said Burke. “I don’t think it diminishes Edison’s accomplishments or work, but it does expose a more three-dimensional character than is probably in typical public lore.”
“The Dangers of Electric Lighting” by Ben Clawson will be staged September 14 through 30 at Shadowland Theater
in Ellenville. (845) 647-5511.