Playwright Aaron Henne claims to have a wandering palette, although if you look at the last couple plays he produced for Central Works, you might think his tastes always skewed Gothic. Last year he wrote and staged A Man’s Home, a cleanly choreographed, cerebral homage to Kafka’s novel The Castle. This year he’s followed up with Mesmeric Revelation, a history play loosely based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the story, a doctor puts a character into a hypnotic trance and the two of them have an elaborate discussion about the state of the universe. By the end, it’s apparent that the hypnotized subject might have been dead for most of their dialogue. Henne’s adaptation looks at the spiritual ideas behind Poe’s story, many of which were introduced by an 18th-century Austrian physician — and cult figure — named Franz Mesmer.
In brief, the story of Mesmer is what Henne would call “a clash of science and mysticism” — which is the subtitle of Mesmeric Revelation. Mesmer was wildly popular for his concept of “animal magnetism,” which, in Henne’s interpretation, was a way of saying that he could “manipulate the invisible magnetic fluid inside all animate beings.” To promote this theory he started a salon called the Society of Harmony, whose members would participate in what was essentially group hypnosis. By today’s standards, Mesmer would be considered a charlatan. Back then, though, his ideas had a certain high-culture cachet. “You have to remember this was a time when hydrogen was new, and electricity was new,” Henne cautioned. “Imagine that three hundred years ago someone was saying, ‘There’s this invisible substance called electricity that pulses through all of us — it sounds ridiculous today, but at the time it wasn’t inconceivable.” It’s also worth noting that Mesmer is the source of the English verb “mesmerize.”
But he was eventually run out of Austria, confronted by skeptics at the Royal Academy of Sciences (whose ranks included Benjamin Franklin and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin) in France, his theory tested, disproved, and disgraced. That particular incident is the meat of Henne’s play. It’s set up as a two-character inquiry, wherein one character, Antoine Lavoisier (played by Theo Black) faces off with Mesmer (Joe Jordan) and challenges him to prove that animal magnetism has scientific validity — Lavoisier, who was director of the Royal Academy, is also a stand-in for the French intelligentsia. Like Gary Grave’s 2009 Central Works play about the 16th-century diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, it’s a drama that uses cross-examination to explore complex issues. In this case, the fight pits reason and logic (Lavoisier) against faith and spirituality (Mesmer). For Henne, the central question is whether both sides can coexist.
That’s a bigger issue than can possibly be worked out in a ninety-minute play, but Henne made a go of it anyway. He gravitated to the Mesmer story partly because it occurred right around the time of the French Revolution, meaning there was — in the playwright’s words — “a whole firestorm of history” raining down in one place. Henne extracted the real thematic juice of that history by writing a sprawling four-hundred-page script and winnowing it down to one act. Thus, he assures, it’s a consummate example of big things being conveyed in small ways. At Berkeley City Club (2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley) February 18-March 11. $14-$25. CentralWorks.org