Joseph Priestley is often said to have discovered oxygen. He called it “dephlogisticated air” to explain its role in the then-current phlogiston theory. A play about Priestley has now materialized out of dephlogisticated air, so to speak: “Gunpowder Joe: Joseph Priestley, Pennsylvania, and the American Experiment,” conceived by Laurie McCants and written by Anthony Clarvoe. The play’s title refers to Priestley’s dissent against the Church of England, which he thought ought to be blown up metaphorically. Priestley preferred Unitarianism, a religion he helped establish.
The play recently finished a run at Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Bloomsburg, Pa., and a published version is in press. Bloomsburg is on the Susquehanna River, just a short boat ride from Northumberland, where Priestley moved in 1794 after his home in Birmingham, England, was burned down by a mob that didn’t appreciate some of his religious views.
“Gunpowder Joe” in part covers political debates that government officials such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were trying to resolve at the time—contentious discussions in which Priestley participated. “In the 1770s, the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence and fought the Revolutionary War,” Clarvoe explains. “In the 1780s, they won the war and wrote the Constitution. But in the 1790s, they all turned on each other. They divided into parties, they spied on each other, they plotted against each other, and they paid publishers to print attacks on each other. I started this project thinking it would feel like the musical ‘1776,’ but it turned out to be more like ‘House of Cards.’ ”
The play also covers Priestley’s scientific pursuits, such as carbonation. His discovery of soda water is an achievement for which Priestley retains unchallenged credit.
Portraying carbonation posed unique challenges. “We tried several versions of theatrical fakery in replicating Priestley’s carbonation device, using his own pamphlet, ‘Impregnating Water with Fixed Air,’ as a guide,” McCants says. At one point, dry ice was a possibility, but use of a dry-ice maker supplied by Bucknell University’s chemistry department proved unwieldy. The ensemble instead hid a small tank of helium in the cabinet below Priestley’s carbonation apparatus onstage. “The actors never actually drank any fizzy water infused with helium bubbles,” McCants says, “thus avoiding any possibility of Priestley and the Founding Fathers sounding like Mickey Mouse.”
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