FLICKR, DIAMOND GEYSERIn the 40 years since Yale University’s Stanley Milgram first publicized his social psychology experiments that purported to reveal surprising truths about authority, obedience, and human nature, artists have dramatized the infamous research in nearly two dozen novels, films, pop songs, and plays. Playwright Frank Basloe joins the crowd with “Please Continue,” a play commissioned by New York City’s Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in collaboration with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which uses the Milgram experiments to explore the essence of the people who participate in scientific research.
Directed by EST’s William Carden, a nine-member cast skillfully portrayed the personal struggles of those connected with Milgram’s experiments—and, more broadly, early 1960s America—during a First Light Roughcut Workshop presentation last week (February 6).
From 1961 to 1962, Milgram and a few assistants conducted a series of trials involving three people each—an authoritative “experimenter,” a volunteer “teacher,” and a “learner,” who was in on the research setup but pretended to also be an unsuspecting volunteer. The teachers thought they were participating in a study on memory and learning, when in fact it was their own obedience and respect for authority that was being tested. Once their roles had been established—by what the teachers thought was a random draw—the experimenter set the other two participants up in separate rooms. The learner was connected to an electro-shock generator that the teacher controlled. The teacher was instructed to deliver shocks in increasing 15-volt increments whenever the learner answered a question incorrectly. When the teacher would question or refuse to deliver shocks, the experimenter would deliver a succession of commands, instructing the volunteer to proceed.
“Please continue,” bellowed fictitious experimenter “Sanders,” played by Austin Trow. “The experiment requires that you continue.”
The trials themselves “had a lot to do with stagecraft . . . like a play that happened in a lab,” explains Gina Perry, a psychologist and author of the 2012 book Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. “When you think about what seemed to happen in Milgram’s experiments: ordinary people enter a space and—‘Wow, look at the power of science’—they are transformed into monsters, [people] whose behavior we find absolutely horrendous. That’s such a powerful story.”
It’s a powerful story that Perry notes has been oversimplified—in psychology textbooks and dramatic reproductions alike—over time. Most accounts of the research hinge on a startling result: 65 percent of teachers administered the final massive 450-volt shock, even though many said they were uncomfortable with the experiment. In fact, Perry says, the Milgram experiments tested 24 unique conditions on 700 participants; the 65 percent figure was gleaned from experiments testing only one of those conditions, involving 40 participants, and reported in a 1963 Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology paper.
“A lot of these narratives in the plays, songs, and so on are purporting to [give] an answer to the question” about human nature—“that the human condition is open to manipulation by external, pernicious powers, and that there is very little we can do to prevent that,” says Clifford Stott from the University of Leeds Security and Justice Research Group. “That’s clearly not the case.”
“We hear about the statistics and the data, and we hear about the drama, but we never hear about the experiments from the individual participant’s point-of-view,” Perry says.
And that’s exactly what this play does so well. Rather than focusing on this experimental result explicitly, “Please Continue” takes the audience into the minds of the teacher, learner, and experimenter, revealing the turmoil within each. While Basloe’s script deviates from actual events, it does so in service of a greater purpose—to humanize the emotions of all three participants, from the teacher’s reticence to the learner’s penitence and the experimenter’s unending curiosity about the reasons for others’ actions, and eventually, his own.
Psychologists still struggle to understand the many implications of the Milgram experiments. But to Perry’s mind, the continued cultural fascination with this research points to at least one justified truth about human nature. “We all want answers,” she says, which were just what Milgram’s team “seemed to offer.”
The EST/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation First Light festival continues in New York City through March 21.