In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes that the absurd is born from the moment when one’s rules about the world and desire for order comes face to face with the meaningless reality of our existence, from “this confrontation between the human longing for happiness and reason, and the unreasonable silence of the world”. No matter how much you try to create rules about your world, they don’t hold up against reality.
In September 2011 scientists on the OPERA experiment announced that it appeared that they had discovered neutrinos that were travelling faster than light. The play opens asking people whether they remember it; I hope I’m jogging your memory! The Empiricist is an entirely fictional, absurdist play about this real event. I tried to include classic elements of absurdist and existentialist literature: characters trapped and silenced, a questioning of the world around them, and the role of responsibility in a meaningless world. Dr Werner and Dr Pavlov are scientists: they observe evidence and put two and two together and they come out with four. However, on discovering such a particle, they are forced to consider a world in which two and two don’t necessarily equal four, just like how the Professor and the Pupil in Ionesco’s absurdist play The Lesson come to understand that seven plus one is sometimes nine. To put it in the simplest words I can, they desperately try to create meaning in a world which turns out to be meaningless.
This sounds heavy, but please don’t worry. Science is not the plot; rather, it is the catalyst for the plot. As a result, it’s not a play about science, but a play about two men and their lives outside of the lab they’re stuck in. I strongly believe and hope that it will be accessible to all. I study languages, after all; I’m no expert, and I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia while writing this. I hope that there is enough drama to enjoy if you don’t understand the philosophy.
I tried to make the play combine my passion for absurdist literature with my usual realist, Arthur Miller inspired writing style that is primarily character-driven. I aimed for the absurdity of The Bald Soprano meets the drama of Twelve Angry Men. Both Werner and Pavlov have deep-rooted biases for or against the evidence that they find, in the same vein as Juror 3.
Empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is based upon experience you derive from the senses. That’s where the title comes from: it’s how Werner and Pavlov live their lives. Most people misspell it, making the title plural – a natural mistake, considering there are two characters who both take this view. If you’re asking yourself why it’s singular, it’s because the original version I wrote two years ago was much more focused on one character – I’ll leave you to guess which of the two that was. And I left it as a memory to that first (awful, DDF 2016-reject) version. Slash I might have forgotten to change it. I’m not sure. Apologies to Jake, who had to redo the poster.
I prefaced the play with a quotation from David Hume, a famous empiricist himself: “How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? … If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.” In writing this work I ultimately tried to ask two questions. Firstly, to what extent is the above true? Are we happier not looking beyond that which can simply be seen? And secondly, how do you react when everything you’ve ever put your faith into turns out to be a lie?
Hopefully it will work, and I hope that you enjoy The Empiricist as much as I loved writing it and putting it on.
Many thanks to Jake Hathaway, the director, Vanessa Gunn, the producer, John Broadhead, as Werner, Lewis Russell, as Pavlov, and all the DDF team for making my dream a reality.
‘The Empiricist’ is part of the ‘Site Specific’ night at Durham Drama Festival, Thursday 8th February.